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“Don, what’s the process like teaching English abroad in China? From finding jobs, getting visas, and working at schools, to getting an apartment, traveling ... everything!?”
Oh boy, that’s a tough one. Put five English teachers in a room and you’ll get five different answers. Hell, one of them might even tell you not to come to China, and to stay as far away as you can.
We’ve all been there, but speaking for myself, my decision to teach in China was one of the best career and life choices I’ve ever made. Over the last 7 years I’ve taught thousands of kids, been an ESL manager, worked at several ESL schools, befriended teachers from across the world, dated, hosted ESL events, and well, you get the picture.
I know the process pretty well, from my own experiences to stories I’ve heard and seen first-hand from colleagues and friends. Here’s a look at what you can expect teaching English abroad in China:
Finding the ESL Job
Yeahhhh. This is it—where it all begins. Maybe your stuck at home, tired of your soul crushing 9 to 5 and want to escape to some far-off foreign land, and even better, you want to get paid while doing it. Or maybe you’ve come across pictures of some other smuck that’s living out their best life in another country, and you’ve found out that they’re doing so by … what? Teaching English!? “Sign me up!”
Trust, that’s all it takes. And now that you’ve done your research, you want to get the ball rolling, and you’ve settled on China to host your next life adventure. So let’s get to it …
Who Can Teach?
Don’t quote me on this—I know, what an idiotic way to start the article—but to teach English in China legally you must be from one of the following native English-speaking countries: USA, Canada, U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or Ireland.
But wait! Not from a native English-speaking country? Hmm… Truthfully, non-native English speakers get hired across China for ESL jobs too, mostly at training centers. Africa, Russia, Philippines—it’s not uncommon to look up and be working side by side with a teacher from God-knows where. As for how they get hired? First, they arrive in China on a tou.. Sorry, I’ll save that illegality for another post!
Which Kind of School?
“So how does it work? I mean, where can I work?” There are generally 4 kinds of schools that’ll hire you to teach English around China: English training centers, public schools, international/bi-lingual schools, and college/universities.
English training centers for kids and adults are widespread across China. Seriously, they’re e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. They’re open all year round too, and students, i.e. kids age 3-12, typically have classes 4:30-8:30pm on weekdays and between 8am-6:30pm on the weekend. That means you’ll probably need to work a Wednesday-Sunday schedule at 40 hours a week, and typically between 1pm-8:30 Wednesday-Friday, and 8am-6:30 Saturday and Sunday. “Well that’s wacky.” Eh, don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.
And adult English training centers? Anything goes. Monday to Friday, morning slots, evening, maybe even the weekends. There might be set schedules, or you may need to work at sporadic hours during the week. You’re dealing with grown folks—they could be available any time of day.
Me? I’ve carried out all my ESL duties over the years working with kids at English training centers. Let’s get this straight: I didn’t come to China as a professional teacher or even wanting a career as a teacher—I’ve always just wanted an easy ESL teaching job that gave me time to travel, save, and have fun. Less work, more play!
Public schools in China hire English teachers, too. Every kind of school, or rather, the best schools in China, from kindergarten to college, usually have some strict requirement of English proficiency to get accepted, so English courses are usually offered from kindergarten and up. You’ll need to work Mon. - Fri. and most likely teach classes of 40+ students. Yeah, that ain’t for me, Jack.
Next up? You’ll find more international/bilingual schools in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, which have the biggest expat populations. The salary is usually higher and the requirements for working there are a bit more stringent (Parents are paying out of the a** so teachers need to be qualified to the T). Plus, you may need to teach general subjects in English and not just a sole English course. If you’re chasing money and/or have already taught in schools at home, an international/bilingual school is probably your best bet. Oh, did I mention that you also get summer and winter vacation!
And universities? Honestly, I’ve never met anyone that’s taught at a college/university in China. I’ve seen job ads for open positions, though, so I do know opportunities are available. The salaries don’t seem that all impressive for the effort you’d need to put in, but again, that’s just my opinion from afar.
So what’s it looking like? Which type of school do you think you’d be interested in?
[READ] Teach English Abroad: Choosing Between an English Training Center, Public / International School, or 1-1 Tutoring
How to Apply for ESL Jobs in China
Oh boy, now to the hard part. “Just how in the hell do I get an ESL job in China?” Easy! Well, somewhat…There are generally 3 ways to get an English teaching job in China.
Numero uno? You can apply directly with a school through their website or via an online ad posted on popular ESL job websites, Facebook groups, and expat blogs. There are tons of ESL jobs posted every day, 365 days a year. That’s a fact!
