Is Teaching English in China Worthwhile?

Is Teaching English in China Worthwhile?
Nov 06, 2013 By Elaine Pang ,

With the current state of the world economy as it is, more and more people unable to find jobs at home, and wanting to experience life abroad, are looking to countries like China for work. In terms of entry modes, teaching English in China is a viable option, often requiring little more than the ability to speak English. On the downside, an industry with low entry barriers attracts its fair share of competitors and also makes teachers more vulnerable to exploitation. Adding to these “dangers” faced by English teachers is the recent move to downgrade the importance of English scores in the Gaokao exam. Is English teaching still worthwhile in China?

English teacher, defined

Not all English teaching jobs are created equal and remuneration and working conditions vary wildly. Language centers, pre-school education, public schools or universities employ the majority of foreigners and previously the ability to speak fluent English was considered adequate qualification. The bar has been raised in recent times however and now there are age limits, academic requirements (a bachelor degree), work experience requirements (at least 2 years), teaching qualifications (TESOL or TEFL certificate) and country-of-origin requirements (from a country of native speakers). Schools with adequate levels of guanxi (connections) have been known to circumvent these though. However, competition for inexperienced teachers ensures salaries in this category remain low, though teachers in language centers can earn more depending on the number or hours worked. On the other end of the spectrum, career English teachers enjoy full expat terms in international schools or as overseas examination specialists (e.g. GCE “A” Levels or SAT teachers).

Teaching English in China
Source: SurfaceWarriors

Are English teachers in danger of no longer being wanted?

Outside of a classroom, most Chinese rarely if ever use English in their lifetime. Yet there is still a seemingly insatiable demand for English teachers as a controversial ruling by the Education Ministry mandates English majors to undergo instruction by native speakers during their course of study.

All this could change, though, as Beijing has recently made known intentions to reduce the weightage of English scores in the Gaokao. The official reason was to reduce pressure on students, which makes sense considering most students have no use for English after leaving school and never completely master the language. Not only do the new rulings de-emphasize English in the Gaokao, but they also propose reducing the number of hours spent on English (called “foreign language”), including children waiting till the third year of elementary school to begin learning the language.

However, thanks to the growing number of Chinese who are able to send their children to overseas schools to study, this does not mark the beginning of the end for English teachers. In fact, Beijing’s efforts to de-emphasize the importance of English is likely to be met with skepticism or indifference in this group and may conversely cement demand for alternative providers; think private schools and private tutoring. Language schools are quick to cater to candidates for overseas examinations and even public schools have opened international departments. Young adults harboring dreams of working for a Multinational or finding a foreign partner also seek out private language schools. Even in public schools, English may not necessarily decrease in importance, especially if top universities formulate internal English examinations as an additional admission hurdle.

In it for the paycheck or the experience?

On the supply side, teaching English in China for the most part has few entrance barriers. Foreign teachers are mostly employed as practice targets to “provide an English-speaking environment.” This requires little more than an ability to converse in English, though looking “foreign” and possessing charisma goes a long way in an industry governed by student feedback and economics. Oversupply puts a downward pressure on salaries especially in places where inhabitants have to contend with inflation at the same time. The pay may seem decent by local standards, especially if housing and travel benefits are thrown in. And in fact, it is, for those able and willing to live as a local (i.e. without “luxuries” like cheese). For those from a country whose currency is stronger than the RMB, savings would be out of the question.

Of course, not all English teachers are here for the money. China is still as an exotic destination and English teaching as a “working holiday” allows for a more in-depth travel and cultural experience. A country as vast as China offers experiences as varied as the bright lights of big cities or the scenery of the laid-back countryside. So there’s something for everyone, from fresh graduates seeking to spice up their resumes to mid-career switchers after a different experience. So goes the spiel on overseas teaching recruitment websites. Teaching schedules are seldom onerous, with delivery usually taking precedence over lesson prep. Teachers usually have adequate time on their hands for extensive sight-seeing and hard-partying, if they so desire. 

