Before you teach in China, research!


Before you start looking for a teaching job in China, it’s important to be aware of the different types of employment available to you. Where you teach, and the style of place you’re working for can have a very big impact on your overall experience. While there are many people who head to China looking for a career style teaching position (ie: armed with a proper teaching qualification – looking for a proper income earning job), most English teachers will be going more for the chance to live in another country and experience a different culture – kind of like a working holiday. The below information is geared towards these types of people.

First and foremost, you need to determine where you wish to teach. While I will write about this separately in another post (as there’s simply too many factors to consider), it is important to decide whether you wish to work in a city style environment, or something smaller, possibly even rural.

You then need to consider what kind of teaching style or environment you would feel most comfortable in.

  1. Private language schools: You will find these absolutely everywhere, offering students anything from small classes to one on one tutoring. You’ll likely be working with a number of other foreign teachers (which can be a huge benefit in China) and the small class sizes will also be appealing. Many of these are in great locations so might suit someone looking for a job in one of the big cities. It is important to remember that these places are in fact businesses, and some schools unfortunately are more interested in making money than providing quality education. There have been numerous complaints from teachers who have had issues with being paid on time, or employers not sticking to pre-agreed contracts arrangements. Of course on the flip side, there are many people who have nothing but good things to say about these places. The key thing is, if you’re going for a private language school, research it in advance.
  2. Kindergartens: These are another large employer of foreign teachers. The Chinese like to have their children studying English from as early an age as possible to give them an advantage later in life, and the kindergartens/pre-schools are the best place for this to start. You will be dealing with young children (obviously), and possibly large class sizes. This is more suited to someone who enjoys working with children, but can be an incredibly rewarding experience, as Chinese kiddies are crazy cute!
  3. Middle Schools:  The Chinese equivalent of a western high school and where I spent my year. The biggest benefit is that you will be working for a government run, legitimate education provider. Classes can be anything up to 55 students in size, teaching anything from 11 to 18 year olds. While the class sizes might scare some people off, you have to remember that in China, teachers are treated with absolute respect, which can lead to an incredibly rewarding experience. I still enjoy corresponding with my students, some two years later. The downside is you’ll likely live on campus, which can mean impromptu requests from the school (hello English Corner on a Saturday evening!)

Regardless of where you end up, it is important that you research it as much as possible in advance. The absolute best way to do this other than trawling through forums such as at Dave’s ESL café, is actually asking the place for the contact information of a former or current foreign teacher.

Other things to consider:

  • Salary – For around 15-17 hours teaching per week I was making 5000rmb. In Australian dollars, this only equated to a very poor monthly wage (around $850ish), though considering everything in China is very cheap, it was enough to comfortably get by. The more the merrier of course, but you have to have realistic expectations. Your employer will potentially provide you with fully furnished, rent-free accommodation too, so your salary is largely food and play money.
  • Teaching hours – Very important! Clarify exactly how many hours you will be teaching, and whether there are any non-contact hours. They may want you to teach for 15 hours per week, but also want you in the teaching office for a further 20 hours – you do NOT want this if possible. We were contracted to teach for approximately 17 hours (in reality it was around 15), and we were free to leave the school grounds when not teaching. Chinese teachers will often start around 7am, and stay in the office until 9pm. While much of their day involves simply browsing the internet and chatting on QQ, you do NOT want to be bound to something like this. Clarify!
  • Class sizes – Exactly how many different classes will you be teaching and how many students per class? What age group? Male and female or is it a single sex school? Find all of this out as it can help you plan classes in advance.
  • Class materials – Are they provided? Will you be working from a book or are you to come up with your own classes? What exactly will you be teaching? Find out if its just English conversation or whether you’ll be teaching reading/writing too. Will you be required to conduct exams? Regardless of what you are told, take some of your own materials – such as a book containing lesson plans, and things like photographs/magazines/newspapers from home – they can be invaluable if you’re pressed for ideas. Can also be a great idea to take some small gifts, like little teddy kangaroo’s or something reflecting your home country – the students will LOVE this, and it can be an awesome incentive to get them to work!
  • Accommodation – Is it provided? Rent free? Does it include free internet access? Will you be required to pay any money towards utilities such as power/water etc. Do you have your own apartment, own bathroom etc? Ensure it has proper heating/cooling installed as depending on where you live in the country, you’ll likely need both in a big way. We had to pay several hundred yuan per month for utilities, with the School agreeing to pay half.
  • Perks – What else do you get as part of this whole arrangement? Will they be reimbursing your airfares at the completion of the contract? If so ensure you find out exactly how much as it will likely be a set dollar amount and not actually what you paid. Do you get any free meals such as lunches? Does your accommodation come with free internet access? Will they provide free Chinese lessons? There are many things that will come as part of the deal, make sure you check out everything and get it in writing in case they decide you don’t actually get them once you arrive!

