Expat Q&A: Trials and Tribulations of Being an English Teacher in China

Expat Q&A: Trials and Tribulations of Being an English Teacher in China
Oct 13, 2012 By eChinacities.com

With China's seemingly insatiable demand to learn English, it's no small wonder that so many expats come here looking for work as ESL teachers. While many of us are able to find teaching positions that bring in a decent wage, allowing us to live a comfortable lifestyle and learn a bit about the local culture, being an English teacher in China is far from easy. Administrative red tape, visa complications, increasing competition from other teachers, not to mention the ever-present issue of "how exactly do I get these kids to pay attention" are never far from the expat English teacher's thoughts. Here are eight questions posted by fellow expats on eChinacities Answers related to teaching in China.

Expat Q&A: Trials and Tribulations of Being an English Teacher in China
Photo: studycli.org

Question 1: Is it possible to find a teaching job in China without qualifications
MissA's answer: Yes, you can get a job. Maybe even an okay one…if you look 'right'. Although it won't be a very good one and the risk of being screwed over by your employer is very high. That's the short answer. The long answer is much more complicated. The thing you need more than anything is a degree. You'll almost always need a degree to have the paperwork done properly, and having all the paperwork correct gives you much more room to act if something goes wrong with your employer. So, that's the real 'need'. But then you'll also need to seriously consider how long you're planning to teach for: (1) a short-term thing that you're planning to leave and go back to your real life, (2) a couple of years while you save money for something major and experience a culture in depth, or (3) your brand new career

Question 2: Do you have to have a release letter from a previous school to work at a new school?
Xpat.John's answer: By law, the company has to give you a release letter when you leave the company. It doesn't matter how you leave the company (quit, fired, midnight run).  Once you have paid all fines, returned all equipment etc., then they must give you the letter by law. The release letter is tied to your visa. If you get new employment someplace else without the letter, than you are technically working illegally. That is the legal side of it. If your new employer has pull with local officials, they can either pressure your former employer to give you the letter, or just have a new visa issued for you under their company name.

Question 3: Can I work above the age of 65?
HappyExpat's Answer: The restriction for work once you are 65 years of age comes from the health insurance companies that will consider you a high risk factor and refuse to accept you with their coverage. No health insurance, no work. There is no law that prohibits you to work after 65 years of age; it is the health insurance coverage from Chinese companies. What some acquaintances of mine have done is to buy their own private coverage, and, showing that they are insured they can continue to work. But is it worth the expense?  Private coverage is not cheap at all. And if you are from USA, Medicare and Medicaid coverage will not work, because they already know it will not cover you while in China.

Question 4: Does it pay more to teach English at a Kindergarten than private school?
mArTiAn's Answer: Kindergarten does pay better because it's far more demanding, particularly if you're a newbie teacher. Personally I enjoy it, but I'd never teach kids younger than eight unless there was a classroom consultant present—they haven't had enough experience of being in classrooms and don't yet know that your supposed to sit in your chairs and not climb around under them. Also helps to have some Chinese under your belt too.

AdamE's answer: One piece of advice about making more money that I see a lot of foreigners not realizing: contact schools directly. If you see job ad online for a school, it's pretty likely that someone is getting a percentage of what the "real" salary is. If you have some Chinese friends that don't mind helping out, have them call some schools and talk to them directly. You'll usually get paid quite a bit more.

Question 5: Any tips for motivating students to speak more English?
Ken55's answer: The biggest problem is that society has taught us that mistakes and failure are things to be feared and avoided, so people won't end up trying things out of fear of being wrong. It's like the kid in class who knows the answer but won't raise his hand because he or she is afraid that it might be wrong…The simplest cure? Encouragement. I always remember Thomas Edison's quote: "Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward...." Once you make them feel that mistakes are a good thing—an opportunity to step forward rather than a thing to be punished by mockery, embarrassment and judgement from you (or if in a classroom, others)—they'll talk your ears off. So, I tend to do a couple things

Question 6: What is the easiest age group to teach?
Jnusb416's answer: I have taught college age, 3-5 graders, and 3-6 year olds. I would say that teaching the college students is the best, because even though a lot of them don't seem to be paying attention, the ones that do are really great. They are curious, and they know enough English that they can get their point across and learn new words. As for the most fun, that would have to be the 3-6 year olds, but then again, I only "taught" them for an hour at a time, and all we did was play games and learn a few words. As for the 3-5 graders, they're a bunch of brats. Some of them are very cute and sweet, but there are a bunch of them that are just a ton of trouble, and make it too stressful to be enjoyable. It's also more awkward, because they are learning simple English but still can't really use it to communicate with you. Sometimes I think that book is so useless in the beginning, they don't seem to get much out of it.

