Category Archives: Teaching English in China

How to succeed at your teaching job in China

Teaching class

Succeed at teaching

So you finally landed that teaching job in China, but you’re not sure of the expectations they have of you in the classroom. Education in China has become highly commercialized over the past decade or so, and like any other business it’s all about keeping the customer happy. Yes, I used the word customer, because with the commercialization the traditional student/teacher relationship in China has transitioned a customer/service provider relationship. So what is it that the customer wants? Continue reading

Protecting Yourself From Exploitation by Chinese Employers

There are a number of common tricks and pitfalls that you need to be aware of when being employed as a foreign teacher in China. Employers commonly use ignorance of Chinese law to manipulate and exploit foreigner teachers. The funny thing is that quite often, employers themselves don’t understand the Chinese law. You can be one step ahead by doing the following:

1. Don’t Let Them Hold Your FEC

There are some centers and colleges who want to hold you Foreign Expert Certificate (FEC) “for safe keeping”. The real reason they want to hold it is because at the end of your contact, they are afraid you will not give it back to them. They need it for the completion of documentation when your employment has formally ended – Your employer is obliged to return your FEC to the Foreign Expert Bureau upon completion of your employment.

However, according to Chinese law you are supposed to carry your FEC with you at all times! So why would they hold a document which you need to have on you? Because they don’t care about what trouble you might face by not having it on you, they only care about the trouble they may face if you don’t give it back to them at the end.

What can happen: A colleague of mine was stopped by the police on the street for a random check. He had his passport, but not his FEC. He was finger-printed and taken to the police station. He had to wait there for several hours whilst someone from the school organized to bring his FEC.

What do to about it: Before you sign any contact, get it writing they’ll let you hold your FEC. They may wish to add that you agree to return it at the end of your employment, which is fair.

Check Contract Carefully For Penalties

Chinese labor law is much different to that of western countries. Employers may include clauses that make your jaw drop. It’s typical for them to include clauses where money can be deducted from your salary for various reasons. There are often ridiculous clauses where you need to pay a fine of at least 10 times your monthly salary if you break the contract. People have been in situations where they have needed to urgently return to their country for family reasons, with the school demanding payment of the fine with threats of police involvement and legal action. Therefore, it’s often necessary to tell your prospective employers that you are unable to sign until particular clauses are deleted or modified.

There are often clauses which relate to work performance. In western culture we like to encourage good performance with bonuses, and deal with unsatisfactory performance with extra training or appropriate feedback with a focus on improvement. In Chinese companies, if you’re performance is good you probably won’t get anything, unless it’s a great year for the company and you’re an executive. For lower level employees, if you make the smallest of mistakes in your job money will be deducted from your salary. The bigger the mistake, the more they’ll deduct. There will be little feedback other than what you’ve done wrong and how much money it’ll cost you. With foreign employees, they are a little more lenient, but do expect to have money deducted from your salary in some situations.

It’s hard to understand the attitude of Chinese employers unless you’re familiar with how Chinese children are educated. Shame and use of negative reinforcement is central to early education. Chinese students are more likely to be punished for poor performance than rewarded for good performance. When students do achieve highly, the bar is raised; The student who usually comes first in the class will be scolded by his parents if he suddenly comes second. No wonder suicide rates amongst students are so high in China, and it’s very often top students who take their own lives.

This is why it’s very important to check your contract for unreasonable penalties. It’s not something to be taken personally because that is how they are educated. You can do something about it by requesting that they remove the excessive penalty clauses. You can express that you’re uncomfortable with so many penalty clauses, but no bonus clauses!

Understand Sick Leave in China

In western countries, if you’re on a salaried position you’d expect a certain number of days of sick leave with full pay. In China, do not take this for granted! You may not receive ANY sick leave with full pay. I was shocked to discover in my first salaried position I would only receive half-pay for each day of sick leave. You need to look carefully for the sick leave clause in the contract. If it does not exist or you’re not satisfied with it, discuss it with your employer and have them write a mutually agreeable sick leave clause into the contract – fully-paid sick leave is reasonable. Sick leave with half-pay is common which may be all some employers will offer.