While the above all sounds complicated, in reality, it’s not that bad. The key thing to take away from  reading this is before you head to China, research!  If you have any specific questions or wish to add to the above, feel welcome to leave a comment.

Tian Yi Middle School, Wuxi


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7 Responses to “Before you teach in China, research!”

  1. Yvonne Says:

    Hey, that’s a great post 🙂
    Although, I’m not planning on teaching in China I was wondering if it’s true that Chinese teachers salary depends on how good the grades of their students are? Or do they get a bonus if they’re class is the best? I’ve been in China for a year as an exchange student and heard this rumor but didn’t really dare to ask.

  2. Marcus Says:


    I have no idea actually. There were a lot of goings on at the school that we were completely oblivious to because of the language barrier. The teachers were too shy to approach us on many occasions (or possibly told not to if what Peter in the book River Town discusses), and many had little to no English. I thought with an English department of 30+ teachers it would be easy to make friends with the other teachers….nope!

    The guy who looked after us, who was super awesome, even after that year we still werent completely sure what his actual role was. It’s one of the things about teaching in China, you adapt to having no idea what’s going on most of the time!

  3. Austin Guidry Says:

    I just went over this post again, thanks for putting it up, man! I am currently negotiating with a couple of private elementary/middle schools at the moment to go and teach, and I was looking for a little guidance.

    Based on what you’ve written, it seems like I’ve done about all I can as far as asking about perks/class sizes/etc., but I’m still a little nervous. Luckily enough, these schools have websites and pictures, and the people I have been contacting have been nice, so I think I may get lucky.

    I put up a post about it in my blog – you are one of the people whose advice I’d really like to get.

  4. Marcus Says:

    You’re welcome Austin I’m glad it helped. If you want me to look over your most prominent offer feel free to send it through.

    Which city? Just make sure you clarify the working hours, particularly whether you have freedom to leave the school when you’re not teaching. Also even if they say you’ll work from books take a supply of your own material to create classes from!

    Sent from my iSamophlange

  5. Marcus Says:

    Hey again Austin – for some reason I can never actually comment on your own blog posts, i just get into this random loop which has me giving up. I blame bloody blogspot! Anyway I wrote this (Last time i commented i’d written something lengthy out and deleted it in disgust when i couldnt post the damned thing!)

    Hey Austin,

    You can totally do it. You have to remember that your teaching skills are not actually all that important, it’s more your ability to engage the class, to keep them interested (particularly with kids) and to encourage them to speak in English. As a spoken english teacher, the most important thing is that you have a native english accent – ie you’re not a Chinese teacher who is speaking in heavily accented Chinese. Kids would be fun and pretty easy to look after, but being kids, they might be hard work – but nothing you couldnt handle I don’t think. The youngest I taught were around the 11 or 12 mark, and they could be really naughty, but super cute and fun too.

    The other thing you should look at is not just jumping into bed with the first offer that comes your way. EVERY recruiter or language school will be in ‘desperate need’ of new English teachers – dont just take the first offer that comes along. One of the benefits of doing this is that you can literally pick and choose where you want to go, or how you want to teach.