Question 6: How do your students address you?
Ken55's answer: "Teacher" is pretty much the standard; on the rare occasion they use it. They don't use it often since it's a small class, so I can see much of everything that goes on. Doesn't take more than a raised hand or a puzzled look in my direction to get my attention most times. Although I have introduced myself a handful of times (without mentioning how to address me just to see what route they take), they seem more comfortable with just saying "Teacher" than names.

Stan118's answer: Most of them say teacher, but some adults address me by my first name. If you are teaching high school kids and they call you by your first name, I don't think it's a big problem. They seem to behave differently when learning English—they are more relaxed and having fun, so I wouldn't force them to call me teacher. I always tell them my name on the first day.

Disagree with these expats? Was your question not answered here? Head over to eChinacities Answers to browse the hundreds of other teaching-related questions now, or ask your own!

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Keywords: Questions about teaching English in China motivate Chinese students to speak English China teacher pay China ESL teachers


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Hey fellow teachers! I was wondering if either of you have a blog or a website that I could see to check out some of your teaching activities or ideas? or maybe some more articles? From one expat to another, I always like to share and learn about new activities. If you´d like you can use my site as well: teachenglishconversation.wordpress.com but mine is for Spanish speakers ESL, which is a lot easier than your language barrier! Thanks for your help - Margarita

Nov 11, 2014 05:13 Report Abuse


Piano Apple

Typical job advert that english teachers look for in China:

-What is offered:

Competitive salary
25 hours of work per week, 5 days a week
Free apartment
Free meals
Paid holidays
7000rmb return flight ticket


Caucasian sexual predator male

-Documents required to send:

A recent photo

And they call themselves "foreign experts".

Oct 19, 2012 22:42 Report Abuse



Are you a xenophobe, a man hater, or both?
There are thousands of foreign teachers in China. Like any other profession, including police, and any other race; there is a small percentage of deviants. The do not represent the whole group.

Oct 20, 2012 00:49 Report Abuse



It is very easy to get such a job. You do not need a degree nor have english as your native language.

Oct 18, 2012 18:41 Report Abuse



I would like an article to address, and or list schools and companies that hire black men and women. I have faced more difficulty finding schools that are willing, or able to place me, then dealing with any other issues in China.

Oct 18, 2012 18:22 Report Abuse


troyce key

English teaching in China is not a real profession. It is just a whole lot of bullshit. None of these so called teachers could get work in Europe or much of the rest of the world. Lets be serious, even having one of those 30 day ESL certs doesn't qualify you for anything. What total nonsense. Get a real job.

Oct 18, 2012 18:01 Report Abuse



Get a life you twonk

Oct 19, 2012 09:41 Report Abuse



Just a few general comments to add. If you have a degree, Bachelor or higher, make sure you bring your certificates with you or a dupicate (not a copy) with the proper seal from an accredited college or university. A TEFL or TESL is helpful, but the degree is more important. The better paying and more reputable schools or training centers are in the major cities. Web International is a good one if you are in Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou, but the one in Dalian is one to stay far away from. They are only interested in collecting money from the students and will screw over the teachers. The schools in Shanghai, Nanjing, and Suzhou are run by the main office in Shanghai and the students have to abide by the rules, which helps protect the teachers too. They cannot compalin about the teachers when they do not do the work for the class they sign up for.
One of the things newbies have to realize is that no student flunks a university level course, even if they don't do the work. They are always given a second chance, even if caught cheating. They are always given the chance to take the final even if they didn't show up for class all semester. It is an unwritten rule. If a student pays for university, then he or she graduates, period. They may know absolutely nothing, but they will still graduate. It is surprising how some graduate and know absolutely nothing about their major area of study. Teaching English majors can be fun, just don't ask them why they are English majors. Some are English majors because they couldn't get into any other program of study. That can be disappointing, but then there are the ones that are a joy to have in your class, because it is like talking to someone from home.
Schools of all types make a big deal about the contract, but most are not worth the paper they are printed on. Unless you have a recording of the person saying something, they will deny they ever said it. Lying to your face doesn't seem to be a problem for most Chinese. Some have honor but far too few. This is a country with far too few morals or people with morals. Don't assume you will get screwed, but don't be surprised either.
The other thing I suggest is learn to speak Mandarin-as much as you possibly can. Chinese assume foreigners cannot speak or understand what is being said and will use some of the worst words to you and about you. If you understand, you can put them in their place very quickly. That they respect and they will lookup to you. It gives you an upper hand when dealing with the cheats.