Two? Use an ESL agent. Agents act as liaisons between ESL employers and prospective ESL teachers. They connect job seekers with positions and help answer contract/visa related issues. Any teacher already living on China’s Mainland can tell you that using local agents is one of the easiest and quickest ways to find a teaching job in China. And there are a bunch of ESL job agencies outside of China that recruit teachers from native speaking countries, too. Just type “teach English in China agency” on Google and dozens of agencies will pops up.
Three? How does the saying go: “Not what you know, but who you know.” Trust, trust, TRUST me when I say that ESL employers are always asking their teachers if they’ve got any friends willing to relocate abroad and work at their school. If you know somebody already with their foot in the door, it’s way more of a guaranteed opportunity!
“Do I need a TEFL Certificate?” Nah. Contrary to what you may have heard, every teaching job in China does not require you to have a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language certification, or TEFL certificate. But, to get a visa for teaching English in China you will need to either have at least 2 years of work experience post college/university, or have a TEFL certificate. That make any sense?
TEFL programs are completed via online courses or workshops. Classes usually cover English teaching strategies, student learning behaviors, problems you may encounter in the classroom, and classroom management.
“Does having a TEFL up your salary in China?” Yes and no. Again, a lot of schools just don’t require it. For those that do, usually the starting salary is standard anyways; however, some international schools that require TEFL certificates usually provide better salaries. Ah, tell me that makes sense!?
ESL Job Interviewing + Contracts
The interview. Nervous just thinking about it? Don’t be. Well, actually … ah, no worries! But let’s backtrack a little. Before interviewing, you’d better make yourself aware of common scams in the ESL world and ways to counter them. Listen carefully …
It’s a fact—there are con artists out in the world, lurking behind computer screens and preying on unsuspecting prospective ESL teachers that don’t know any better.
Your best bet is to abide by the three golden rules of ESL interviewing: Never, ever, send potential ESL employers money for a..n..y..t..h..i..n..g. And two? Always conduct video interviews. Three? Make sure to speak to current teachers employed at their school.
#True story: I once had an employer give me a written interview on Skype, say that I got the job, then immediately request that I send them money via Western Union to process my visa. Get … the … f***…out…of…here!
Outside of everyday interviewing 101, 4 keys things should and will happen: Always conduct a video interview, be prepared to show a sample/demo of your teaching style, ask that a foreign teacher/manager sit in on the interview, and have questions ready about the visa process and contract. Booyah.
Look, I’ve been an ESL manager—God that seems like so long ago—and in my experience, most ESL employers mostly focus on one thing; that is, whether or not they could market you to potential clients.
Forget about teaching—that’ll come with training and practice. Forget about career paths and yada yada yada. Look, are you m-a-r-k-e-t-a-b-l-e? Do you have a clear accent, will kids love you, parents accept you, are you fun, can you be professional, and do you have the right energy to keep up in the classroom and to be put on display for demos, presentations, and events? Yeah, that’s about right.
Clear pronunciation, lots of smiling, and a happy-go-lucky, positive attitude are crucial.
Que SFX: Dun, dun, DUN. The ESL contract. Salary, vacation days, airfare/housing allowance, and insurance—that’s probably all you really care about right?
No, no, no! There are a million other imperative, sanity-saving items you need to pay special attention to, like a comprehensive description of teacher duties in the classroom and during office hours, your weekly working schedule and # of teaching hours, overtime pay, sick days, annual events you’ll need to work, bonuses, your probation period, paying taxes, visa fees, and school location.
Believe me, that list goes on. At the end of the day, it’s these topics that cause the most divisiveness between ESL teachers and ESL employers, so make sure to know every aspect of what you’re getting into at the very beginning so there are less problems later.
You did it. You’ve aced that nerve-racking ESL interview and are on to the next phase. Take a long breath and give yourself a much needed pat on the back. Salute. Now on to the visa …
To legally work in China as an English teacher you’ll need to apply for a Working Z visa. Not Business visa, not Tourist visa, but a Working Z visa.
Documents you’ll need include your passport, photos, resume, physical college diploma, certificate of employment from your last job, clean criminal background check, physical examination from an approved hospital, employment contract, and invitation letter from your employer.
Once arriving in China you’ll need to apply for a worker’s permit/foreign expert certificate and resident’s permit, and according to Chinese law, you’ll need to get those things done ASAP after entering the country. You may also need to do another physical exam once there, too.
Again, do not send your employer any money for visa fees. And c’mon, do talk with your employer and/or visa agent about everything you’ll need to do—don’t just take my word on it. The more China establishes itself on the world stage, the more visa requirements change just … like …that.
