How to Negotiate Salary When Teaching ESL in China

How to Negotiate Salary When Teaching ESL in China
Jun 01, 2018 By Lewis Schwinn ,

Why do so many foreigners teach English in China? The answer for many is the sweet, sweet RMB. But what's the best way to go about getting the Chairmans into your wallet? Here I will share some general facts and a few tips on how to negotiate the best possible salary when teaching ESL in China.

Cold hard facts

First and foremost, if you're joining anything other than a public school, you have to realise that you're being hired by an organisation where education is sold for profit. That means your qualifications as an educator, your attitude and your experience are all secondary to you being a foreigner, especially if you're from a country where English is considered the native language.

These companies will use the fact that you're a foreign native speaker of English for marketing purposes and justification for, in many cases, insanely high tuition fees. This can work in your favour, as you can pick up a job with very little experience, but it also makes you highly replaceable.

Your attributes

Your first and foremost attribute will be your foreign origin and your fluency in English. If you have both of these locked down, you'll be in demand.

That being said, more credible companies are genuinely looking for competent teachers, so the more experience and qualifications you have, the more money you can expect. Having a CELTA, a degree in education or multinational experience teaching different age groups are all valuable in the salary negotiation process.

Skill up

Teaching is like cooking, in that everyone thinks they can do it well but most suck at it. Consequently, English teachers are very easy to find in most major Chinese cities, which again makes you replaceable and drives down your bargaining power.

One way around this is to start teaching higher level specialty subjects. Test preparation in the form of TOEFL, SATs, or the GRE requires more preparation on your part, but generally commands higher salaries There are also various liberal arts programs with topics like economics and computer programming in universities and international programs that pay much better than an average ESL gig.

Location, location, location

Location is very important when teaching ESL in China. A good salary in a rural town will last all of six seconds in a major city like Shanghai. So, while it's easier to find work in China's big cities, you need to be negotiating for a monthly salary in the higher teens and up to make sure you can cover living costs and still have something left.

If a rural job is more appealing, be aware that they generally offer lower starting salaries. However, you can negotiate them up in light of the fact that they're in the middle of nowhere, which makes recruitment difficult.

Know your worth

The most important advice I can give is quite simple: ALWAYS NEGOTIATE. I've seen scores of good teachers in China take the worst positions in the worst companies simply because they were unwilling to negotiate. If you take an offer at face value, the only person to blame for your low salary, bad work conditions and lack of benefits is you.

Know your own worth and do research into your market value. If you were willing to relocate all the way to China, you should be willing to shop around a little.

Most ESL companies in China will ask for your desired salary at the very first stage. This is a sleazy technique to try and get you to underbid the price they're willing to pay. When you hear this question, therefore, you need to state a ridiculously high number. If they refuse to negotiate from there or won't state their real intended salary, then find another company.

The first rule of negotiating in any field is being willing to walk away from the entire offer. If you have the flexibility to choose any company you want, leverage that in the negotiating process to walk away if you have to.

Know the market

Big name-brand ESL training centers are useful foot-in-the door companies for those teaching ESL in China for the first time. These companies generally provide good initial support and more experienced visa staff to help you with what can be an all-out hellish experience.

However, these companies also pay the worst. Like really — their salaries are generally pathetic for entry level teaching positions when compared to the market. They also have spreadsheets with set limits for teacher salaries and will refuse to negotiate for higher pay. Remember, your experience as a teacher doesn't matter as much as your foreign face.

So, if you want to make a decent amount of money teaching ESL in China, you're better off looking for a mid-range or small school that's willing to negotiate on salary and hours.

When to negotiate

Really, the only time to negotiate on salary is when you're a new teacher signing your first contract. Most Chinese companies will refuse or be very resistant to any sort of raise, other than whatever they offer across the board annually. Unless you teach a specialty subject that is hard to replace or have some other sort of leverage, negotiate for a salary you're happy with at the start.

Remember, you have the most bargaining power at the beginning when it's easy for you to leave and they need someone to fill the position. If after your first year you want more money, there's no harm in asking your current school. You may find that you're better off signing with a new one, however.

Salary traps

You need to avoid any school where student ratings might affect your salary. Whether you're a decent teacher or not, some kids are going to dislike you. I don't care if you're Mary Poppins, Kung Fu Panda and Gandhi rolled into one, there will always be a student who has it in for you.

Some ESL companies in China use negative student surveys as a reason to not give you more money during negotiations. Similarly, if they offered you a performance bonus based on reviews or sales, there's an overwhelming chance that they will find a way to not pay you. The only money you're guaranteed to get is your normal base salary in your contract. You should consider any promises beyond that as bull plop and unimportant in the negotiating process.

Finally, beware of “holiday pay.” Many companies will have extended breaks for Spring Festival or during the summer break, during which they will only pay you a fraction of your normal salary. Keep this in mind when choosing a school and don't be afraid to try and negotiate up.

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Keywords: teaching ESL in China


All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.



At this moment, the demand for ESL teacher remains high at this stage as there is a great shortage of teacher who are currently still trap abroad. Hence, those who are currently in China have an advantage to bargain for better pay.

Sep 22, 2020 11:54 Report Abuse



Why would "years of experience" matter? After all even some of the worst teachers out there can claim that. Without a handful of glowing references, it is hard to place any kind of worth on that.

Jul 08, 2018 10:11 Report Abuse



Nowadays, totally not worth the hassles, which continue throughout employment. So, why bother

Jun 05, 2018 17:12 Report Abuse



good article but unfortunately about 5 years too late to serve as research. basically now with the new visa requirements the onus is with the company hiring meaning the ESL in China is now case of accept what you can get and jump through hoops to get it. The only way to negotiate a salary now in China is to either have a bachelor of education or CELTA. Years of simply teaching ESL do not count for a lot anymore.

Jun 01, 2018 19:02 Report Abuse