Oct 18, 2012 08:05 Report Abuse



haha, notice there are no boys in the photo except the teacher..
just made me laugh is all, haha

Oct 18, 2012 07:59 Report Abuse



I'm sure some English teachers are very contentious. Seen in so many comments sections whenever the subject is covered. Yikes.

But so many good people as well. I am currently studying up on the TESL here in Canada and investigating the possibilities of teaching English there.
My biggest concern? A reputable school. I hear too many stories of dodgy deals or pay lower than it needs to be.
Not in Xiamen as much as the PRC in general.

Anyone able to recommend a good company/recruiter/school?

Oct 15, 2012 11:13 Report Abuse



I worked as teacher in two years of china. I feel has good and bad experiences. Peopel mostly frendlty and give good impression. And I met the beautiful girl who want be my wife. However, later my school close down and now was hard find a new job. Actual still looking, so my thanks huge amount if any people have the suggest or advice for me. I am hard worker and dedicate all my wisdom to student. I have ESL degree with some years experience of china.


Oct 15, 2012 06:42 Report Abuse



I was an average guy with a decent job and (to some points of view) a very intriguing inter-cultural past, back in the States; but I got bored and tired, so I packed up with a college group who came to China - That was several years ago. My friends and family like to think of me as an AMBASSADOR in China, as I meet and teach many different people over here - My mission 'is to help people communicate (using English and other language skills I have taught)'!

I have had the realm of students from college, businesses and kids, alike, too. I do not like the stigma of the term "lao wai". In the streets, I try to adapt to the local culture (to a certain degree), including acquiring local dialects along with standard putonghua (Mandarin Chinese). But in class I am a "teacher". The exception is that oftentimes I have my older students to simply refer to me by my first name - this is an ice-breaker, and allows the students the mindset to communicate with me as a person better! Young school students on the other hand often refer to me as Teacher so-and-so (adding my first name with the title to both show respect and share in friendship at the same time). Besides teaching by choice, I like the fact that I am a "foreign friend" (wai-guo pengyou) to most! - Not some freak'n "lao wai" ("OUTSIDER" - which makes me feel that there is no feeling towards me as a person; that I don't belong, I don't fit in or not welcomed!). I try to make friendships and leave people smiling if I can; and every time I encounter people, whether in class or in the street it's a basic lesson in life - either for myself, in order to deal with different situations, and for the people I meet, to help further a sense of understanding, if not appreciation.

Oct 14, 2012 18:48 Report Abuse



Your feelings about teaching and living in China are similar to mine. I love teaching, and I love living in China. I've made many friends, young and old. Because I try to be friendly to everyone I meet, they don't hesitate to consult me on any topic from, of course English grammar and upcoming exams to their relationship problems. Many student teachers from the local teachers college contact me for encouragement as they begin their training period at various schools in the province. I've also had the pleasure of working with other newer teachers at summer camps in other provinces, and try to keep them encouraged.
I also hate being called lao wai after living in this town for almost 3 years! But last year, I began doing this. When I'm out walking and some calls me that, I stop and tell them, "Wo bu shi lao wai! Wo shi TongChengren!" That shocks them, and has always gotten a smile & handshake, and many times, a conversation started.

Oct 25, 2012 06:26 Report Abuse



teaching English in China is easy, if anything its a joke. The institutions such as EF or wallstreet, they hire anybody. You will meet many foreigners here who are losers and just couldnt cut it back in their home so they're here in China.

so just come to china and start applying, you can even do a visa run in HK and stay in China on a tourist visa while teaching and you can travel around.

Oct 14, 2012 02:11 Report Abuse


Old chestnut

You hear this old chestnut a lot, actually it is bullshit, but like most rhetoric it sounds good.
It is mostly the people with get up and go, who get up and go. They are the ones who arrive on foreign shores. The deadbeats you allude to lack this get up and go.

Oct 14, 2012 02:42 Report Abuse


Zhende Bender

actually Jayboy, the government has cracked down a lot on teaching visas including a stupid online vetting test. the days of tourist teachers are coming to an end. the days of fenqing are starting to grow however.

dui bu dui?

Oct 17, 2012 20:38 Report Abuse



agreed. all the dead beats i know are still in their home towns not having the drive to move to anther city let alone to another country.

Oct 18, 2012 07:58 Report Abuse



At last! An article that doesn't use the word westerner! I hate that word! Being an English teacher is fun but unless you get your teacher qualifications you won't get any further than teaching kids part time far away from where you live. For short term Toefl is good and for long term Celta is good.