It’s important to be clear on what you need to do in order to apply for sick leave. Ensure they don’t have any ridiculous clause requiring you to call in 48 hours beforehand if you are sick (you can wake up sick!). Most of them will also require a medical certificate in order for you to apply for sick leave. For many foreigners, going to a Chinese hospital to attain a medical certificate can be worse than the illness itself! You may be able to negotiate with them that a medical certificate is required only if you take more than one day at a time, you can justify this by saying that as a foreigner, you have a lot of trouble going to a Chinese hospital, especially when you are sick!

What an employer wants to see on your CV

The first thing an employer in China will look for is to see whether or not you meet the minimum visa requirements, which include a degree, TEFL certificate, and a couple of years teaching experience. This serves a dual purpose, first to see whether you can get a work permit, the other is if you’re suitable for the job.

They will then look at how closely your experience matches the job you have applied for in terms of the following:

  • Level of students (beginner, intermediate, advanced)
  • Learning objective (e.g. business English, exam preparation)
  • Class size (private lessons, small groups, large groups of 20+ students)
  • Age-group (young children, teenagers, adults)

Emphasize the aspects of your past experience which match the job you’re applying for at the time. Perhaps you worked at a center before and taught both children and adults, but you’re applying for a position teaching business English: It would make sense to highlight your experience teaching adults and anything related to business English you may have taught to them.

An employer will also consider your qualifications. If you did a degree which is not related to teaching, there is no need to go into any detail about it. All you need to make clear is that you have a Bachelor degree (or above). The TEFL Certificate is easy to dress up as looking very impressive, even if it’s just a two week course. The institution you got your TEFL from has already done this work for you in their advertisement! Consider a popular website such as TEFL.com

Last but not least, always include a picture on your CV. Chinese typically use passport-style photos on CV’s and it is expected. If you do not include one, they’ll surely ask you for one. The Chinese do care a lot about grooming, and a foreign teacher is mainly for marketing purposes, so keep this in mind when chosing your picture.

The Murky Work of Recruitment Agents in China

In China, there are a large number of recruitment agents who are dishonest and engage in illegal activities. Many of them farm out foreign teachers on tourist and business visas to work at various schools on a low salary. The school may have a teaching position open where they are willing to pay 8,000RMB a month, yet the agent will offer the teacher only 5,500RMB a month and pocket the remaining 2,500RMB. Many schools are OK with this arrangement because they are not authorized to directly hire foreign teachers (e.g. if they don’t have a SAFEA license).

Agents typically work in the following manner: The school has an agreement with the agency where the agency is to provide “foreign teacher services”, and the agency in turn has an agreement with the foreign teacher, where the agency pays the teacher a fee for services rendered. It creates a buffer between the school and the foreign teacher, so the school has no direct responsibility for these “troublesome foreigners”. In fairness to the schools, there are quite a few foreign teachers who are genuinely troublesome (they may regularly sleep in and miss class, swear at the administration etc), though this doesn’t excuse schools from completely avoiding responsibility.

The typical agent, just as the schools who use them, is NOT authorized to hire foreign teachers, but this doesn’t stop them from signing contracts with foreign teachers. It’s just that these contracts are invalid! They can only legally hire you if they have a SAFEA license. Therefore, any contract you sign with an agent is most likely not worth the paper it’s written on. Having said that, there are many agents, though operating illegally, do actually provide teachers with job opportunities and do pay salaries in a timely manner. If there is a problem in your job, however, the school may not pay the agent the full amount, and you may not receive your entire salary. There is little or no legal recourse when you’re working illegally.

Agents will often give incorrect advice in regard to visas. They will tell you that you can legally work on something other than a work visa, when in fact it’s illegal. If you want to work in China legally, do not work through an agency – only have a contract with the company where you’ll be teaching, and that company should have a SAFEA license.

Resources for Job Hunting in China

So where is the best place to actually look for teaching jobs in China? There are countless websites for job hunting in China. Here is a good cross-section:

You do not need to use all of these websites, as most of the job ads overlap – when a company is advertising, they’ll post to a number of different websites. During the process of job hunting, you’ll encounter many agents. I recommend that you avoid agents, but since you’ll no doubt encounter them and they’ll try to convince you of many things, I’ll give a detailed explanation in the following section.

