Teaching English in China : A Definitive Guide
Sound exciting? We think so!
Teaching English in China can be a little challenging, especially for first-timers. We’ve gathered all the questions you might have and answered them in one blog post.
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Get The Lowdown on Teaching English in China
Have you dreamed of making a difference while immersing yourself in a completely unique culture? Like the idea of becoming fluent in Chinese and seeing a brand new corner of the globe while you’re at it? How about a competitive monthly salary with accommodations, health insurance, and flights home thrown in?
As Movinhand continues to grow, we’re helping place more and more people in teaching jobs across the globe. Whether you’re an experienced educational professional looking to change career paths, or if you’re new to the idea of teaching and want to know how to go about securing a teaching job in China, read on — we’ve got it all covered here.
Why should I teach English in China?
Oh my — where do we even begin? Children in China are expected to learn English from an early age. It’s a major part of their education. Rather than have Chinese teachers as the primary English teachers, there’s a huge demand for native speakers. That’s good news. They want you, and many schools provide a competitive salary, housing, and other benefits.
The opportunity to live and work in China is quite literally the opportunity of a lifetime. For every challenge, there’s a priceless reward — from the solid friendships you will make with locals and colleagues to the rewarding relationships you will build with your students.
China contrasts like nowhere else: crumbling temples and neon, superfast subways; ancient traditions and cutting-edge technology. You can experience the modern and the mystical wonders of China — all in a heartbeat.
Chinese New Year is a cultural wonder, and the food — well, it’s an education all of its own.
Travel and transport are cheap and plentiful here, (both trains and planes) so you can spend your free time exploring this fascinating country — gaining new experiences by the day and coming home all the wiser — deeply enriched and enlightened — by your time here.
The Chinese value and respect teachers and education, and teaching in China earns you an honored place within a Chinese community.
Here’s what one ESL teacher has to say about his time teaching English in China:
“My students and colleagues were some of the most likable people I’ve ever met.
Bright, hardworking, confident, and good-humoured, they did everything they could to make me feel at home. They offered to teach me Chinese, bought me gifts, and made me part of their intramural teams.
Europeans are treated exceptionally well — something of celebrities actually, as I was constantly being stopped for group photographs.
Looking back on my time in China brings me immense satisfaction. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Ok, I’m interested. Can I teach English in China without a degree?
China is proud of its global reputation for outstanding education, so sadly the answer to this question is a resounding ‘it depends.’ In order to work in China, you must obtain a work visa, which you can’t get your hands on unless you have a bachelor’s degree.
This is China’s way of ensuring a ‘gold-standard’ of overseas employees, and there’s not a lot of negotiating that can be done on this front. There can be some exceptions, though, especially for Native English Speakers (NES).
First-tier cities in China (like Beijing and Shanghai) tend to have stricter rules about their teachers’ credentials; however, it’s not necessarily all about the big cities — China’s medium-sized cities have truly authentic experiences to offer their visitors and often have less stringent rules regarding credentials.
Cities like Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xi’an, and Chengdu are great examples of immersive destinations where job competition might be a little easier, and you can find a community of English-speakers for support.
Wait - hold up a second. So what’s TEFL?
TEFL stands for ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’ and basically refers to the practice of teaching English to non-native speakers. Other acronyms you will certainly come across in your journey of discovering are the following:
- ELT: English Language Teaching.
- ESL: English as a Second Language.
- TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Collectively, these fields are some of the fast growing educational areas in the world. For you, this means there are lots of opportunities to teach English as a foreign language, either at home or abroad, and these opportunities are growing fast.
So, ‘TEFL’ refers to the training and certification process that ESL teachers undergo. You’ll find plenty of TEFL certification providers — both online and in the classroom — and all courses will be similar. Here’s what they expect you to complete:
- 100 hours of coursework.
- 6-20 hours of observed ESL teaching in a real classroom environment.
- Teaching under a qualified TEFL instructor.
You can browse TEFL courses here.
But can I teach in China without a TEFL certificate?
Maybe — it all depends on the employer. If you’re looking for English teaching jobs in second-tier cities (the capital cities of the provinces, for example) you may find more lenient educational providers willing to employ an ESL teacher based on other relevant work experience.
Some employers will pay for your TEFL course. But, you will command a better salary if you arrive in China with your TEFL certificate already completed.
Here's the big money question: can I survive on a teacher’s salary in China?
Without a doubt! Earning an average 1600 GBP per month might be tricky in London, but in China, your money goes far — especially if your employer provides or subsidizes your accommodations as many will do. What you do with your earnings each month after you’ve bought food and paid your bills is entirely up to you.
Many ESL teachers will save for traveling, while others are building a nest-egg to take home in a year’s time. Either way, your salary will leave you with plenty of cash to enjoy the night-life, do some sight-seeing, enjoy frequent dinners with friends — and all the dumplings you could ever wish for.
Hmmm… what if I don’t speak Chinese?
You’ll pick it up — or you could always start learning the language before you get there. You can certainly survive your first month in China without speaking the lingo, but make sure you have lessons lined up for your arrival so you can start learning quickly.
In the meantime, here are some tips for getting by:
- Carry a card with your address written in Chinese, and have this backed up on your phone. (for taxis, getting lost, and for help with public transport)
- Order food from picture menus.
