Teach English in China

Teach English in China

Why Teach in China?

China is a fascinating country, so wouldn’t you like the chance to have a really good look at it from the inside? You know that visiting somewhere as a tourist is very different from actually living there. This could well be the life-changing adventure you have been longing for. It’s a chance to do something useful and interesting, and it is very safe. You could take a contract to teach in a school for a year, or even less, and while you are there you can take a look around the rest of the country as well.

Your Chinese students will get a chance to learn English from someone who actually speaks English well, and you will learn to appreciate the Chinese culture and maybe even learn some of the Chinese language. An English teacher we knew went to teach in northern China and met a Chinese man who had been teaching English for 25 years. He was amazed to see this man starting to weep when they met because in all of his years of teaching English he had never actually met an English speaker. They will be delighted to meet you.

Who Can Teach English in China?

teach in China Teach English in China

Ideally you would already be a trained and experienced teacher in your home country, and have an English degree in something.

But you don’t have to be a teacher. I know of a taxi driver, a postman, a secretary, and a dental nurse all of whom successfully taught English in China, just to name a few. Our 17 year old daughter was visiting us in China, was noticed by local people, and was invited to teach in 3 different schools.

So the short answer is that just about any native English speaker can teach English in China if they want to. Even if you are in China as a tourist sometimes people will come up to you and ask if you are willing to teach. There are often Conversation Corners in parks where people meet to practice their English, and foreigners are always most welcome to join in there too. A lot of Chinese people realise that learning English is worthwhile but it is hard to find anyone to practice with.

For a young, single person teaching in China is an excellent opportunity, maybe a good idea for a “gap year”. However it is great for couples too, because they will have each other to rely on when they might be feeling vulnerable, and because many Chinese people are romantics and love to see happy people. Couples with children might hesitate to partake of this adventure, but we have known a few families who have successfully taken young children on their adventure as well.

Steps to Take If You Want to Teach English in China

1. Get “Qualified”

Most schools in China will want you to have a degree, but some are not fussy and just keen to have someone who can really speak English. What could be more important is to have a certificate in “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages” (TESOL) or other similar ESL teaching certificate or diploma such as a CELTA. These certificates can be completed in a matter of weeks, and besides being accepted as a qualification when you go, you will learn a lot of useful and interesting information about the practicalities of your new adventure. Even for an experienced teacher these courses can be useful to transfer to a slightly different type of teaching.

Often courses are available as evening or weekend classes, and/or online, so you can complete your study while continuing in your present employment. Also attending classes for at least part of your course will give you a chance to meet up with and make friends with other people who are also thinking about heading overseas.

Some courses may appear expensive but they often come with a guarantee that if you follow their guidelines and then do not get overseas employment within six months they will refund your money. They are confident, and you can be too.

2. Make Sure You Are Healthy

When you arrive to start work in China you will undergo a fairly thorough health check. It is expected that you will be in good health and free of mental health issues or drug dependency and the like. Although China has an extensive health care system, it is different from what you are used to and it can be scary if you do get sick. You may or may not be able to obtain regular medications if you have a chronic condition.

3. Research As Much As You Can

There are a number of websites which have offers for jobs in China, and the numerous possibilities can be overwhelming. We found it useful to make a chart for ourselves and list the things that we hoped for in our job. Then as we went through the hundreds of available jobs we marked them on the chart so we wouldn’t forget which was which. There are also a lot of blogs you can read to help you get an idea what to expect – although in the end your experience will be totally unique.

Things to Consider As You Prepare to Teach in China

It is going to be fun, different, an adventure. You need to have the right attitude and be ready to relax and enjoy the differentness. Never get angry, or at least never show anger. If you do find yourself in a really distressing situation you could cry and win some sympathy – but don’t shout. Most of the people you meet, especially in rural areas, will be friendly and welcoming, especially if you come with an open-minded attitude.

As you look for a job, there will be lots of people eager to help you, especially if there might be something in it for them. If someone asks for money up front, walk away.

Be careful of agents. This doesn’t mean that they are all bad, they can be very helpful in finding you a place and getting you what you want especially if you are not confident to go it alone, but remember that they are in it for the money (which they generally take from the employer, not you) and so you need to be on your guard. As an example, a couple we did our TESOL course with found a job through an agent who referred to himself as “your best friend in China” (as many of them do!) but when they arrived at Shanghai airport he was not there to meet them. They managed to get themselves on a bus to the city where they were to be working. When they met their agent he explained that their school had changed its name, and its location. And their accommodation wasn’t ready for them – he took them to visit it, and they found that it was an apartment block that was due to be knocked down and rebuilt before it would be “ready”. Having said that, the school put them in a hotel for their whole six-month contract and they had a wonderful, unforgettable time.

