Travel, Teach, Live in China
The following is a long detailed list of practical tips and advice about finding a job teaching English as a second language (esl) in China. I'm currently working as an English teacher in China and have been for 1 year. The following list is comprised of things I learned from my personal experience and from talking to other teachers. It's sure to be useful for anyone looking to start their adventure as a teacher.
I can't say from personal experience but I'm sure most of the items on this list would apply to finding esl teaching jobs in other countries as well.
If you have decided to teach then you're in for quite the experience. Hopefully this list will help make that experience a great one!
Keep in mind while reading this, that it may seem like a negative, difficult process full of trouble but that's only because this article is attempting to provide you with information helping you prevent any trouble you can possibly come across. Chances are, your experience will be a good one, where you work low hours with relatively high pay in an amazing culture rich country so don't let all these potential problems discourage you.
Before applying for jobs it's important to know what employees are looking for in ESL teachers, and to ensure you have all the necessary qualifications ready to get the type of position you want. Your qualifications will also often determine what kind of visa you will be able to get. There's really only 6 things employers look at when it comes to getting a teaching job, they are as follows.
Your native country - Most schools only hire from The USA, Canada, Australia, The UK, and New Zealand, although I have seen a couple teachers from the Philippines and Russia as well.
Your appearance - Although it's unfortunate, when it comes to getting an ESL job in China people are sometimes discriminated by their race and color. Even if you were born in Canada if you're from Asian decent it can be very difficult to get a job as they want teachers who 'look' like they are from foreign countries. It can also be harder for people of darker skin colors as a bit of racism is still prevalent in smaller towns in China but if you stick to the bigger cities with more modern mindsets you should have no trouble.
Your age - While I did have 2 older friends who were in their 50's and 60's that were teaching in my first location, they were were forced to work for a few thousand RMB less than younger teachers in the same area because most schools want their teachers from 20-30 years old.
Teaching Certificate - Most schools want to hire people with teaching certificates but if you have a 4 year degree you will still be able to get a job without one. Other teachers however will most likely have a preference over you. Most of the high paying jobs ask for both degrees and ESL certificates. I personally got a TESOL certificate before coming to China and it was a requirement for the job that I initially got. If you do decide to get a certificate I recommend taking the cheapest quickest course possible. From what I've heard people who have taken 20 hour TESOL courses get the exact same preference as those who have taken 120 hour course. I think the average price for a TESOL course is a little over $1000. The following certificates are all acronyms that are seen as basically the same from employers (TESOL, TEFL, ESL)
Degree - This is one thing I don't have, (I instead have a 2 year diploma in video game design), and it has made things very difficult for me here in China. The big attraction for coming to China was that you didn't need a degree to get a working visa, a TESOL certificate was more than enough. After arriving here however I was told there was a new policy and now 4 year degrees are required in most locations. If you have a 4 year degree then you don't need to worry, but if not make sure to read the section of Visas below for more info.
Experience - And lastly they look at your experience. Obviously the more the better. Don't be discouraged however if jobs boast they require >1 teaching experience... apply for them anyway, you'll often be considered despite not meeting the requirements.
If you have your heart set on English teaching and you don't fit into the ideal of the above categories than please don't let it discourage you. You should still try to get a teaching job, but ensure your employer knows about all your qualifications beforehand and I recommend you sign a contract and get a working visa before you leave your country, just in case.
Starting the job hunt
When looking for jobs if you don't have a direct connection to a school then your best resource is going to be the internet.
The absolute best website that I have found for looking for jobs, which helped me get the job I have now is echinacities.com. This website is far superior to any others I have found on the subject. Not only can you search through tons of new jobs, in the specific areas of china you want to work in, but you can also read tons of detailed information about the specific cities to get an idea of what it would be like to travel, or live there.
Other sites that come highly recommended are eslcafe.com and seriousteachers.com take a look at all 3 to improve your chances of finding a great position.
Where to teach?
China is absolutely massive, and your experience of the country may be quite different from one location to another so it's really important to research different cities before accepting a job to ensure it fits the kind of place you want to live in. Some cities are beautiful, some are ugly, some are really crowded, some are peaceful, some have great public transportation, and some don't.
Chinas climate varies a whole lot from the south to the north and a lot of the mid temperature regions of china don't have a lot of heating so keep that in mind for the winter months. Big cities compared to small ones will have a wide range of differences from everything to food choices to how foreigners are treated. You might also want a job in a location that makes it easy to travel to other popular destinations around the country during your off times.
After asking other foreigners my Chinese friends and doing a little reading about the different cities myself I found the following 4 areas seemed the nicest to find jobs in.
Foshan - Guangdong province
Kunming - Yunnan province
Chengdu - Sichuan province
Hangzhou - Zhejiang province
Here's a little list of other places that were recommended to me that you may want to check out. They didn't sound quite as nice to me when I read about them but you might have different personal preferences.