However, teaching in China does have its dark side. Working in China, like every other country, requires the right visa and enforcement is getting more stringent, ostensibly because of “security” concerns and “misbehaving” foreigners. In addition, teachers require a Foreign Expert Certificate. All this sounds straightforward enough, but papers have not been granted for anything from not having a degree to poor health. Other concerns pertain to life in China in general – an issue to those concerned about food and environmental safety. “Hardship” allowances are available to a lucky few Expats but rarely to teachers, bar maybe those in international schools.

Making it more worthwhile

All in all, having goals other than money would make teaching in China more worthwhile. Other than that, here are a few tips to increase your chances of a pain-free teaching experience in China.

  • Ensure you have the right visa and a Foreign Expert’s Certificate – sounds like common sense but some foreigners are simply too trusting, too desperate to wait for the right papers, or think they will get away with it. When discussing the contract with the school, make sure they provide you with the visa and cover the costs of it; if they won’t really consider finding a different school!
  • Check if you have to perform “office hours” – that could really affect your pay-per-hour
  • Google your potential employer – this can be very helpful if it is a major language centre
  • Bump up on non-verbal communication – learn to recognize signs of frustration or boredom as some institutions rely heavily on “customer” feedback

If you can think of other tips to making English teaching a smoother process add them in the comment section below.

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Keywords: teaching English in China English teaching; English teachers: Teach English


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Mar 15, 2017 19:59 Report Abuse



Goodness, a lot of Western people whine about their work conditions in China. You guys have a choice and there will be trade offs. If you don't like working in China for whatever reason, please go back home and work there. Many of you do not even have a bachelor's degree in education and are only hired for your white skin and blue eyes or blonde hair and still get paid more than the locals for not doing much since you cannot write lesson plans, make visual aids or use different teaching strategies. You complain about students who cannot interact or converse with you in English. That is Asian education and not only true in China but in all other parts of Asia as well. I tutored my Chinese colleagues using different ESL techniques and helped them develop self confidence and voila, they can now converse in English and are not afraid to make mistakes. Imagine this. You are in the USA trying to learn Mandarin for the first time. Will you easily converse in Mandarin to your Chinese teacher from mainland China? Oh, and will the US accept a Chinese teacher who only has a high school diploma and give him a high salary, a TA, free housing, insurance, free visa processing and other perks for being a native speaker of Mandarin? If you reverse the roles, I am sure Americans and other Westerners will complain about the quality of Chinese teachers they will have in their homeland and will never agree to the perks Westerners tend to enjoy in China to be given to a Chinese without any teaching credentials. It is good that now, some teaching credentials are needed other than looking white or being a native speaker of English. The truth is both the Chinese and the expats who do not have the proper credentials are just using each other with the perceived notion that native speakers of English are better teachers of English just for being native speakers and looking the part even without the necessary qualifications. I am a non-native speaker of English but I have a neutral accent and quite fluent in English, both in oral and written modes. I also have the correct teaching credentials for teaching ESL or academic English for native speakers of English. I was even hired to be an ESL Trainer in Beijing and I had to train native speakers of English. However, despite being better than my native English speaker counterpart, I am either overlooked or given a lower salary than these backpackers. OF course, I know my boss needs them for marketing purposes as well. But, hey, that is reality and I have learned to accept it so Western expats who have no teaching credentials should not whine about something they are not even qualified to do in China or even in their homeland. And many are in denial that they cannot find work in their own countries. My cousins who are US citizens are all employed as professionals in the US since their college graduation. They told me the true story behind unqualified Western people who cannot find work at home. So, my advice to the whiny Western expats is to be grateful for getting a job in China. Having a job nowadays should be seen as a blessing. If you think like an employer, you will not even hire yourselves, truth be told.

Feb 12, 2017 10:30 Report Abuse



I've been teaching both German and English in China for four years now. But one day you get up in the morning, you realize that you are not getting younger anymore and you know deep down in your heart, it will be time to leave by going back to your native country. The retirement benefits are so low that you can not enjoy the fruits of your labor. Better to pay high taxes knowing that big brother will take care of you (if you happen to be from the EU.)

Jan 12, 2017 08:59 Report Abuse



Great article as a whole. Particularly agree with the google your employer part. I had to learn that the hard way after landing in a Shane School where the manager basically did whatever she wanted ( withholding money while on vacation and other such practices). I would even suggest to google the specific school (not just the company) or look it up on to see what other teachers are saying...

