Want to teach in China? I know, I know, it’s hard to choose when every corner of the internet seems to be able to offer you a job. So how do you know which school or city is right for you? What should you look out for? After working as a teacher in China, I felt it was time to give you my two mao on some steps to prepare you for your new adventure. (Article is mainly for my own experience. For official advise and procedures, you should consult your prospective employer and your country’s Chinese Embassy).
So like many born in the post tech-revolution era, you might be getting pretty tired of seeing other fresh-faced young people cruising around the world having the time of their lives. While some are the 1% who find seemingly intangible Instagram fame and receive bouquet-adorned freebies to jet off across the world, the majority of us are doing something much more practical – teaching.
Since the millennium bore witness to China’s rapid ascent through the international markets, the country has fast become a popular destination for those seeking some classroom-based adventure. In 2011 The Economist reported that there are over 300 million people studying English in China, following a post-socialist decline in demand for languages such as Russian. It therefore comes as no surprise that the search for English teachers is at an all-time high.
However, China is still on the road to achieving a nationwide standard for English teaching, and while the new market of English training schools are in fierce competition for academic excellence, the urban horror stories of unqualified teachers drunkenly stumbling into classrooms unprepared before summarily vomiting into a waste paper basket still linger on teaching forums.
China is however taking steps to prevent the employment of unruly teachers. Towards the end of last year, new visa categories were introduced to classify workers coming to China, and some metropolitan cities now require a far more stringent application process. With all this in mind, it could be daunting for prospective teachers to know where they’re at – how do you know which school is right for you? How can you take steps to ensure you’re working for a reputable company?
1. Choose the position that suits your experience.
Training schools are different to public schools, and operate on the basis of providing extra-curricular English classes to students during evenings and weekends. They are probably the most cushy route for beginners entering the teaching world, and are usually reliable with providing visas, accommodation and lesson plans. There’s a multitude of huge organisations that advertise through TEFL training sites, and as long as you are capable you are often guaranteed a job, especially in smaller cities outside Beijing and Shanghai. The downsides are that the word ‘school’ is often interchangeable with the word ‘business’ and you will encounter targets, meetings and bonuses. Some also dislike waving goodbye to their weekends, however others enjoy the opportunity to relax during the week when there are less crowds.
Public school positions can be a little harder to find, but they are still regularly advertised on websites such as Dave’s ESL Cafe (the website isn’t the flashiest but it is possibly the biggest treasure trove for finding a good teaching position). In a public school you will adhere to the normal work week, but bear in mind that classrooms will be a little more on the traditional side (I’m talking more students and less room for activities), which will encourage you to be a little more creative with your lesson plans. These positions suit the more experienced and independent teacher who is willing to find their own accommodation and plan lessons in their spare time. Perhaps even on paper. By hand.
Finally, universities also have positions for foreign teachers, but in my experience this is when you have your difficulty setting set to ‘high’. Often, I’ve heard about university jobs by word of mouth, or through personal contacts. It therefore isn’t always seen as a ‘first-route’ into ESL. Employment opportunities are more likely to be found in smaller cities as local universities start to expand their international reach. Pay tends to be lower, and bear in mind you will be required to provide good-quality lessons to high-ability learners. However, you’ll have more flexibility with your class content, so it can be a great offer for teachers who have a real passion for ESL. Teaching hours can be low in quantity, but arguably leave considerable room for further teaching opportunities.
2. Avoid working for free
In the past I’ve seen teaching positions advertised as internships or graduate schemes under the bright lights of illustrious organisations. The positions often pay poorly for long work hours under the guise of rewarding you with a sought-after place on a teaching trip to China.
If that sounds like your bag, by all means, go for it. However, bear in mind there are plenty of teaching jobs that will pay you, provide you with housing, and don’t involve a ten-month long quagmire of interviews, nail-biting X-Factoresque elimination rounds and paying from your own pocket.
In the end, you’ll have the same experience, and even better, it’s real-life full-time work experience.
3. Have your degree and TEFL at the ready.
The majority, and I mean almost all, ESL opportunities in China require you to have a Bachelor’s degree. Yes yes yes, there are always whispers of exceptions, but it tends to be a hard and fast rule. The need for a TEFL certificate is a little less binding, with some companies assuring applicants they can just train for the qualification once they arrive. Despite this, there are tons of online TEFL courses that cost very little of both your time and money, and it does actually help to get a grasp of English grammar terms before you start dedicating your professional life to it. My best advice, get qualified with an 120-hour TEFL. In-class experience is a bonus. I completed a course from tefl.org.uk which has served me well (link unsponsored).
4. Check the provisions.
Each ESL school in China seems to offer a different package, but there are some essential key words you might want to look for.