Housing in China
I’m 100% sure you have no idea what to think on this one. Yeah, 100%. Am I right? Don’t worry, I didn’t either, and it’s the same for most ESL teachers I’ve met in China.
Here’s the deal: Like anywhere in the world, housing prices in China vary region to region, as do salaries. For instance, an average rental fee for a studio or 1 bedroom in a small city like Kunshan, of Jiangsu Province, can range between 1,500-2,500RMB a month, but the starting salary for English teachers may be just be 12,000RMB. In Shanghai, 4,500-6,000RMB a month, but at 16K+.
What else? If your employer doesn’t provide accommodation, you’ll need to find an apartment using a housing agent or expat-centered websites, which can put you in direct contact with a landlord. Housing agencies are everywhere in China, and your colleagues can help link you with one.
Here’s the most important thing you need to know about renting an apartment in China:
1. You are usually required to pay 3 month’s rent upfront, plus a deposit of 1 month’s rent.
2. You’ll also need to pay commission to an agent, which is a percentage of 1 month’s rent. The fee for agents in Shanghai, for instance, is 35%.
With that, if you’re apartment is 5,500RMB a month in Shanghai:
5,500 x 3months = 16,500
+ 5,500 (1-month deposit) = 22,000
+ 1,925 (35% agent fee) = 23,925RMB, upfront.
That’s a lot of moolah, ain’t it? And on top of that, in China it’s very common to pay rent every 3 months. Ouch.
Lastly, a quick note: If that kind of payment is too much to handle in the beginning—i.e., you’re broke as f***—in some cases your ESL school can provide you with a loan, and they’ll just deduct it from your salary later. Go ahead, ask them!
Landing in China
Congratulations, you’ve made it to China. Just a few months ago you were dreaming of that escape, but you researched, planned, and finally made it happen. Let the adventure begin...
I remember my first weeks arriving in China like it was yesterday—towering apartments, millions of scooters, restaurants at every turn, KTVs, lots of pretty women, buildings lit up with neon lights, sprawling parks, ancient temples smack-dab in the middle of downtown, high-speed trains, and one of the most robust economies and vast changing landscapes I had ever been in.
I was eager to learn and experience just about anything—Chinese history, culture, and traditions, new foods, the language. I sought to explore nearby attractions, go on adventures, and discover all that I could about one of the world’s most obscure, powerhouse countries.
You’ll feel that way too in the beginning; after all, you just can’t help but get drawn in by your new surroundings, and that goes for any new foreign territory you move to.
But on the other hand? Truthfully, China ain’t for everybody, and by the 3rd month you may just be ready to pack your bags and catch the next flight home. But first ...
At Your ESL School
Que drum roll: There’s a ton that takes place during the first few weeks on the ESL job. You’ll meet your colleagues, start your training, observe classes, and heck, you may even get thrown into teaching less than 24-hours after landing. Yep, this-is-China.
On a positive note, it’s exciting to meet fellow ESL teachers from across the world. If you’re lucky they’ll show you around campus, get you acquainted with classes, and share their experiences working at the school and living in China. I repeat: If you’re lucky, but we’ll get to that later.
And your students? Well, it’s teaching 101 and so universal rules apply–they’ll either drive you mad, be a hit-or-miss, or come out perfect, which, if you’ve ever taught before, is rare, and that’s no matter what age they are or what kind of school you’re at.
I started with kids aged 3-12 at an English training center. It’s funny, I had taught middle school students back in the States for 2 years prior to my arrival. Those kids, as smart as they were, joked about each other’s moms, bullied each another, played on their phones in class, and even talked smack to their teachers every other second. Seriously, it was so bad you could time it..
Chinese kids? Nuh-uh. No phones, no talking smack, no putting each other down—just kids being kids. Attentive and engaged one sec, and painstakingly loud and playful the next.
“What’d you do for teaching? How’d you teach?” I taught the ABCs and their phonetic sounds, DJ and KK phonetics, vocabulary, songs, grammar, reading, written and oral conversation, and used flash cards, props, toys, role-playing, TPR actions (gestures), charts, quizzes, and workbooks to support our lessons.
Overtime I learned how to create lesson plans—by the way, lesson planning will drive you mad—continued watching other teacher’s classes, and was observed by my colleagues and provided feedback. Not a bad introductory process, eh?