Knowing Whether your Chinese Employer is Legitimate

To find out if your prospective employer is legitimate, you can check and see whether they are on the SAFEA register. To do this, download the PDF, then search for the Chinese name of your employer in it (the schools are organized by province):  http://www.safea.gov.cn/content.shtml?id=12746539

If you have trouble searching the document, simply ask your prospective employer which page their company name is on, and check the name matches the one on their website. If they are not on the list or the names don’t exactly match, they are not authorized to sponsor you for a work visa.

One of the most common questions is whether it’s legal to start working on an L-visa or F-visa. Many schools, centers, and especially agencies encourage this behavior and tell people that it’s legal. Let me tell you, it’s illegal to work and receive a salary in China on anything but a work visa. People who tell you otherwise are either misinformed or lying. Many employers try to encourage teachers to start working on a tourist visa (L-visa) so they can see if that teacher is up to standard before going ahead with full sponsorship, or because they are not authorized to sponsor foreigners for a work permit. This situation is illegal and can be disastrous for the teacher. The police do random inspections and catch teachers on the wrong visa. Even if you do manage to work for a while on a business visa, your employer might have trouble getting you a full work permit. In summary, the only places which are truly legitimate are those who offer to sponsor you for a work permit (z-visa) upfront.

The other big myth is that F-visas and L-visas can be “converted” into a work visa (z-visa). A few years ago, this was sometimes possible. Now, it is forbidden by government policy in all but exceptional circumstances. If you’re in China without a work visa, to get a work visa you need to apply for it from scratch, which typically means returning to your home country to apply even if you’re already in China. For those who are already in China and don’t want to apply from their home country, authorization is occasionally given for an applicant to apply from Hong Kong.

The final thing to be aware of are many scammers posing as agents or schools, who will ask you for scans of your passport and qualifications. After you send them the information, you won’t hear back from them. These organizations may send all your documents and information to anybody who’s willing to pay – usually perpetrators of fraud and identity theft. If you don’t want to get cheated, it’s essential to check on the SAFEA register to be sure that you’re dealing with a reputable company.

Main Options for Teaching English in China

There are various options for teaching in China, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. I’ve seen each option first-hand and will now give you a practical perspective of each. I will not tread lightly on this topic because it’s important to know what you’re getting into by teaching English in China.

1. Private Training Centers

The easiest way in is through a private training center, such as English First (EF), Wallstreet English and Web International English to name a few. Some people like to call private training centers “English sweatshops”, referring to the grueling workload and minimal salary. There is some element of truth to this. Most private training centers demand their teacher’s to work at least 40 hours a week, with most hours falling on evenings and weekends. It’s hard to have a life outside of work… the only people you’ll meet are your students and colleagues. However, you’ll only actually be teaching for 20-25 hours a week, the remainder of your time will be required to remain in the office even when you don’t have any classes. They call this “office hours”. The reason they have “office hours” is to ensure there are plenty of westerners around when they bring in prospective students. The foreign teachers are important aspect of their marketing package. If this bothers you, always ask your prospective employer if there are any “office hours”.

Due to the environment of most centers being sales, rather than education orientated, most teachers get fed-up after a few months and leave. Consequently, staff turnover is high and new teachers are always being recruited.

There are, however, a number of advantages of working at a center, particularly for those who have never taught in China before or are new to teaching. Thus, I often recommend newcomers to start off at a center for the following reasons:

  • They provide you with a gentle landing in China. They’ll sort out your visa, accommodation, insurance and so on. Some even provide weekly Chinese lessons. On this basis alone, it’s worth joining a center for a newcomer.
  • Excellent training ground for new teachers. They EXPECT you to be incompetent and will provide you with ample training and opportunities to develop your teaching skills. You can go in there with no experience or confidence, and three months later feel like a pro.
  • A stepping stone to other jobs. When other schools or companies see that you’ve had experience at one of the big centers, they’ll be more inclined to hire you, and frankly speaking, you’ll be ready.

