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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!