Working as an English teacher in China.
With the job situation so bad in the UK, many people are looking outside of the country to seek employment. Some are considering teaching English abroad as an option and some might even look as far as China for work. In this article I want to pass on some information and a little advice about working as a teacher in China and what you can expect from a life here.
You will need to have a teaching certificate in teaching English and this comes in the form of a TEFL certificate – Teaching English as a Foreign Language. However, you are not going to get a good job with just that; for many teaching positions here you will need a degree, especially for jobs in the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Of course if you are already a teacher, then it will be much easier for you. It is possible to find teaching posts with just a TEFL but they will be in lesser schools in the main cities or in schools in other smaller cities.
Online TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language
There are many courses you can take to gain a TEFL certificate and many online courses too. I took an online course from a company called i-to-i; it was 120 hours. However I wasn’t impressed with the course. Firstly I found that it didn’t really teach me much about teaching and secondly I didn’t consider the online tutor to be that helpful. My wife Crystal however, who is Chinese and a qualified English teacher, took at the same time an ITTT International course. She thought it might come be useful one day, especially if were to go to Europe. The ITTT course was more expensive than mine and it turned out to be much better. She learnt the subject in greater depth and had better support from her online tutor. A word of warning however about TEFL courses; if your knowledge of grammar is shaky, you will either need some help or will need to embark on some further study. I have to confess that my knowledge of English grammar was very poor indeed and ironically it was my Chinese wife who was able to help me through the course. It does seem amazing that one can speak, read and write reasonably well in English and yet have a poor knowledge as to how one’s own language works. I guess you could say we native speakers learn our language organically, whereas foreign students gain it in a more regimented way through text books and concentrated study. I can write better than my Chinese wife and of course speak better but she knows much more than me about pronouns, adjectives and passive voice etc. Teaching oral English however doesn’t rely on explaining grammar but it is advisable to know more than your students. If a student were to ask you a question to which you cannot answer, you are going to look pretty stupid! What’s more your students will happily tell their teachers about your apparent lack of knowledge.
Many companies offer courses in the country where you are planning to teach. This of course is a good way to get an introduction to a country before you start teaching. However, a couple of teachers I met did their course in Beijing which is nothing like the small city they ended up in – Zunyi. Zunyi is where I have been teaching these past three years. Apparently they had a great time in Beijing, visiting the bars every evening and they got to see some of the great tourist attractions but financially their six months in China was a loser. The advantage of finding work through a TEFL organisation such as i to i is that they will surely find you work, however this comes at a price. You will have to pay a tidy sum for the overseas course and secondly you will not get paid the going rate at whatever school you end up at. There is also another disadvantage with this – you are not independent and will have to deal with two or more agencies if you encounter problems, which is sure to happen. You will also have to pay for your airfare to and from the UK which can amount to £800 or more by the time you include internal flights. Many schools however will pay for one return flight every year or pay a completion bonus of a similar amount. The lesson is – if you allow others to make all your arrangements, it will cost you a lot of money.
Types of teaching positions
If you have a degree and teaching experience, you’ll probably be able to get a good job in a university/college teaching whatever subject you are experienced in, for example English literature, economics etc.. Educational institutions often have specific names such as Zunyi Medical College but that doesn’t mean the only subjects they teach are medical; you will find here, students majoring in English and other subjects not related to medicine. The school I teach at is grandly called the Aerospace School but the only subject that could be remotely connected with this is a metalwork workshop; so don’t be put off by the name of the school. If you have a degree but don’t have teaching experience you can still find a reasonably well paid job but you will only be expected to teach oral English. Chinese English teachers reach a very high standard in grammar, probably higher than most folk in the UK; therefore it is unlikely you will be asked to teach it. What’s more, you need to speak Chinese in order to explain the grammar rules clearly and it is impossible to do so without speaking Chinese. If you don’t have a TEFL certificate but not a degree you can still find a job teaching oral English in either a middle school, junior school or kindergarten but your salary will be lower. In china there are universities and colleges which are basically the same thing; senior middle schools (students 15-18 years), junior middle schools (students 12 -15 years), primary schools (6 – 12) and kindergarten (aged 3 – 6, although some children start much younger) and all will teach English as part of their curriculum. Some kindergarten in the big cities will employ native English teachers but of course these are very informal classes and you should have a Chinese classroom assistant to help you. Don’t expect a Chinese assistant in schools for older students. Some schools are privately owned and some are state run. My school was previously state run but is now privately owned.