    It’s totally up to you as to where you teach of course, but if it was me personally going back, i’d be aiming for one of the larger cities. Something like Beijing or Shanghai (both of which i loved), or any of the plethora of smaller but still huge places. I taught in Wuxi – and i would definitely go back there, but there’s also places like Nanjing, Qingdao, Hangzhou, Suzhou etc etc.

    Also think about the no other foreigners thing. IF i was going back again solo, I’d definitely want a school that already had some foreign teachers, and i’d possibly want to chat to them in advance to see what they think of the school/area etc – make sure the pay is legit, you get paid on time, etc. No issues along those lines basically.

    Living at our school (myself and my partner at the time), the Chinese basically ignored us. Not completely ignored, but they definitely made no effort to get to know us beyond a handful of them. I thought going to a school with 40ish Chinese English teachers we would have friends hanging from the ceiling…wrong. Whether they were told not to interact with us (as I have read in various books based on peoples experience in CHina) or they were just shy, i don’t know, but it was shy to the point of rude where we constantly felt like we were alone amongst the masses. We could never really take any relationships with students to the friendship level either as they were in class for so bloody long each day.

    This also might be because we were a couple and to be honest we could have made more of an effort to get to know them too. I think as a solo flyer you might find yourself making much more of an effort in this regard so much of the above might not be as applicable. I actually think that if i did the experience solo it would be very different again.

    Then again, having other foreigners there, even just 1-2, really helps you settle in. In a place that can be really difficult to learn the lay of the land – ie where’s the local food sources, where’s the local banks, how do you purchase train tickets, etc etc – much of which you’re already likely familiar, it can be invaluable having some local foreign assistance. Also rocks when you get those days (which are quite frequent unfortunately) when you just crave anything that is NOT Chinese – where their quirky random ways have driven you to madness and you want to just bitch to someone and eat McDonalds 🙂

    Anyway most important thing to come out of the above ramble is do NOT take the first offer. Shop around, be choosey – and most importantly pick a location that is going to work for you. Dont listen to them talk up their school in sh1tsville woopwoop – actually find somewhere you think would be decent. Remember the smaller more far out the place the less access you’ll have to foreign comforts, which while not completely neccessary, in a place like CHina, finding stuff like deoderant, shampoo, shaving cream, BREAKFAST CEREAL, can be a challenge – unless of course you’re looking to give that all up!

  6. Austin Guidry Says:

    What a great reply, Marcus!

    Yes, I have tried to fairly picky about which schools I have replied to. I’ve talked to 5 or 6 different schools (not including universities – 4 or 5 of which, out of the many, have just flat-out ignored me because I lack a TESOL, which I’m in the process of acquiring now) and the one I am seriously considering seems to be the most honest and transparent of the lot, and I have done what research I can.

    I have gone on their website, looked at what was on there (of course, a website can tweak ANY place to make it look good), and have talked at length with three private language schools that I liked the most. I have it down to two now, but am leaning towards one.

    They have been open enough to let me speak with one of the three foreign teachers there, and I’m going to be asking him to put me in contact with the others. The other schools I’ve talked to have been “strangely” silent about letting me talk to their foreign teachers, which is a big red flag.

    He said that it was a nice little school and that the Chinese staff and foreign staff all get along and actually hang out after-hours every so often. They seem to encourage interaction between all teachers. The school provides their own books/curriculum, so that takes a load off my mind haha. We’ve only had one email exchange, but believe me, I’m going to extract every last piece of information about the school out of him! haha

    The benefits of the school seem good enough – free housing/internet, 3500-5000 RMB a month, 10,000RMB bonus upon completion of one year, and travel allowance and flight allowance. If I take it, I’ll be teaching 20-25 hours per week. I’ve sent an email already about the concern of “office/availability hours” you mentioned. If all of these are benefits are true and held to (another question I will ask the foreign teacher, who’s been there for 2+ years), then that’s competing with some of the universities I’ve been speaking to.

