7 Things to Keep in Mind When Searching for English Teaching Jobs in China

by Julia Kitlinski Hong

With a fascinating history, diverse cultural landscape, irresistible culinary traditions, and a whopping 1 billion+ non-native English speakers, it is not hard to see why China is an ideal country for finding English teaching jobs. In the past, prospective English teachers often overlooked the Middle Kingdom, preferring its neighbors South Korea and Japan instead. This is no longer the case; teachers are beginning to realize that China has a high demand for Western teachers, but without all the competition.

There is, of course, still stigma when it comes to teaching English in China programs surrounding dishonest schools and lack of a steady paycheck. While not all schools are ideal teaching environments, there are plenty of schools that treat teachers quite well. It is important to do your research and keep the following concerns in mind in order to have a memorable experience teaching abroad in the land of The Great Wall and Yao Ming.

The Forbidden City, China

1. Living on a Teacher’s Budget

One of the major concerns that keep prospective teachers up at night is their teaching English in china salary and whether they will make enough renminbi to sustain their dumpling addiction through their time abroad. This is a completely valid concern, as money troubles are the last thing you want to deal with when adjusting to life in a new country. Luckily, in China, salaries for English teachers are on the rise, where most entry-level positions can make anywhere from $900-$1500 per month. This number often includes healthcare, a completion bonus, and free housing. On the higher end of the pay scale, it’s not rare to find positions that pay between $2000-$2400 per month, including benefits. With this type of salary, life is gooooood.

In China, English teachers’ salaries are enough to live comfortably; you can even save a bit if you budget carefully and don’t blow all your money on travel, social activities, and culinary delights (luckily for you, most dumpling shops won’t break the bank). It all depends on the cost of living. Bigger cities like Shanghai or Beijing are more expensive, whereas smaller cities like Qingdao are more affordable. While the larger cities are understandably popular with teachers for their global flair, the smaller cities allow for a stronger cultural immersion experience (perfect for the English teacher with ulterior motives to relish in the local culture in their free time!).

2. Getting a Proper Teacher’s Visa

Having the proper documentation as a teacher is paramount in China and can result in getting kicked out of the country if you are caught without it. The wrath of the Chinese government is not something you want to experience firsthand! The Z visa is the required teaching visa for teachers who come from overseas and should be obtained beforehand by the school that will sponsor you. Once your school files for your Z visa, you should be able to pick-up the papers at your local Chinese consulate or embassy. Before you are issued your visa you will be asked for proof of a university degree, your passport from an English-speaking country and a TEFL or TESOL certificate.

If you work on any other visas, like the X, L or F, this is illegal and can result in getting kicked out of the country. While some teachers work under these visas, it’s strongly advised against. Coming home early due to avoidable visa issues is never a proud moment for any ESL teacher. Note that it is not uncommon for ESL teachers to try to “get away” with teaching on the wrong visa; however, that doesn’t mean you aren’t still liable for illegal activities and thus can be held accountable for them.

Shanghai cityscape

3. Know The Difference Between the Types of Schools

In China, there are several teaching options, each with their own benefits and disadvantages. Most schools require you to have a bachelor’s degree and a TEFL certificate. If they do not ask for these documents, take this as a red flag and quickly sprint the other way.

Private schools are considered the best option, since they make sure to take good care of the well being of their teachers and pay quite well. That being said it’s often quite competitive to land one of these coveted spots and teaching experience is a must. 

Another option for English teaching jobs is an ESL school, where you will be teaching students that range widely in age from children to adults. Some of these schools focus solely on Business-related English. An average of five classes are taught daily, spread throughout the day. Teaching at night or on the weekend is also not uncommon, since this is when most students have their free time to learn English.

Public schools are yet another option, where teachers are in charge of between thirty to fifty students per class and teach around forty minutes per lesson. Schedules reflect a traditional workday, starting in the morning at around 7:30 a.m. and ending at 4:30 p.m.

To supplement your earnings, you can always choose to do private tutoring as a side gig, especially after you start teaching and can offer your services to students wanting one-on-one language practice. These jobs are relatively easy to find once you’re on the ground; simply look at local websites, classifieds, or newspapers to connect with families looking for private English instruction for their children. Be sure to read teaching English in China reviews before settling on the work environment that suits you.