I want to make this clear: It was stressful at times, so much so that I took work home with me on occasion to plan ahead, but teaching English abroad wasn’t at difficult as I thought. Wait, hear me out …
The English content itself was actually pretty simple and easy to teach, but it was more so implementing a good strategy—i.e., finding a correct process, using fun games, giving out rewards/points, and disciplining students—that was most challenging aspect of teaching which needed the most time, energy, preparation, and most importantly, a drink after.
At the end of the day, no matter which type of school you’ll choose, like all jobs, it just takes patience, practice, and endless training to find a good rhythm, and that’s when the fun begins.
The first major thing that’ll stand out on the job are cultural differences in the Chinese workplace, and boy are there plenty. Wait, actually, there are about several key oddballs you’ll probably notice immediately.
For instance, in China, the Boss is king, or queen. Matter a fact, let’s just call them God. Seriously, there’s usually no public arguing or protest from your local counterparts about anything, no matter how outrageous God’s request may be. Go on strike in China? ‘Forget about it!’
Next? Private business matters are often discussed out in the open, and loudly at that. Your manager may go from walking into the office and telling you in front of everyone that you can’t receive that promised pay for the overtime you put in, to explaining, though kindly, how much your teaching sucks. Ah, let the gossip begin!
What else? … Sometimes there just isn’t any kind of solid communication between the foreign and Chinese staff at all. They’ll throw in people to observe your class without notice, arrange extra duties on a fly, and tell you upcoming changes to your schedule days or even weeks after they’ve already informed your Chinese counterparts. Foreigners probably wouldn’t care about these things, right?
And you know what? In China there’s this … ‘persuasion’ culture—a sort of salesman-like approach to convincing people to give up information or do what you want. It works in two ways, too. There’s the “I-know-we-disagree-but-I’m-going-to-keep-trying-to-coax-you” approach, and then there’s the typical butter-up before the kill. You’ll see these methods used everywhere, not just in the office, but out in the streets too, and you’ll find that being direct and flat-out saying ‘no’ is the best approach to tackle the unwanted barrage of advances.
One last thing: Schedules. I guarantee that you’ll want to punch a wall once you’ve learned how days off work during the holidays in China. “Say what? Everyone must make-up a couple of working days on our days off just to have a longer vacation during the holidays? Can’t you just give us the time off?” Aargh! It’s complicated, but you’ll find out all about that one.
On a lighter note, you’ll have a blast hearing and learning all about China from your local colleagues, and they’ll probably invite you out to dinners, parks, bars, KTVs, festivals, and even to their homes.
They’ll bring back local snacks to try from their vacations in different provinces, and get you updated with all the Chinese websites and must have apps you’ll need to download, like Wechat, Alipay, Didi, QQ Music, and Trip.com.
You’ll absorb so much about the culture thanks to them, and that’ll make all the difference. Isn’t that what you came for!?
After 3 Months
Props to you for making it 3 months on the ESL job. Matter a fact, props to you for making it this far in the article! Bear with me—it’s all essential to your journey.
That 3-month mark is extremely important. At work, it signifies the end of your probation period. Up until then, your job can fire you at any given moment if your teaching downright sucks or you haven’t proven to be a “satisfactory” employee, i.e. you’ve been coming to work consistently late, showing up to work repeatedly hungover, always complain, and/or not getting along with the staff. Once approved, it’ll be a huge weight off your shoulders.
As for yourself? By this point you should have gotten more accustomed to teaching and have adapted to the differences in the Chinese workplace. You’ll realize that you actually like your job, teaching isn’t so bad, and you can dodge most of the b.s. that the students, staff, and powers-at-large throw your way better than Neo ever could (from The Matrix, keep up!).
Outside of work, you’ve settled into your apartment, explored a few attractions across the city, hit a few bars and nightclubs with your colleagues, ate hotpot, partied at a KTV, started picking up some of the language, hopefully made a friend or two outside of work, road on China’s high-speed train, and finally discovered Taobao, the Amazon of China, but with much cheaper prices. Much cheaper.
What’s more, you love that China is pretty safe, the lifestyle is easygoing, and you’re gradually becoming more aware of the amazing opportunities that await in the country. Yeah, life couldn’t be any better.
Wrong. There is a flip side to all this—teaching English abroad in China doesn’t always work out for everybody. Want to know why?
Reason number one: Terrible, terrible, terrible management. The majority of ESL teachers will tell you the same—we’ve all been in situations at schools at one point or another where we’ve experienced broken promises, unfair treatment when it came to duties, miscommunication, delayed payments, unsolved friction between foreign teachers and/or local staff, and disputes over how much influence parents have over operations in the school. I mean, who wouldn’t get tired of having moms and grandparents watch and record their entire classes from door windows on a daily basis?