    The city I’m thinking about going to is called Zibo, in Shandong Province, close to Jinan. It’s about 5 million people, so it’s big enough for me and from the pictures I’ve been able to find, it’s just as modern as any of the cities I’ve seen in China.

    There is a small expat community in the city, and from what the foreign teacher has told me, most are actually friends with each other and meet up every now and then. Having local assistance would definitely be cool. My Chinese is good enough that I can buy train tickets and go to the bank and get food without a problem, but it’ll be nice to have someone there to introduce me to the area.

    I actually didn’t have access to many, if any Western food/products for the six months I was in Lanzhou, and I didn’t miss them at all. It was only after my missed flight disaster and was stuck in Beijing for 2 1/2 weeks that I actually was around that stuff and had the chance to think about and miss them. Being away from Western stuff isn’t a big deal for me. I stayed away from the Western stuff because I knew that as soon as I got back into the habit of having them, I’d miss home. I am just fine with giving that up! haha

    I don’t want to live in Beijing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Shanghai, or any of those other really huge cities, because I’ve been to Beijing twice and Guangzhou once, and I got tired of them fairly quickly. I got the “wow, this is a really modern and great place” excitement that comes with a new city you’re visiting, but after a couple of days, it wore off for me, and I was ready to get back to the “small city” of Lanzhou. I don’t think the huge cities are terribly different from any other huge city in the world, at least not from what I saw in the week I spent in Guangzhou or the 3 weeks I spent in Beijing. I just didn’t see the appeal besides the historic sight-seeing. As someone with a degree in History and International Studies, they were fascinating places as far as their histories went, but as experiences in and of themselves….meh.

    The smaller cities I visited were where the real community was, where the more traditional and “real” China (whatever that means) dwelled, and I couldn’t get enough of that. Why bother going to a foreign country when you’re going to be living in an area that’s got McDonald’s, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, tons of English speakers and tourists, and just as much shallow materialism as any city in America, you know?

    This place that I’m looking at (I don’t really want to give the name of it because I’ve already stated their pay, benefits, etc., and I don’t want to break any kind of confidentiality agreement and that kind of thing) seems like it would be a great place to be, and the people I’ve talked with via email and Skype seem to be good people, but after hearing so many different stories about people being cheated in China, I’m still a little nervous about the commitment. I get so paranoid about it sometimes, but I know all of China’s private language schools aren’t out to get me. I’m trying to be careful without being paranoid and very inquisitive without email bombing everyone in sight.

    I really appreciate your advice and your willingness to be open about it with me. I’ve read and re-read and re-read your reply, and no doubt will remember your advice. My dad has also been very supportive and inquisitive about all of this as well, and has said a lot of what you said. Between the two of you and a couple of other people I know, I think you guys can keep me from over-imagining the possibilities, getting too emotionally attached to a place, etc.

    Oh, and by the way, that’s weird about you not being able to comment on my blog….I don’t know why that would be…..well, I suppose you could always comment on my Twitter – no endless loops on that! hahaha it’s @LetChinaSleep if you have some kind of urgent need to comment haha

  7. Marcus Says:

    All sounds good – sounds like you know what you’re in for. I completely agree with what you said about the cities. We lived in Wuxi, but in a very local district where we were the only foreigners. Having no-one else around but Chinese really made the experience (also made it difficult), but i wouldnt change that for the world.

    That sounds good that you’ve been in contact with a place that already has foreigners, that’s a good sign if you can actually talk to them. If you’re offered 3500-5000 – really push for 5000 – you dont want any less than that – even higher would be nice. We made 5000 and we only taught for around 15 hours per week, our agreement was up to 17 hours – so maybe keep that in mind when negotiating. Also find out how many students per class, that can directly impact how difficult it will be – though we did fine with no teaching experience and classes of 55! I have read people having classes of over 70 🙂

    Good luck with whatever you go with – i am most definitely envious of you, I would love to do it again. My wife unfortunately didnt like teaching, i loved it though. I found lesson planning difficult, but i really loved the bonds i formed with my students.

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