Oct 13, 2012 22:55 Report Abuse


Happy Clapper

@ MEL.

you seem to miss the point which is here, even if you are a career teacher with teaching degree and not just a TEFL qualified ESL one you are still treated like a clapping monkey by students, so who really cares? the crux of the matter is that all foreign teachers here are thought of as entertainers to some degree, which is an arrogant trait of chinese students, particularly the fenqing element.

and in regards to the OP at least he seems to take his position seriously and you criticising him for that is shallow to say the least. MAYBE YOU ARE JUST JEALOUS.

Oct 13, 2012 22:15 Report Abuse




There is a fine line between infotainment and education.

Kids here do get very formal and strict English teaching from Chinese English teachers in school.
Often the role of the foreign teacher is to be a break from the traditional pattern. Kids then can see that English does not have to be just a boring academic subject. I remember studying languages in an English school, God was I bored.

If all lessons are playtime we will have anarchy, but we are only providing a small percentage of a child's total English instruction. We are perhaps the antidote to ...

Oct 14, 2012 01:23 Report Abuse



Although I teach younger levels at my wife's training school, I'm now on my 4th term teaching high school. I don't remember what inspired me to do this, but since my first school, on the first day, I walk around the classroom meeting each student, having them write their name in pinyin, and if they have an English name, they can write that too, but I don't require one. I tell them my pinyin is pretty good, so to let me try to say their name, but correct me, if I pronounce it wrong. Of course they love this.
The following weeks, I begin with basics that they aren't taught correctly--how to pronounce USUALLY, the TH, i (not to say "it" like "eat"), V and W words and exercises on using he/him and she/her. Around the fourth week we start using the lame oral English book, but I use the mistakes as part of the lesson. Some can be pretty funny.

The head teacher told me when I arrived, that I'm free to use movies, songs, and any other method I wish. So I like to begin most lessons with a song, first explaining new words, and expressions, then having them read the lyrics, followed by playing the song for them to sing along. There was excellent participation for "Can't Stop Love" and "Love Story." And they got the biggest kick out of "The Saltwater Room" with the girls singing the girl's lyrics. If there's enough time, I'll show the music video in the last 5 minutes. Around the holidays, I'll show a related video (Merry Christmas Mr Bean, "Thriller", etc), but always teaching what I feel might be new words and expressions for them. Our job is to make English learning fun. A break for that stressful learning. And as you no doubt see at your school, they love us for this.

Oct 25, 2012 07:32 Report Abuse



I had been teaching both at university level and also grades 4, 5 and 6.
ALL grades were easy and most of the time the students were more motivated by my being a 'lao wai, an American. The Primary School grades were fun but even easy conversations they could barely manage.
The university students were fun once I managed to have them find their own courage. Then we had great classroom instruction and inter-action, as well as volunteers to give short speeches.
All was most satisfying, and both schools want me back.

Oct 13, 2012 20:36 Report Abuse



This sort of comment from someone who supposedly made or makes money as an ESL teacher is an example of just how easy it is to find work in China regardless of one's ability to communicate in their native language. Aside from the occasional typo or grammar mistake, this sort of poor writing style shows either a lack of education and/or a lack of respect for the English language. Here's a question: Is it possible to be an English teacher in China without having correct and effective the language skills? Absolutely! But is it possible to get better jobs that require teachers to have the ability to speak and write clearly and proficiently? Yes, but less likely. The best ESL teachers are people who have college or university degrees and know how to communicate in their native language both properly and effectively. Case in point: Some of the best jobs in the industry today are for test preparation, including IELTS and TOEFL. These jobs are much harder to get for people who speak and write like high school dropouts!

Oct 13, 2012 21:45 Report Abuse



When writing comments an informal approach is OK. If you are writing an essay you must use correct English.
When writing newspaper articles? I suggest a look at a range of newspaper articles from English language newspapers across the world. They are full of errors.

Cheap shots achieve little apart from pissing people off. 'Pedants of the world unite, get on a plane and set up your own state away from normal people'.

The best way to improve content on this site is to write something yourself. Attacking contributors is more likely to stop new people contributing, and to cause existing contributors to give up.

p.s. i dont curr if me english int perfik.

Oct 14, 2012 01:16 Report Abuse



Mel his English was poor, no doubt about that, but do you remember the proverb about not throwing stones. ? You said " . Here's a question: Is it possible to be an English teacher in China without having correct and effective the language skills?
How poor is is that sentence???

Oct 14, 2012 02:33 Report Abuse