You can negotiate for everything; it is part of the culture. So when you respond to a job offer, don’t be afraid to try negotiating for a few things. Here’s an example.

On our first attempt we were going to work in a school in Chongqing. We told them we wanted them to provide us with bicycles. They responded that we could certainly have bikes, but they weren’t sure what we would do with them. We discovered that Chongqing is very mountainous and there are very few bikes in use.

Later when we were going to work in a rural area near Zhengzhou we asked for bikes, and they agreed to get us “a bike”. When we got there we were told that the bike had gone missing, possibly taken by the cleaning lady. We saw the big old bike this lady rode and realised that we didn’t really want it. We soon discovered that we could buy brand new bikes locally for about $16 (AUD) each. We also came to realise that the extras they had agreed to on our contract were things which they thought they might be able to find without actually spending any money.

How to Choose Which City to Live in

China is a massive country, and there are so many choices. To some extent your choice of location may depend on where you can find a job that suits your skills. One of the first things to consider is whether to go to a city or a rural area.

In the rural areas the people are usually super-friendly and will welcome you with open arms. They will be proud that you are their foreigner, you will be a celebrity and you might find yourself on the TV news just for being there. The salary is likely to be lower, but the cost of living will match. You might need to get used to the electricity going off once a week, and western-style food in a supermarket may be mostly unavailable. There may not be any medical assistance, and possibly you will be the only westerner in the area. This experience has a lot going for it, so think about whether that’s what you want.

Life in the big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai is very different from rural areas. There are so many foreigners that no one will even look at you sideways, and there is often an expectation that you are wealthy and able to pay more for services than locals. Possibly you will be expected to find your own accommodation, although they may offer assistance. There is a large and varied expat community, and you won’t be as well looked after by the local people.

There is another very acceptable option, and that is to live in one of the many smaller cities. Here the services are reliable but the people are generally still very friendly and open. There is always an expat community, and the public transport system is extensive.

Another consideration when choosing a city to live in with a country the size of China is the climate. The southern cities such as Guangzhou and Nanning can be very hot, and you may (or may not) like that. But of course most businesses are equipped with suitable air-conditioning, as long as you stay indoors. Or you might consider going north to beautiful places such as Harbin, and be prepared for extreme cold. In between there are places like Zhengzhou which go to both extremes.

For families with children it is wise to look for a city where there might be a suitable International school for your children to attend – and there are plenty of those. Or if only one of you is teaching, or your workload is light enough, you could home school them for the term of your contract. Wages are low in China, so you could also easily afford to employ an “a-yi”, or Chinese “aunty” to help look after your children. Sometimes apartments include a room especially for a live-in a-yi. Think what a lovely broadening experience for your children this would be, and for the Chinese lady.

How to Find an Apartment

One of the great things about working in China for a fixed term is that you will be well looked after. You don’t have to sell up, pack up, and move to China; just put your boring old life on hold for a little while.

There is no reason to panic about finding somewhere to live because just about all job offers include accommodation and other benefits – some even include meals. Your new employer will either provide accommodation or help you to find self-contained accommodation – which generally includes an allowance to pay the rent.

Having said that, the accommodation may not be exactly what you are used to – but that is all part of the fun, isn’t it? And if meals are provided it is not going to be the kind of food you get in a “Chinese” restaurant overseas.

When you negotiate with your prospective employer you can ask about these extras. Quite often they are eager to please but are not sure what you would like. They would much rather give you some kind of “extra” than increase the actual money in your pay packet.

What Are Salaries Like for English Teachers in China?

You may have heard that salaries in China are low – yes, they are. But then so is the cost of living. And you are going to have such a great experience!

My husband and I decided to go and teach in China at a time when our four children were all grown up or teenagers and despite us both working full time we were going backwards financially. We thought that working overseas might not make us much money but at least we would be able to stop spending in Australia! We both took jobs at a private college in a rural area and at the end of the year we had earned a mere $20 000 (AUD) between us. However after living there for a year, buying everything we wanted to, and going on trips all around China, we came home with $11 000 in our pockets.

We returned for a second year and worked with a private company in a city near Shanghai. Our salary was twice as much, and a bit more was expected of us workwise. Costs were slightly higher, we bought a lot of things and went on trips, but once again we came home with savings.