- Accommodation – Does the school provide you with it? If not, do they assist you in finding some? Do you flat-share with colleagues? How close is the accommodation to the school? If you can, ask for pictures of the rooms including bathroom and kitchen.
- Foreign Expert Certificate – This can be confusing. I think of it like a license-to-teach in China. The school should apply for this prior to your visa application and the process takes a couple of weeks. It is issued by the local government and cancelled at the end of your contract. If you change jobs, a new one tends to be issued.
- Working Z visa – It is illegal to teach in China on anything but a Z visa. You need one. There, I said it. Not a student visa, not a business visa, a full Z visa. It is strongly advised by employment law experts to work on the correct visa. If you are caught teaching without one, you can be deported, no matter how much someone tells you “Nobody cares.” Somebody will care. And they won’t be happy. Some companies will offer alternatives, but it is always wise to stipulate that you will only accept an offer of employment with a Z in your pocket. For more information on visas, I advise checking out the China Visa subreddit for up-to-date information.
- Residence permit – This allows you to live in China and as a bonus it means you can travel in and out of the country as often as you like. Your employer should take your passport and apply for this after your arrival. It takes around two weeks and is affixed to your passport. It lasts a year and should leave you 30 days at the end of your contract to make alternative arrangements.
- Working hours – Is there a minimum requirement? Is there room to increase your teaching hours if you want to earn extra? What is a typical working day? Are there office hours (this is basically time spent ‘lesson planning’ in the office but can result in being office-bound with little to do. It is however useful for new teachers to get to grips with planning classroom activities).
- The end of the contract – Check what your employers will give you after your finish the contract. Ideally, if you want to continue working in China without going home, you want a release letter (most important), reference letter and a proof of Foreign Expert cancellation – and they won’t hold up without an official red stamp. This should be transferred (ideally) to you or (second-ideally) to your new employer. Ask for this to be put into your contract so that employers can’t withhold them if they feel a little cross when you decide to move on after the year is up.
5. Do your research.
Once you find a school you’re interested in, brew a tea, sit yourself down and have a little trawl through some online forums to check reviews from former employees. Keep a notepad and record repeat complaints or hopefully, repeat compliments. Obviously, be mindful that ruffled employees exist everywhere, and one bad review does not tarnish a whole school.
On a more positive note, LinkedIn and blogs can be a great way to find current employees of a school to ask about their experiences. Some schools are also eager to provide the email addresses of their teachers for you to direct your questions at. A-ha, you might think, seems a little suspect, right? Actually, not really. In my experience your prospective colleagues will be open about both the plus-points and shortcomings of the workplace. It’s up to you to evaluate the responses and see what you think.
6. Get up to scratch with the new visa rules.
In December 2016, new rules were introduced to add extra requirements to the visa application process.
When I first taught in China, I only needed to scan my passport, photo, TEFL and Bachelor’s certificate and fill in a small form. However, some cities now require an original police certificate as well as documents stamped by a solicitor and the Chinese embassy.
I am still learning about these new rules and will post an update accordingly, but so far I know that in the UK, ACRO police certificates can be applied for online at the cost of £45. Furthermore, in order for the Chinese embassy to legalise your documents (such as the police certificate), you will need to first send it by post to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for legalisation at the cost of £25. Only then can it be taken with a short application form to the Chinese Embassy or Consulate for legalisation for a further payment of £15-30.
With that in mind, it’s wise to have some savings and time set aside before you begin the application process. Check what the requirements are with your prospective employer (smaller cities may not operate under these stringent rules yet).
Hopefully the rules will be clarified and simplified in the near future, as this information comes from personal experience. At the moment, there tends to be confusion over the term ‘notarisation’, which is cheaper in the US and astronomically expensive in the UK. The US definition of the process seems similar to ‘certification’ in the UK, but it is not yet clear. Double check what is needed from your employer and what your local solicitors can provide (eg: solicitor signature, stamp, address, proof that it is an original or a copy of an original). Try not to cry.
7. Get excited.
The above process is a little gloomy so to end on a finer note – get excited! Once you have found the right school and the right job, set about following social media accounts in the city and get acquainted with the local scene. Download the WeChat messaging service as it will be the key to making friends in your new home. Even a quick browse on GoogleMaps and Tripadvisor can help you get a feel of what there is to see and do.
For an extra side of cheese, I’ll say that teaching in China changed my life. I love working there and knowing that I have lifelong friends on the other side of the world. Travel is cheap. Food is cheap. The experiences are priceless.
Do you agree with my tips? Do you have any other advice? Simply can’t hold yourself back from telling me how wrong I am? Whatever your opinion or question, don’t hesitate to contact me in the comments below or on my social media. Good luck!