But before you take the leap, I should warn you, education of the students is not the main priority of these centers. Their core competency is sales and marketing. Center Directors are more like marketing gurus rather than educators. They don’t want good teachers, they simply want POPULAR teachers. One of the most famous centers here in China evaluates their teachers according to how often they make the students laugh, as opposed to how much anyone actually learns! If you genuinely care about the education of the students, you will find a training center hard to stomach after a while. On the bright side, if you fancy yourself as a stand-up comedian, you may just love working at a training center.

2. Teaching At Public Schools

These jobs can vary widely depending on the school and headmaster. Some of them only require a part-time teacher who will come in for a couple of days only. These jobs are relatively straight forward, and typical administrations want you to simply entertain the students under the guise of education. In fact, I once had one such job at a high-school. The dean asked me “can you play any musical instruments?” and then proceeded to describe “the best foreign teacher we ever had”. This teacher would take the students outside, sit them in a circle, then play guitar and sing songs for them. “The students loved it!” said the dean. Whether or not any teaching was going on seemed to be beyond the point.

All this can be quite tolerable if you’re just doing some part-time work, but many schools want full-time teachers. Full-time teachers need to come in everyday to take classes, and remain at the school for the entire day. There would be nothing wrong if with a reasonable salary and benefits. As the current situation stands, full-time teaching jobs at public schools in China are not financially rewarding. In fact, you’ll make just a little more than the part-time teacher (roughly 10,000RMB a month depending on which city). The reason is because salary levels are controlled by the government and have barely risen over the last decade, despite soaring living costs. The main benefits of working full-time at a public school are holiday pay and visa sponsorship. Be wary, however, of 10 month contracts; it would mean that you don’t get paid over the summer holidays.

3. Teaching at Kindergarten

The most demand and money are in this area of teaching. Every kindergarten needs a foreign teacher (to compete with the kindergarten down the road who has a foreign teacher!). Demand for kindergarten teachers far exceeds supply, so salaries are skyrocketing. The monthly salary can easily exceed 20,000RMB a month (double any normal teaching job).

Teaching at kindergarten is all about show, even outside of the classroom. Many kindergartens require their foreign teacher to stand at the school gate after class to wave goodbye to the students when their parents pick them up. This is about giving face to the Chinese parents.

In the classroom, it requires a particular kind of personality. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. If you’re the kind of person who can keep a group of kids entertained for hours and love playing games with them, then kindergarten teaching is a good option. If you’re a bit shy, forget being a kindergarten teacher, unless of course it’s something you’re passionate about and really want to do.

4. Teaching at College

Usually the least labor-intensive option, you only need to work around 14 hours a week, perhaps do a couple of English corners and that’s it. You get the benefits of being a full-time teacher (e.g. visa, insurance, holiday pay) for what are essentially just part-time hours. Similar to public high-schools, expect to be offered a 10-month contract so they can avoid paying you for the long summer holiday.

The main downside is the relatively low salary. Most jobs pay around 6000-7000RMB a month plus accommodation. But it’s enough to live on, the administration stays out of your face and you can enjoy your life. Making a few jokes in class and actually communicating with students will get you by in one of these jobs.

It’s about as easy as you can get. However, you should be prepared for an exceptionally unorganized and indifferent administration. You do have to figure out everything for yourself in these jobs. Even the administration doesn’t know what is going on, they’ll just tell you to ask a student!

The truth about being a foreign teacher in China

Foreign teacher, AKA white monkey

Foreign teacher, AKA “white monkey”

Before I came to teach in China, i’d heard many things about how highly respected teachers are in China, and how good the students are and so on. The truth about being a foreign teacher in China  is that whole idea of being an actual teacher is a facade, your REAL duty is to make lots of jokes and act silly so the students can laugh at the funny foreigner. You need to be an entertainer, not an educator.  It’s called Edutainment! The ideal foreign teacher (in their eyes) has white skin and is very funny; a white monkey! The REAL teaching is left to the Chinese teachers who are able to communicate with the students in their own language. The foreign teacher is mainly just for marketing purposes. Continue reading