Plus, maybe you’ve found yourself in a situation where you’re actually quite lonely on the job. Turns out, all those ESL teachers at your school they told you about during the interview were actually leaving before you’d get there. Even worse, maybe your local Chinese colleagues are timid and have no interest in taking you out to see the city or being friends outside of working hours. And even more fuel to the flame? You’ve landed in a small town that doesn’t even have that big of an expat population. Sh**!
Furthermore, though you bask at the opportunity to explore China, you’ve found it challenging to get used to certain aspects of society, like the language barrier, lack of western style entertainment, poor etiquette, rudeness, line cutting, being stared at, xenophobia, dangerous traffic, and having to use VPN software to access sites and apps you’re hooked on like Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram.
Yep, maybe you can’t take it. Maybe, just maybe, China isn’t for you, and by this stage, booking a flight back home is the next logical step. I’ve heard and seen it happen, and that’s ok—I’d be a fool to tell you it’s all glitz and glamour.
The first 3 months teaching in China will either make or break you, but get through them, and you might just have the best time of your life.
By 6 Months
Half way there baby! Everything changes after 6 months in China. You’ve got that ‘rhythm’ now and have become more familiar with how China works and how your school runs its business.
One thing you’ve learned at work is that your ESL job, and this ‘teach English abroad’ in China industry in general, is pulling in some serious dough, and parents are more than willing to dish it out.
Other things you’ve probably picked up are valuable online resources to help with your ESL teaching, a strong emotional attachment to your students, and you’ve learned from friends or hearsay about English teacher’s schedules, salaries, and heaps of problems at other ESL schools. And with that, you’ve already got some kind of idea as to whether you’ll stay at your current job or bounce to somewhere else by the end of your contract.
You’ve also more than likely mastered your DiDi skills, figured out how to pay your utility bills via Wechat, joined a gym, and shown off hundreds of pictures on social media of the most interesting, weirdest, and coolest moments of your brand new life in China. That’s right, screw what everybody else is doing with their lives—you’re the one in China and living it up!
And at last, you may have even started dating a coworker, a local, or another expat around town. And now that you’re more familiar with how make-up days work in China during the holidays, you’ve become more comfortable planning and making trips in and around China.
Your first non-Mainland/international stops will probably include Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. Then later, Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, and/or Singapore. And further down, Vietnam, Malaysia, and/or Indonesia. You realize that this side of the world is spectacular and full of opportunity at every turn, and you can’t wait to country-hop the hell out of it!
The momentum of it all is building up, and by the end of the year …
One Year … At Last!
H-A-L-E-L-U-J-A-H! You’re here; you’ve finally completed your yearlong ESL teaching contract in China. That deserves dinner, booze, some partying, and at least two 9-picture moments posts on Wechat of your students, friends, and crazy adventures. So, what do you do now?
There might be several plans of action to choose from, actually. Number one, you’ve already decided that 1 year was enough. On one hand, maybe you’re just content with what you’ve accomplished and, well, home is looking like the next move. On the other? Maybe your job sucked, China wasn’t good to you, and before you lose your mind you’ve decided to get the hell out while the gettin’ is good. Either way, there’s nothing wrong that.
Two? One year of teaching English abroad has got you h-o-o-k-e-d. You’ve learned the ins-and-outs of the ESL industry, and you’re so confident with your experience and new skill set that you’re ready to pack your bags and teach English in another region near China, like Japan or Korea. Sayonara!
Three? Maybe you like China. Maybe it’s grown on you so much that you really want to stay at least another year, but you’d rather work for a different ESL school that pays more or better fits the bill when it comes to things like organization, scheduling, and extra perks. Or, it’s possible to you love your current job, students, and coworkers, and have decided to resign an extra 12 months. Hear it from the horse’s mouth: This is actually one of the more common scenarios!
And four? You’ve made such a good impression at work with your students, parents, colleagues, and administration that out of all the staff present, the powers-at-large have asked you to stay onboard as manager in the next year. Oh my, look at how far you’ve come! *Standing ovation*
Outside of work? Things will remain the same, but strangely enough, expand by tenfold. You’ll continue discovering more about Chinese history and traditions, pick up more Mandarin, try out new cuisines, make friends and meet people from across the world, date, party, go on adventures in and around the country, and completely immerse yourself in one of the world’s oldest, most dynamic, and culturally rich countries you’ve ever been in.
This is it--this is life during your first year in China as an ESL teacher.
So, what do you think? Sounds fun? More importantly, are you up for the challenge? Well then, let your ESL adventure begin! Safe & happy travels!
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->