Jan 07, 2017 19:45 Report Abuse



It's worthwhile for the adventure and the easy money, not for the career growth opportunities

May 19, 2016 17:02 Report Abuse



I really liked the article. In my opinion, it should be a must reading for everyone who just intends to go to China for a reason of teaching English.

May 16, 2016 21:06 Report Abuse



It's only worthwhile if you majored in TESL or TESOL. TESL & TESOL majors have first dibs on the best jobs, receive a generous salary and benefits package, and are treated like royalty by students and administrators. If you majored in anything else, don't bother getting too comfortable here. Your pay will be mediocre, no one will look up to you, and you'll always be on the move searching for some temporary, no-frills gig at one of those infamous fly-by-night schools.

Dec 27, 2015 02:32 Report Abuse



Yes it is.

Oct 16, 2015 17:55 Report Abuse



They demand that you have a University degree, experience, you have bunch of interviews with head teacher, academic manager etc; in the end they want none of that, just that you are a white European.

Dec 04, 2014 07:54 Report Abuse



I taught in China previously and am returning for the next school year. If you happen to be a real teacher (meaning you have passed the tests and received a teaching certificate) there are some real benefits to teaching in China. I have always taught in rural school districts in my state, meaning I barely make enough to live on. Because I have a teaching certificate, I make considerably more money in China, my housing is paid for, the bonuses pay for me to visit my grown children, I can travel, and I work considerably less than in the US school. Yes, there are annoyances to deal with, but I have them in the US as well. I think that as those people who are unqualified are weeded out, the teaching situation will improve.

Jul 14, 2014 17:22 Report Abuse



I think in the bigger cities standards are starting to become higher meaning the quality of teachers has to be higher too. In tier 2 and especially 3 cities it is hard for schools to get enough quality thus they have no choice but to employ poorer quality candidates.

Dec 02, 2013 13:10 Report Abuse



I think being a teacher that is moving to China for the first time and choosing to live in a 2nd or 3rd tier city is a big mistake. I used to live in Shanghai and now in Hangzhou (have also stayed in small cities in zhejiang) and I think it is a big challenge for a foreigner with little mandarin ability to live in say a place such as Wenling,Taizhou,Jinhua etc.

Mar 18, 2014 10:55 Report Abuse



If it wasn't for recent grads with well to do middle class family backgrounds looking to have an adventure there would hardly be any teachers left given the low pay and the reputation that everyone but the big chains don't stick to the contracts anyway. If you get a public 4 year college degree (the official requirement) in the US you pay about 100k USD on average and double or more at a private college. Teaching in a big city like Shanghai leaves you with about 9k RMB after taxes etc. and with the crazy housing costs you either pay about 3k RMB for a room or 4-5k RMB for your own place these days if you don't want to live in the sticks. With a food budget of about 2k RMB on the low end and 1k for some entertainment there won't be much left to pay off the huge burden of debt. This pretty much makes the english teacher a glorified minimum wage slave in a different country. In Japan or Korea the salaries are more reasonable, with schools having a lot better reputations, but in the end even there you hardly make a lot more than a Starbucks barrista in the US. In second and third tier cities it's usually more like 4-5k RMB salary before taxes with some dingy free housing thrown in, which means you're working for less than an illegal mexican immigrant salary.

Nov 18, 2013 11:40 Report Abuse



If you're not in China and thinking about coming, get fully qualified and get some specialized degrees under your belt, then you could potentially have a career here that pays more than a low paying job in the West. Otherwise, come for an extended working holiday and then go home knowing that the time spent here won't do a thing for your resume back home other than show someone that you could figure out how to book an international flight and somehow get an entrance visa into China.

Nov 07, 2013 21:10 Report Abuse



but why are people here comparing their lives to a "low paying job in the west"? I keep seeing that theme from foreigners living here. A lot of things are better than a low-paying job. Why not set your sights a little higher than "pays more than a low paying job in the West"? You know there are lower-middle, medium and high paying jobs in the west as well right?