Whatever school you teach at in China, you’re not going to make a lot of money. However, you can have a comfortable life here because generally the cost of living is much lower. In the bigger cities, someone with a degree and perhaps a background in teaching can earn around 12,000 rmb a month which currently is about £1,200. However other teaching jobs in the big cities start at around 8000 rmb. If you go to one of the smaller cities you can expect to earn a lot less but it depends on what type of school you teach at. At a private English language school which teaches mainly at weekends and evenings, you will earn more than at middle or junior school. So many students take extra classes at the weekend or in the evening and their parents have to pay extra for this. At a large and successful privately owned English school in Zunyi, the teachers get around 8000 rmb which is a very good salary here. In contrast, at a state owned middle school, the teachers there earn a mere 2500 but there is a good reason for this difference. The two teachers who work there gained their qualification in Beijing through i to i, prior to coming to this city. The school will be paying a lot more for their services because they will also be paying the TEFL organisation and agents. So as you can see, salaries can vary greatly.
Many schools will offer accommodation as part of the package and of course accommodation will vary greatly. I am very fortunate, I have a lovely apartment with two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, shower room with western loo, TV DVD and computer, and the rent/electricity is paid for by my school. However the teachers I referred to earlier have a single room in an office building within the school complex, and the shower room with squatting toilet they have to share with other members of staff. What makes their accommodation even worse is that the school imposed an eleven o’clock curfew for them to be in during the week and the school bell was outside the door and even at weekends they had no rest from it. Do try and find out what sort of accommodation you will get in advance of coming. Having said that, if you come with an agency it’s going to pretty difficult to find out any concrete information in advance. Bear in mind that some schools will not pay for your accommodation and you will have to find it yourself and of course you will need help with this. Last year (2009), I made enquiries through an agent to get a teaching job in Shenzhen. The salary I was offered was 8000 rmb which is nearly twice as much as much as I get now. The agent also offered me a small room in a shared apartment with three other people (teahers) and the price for this one room was 1700 rmb. So with higher costs of food and travel, I would have been no better off and my living accommodation would have been much worse – I declined the offer.
Like any country, the cost of living varies greatly between city and provincial areas. Salaries are higher but so too are living costs in a big city. I can’t give you prices of things in other cities but I can give you some relative examples from the city I live in. A simple meal based around rice or noodles will cost 5 rmb (50p) whereas a decent meal for four people at a simple restaurant will cost 60 – 100 and at an expensive restaurant, 200 – 300. Taxi fares start at 5 rmb for quite a long distance and all bus fares in the city are 1 rmb. So although my salary is low, I can live very cheaply indeed. In fact because I spend so little and don’t use a credit card or have a loan to pay, this is the first time in my life that I could actually save money on a regular basis. It is wonderful to have no debt and no worries about money.
The Chinese government strictly controls what people can view on the Internet, especially adult sites. At the time of writing you can’t use Facebook and YouTube, and much to my annoyance even BlogSpot is blocked. I created a lovely blog about Chinese tea and now I can’t use it. If you can’t live without Facebook or YouTube then don’t come to China.
In the bigger cities, you can dine on a wide variety of western foods but expect to pay much more for this. If you are a western fast food fan, you’ll find more outlets than you can shake a stick at in the bigger cities but in the smaller cities you won’t find many. In my city there are three KFCs and that’s all. Large cities will have supermarkets like Walmart and Carrefour and even in Zunyi there are two Walmarts, which sell a small selection of western foods.
In the big cities you will find all the entertainment you could hope for and of course western bars selling western beers and spirits but expect to pay high prices for these. In smaller cities like Zunyi, you’ll be lucky to find any.
Don’t expect everyone in Beijing or Shanghai to speak English because although every student in China will learn some English, most will not use it and forget it. Today English is the second language taught at schools but forty years ago it was Russian. Also most of the signs will generally only be in Chinese. This can be especially difficult if you want to catch a local bus. If you want to be independent, and you may well have to be, you will have to try and learn some Chinese. However, every city and region has its own dialect. The national language is mandarin and is taught in all schools but different dialects are spoken in every city. Don’t expect to learn mandarin and then understand a conversation in Shanghai because there they speak Shanhaiese.
Cultural differences: Cultural differences: See my article Culture Shock – A westerner living in China.
If you want to come and live and work in China, my advice is put aside your thoughts of home and accept life as it is here. Don’t compare life at home with life in China; if you do you’ll only get deeply frustrated and want to go home. Life in China can drive you up the wall at times but there are many wonderful aspects about living here also which may not at first be apparent. You need to take your time in settling in and it may take you a long time to begin to feel comfortable here. Once you get to know the people you will find them warm and generous and their culture has so much to offer. Who knows, you might even want to settle in China!
There are so many things to consider before you accept a job as an English teacher in China, too much to write about here – read my other articles in my blog for more information about life in China.