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Teaching English in China – When the Middle Kingdom Beckons

teaching english in China

How one Australian, looking for a change, moved overseas and started teaching english in China.

This article is written by John.  John left Australia in 2011 spending 3 months in Thailand, 5 years in China, 1 year in Portugal, and now resides in the Philippines.  He has been writing about his travels and observations of people and cultures during that time.


When the Middle Kingdom Beckons

At what point in a person’s life do they look for a ‘seachange’? For some it comes early, a realisation at a young age that life can be different if you make it so. For others, it comes later in life, usually after a few years working the same job or stressing out at a managerial level and having their fill of the corporate world. Sometimes, it’s a little more traumatic, maybe a death in the family, or a close escape from personal serious illness. The other reason is to seek adventure, travel and live life to the fullest!

Marking Time

For me it was a mixture of things.  A couple of close friends, younger than me and with whom I played football many years ago, died suddenly. Not even accidents. Heart attack and cancer. Sobering. At age 60 I sat twiddling my thumbs, marking time, on the dole, but able to find jobs easily, wondering what my next step would be. I looked after country motels, served beer in pubs, worked as a storeman in a solar film business and even did a couple of courses, paid for courtesy of the government. But I had always been an adventurous young man. At age 19 I drove out of Victoria and headed for the mining companies in North West Australia. I drove across the Nullabor when bitumen was at a premium.

The Answer

An advertisement I spotted online showed me a path. Teach English overseas! Perfect. So, what do you have to do to so that you can be teaching English in China?

1. Obtain a TESOL teaching certificate.

There are many courses both online and at learning centres and you are spoiled for choices. Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Language is what the acronym means. The course is full on and very enjoyable if you have good instructors. You learn how to prepare lessons and to communicate with learners who can’t speak English.

Once you have that certificate you will find that the academy at which you obtained it will have a full listing of countries and sometimes even schools to which you can apply for teaching jobs. The variation in the cost of the obtaining the certificate can range from $200 –  $2000. Some schools will not accept an online TEFL or TESOL.

TESOL Certificate - A requirement for teaching English in China

You’ll need one of these for teaching English in China

2. Your degree

Well, it depends on the country in which you decide to teach. Your academic qualifications certainly come in handy if you want a wider choice of countries, but at the time I applied, China was accepting anybody who could speak basic English. It has tightened up and a degree is both a requirement and will give you a better salary. I came across many, many teachers who had no formal qualifications and to be honest, quite a few had no idea about speaking proper English let alone teaching it.

3. Visa

We are talking China here and this is very important. DO NOT go to China on a tourist visa at the invitation of the school which contacted you. If you are asked to do that, take it as a danger sign. A proper school, a legitimate school, in China, will have processes in place to help you get your visa. They will send an official appointment letter, a contract, and you take them to the Chinese Embassy nearest you and submit these supporting papers as part of your application. The image shown is a ‘Z’ Visa and is what you will get when you start work in China.

On arrival in China, usually the day after, you will be taken to the Foreign Affairs building and go through the full working visa process which includes another medical. I say ‘another’ medical because part of your paperwork you send back to the school is the medical you had to do in Australia.

4. Your Age

Unlike Australia where age must not be taken into account for job applications, there are restrictions on how old you can be to teach in China.

60 is the limit unless you can find a school to go into bat for you and you have an impeccable record. Other countries, like Korea and Japan, the age limit is as low as 55 and 50 at some schools.

I started teaching in China at age 60, I turned 61 on my second day of teaching. I taught until I was over 65.

5. Traps

There would be a hundred stories a year about Chinese businesses that run schools and are scamming potential teachers. (www.echinacities.com) Here’s the statistics that will help you understand the reason for this, at times, illegal desperation of teaching centres in China. There are 350 million Chinese wanting to learn English. Based on class sizes of 10 – 20 students, do the math and work out how many teachers they need.

So, what has happened is that Chinese schools will employ anybody that LOOKS like a foreigner to teach English. The less ethical schools promise great salaries and living conditions but rarely deliver. The teachers then find themselves in China with an incorrect visa and nowhere to hide. Also, the government clampdown on this practice means raids on schools and you will be caught.

Another thing to look out for is to make sure the school has a licence to employ a foreign teacher.

The resultant fallout for you as a teacher if caught in either situation is a black ban and you can’t work or visit China for 10 years!

One thing I learnt in my 5 years in China is to do everything by the book.

6. Travel

If you want to be teaching English in China, you have to pay your own way to China and to the city where you will teach. You will be met at the airport of your final destination. Your contract conditions will have a salary package that includes a repayment of your airfare. In fact, it’s quite a bit more than what your airfare will cost. The airfare component varies from 8,000RMB to 10,000RMB ($1700 – $2000 AUD). Make sure you check the weather conditions of the city in which you will be living. Don’t do what I did, I missed the minus sign on the minimum temperature and almost froze to death on arrival in North East China in February. Shorts and a T-shirt could not cope with -42°C. Seriously!

7. Salary

There are some large variations in salaries offered for teaching English in China. The main reason being the cost of living in different cities and provinces. Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shandong and Xi’an come to mind as tier 1 cities. You can expect around 14,000 – 18,000 (RMB) a month for a maximum 25-hour week. Some contracts offer free accommodation, you just pay for the utilities of power, water and internet. Others offer a higher salary and expect you to organise your own accommodation. Unless you can speak fluent Mandarin, you should be doing all accommodation negotiations through your school. Sign language won’t cut it.

If you end up in a province, (I was in Heilongjiang), then the salary is significantly less and the accommodation will be free. You still pay the utilities but your cost of living is way less. 😊

Tip – Most people stay more than a year. If you become a good teacher in that time, you can negotiate a very nice pay rise for the next year, and so on. After 5 years I was on a very comfortable income. I also worked privately at home at three times the rate the school was paying me. Just don’t get greedy and make it impossible for the school to re-employ you.

8. In the Beginning…

Making friends while teaching English in China

Having fun teaching English in China

Your first couple of weeks teaching English in China will be a real adventure. Everything is new. The people are wonderfully friendly and will do everything within their power to make you feel at home and ease any homesickness. You will meet the other teachers who should be from the USA, UK, Canada and Australia, maybe South Africa. But don’t be surprised if you come across Norwegians, Russians, Swedes and Spanish. When you hear them speak you’re going to ask yourself “How can they teach English?”

There will be an Expats bar you can go to or group which you should join as soon as possible. Ask as many questions as you can but don’t listen to their opinions about the country and the people. Make up your own mind about that. Quite a few will be married to Chinese women as well or have Chinese girlfriends or boyfriends, although foreign women taking Chinese boyfriends is a whole lot less common for the female teachers.

Some of the above will not apply if you end up in a really small city in a distant province. You might even be the sole foreigner, or one of just a very few.

Tip – Make as many Chinese friends as possible. This will be easy because they will all want to be your friend anyway. Just be aware of the ones that will be wanting you to provide free English lessons. Don’t do it.

About the author

Australian Expat Investor Contributor

These articles have been written by an Australian Expat Investor Contributor. Please see their details in the relevant post. The views expressed in the article are his or her own and may not reflect the views of The Australian Expat Investor. If you are interested in contributing an article or story to The Australian Expat Investor please visit our contact page.

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