Nov 18, 2013 10:21 Report Abuse



Again, that depends on many factors: what undergraduate degree or major you get into? What kind of work (part-time/full-time) or internship experiences do you have or conisdering doing? What's your financial state of affairs allowing you to make a try in China/sacrificing exploring other opportunities in your home country? I have a pretty diverse CV, but I may need more "focus" (which may be a caveat to some companies or organizations). But, I shouldn't let the downfalls of that get me down. My already diverse CV is almost as "questionable" in the States just as much as it is here in China. So what's the difference, what chance have I got at anything? Mind as well take a deep breath, and take a risk and delve into something, on either side of the pond. I've just turned 28, been searching for the "perfect" career track since 26, but things haven't been that "successful". Life's too short to find the perfect "career path-track" opportunity. Have to do something now...don't know where it may or may not lead to, but I think it's worth the risk. I know it's a decision I'll have to live with, and perhaps I may or may not regret it later...but ultimately, it's worth the risk. I'm risking as much in China as I was when I was "searching" back in the States, so I see no difference anymore.

May 28, 2014 02:40 Report Abuse



Here's another way to put it: Would I rather be working a 100% comission no base salary sales job for an insurance company back home (Omaha, American Insurance, State Farm, etc.)? Or would I rather take the risk being here in China. Well, those were the majority of job offers I received after upon returning to the States after a two-year study abroad in Shanghai, and that's after I graduated university in the States (BBA Marketing) prior to going abroad. The way I see it, both sides of the pond are equally risky, for me. I'm willing to take the more "culturally-enriching, eye-opening, opportunities to increase guanxi" -detour, rather than the "work at the windows of Mc-D's or 100% comission insurance sales job" back at home-detour"...and that means working on 100% sales commission at the expense of driving my own car and my own fuel (to and fro work), and paying my own utilities and groceries expenses, at my own expense, while working for 100% commission. And how easy is it, exactly, to make a sale??? Let's just put it that way!

May 28, 2014 02:47 Report Abuse



...And yes, I have applied to other companies such as some travel agencies and Hotels (both in my home state and other states), but no success, even after follow-up phone calls and follow-up interview inquiries (hospitality industry in Hawaii was really lagging at the time, and somewhat still is). I even applied to the U.S. Airforce and Army, but unless you want to be waiting for a 6 to 12 month waiting list, and only to go into "enlisted", just to gain "Managerial experience" and go as an Officer several years later (and get out)...that was another path I had to quickly realize wasn't suitable for me. Maybe when I was 20 or 23, but not at my current age. So military was out of the question. How about government? N_A, F_I, etc. I had applied to those as well, but due to their requirements, I was not qualified enough. Heck, not even as a language analyst or even HR personnel. And because of one "particular idividual", getting a job in places like N_A will be much much much more difficult. And the F_I? I got a call from them saying that I needed to reside at least 2 years in U.S., which I hadn't as I was studying abroad the year prior. What would I do, work at a grocery store until I'm qualified to get the language analyst position. And what if the position isn't what it's turned out to be, I wasted another few years doing something potentially irrelevant to my alter future career or irrelevant to my major/background? So government was out of the question (unless maybe US Foreign Service or AmCham). I do know someone (we're not close-knit though) that works at AmCham. She started by working with a "study abroad group" in Shanghai, then eventually found her way in the AmCham. I'll see when I can get ahold of her. So what is there left...? I think ESL is the more rational choice left, in this context. I cannot say it's the most promising nor the most perfectly reasonable, but at least there's a bit of glimmer of hope here, I think. Hopefully it'll open other doors I can't begin to imagine right now. I know somebody (not a close friend) that works in another school branch (of same company I work at),that does both the music scene and was a former ESL teacher here in Guangzhou, but now he performs at bars and clubs, and also works with some "sponsoring" sound- equipment companies (forgot which brands though), as well as helps market and promote their products. Just recently he came back from the States promoting some kind of PA system while participating in a battle of the bands concert. I miss playing guitar, and have played since I was 15 and stopped just after graduating Uni in the States (age 25-ish). I hope to get back into it soon once I have the finances going. Just finished paying the last of my "debts", so hopefuly within the next few months, I'll be on my feet again. Again, possibilities...