It is possible occasionally to get a job in China with a western salary. This only happens if you are well qualified (such as with a Master of Education) and you get a job in a western university in China. For example some British universities (such as Nottingham and Liverpool) have campuses in China and they are administered from overseas and you need to meet strict requirements. While it is nice to get a western-type salary, you will definitely also have to work really hard for it.

What Text Books Do Students Use?

If the school where you work supplies the students with books, then you may find them useful at least part of the time. However if you work for a private company you will probably find that they have a resource room full of a variety of the latest ESL text books. Most teachers photocopy pages from these books to use in class. There are also a lot of websites where you can find suitable worksheets to print out and photocopy.

If you have some ESL text books that you are familiar with and particularly fond of, it would be worthwhile to scan them into your computer so you can print and copy pages as you need them. (Copyright is not such an issue in China.) With you luggage allowance on the plane to China being a mere 20kgs it would be better not to be carrying books if you can help it.

Teaching Methods

People who are not teachers sometimes presume that the younger the students the easier it is to teach them. In fact the opposite is true. Untrained people trying to teach kindergarten have the hardest time of all and would be much better off communicating to high school students or adults.

Some people wonder how you can go to China and teach English without knowing Chinese. In fact “immersion” is the best way to teach a language, using only English and forcing them to use it – that is a bit like throwing someone in the deep end of the pool, they have to learn how to float or swim very quickly. If you speak to them only in English and engage them, get them interested in what you are doing and saying, then they will be motivated to work out what the words mean, to remember the words and use them.

Sometimes a school will offer to have a translator in the classroom with you in case the children don’t understand you. This is a very bad idea because the kids very quickly learn to ignore what you say and simply wait for the translation. In the end it will just be frustrating and a waste of time.

Chinese students are used to very “serious” teachers, and often very large classes. They learn English mostly by rote, repeating expressions aloud as a drill. The teachers generally talk to them in Chinese, and explain about the English words – probably very much the same as you were taught French or some other “language other than English” at school. If they are lucky they might learn some songs, often from a video. They are rarely treated to “activities”, or games, and other teaching methods that engage them.

On my first day of teaching in China I had a class of teenagers who were being prepared to attend their final two years of high-schooling in Australia. My job was to improve their English, as well as get them up to speed in Social Studies, Australian style. Walking into their classroom for the first class, having heard about how incredibly disciplined and hard-working Chinese students were, I expected that they would stand and be ready to greet their new teacher. I was shocked to find that most of them were asleep. They weren’t just drowsy, but fast asleep with their heads on their desks. It took quite a few minutes for the more alert students to rouse the others. Once they discovered my teaching style was very different from what they had been used to, they had no trouble staying awake. Besides, they knew that if I caught them napping they would have to stand up and walk around the room while reciting a kindergarten poem which we had learnt together – and they hated that.

For a short while I worked at a Chinese “English” kindergarten which had the most beautiful classrooms I had ever seen. There were colours, pictures and (English) words tastefully displayed all over the walls, windows, doors, and up and down the stairways. A little kid couldn’t help but learn English just by being there. I was shown into a big, bright classroom where 30 kids were seated like little dumplings on tiny wooden chairs in a neat semi-circle. Perching myself carefully on my own tiny wooden chair at the front of the group I smiled cheerfully and said, “Hello!” They all roared laughing, and many of them fell right off their chairs onto the floor. The two assistants quickly ran around picking them up, dusting them off, and placing them back on their seats. Feeling a little puzzled about this reaction and possibly a little foolhardy, I did it again. “Hello!” I said, and again they fell over laughing. Deciding that maybe I had been billed as “clown”, I hoped that their laughter was intended to please me. My next attempt was, “How are you?” and this time recognition flooded their faces as they chorused musically, “Ahhm-faahhnn, ann-yoooo?” (“I’m fine, and you?”)

In Australia I was a Primary School teacher, but in China I taught all ages from kindergarten to middle-management in Chinese factories and I found that the same basic methods work well for all age groups. They need activities and games which motivate students to speak out in English. There are many websites that offer ideas and lesson plans for this style of teaching.

How Soon Can You Go

In conclusion, I hope you are already thinking about your adventure in China. No one can answer all of your questions because everybody’s adventure is different. The important thing is that it really is quite safe – as long as you don’t do anything stupid. Be respectful, don’t criticise, and don’t try to change them (other than improving their English). Avoid politics and religion when you teach – but do tell them all about your home country when they ask. Enjoy these delightful people, and let the experience make you appreciate everything you have.

By Ruth Wickham
Chief Editor & Writer