Dali, Chongqing, Xian, Nanjing, Sanya
You could always go to work in the giant cities like Beijing and Shanghai as well, but I wouldn't recommend them as much if you want to get the real Chinese experience that the smaller or middle sized cities provide.
My 2nd teaching job to me to Yangshuo which is like a subdivision of Guilin, it's an incredible beautiful place. It was a wonderful place to visit and a whole lot of fun but I literally couldn't save a single RMB here as the salaries are very low in this area, and the fact that it's quite touristy makes the prices a little high.
The truth is despite my suggestions each of these places are BIG and your experience is going to change depending on where you are in the city and what school you work for. Check the section entitled School for more tips on finding the right school and read the city guides, on eChinaCities to make your own opinions of what cities you find sound the most appealing.
So you have a general idea what kind of place you'd like to work, and maybe you've posted a resume online or replied to a job posting or two. Chances are shortly after you'll start getting emails from recruiters.
Teaching positions are in such demand in China that the schools will often look to professional recruiters to help fill the positions. These are almost always Chinese people who speak pretty good English and have connections to many schools across the country. Sometimes recruiters are part of a large organization that fill jobs for thousands of schools.
Some people warn to avoid recruiters as you make less money with them due to their commission fees, but in my experience they've been very helpful in helping me find a good school and I can say at my current position at least I am being paid the exact same as the people who didn't use a recruiter to find the job.
My recommendation is to talk to a recruiter that has to fill jobs for many schools but then lay out exactly what you want in terms of pay and hours and locations. Be very specific and ask for the best. They will most likely tell you it will be hard for them to find you a job, but when a good one does come up it will come to you first, and the less appealing jobs will go to those with more relaxed requirements.
It's also fine to skip recruiters all together and just talk directly to the school.
Your experience of China depends largely on what city you're in, but it also greatly depends on what school you work for. I've heard stories about schools that sound amazing, and terrible stories about schools that cheat foreigners out of their money.
Unfortunately it's a little difficult to see what a school is like before actually coming to the country. My number 1 tip when it comes to finding the right school to work in is to never go work at a school before talking with teachers who already currently work there. Ask them directly about their experience with the school, if they were lied to about anything, how the employees are treated, what the surrounding area is like, what the apartments are like, if they ran into any expenses they weren't told about, and generally if they can tell you anything of value to help you make your decision.
There are 2 main types of schools you'll find in China: Government schools and Private training schools. I've only worked at private schools myself but from what I hear from others government schools are a bit stressful. They will usually have 30-40 students (as compared to around 10 in private schools) they usually don't pay quite enough to make it worth it and you usually have to work far more hours. In a private school on the other hand you'll only work at times when the government schools are not running, namely nights and weekends.
Make sure you do plenty of research into what kind of money you should be making and what kind of hours you should be working based on your location. Wages and living expenses are different everywhere but in most mid sized cities wages range from 5000-8500 RMB for a 15-25 hour a week position. In the bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai you'll make more but your cost of living will also be higher.
All schools should also provide you with an apartment or should provide you with a monthly apartment payment that covers the cost. My first job provided me with 1500RMB a month (on top of my salary) for my apartment, and my second job simply provides me with a free apartment. When deciding on a school it's also important to ask where the apartment is in relationship to the school. Sometimes it will be a convenient 5 minute walk, and in other cases a time consuming 30 minute bus ride. If they are providing you with an apartment it should be fully furnished and you should ask to see pictures of it before accepting it to ensure it's what you want.
On top of the apartment many schools will also offer you round trip airfare reimbursement to and from China. Make sure it's a reasonable amount. It is normal however for this to only be paid to you upon completion of an entire year of teaching.
Before accepting a position make sure to ask specific specific specific details about the location you'll be working in. The job may technically be in the city you've been wanting to work in, but the school itself could be on the outskirts of the town with nothing around, or in a barren industrial area without even a single point of interest within walking distance.
Schools often have multiple branches, and after signing you up under the pretense you'll be working at one branch they'll move you to another one in a nearby city claiming that it was necessary and acting as if they didn't expect it to be a problem. This doesn't happen often, but it doesn't hurt to ask just to be safe.
After deciding on a location, finding a job that pays well and has low hours and sending your qualification in to the school or the recruiter you'll probably do a phone or skype interview.
(If you don't know what skype is look into it. It's an internet communication service that can be used to call any phone in the world for a very cheap price and on top of that it's completely free if you call skype to skype. )
The interviews are generally pretty easy from my own experience and what I've heard from other teachers. The employers mainly want to ensure you speak native level English. The person interviewing you will often be Chinese and may not have the best English so ensure you speak slower and more clearly than you would normally. This will make them comfortable talking with you and also give them confidence that you will be able to explain things clearly and slowly to your students as well.
The things employers in China worry about the most are foreign teachers that simply take a teaching job as a means to travel China without any real interest in teaching. They often see foreigners as unprofessional crazy party animals that can't be trusted to show up to work on a regular basis or that will go home and abandon the school at the first sign of difficulty. Put their mind at ease by expressing your love for China and your professional, enthusiastic mentally towards teaching.