- Make yourself aware of Chinese hand signals which don’t match Western ones. (such as the signs for numbers)
- Smile, use your intuition, and try to read people’s expressions as much as you can. Some things are universal, after all.
- Download a translation app like Pleco.
- Order a Mandarin Chinese phrasebook - Take advantage of all opportunities to listen to the language and practice it.
Best of all: As your students learn English from you, you will be surprised how much you learn from them.
What sort of schools can I teach English in?
Depending on your experience, you could land a job teaching in a dedicated ESL academy, an ESL school, a public school, or even a Chinese university.
Working in an academy you might find yourself teaching lots of classes to small groups of learners, working occasionally on weekends but benefiting from flexible days where lessons often start after lunchtime.
ESL schools tend to pay better than public schools, and offer education to all ages — so you might find yourself teaching kindergarten classes or leading business English classes for adult professionals.
Within a public school, your classes will be large, (around 40 students) and your timetable will look a bit like a European teacher’s timetable — delivering something like 25 lessons a week between the hours of eight and four.
If you have a degree in education or another field, you might be qualified to teach English to undergraduate and graduate students at a university — or at a private school where class sizes are smaller, facilities better, and salaries higher.
Bear in mind you could always supplement your income by offering private tutoring in your spare time. This is very popular with Chinese parents.
Informal ‘language swap’ sessions are a popular option for new ESL teachers in China — you learn from each other and neither party pays for the sessions.
Where might I end up teaching English in China?
Just about anywhere. China. Is. HUGE.
Even the third-tier cities have populations of millions. And they all need English teachers! Beijing and Shanghai tend to offer the highest salaries and have the stiffest job competition.
But, as we’ve already mentioned, it’s not all about the big metropolises if you’re looking for a deep cultural encounter during your time in China. One experienced EFL teacher explains the difference between living and teaching in a major city to setting up somewhere lesser-known:
“The people in China are incredibly friendly and they will always treat you like an honored guest in their country. If you live in a touristy city like Shanghai or Beijing, you may not receive as warm a welcome, but almost everywhere else in the country you will be treated like a star.”
So what about teaching English in China without a work visa? Is that allowed?
Unfortunately, this is a no. Working in China on a tourist visa — or without any kind of visa or permit — is illegal. To work legally in China you need a work visa or a residence permit. A work visa is called a Z Visa in China, and this is how it works:
- Z visa is only granted if your employer is accredited to employ foreigners.
- You must be certified as a ‘foreign expert’ and your employer is responsible for obtaining this certification – not you.
- Teaching English is the most common reason for obtaining Chinese work visas. The requirements? English must be your first language, and you typically need a bachelor’s degree and two years of teaching experience.
- Male applicants must be aged 18-66, and women 18-55. (though there is some leeway here)
- Your Z visa is only valid for 30 days from your arrival in China, and your employer must arrange your Temporary Residence Permit for the rest of your time in China.
Once your school has applied for your Z visa, you can collect the papers at your local Chinese embassy. Before you are issued your visa, you’ll be asked for proof of a university degree, your passport from an English-speaking country, and your TEFL or TESOL certificate.
What should I pack when I fly to China?
Some things are harder or more expensive to get hold of in China, so do pack the following:
Index cards, pencils, post-it-notes — any little items you might use. Don’t forget an English to Chinese dictionary. Depending on your teaching assignment, you may want to bring some teaching materials, resources, and even educational decorations.
The temperature in China can change drastically. Make sure to bring a coat and warm clothes. If you know the dress code for the position you’re taking, that will help with packing.
Bring a good supply of your prescription drugs, vitamins, and any over-the-counter medications you might need. Most toiletries are available, but specific items you are used to may be hard to find — hair supplies, makeup, feminine products, sunscreen, deodorant etc. Don’t forget a first aid kit.
Bring a cell phone and chargers. Voltage converters, plug adapters, and a USB cord are a must.
Bring a few passport photos with you. Make copies of important papers. And, don’t forget to bring photos of family and friends.
How is teaching English in China different to teaching back home?
You may find the classroom environment in China to be a lot different from your prior experience in the classroom. Lessons in China tend to be more lecture-based, with fewer group-based discussions so popular in Western education today. This is due to Chinese societal structures where respect is shown to elders and teachers.
In fact, this is one of the aspects many teachers love about teaching English in China. You can expect to be addressed quite formally and shown a greater degree of respect than you might have received as a teacher back home. This is all deeply cultural, and while some might find this level of worship uncomfortable, try to embrace it as part of the rich experience of living and working in China.
Your boss and colleagues are more likely to invite you into their homes or treat you to little gifts than colleagues might do back home. This is based on the cultural concept of guanxi, a belief that strong professional relationships are built on trust and understanding that reach beyond casual workplace conversation. Think of this as authentic team-building without the cringe factor.
We’ll let another ESL teacher sum up for us:
“I love living in China. I love how different it is and yet, how comfortable I can be living here. I love learning new things every day and hearing Chinese people laugh when I try to speak mandarin (it’s extremely difficult). I love the food and the friends, the foreigners and the locals, the parties and the festivals. There is a lot to love about China and teaching English in China was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
So there you have it: all the ins and outs of the wonderful experience that is teaching English in China.
Tempted? Let’s talk.