May 28, 2014 03:13 Report Abuse



I've been here 5 years teaching, 3 of which were as a director of studies responsible for, among other things, recruiting. I've met dozens of teachers. My experience is that there are a few good teachers and a lot of unqualified ones. What's really happening is that schools and parents are beginning to be able to tell the difference. There are those who can teach, and those who shouldn't be anywhere near a classroom. Those who can teach will always be able to find a job here. The others are slowly getting weeded out.

Nov 07, 2013 21:03 Report Abuse



I think for the young guys they will want to go also as the economy ain't so good that will also bring others over. Whatever the reason they have to remember that the longer they stay they are missing out on paying National Insurance payments( to get the state pension) and unless they really do want to become teachers then they are making it harder for themselves to start their career back in their own country. Yes it can be fun for a year or two but after teaching for 6 months I'd had enough of it. Now retraining to do something years later is back on the cards.

Nov 07, 2013 18:57 Report Abuse



It's BS, the economy in the west hasn't been bad for over 3 years. If you don't have any valuable skills you can't get a good job, don't blame the economy. ESL teaching is bunk cause you don't learn any good skills or experience.

Nov 07, 2013 17:19 Report Abuse



That part, about the economic refugees, is the BS part. Not that there arent economic reasons to be here. A friend working in finance in NYC makes close to 100 grand a year but his lifestyle is similar to an expat making a third the salary here in east coast China, where a 20 minute taxi ride across town costs 3 bucks. Most western restaurants have similar prices to ones I go to in the west, maybe a bit more, but certain things in the supermarket (like imported beers) can be cheaper.

Nov 09, 2013 19:00 Report Abuse



yeah but your friend is upwardly mobile so it's not a fair comparison. At close to six-figures he's probably around 30 (give or take) in an Associate role at an investment bank (or similar institution). He puts in a few more years good work and he's making 250K as a VP. The ESL teacher might have an *acceptable* income and living standard for a young person with no kids, but no prospects for the future. THAT is why ESL is bunk. It's selling any hope of a nice adulthood for a few extra years of adolescence. You can't just go back to the West at 30+ years old and expect to even be able to start at an entry level position for a good career track, those positions go to ambitious 23 year olds. Your buddy can move to Fairfield or Westchester in a few years and have a nice house and access to great private and even decent public schools for their kids. If they ever want to say the same, young ESL teachers need to get their careers in order ASAP. It's an easy journey from carefree 24 year old to bummy, lame 40 year old.

Nov 11, 2013 09:12 Report Abuse



"upwardly mobile" Meh, sounds like a recipe for being rich yet unhappy. We have two different sets of standards for what makes a person "successful". "good career track" Reminds me of the story of the big-name banker who was on vacation in Mexico and found a fisherman who spent his days fishing, and the rest of the time at his house with his family. The banker advised him to go to school, get a degree, and get a respectable career. The fisherman asked what that would get him, and the banker said he could work for 20 years then retire at a beach-side house and do nothing but fish all day. The fisherman replied, "that's what I already do."

Nov 11, 2013 15:43 Report Abuse



haha yeah...point taken my friend, it's a nice thought, but in practice recreational fishing and subsistence fishing are two very different things. Success to me is about having choices and options. I'm 26, and I can't believe how much my goals have changed in the three years since i graduated. Who is to say what I will want from life even at 30 (let alone 40) is going to be the same as it is now? By working in finance, despite putting in a ridiculous amount of hours, I give myself options for the future. Hell, maybe at 30 i'll be burnt out on the corporate grind and want something simpler and it will be an easy choice to hand in my resignation. But conversely, let's say I spent my twenties teaching ESL or working at starbucks or something. If i'm 30 and start to look wistfully at a car I like or a home that I can't afford, I would have an extremely hard time reversing course and trading up to a fast-paced, high-reward lifestyle. I don't really care about owning a home now, but what if when I'm in my 30s I'm ready to settle down and do the nice suburban home thing, and I realize that I blew my shot at ever getting to do that? Your twenties is the time we have the energy to make a name for yourself. It's easy to trade down that lifestyle to a more casual one, nearly impossible to trade up.

Nov 11, 2013 16:21 Report Abuse