Oh... and if they ask you if you like children make sure you say yes!;)
After the interview the next step will be to sign the contract. The friendliness you've been hearing from the school or recruiter will be out the window in this document as some strict rules will be laid out.
Most schools require teachers to sign a 1 year contract. If you look around a bit or negotiate though you can also find 6 month contracts which in my opinion is a much more fitting block of time.
Besides your pay and hours the contract will lay out everything from details about your apartment, to your duties as a teacher, to how and when you'll be paid, to the punishment for breaking the contract.
Ensure that everything you talked about with the school is in writing in the contract. This includes overtime, airfare reimbursement, details of your apartment (including how its furnished), and anything else you agreed upon. If you agreed on something but its not in the contract don't expect it to be fulfilled.
Keep in mind when reading the contract that some will say 20 hours a week and some will say 20 classes a week. Ensure you know how long each class is because they usually range from 45 minutes to 90 minutes which makes a huge difference.
Schools that have had bad experiences with foreign teachers in the past may set up their contracts with a lot of little catches. Some schools will deduct a percentage of your monthly pay as a deposit which they will keep if you break the contract in any way. Some will have large penalties for taking sick days. Some will throw in a line about your first month being a trial in which you only earn 60% of your normal salary. Ensure you carefully read and understand any of these clauses before you agree to them and generally jump all over ANYTHING that sounds suspicious or too vague because it's probably written that way for a reason. Also be weary if you read something that says "The teacher will also be responsible for participating in unpaid promotional activities for the school." This can be anything from simply handing out flyers to doing weekly time consuming English corners to putting on shows in public.
If there's anything that sounds too unreasonable in the contract feel free to negotiate for it to be removed. In China schools are often quite desperate to get teachers quickly and will agree to give you special terms simply so they don't lose you as a teacher.
If possible ask for a contract where you are paid every 2 weeks or at the end of every month. Most contracts will pay you on the 15th of the following month. They do this so that if you are unhappy and you want to leave before your contract is over you have to work 15 days for free before getting your previous month's paycheck.
Having said all this, keep in mind that contracts don't mean all that much. They can be broken and often are in little ways by the school, and there's usually nothing you can do about it. It would obviously be incredibly difficult to sue a company in China and the schools know this. The contracts are basically just tools for you to use as leverage after arriving in the job. Having said this, most jobs do honor their contracts because they want to keep their teachers as happy as possible, so don't let it worry you too much.
Besides your typical tourist (L) visa there are 2 other types of visas you should be concerned with when it comes to teaching in China. The business (F) visa and the working (Z) visa.
Technically the only visa that it is legal to work in China with is the Z working visa. About a year ago it was well known that you can get one a working visa without a degree, even a TESOL certificate would be enough, but recently however it's been getting more and more difficult, and now it appears a 4 year degree is necessary to get one. Even with this requirement I know it's still possible to get a Z working visa without a degree, but this is usually only possible for schools with an 'inside connection' and a bit of extra money to pay.
While the Z visa is the only legal visa for working in China, about half the teacher I've met instead work with an F business visa. The reason for this is that F visas are far easier for schools to get and have basically no requirements to meet for their issuance. In my time in China I've only met 1 teacher that had to leave his job because of trouble with the police while teaching on a business visa... as the police usually don't bother with such matters but it's still a risk and will sometimes limit the schools you can work at to those in smaller cities.
As I said before I strongly recommend you find a school that is willing to provide you with a Z working visa BEFORE you leave your home country. This can be quite hard to find but it's the only safe (and legal) option when it comes to teaching in China. Without this, schools can do whatever they want after you arrive and you'll really have no choice but to accept it or to try to find another school. Make no mistake schools will absolutely lie to you about getting you a Z working visa then claim there has been a new policy recently implemented that prevents them from fulfilling their promise. Be safe, and get the visa first.
If you find a good looking job with the catch that they will only provide you with an F business visa should you take it? If you have the chance to get a Z working visa than take it, but if you can't and you want to work in China anyway I'd say it's worth the risk to work on a business visa because usually even in the rare case you are caught, the police will just force you to stop working for the school.
If you ever find the need to get your own business visa the easiest way to do it is to go to a company called Forever Bright Trading Limited in Hong Kong. This company will provide you a business visa in a few hours without the need for any of the usually required documents. You simply need to fill out an application and pay a bit of money. Their website can be found here.
Finding a job to work in another country can be an intimidating thing full of many unknowns and confusion but I hope this article does a good job of preparing you for what to expect and what to do every step of the way. I definitely wish I had learned many of the things I shared here before I came to China in the beginning as it would have helped a lot!
Teaching in China has been a very rewarding experience for me and if you've read this far you're probably getting ready to embark on a similar adventure yourself. Feel free to post any questions in the comments or send them to me through the contact form and I'll try my best to help!
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