My teaching English in China experience began as I battled through dozens of emails from recruiters and schools, all seemingly keen to give me a job. I’d sent my resume to hundreds of potential employers as I searched for my first teaching job in China. For those thinking about teaching English in China there can be a plethora of options and no easy way to make an informed decision. I hope outlining my personal experience here will help you navigate the scene.
Photo: School of Open
The greatest lesson I learned from my experience getting a teaching job in China and subsequently living here, is that it’s vital to know three things before accepting any job:
(i) Why you are coming to China
(ii) The details of the job you’re taking
(iii) Whether these two factors are compatible
To explain what I mean by this, I’d like to recount my personal experience in a bid to paint a picture of the kind of teaching jobs available in China and the kind of people who typically fill them.
When I first started teaching in China I fell into a trap that has ensnared many others. I simply looked for a "job in China." At the time I was still in England, and China was, as far as I was concerned, one homogeneous block of mystery and adventure. I didn’t quite grasp that, just like in England, the positions and locations on offer vary widely.
I found my first job through a recruiter. The process was quick, smooth and easy, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After a few days at the school I realized I was facing a major challenge. The first challenge was the town itself. Dawufeng is a small industrial hovel (and I do not use that word lightly) about an hour away from the city of Tianjin. I was the only English speaker in town and lived at least an hour away from any other foreigner.
Although my social life was less than ideal, it was nothing compared to my work life. I taught at the local primary and middle schools, where classes were made up of over 40 students. In the primary school I had an assistant who spoke some English, but in the middle school I was completely on my own. None of the Chinese teachers spoke anything more than the most basic English. The whole situation left me feeling isolated, overwhelmed and, at times, very unhappy.
This job was clearly not the right fit for me. That’s not to say though that another teacher wouldn’t have enjoyed it – someone more experienced, with better Chinese skills and who likes being out of their comfort zone, perhaps. Everyone has their own needs and motivations. By not understanding my own, I’d found myself in a job I didn’t enjoy.
The first and most vital step for those thinking of coming to China is to teach is to understand what you want and why. Below, I’ve briefly outlined the ESL job-market in China and how it best suits different types of people.
Teaching in China’s Public Sector
There are two basic considerations for those teaching in public schools and universities in China: holidays and salary. The salaries in public schools are usually quite modest but come with apartments as part of the package. However, the flipside to the lower compensation is that the holidays are pretty epic, often taking up three summer months and another lengthy period at Spring Festival.
Many - although certainly not all - of the teachers working in public schools in China fall into two categories.
• The first is new graduates using a teaching job as a way to travel and gain life experience. Being new to the workplace, these teachers are often less concerned about salary. Most will find their jobs through recruiters – just as I did – or through organized schemes, such as that of the British Council, which place foreigner teachers in schools around China. (Tip: An advert for this kind of role will often promote travel opportunities).
• The second group is those with a genuine commitment to education looking to “make a difference” – often they were teachers in their home country, too. This type of person would have been more successful in Dawufeng than I was and would no doubt thrive in slightly more remote areas of the country.
The teachers attracted to this sector, especially the younger ones, will tend to be making a shorter commitment to China. This is reflected in the teaching contracts available. They can be as short as four to six months, just covering a single semester. Year-long contracts will also often include an airfare home.
Teaching in China’s Private Sector
China’s private education sector includes local private schools and major international companies providing language training to staff. The money is much better in this sector but the hours longer and the demands greater. Those teaching in China’s private schools are usually looking for stability, money and the chance to forge a career.
• The first group you’re likely to come across at major private education companies in China are those who see teaching overseas as a career and longer-term commitment. On the back of Asia's insatiable demand for English, many of the companies have grown into major corporations and can offer high salaries and good promotion opportunities. At the top end of the market, salaries can be much higher than those offered to teachers in the West.
• Private teaching institutions in China also tend to attract older professionals on career breaks or seeking a change of pace. Although older professionals may have taken a pay cut to come to China, the salaries are still high enough and the cost of living low enough to tempt them overseas in the face of a mid-life crisis.
At many of the bigger companies in China’s private education sector, teachers are required to sign contracts for at least a year. This does not necessarily mean they’ll stay in the job for much longer than that, however, as the competition for talent is fierce and they’re likely to get better offers once established. This creates a teacher migration from the lower end of the market towards the higher end as teachers accrue experience.
In closing, when looking for a teaching job in China, think about what you want and where you want to go before taking the plunge.
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Visa changes that took effect in 2017 has made teaching in China a far less attractive proposition. The changes apply to both career teachers (those who hold teaching degrees) and the standard ESL teacher. Checks and balances to obtain the work visa are more difficult now and put the onus on the applicant to provide a lot of documents at their own expense before even being granted a work visa in China. These are essentially authentication of degree documents and criminal record check, which also possibly needs to be translated into a Chinese document in order to be accepted. With the risk of ending up at a bad school or working for a bad employer always there, the question one should be asking is it really worth the hassle? Then take into account the usual issues such as the weather, food safety, air quality, culture differences to name just a few. To go to China and become a teacher now requires a lot more research on behalf of the applicant. As the visa changes only occurred fairly recently however, this is still fairly new but it is fair to assume that in a couple of years from now the cons will outweigh the pros and less foreign teachers will see China as a plce to come and work - especially if a job is located in any other city apart from the only two worth living in. There will always be the career teachers who come to China to work because there are no opportunities in their own country (Canada being a prime example) but one has to sense the checks and balances have been brought in to curb the amount of foreign teachers in China. 10 years from now there will be a large percentage of young Chinese professionals who will be able to teach English to Chinese students as well as any ESL teacher can. It is already happening in the private sector.
Feb 28, 2018 12:35 Report Abuse
Only two cities worth living in? Well yes, if your goal is to live as close as possible as you did back home, with hundreds of expats Westerners around, dozens of Western style restaurants/nightclubs, and otherwise live in an 'expat bubble'. Apart from that...there are many places here worth living without making sacrifices other than stepping a little bit out of your comfort zone. I mean if you want to live like you did back home why not simply move back there?
Aug 17, 2018 12:59 Report Abuse