Teaching English in China

Teaching English in China; in front of the Shanghai skyline

TEFL in China

China is one of the major countries where English teachers are in demand. It attracts teachers from many English speaking countries and teaching English‏‎ there is big business.

The country's English language teaching industry is estimated to be worth over 2 billion USD with more than 300 million Chinese studying English. It has only really emerged in the past 10 years or so and is still in the process of growing and developing.

The current demand for English teachers is high in China. Universities, language schools and private companies are all looking for certified English instructors.

Finding Work

The required qualifications to teach in China vary greatly. Theoretically (and often interpreted liberally) the minimum requirements to get a teaching visa are:

However, as mentioned above, these requirements are very flexible. The experience, for example, does not necessarily have to be in teaching and is often left to the discretion of the school. And although there are reports of clamping down, the need for a degree is sometimes overlooked. Most schools will ask for a TEFL certificate, however as some kind of proof of teaching ability.

In the end it often comes down the requirements of the schools and the availability of teachers. Some schools will consider only candidates with an absolute minimum of those requirements mentioned above. Others will consider almost anyone who happens to speak English and has a certificate to show (or maybe a promise to take a TEFL certificate).

Obviously though the schools which tend to ask for more will also pay more and offer better conditions. If you are in China and can pick up work without any of the qualifications above then you may well find yourself working for a school at the very lowest end of the market.

Note that unfortunately there are still many schools in China where appearance counts far more than substance and there is a distinct pecking order with being white at the top and then Asian and then black. (For more on this subject, see Racism in TEFL.)

Visas

In order to enter the country you will need a passport‎ which expires at least 15 months after you plan to leave the country.

Teachers will need to obtain a Z-Visa. This must be obtained before you get to China and will cost about $200 USD (€158, £127) which is occasionally reimbursed by the school. This visa must come with sponsorship by a school and will need to be renewed annually which is fairly straightforward.

Some prospective teachers enter China on a tourist visa and look for work on that. Once they have found work they then obtain the sponsorship documents necessary to receive a Z visa; however, they may have to leave the country in order to re-enter China on a Z visa. During this process the employer may take the teacher’s passport to sort out the paperwork leaving the teacher without a passport for a potentially lengthy period. Some schools have also been known to obtain visas through illegal means and should be avoided. Prospective teachers planning to enter China on tourist visas should also be aware that tourist visas are generally valid for only 30-90 days.  If the necessary documents are not obtained before the tourist visa expires, you are required to leave the country.

Teachers who work on tourist visas generally leave the country for it to be renewed. This can be to Hong Kong‏‎ or Mongolia‏‎. There is a thriving cross-border system of taxis carrying teachers to renew their passports; this can cost between $450 USD (€356, £286) and $2000 USD (€1583, £1273) per trip.

Once in China, you will need a Residency Permit and a Foreign Expert Certificate (and the school usually helps with these).

Note that theoretically you will need to have a round-trip ticket if you do not have a visa or contract. This is not always enforced but you might find yourself unable to enter the country at customs because you do not have a ticket out of the country at a later date.

Pay & Conditions

It is impossible to generalise, but a typical job may be something like this: the school will teach students from very young (around 4 or 5 years old) to teenagers; each class will have between 15 - 20 students and be 2 hours long; most schools have good resources (but check); with younger students there may well be a Chinese teacher in the class as well to help out; you will work between 15 - 25 hours per week including the weekends.

Most schools have existing local teachers to focus on testing, reading, and writing, and will hire a TEFL‏‎ ‏‎ qualified native English speaker to help their students with pronunciation and spoken English in general. Your main focus in these cases will be oral English, with speaking and listening being the two language skills‏‎ you may be asked to concentrate on.

There are cases of some jobs making teachers work 30 or 40 hours per week in the classroom but with there still being a lot of work in China if you end up in a job like this you can always leave the school and try your luck elsewhere.

Although you will sign a contract‎, Chinese school owners may well not view it as concrete as you may do and there may well be times when you'll be asked to do additional hours or make other changes. Keep an eye on this and if you feel you are being taken advantage of, it may be time to move on. But don't worry, there are plenty of jobs available and once you in the country you'll be able to scout about and find out what's available and where the best kinds of jobs are.

Salaries vary accordingly but generally one can live quite cheaply in China especially as some employment contracts for English teachers include free or subsidized accommodation, airfares (paid at the end of the contract) and free basic health care. 

Some contracts will also include a gratuity (around 15%) if your performance and conduct during the period of service has been satisfactory. A cash incentive (5% to 10% of basic salary) is sometimes offered to those teachers who reach a minimum of years of continuous service.

A typical starting salary for 15 - 20 hours per week could be around 4,500 CNY or $700 USD (€554, £445) per month from which you can save around half and live reasonably comfortably (if frugally). However, better money can be had with private lessons which can pay between $20 USD (€16, £13) to $30 USD (€24, £19) per hour.

The bottom line is that working in a school in China does not pay well in comparison to places like Vietnam‏‎ or South Korea or Japan and unless you are careful you won't be able to save a lot of money. Having said that, living is cheap and you can enjoy yourself on the money you make and the situation is slowly changing with better paid opportunities in China coming up, especially for experienced teachers.

Scams

Unfortunately there are quite a number of scams in China when it comes to finding work.

One of the most common is from unscrupulous agents. These are sometimes illegal and they will charge you anything up to 50% of your salary per month to find you a job.

Fortunately, however, there are simple ways to avoid these types of scams and we recommend thoroughly that before applying for work in China you at least read this post on the safe way to find work in China.

Culture Shock

One of the biggest issues with living in China (and many other countries, for that matter) is one of Culture Shock‏‎. It is very different from most Western countries in terms of social interaction, food and, of course, language.

Making some major generalizations:

  • Chinese students tend, on the whole, to be much more reserved and respectful than Western students. It is sometimes hard to get them to speak, especially with older students or in bigger groups.
  • In Chinese society being a teacher is a respected position and you will be expected to live up to that standard. It is, for example, not good to go out drinking till the early hours and be seen drunk by ones students or their parents.
  • Formality in Class. Classes in China tend to be more formal with more respect given to the teacher.
  • The Chinese tend to be less assertive than Westerners and it is sometimes difficult to know what someone actually means; sometimes it's not a good move to confront others head on but rather work out what people mean by reading between the lines.
  • Curiosity. Unless you're in a major city where foreigners are common, you will attract attention. People will stare at you, come close to check you out, see what you're buying and listen in to your conversation. Take this all with a pinch of salt and carry on; there's no malicious intent here, just pleasant curiosity.
  • Shopping. Sales people are pushy and seeing you are foreign will try to charge over the odds. All you do to avoid this is shop around. Oh, and a few words of the local language will tell them you're not a gullible tourist.
  • Looking Down. Generally Chinese people tend not to look people in the eye as Westerners are apt to do.
  • Face. This is an important concept and causing someone to lose face is best avoided unless you mean it! One way in which this can manifest itself is a class staying silent because no one wants to give an answer in case it's wrong and they "lose face". Likewise they may not ask for help or clarification about something they don't quite understand.

See Also

Release Letter (China) - a document allowing you to change schools within China.

Getting Ripped Off in China - how to avoid the agency scams common in China.

Image © leniners
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