Women in Shanghai Park

4. Cultural Differences in the Classroom

The teaching English in China requirements are fairly minimal, but an understanding about classroom etiquette, and how it may differ greatly from what teachers are used to back at home, is a must. Chinese societal norms are based on centuries of tradition and respect and this includes conduct within the classroom. Lectures are usually the typical way of learning in a Chinese classroom, where the students are expected to show their respect by listening to their teacher and not questioning the material at hand.

For those teachers coming from a Western country (where classroom discussion and interactive lessons are often encouraged), it is important to note these crucial differences and adapt appropriately to them. Instead of calling on your students and singling them out, think about lessons plans that allow for them to practice their oral language skills within small groups among themselves. This way you can monitor them on a more individual level.

You will see a major difference in the level of respect you will be shown as a teacher, where you will be addressed in a more formal manner than you are use to back at home. It may take some getting use to, but try to embrace it as part of the cultural experience and understand that it comes from centuries of deep-rooted tradition.

5. Learning Workplace Culture 

Work culture in China can vary greatly from what you are used to at home. There is a rigid hierarchy within the workplace, where your position determines your rank. Being able to “save face” is another way of saying that authority is always correct, no matter if they are actually right or wrong. A lot of bureaucracy is a result of this approach to business, but it is important to remember your place in the hierarchy of your workplace and not to step outside the boundaries of your lowly role as an ESL Teacher.

Guanxi is another important element of the workplace to adapt to as an ESL teacher. This concept translates into believing that strong professional relationships are built on trust and understanding that is developed over time. One way to develop this guanxi is to take the time to get to know your coworkers and boss beyond everyday exchanges. Your boss and coworkers will most likely invite you to dinner and it’s in your best interest to say yes! Eating in a more relaxed environment is a great way to develop trust with those you work with. Plus it’s hard not to bond over a common love of a delicious local delicacy like Peking duck!

You can also develop guanxi is through mutual gift exchange. If your boss gives you small items like tea or trinkets, be sure to accept them with a smile and never politely refuse, since this is the quickest way to lose face and end up back in the guanxi doghouse.

Teaching Chinese kids

6. Experiencing Discrimination as a Teacher

China is a homogenous nation, where a sea of black hair is the norm. Being exposed to different cultures is not something that is common within this country and can unfortunately result in prejudices, especially directed towards teachers who do not fit the stereotype of a Caucasian native English speaker. If you do not fit this profile, there can be some blatant discrimination when it comes to the hiring process. There is the common misconception in China that English teachers should fit a certain physical appearance criteria to qualify for an English teaching job. 

Be prepared for these types of narrow-minded views, but also understand that even though this approach is wrong, these viewpoints are a result of individuals living in a homogenous culture. If you do get hired and experience prejudice in the workplace, take the higher road and prove through your actions that you are more than capable of doing your job. Teaching abroad is not only about immersing yourself in another culture, but also being an ambassador for your own culture as well.

7. TEFL Certificates for Teaching in China

Teaching English in China without TEFL certification is possible. That being said, if you do earn your certificate, you will open yourself up to a wider variety of options for working abroad. Better schools will generally have higher qualification standards for teachers. That being said, it is not unusual to find a job at an amazing education institution without having your TEFL cert in tow.

We encourage you to think of your students, first. Are you trained and qualified in the ways of teaching your native language? Do you have the skills necessary to give your students a meaningful, productive, and effective experience tackling the English language? If your only true skills set is the fact that you’re a native speaker, you would be wise to consider earning your TEFL Certificate (you can get it online, in your home country, or even in China!) prior to your stint as an ESL teacher in China.

Chinese kids doing a class activity

You can likewise teach in China without a degree, though again, we caution teachers to think critically about who’s actually benefiting from your presence in the classroom.

Now that you are aware of the different issues you will face when teaching abroad in China, take a deep breath and be reassured that you can have a memorable experience with the right preparation. Take these tips to heart to ensure that while teaching in China, you’ll find a unique cultural experience that will stay with you long after you return back home. Best of all, this opportunity will allow you to connect with locals on a level that would not be possible if you were just traveling through.