Nov 06, 2013 By Elaine Pang ,

With the current state of the world economy as it is, more and more people unable to find jobs at home, and wanting to experience life abroad, are looking to countries like China for work. In terms of entry modes, teaching English in China is a viable option, often requiring little more than the ability to speak English. On the downside, an industry with low entry barriers attracts its fair share of competitors and also makes teachers more vulnerable to exploitation. Adding to these “dangers” faced by English teachers is the recent move to downgrade the importance of English scores in the Gaokao exam. Is English teaching still worthwhile in China?

English teacher, defined

Not all English teaching jobs are created equal and remuneration and working conditions vary wildly. Language centers, pre-school education, public schools or universities employ the majority of foreigners and previously the ability to speak fluent English was considered adequate qualification. The bar has been raised in recent times however and now there are age limits, academic requirements (a bachelor degree), work experience requirements (at least 2 years), teaching qualifications (TESOL or TEFL certificate) and country-of-origin requirements (from a country of native speakers). Schools with adequate levels of guanxi (connections) have been known to circumvent these though. However, competition for inexperienced teachers ensures salaries in this category remain low, though teachers in language centers can earn more depending on the number or hours worked. On the other end of the spectrum, career English teachers enjoy full expat terms in international schools or as overseas examination specialists (e.g. GCE “A” Levels or SAT teachers).

Teaching English in China
Source: SurfaceWarriors

Are English teachers in danger of no longer being wanted?

Outside of a classroom, most Chinese rarely if ever use English in their lifetime. Yet there is still a seemingly insatiable demand for English teachers as a controversial ruling by the Education Ministry mandates English majors to undergo instruction by native speakers during their course of study.

All this could change, though, as Beijing has recently made known intentions to reduce the weightage of English scores in the Gaokao. The official reason was to reduce pressure on students, which makes sense considering most students have no use for English after leaving school and never completely master the language. Not only do the new rulings de-emphasize English in the Gaokao, but they also propose reducing the number of hours spent on English (called “foreign language”), including children waiting till the third year of elementary school to begin learning the language.

However, thanks to the growing number of Chinese who are able to send their children to overseas schools to study, this does not mark the beginning of the end for English teachers. In fact, Beijing’s efforts to de-emphasize the importance of English is likely to be met with skepticism or indifference in this group and may conversely cement demand for alternative providers; think private schools and private tutoring. Language schools are quick to cater to candidates for overseas examinations and even public schools have opened international departments. Young adults harboring dreams of working for a Multinational or finding a foreign partner also seek out private language schools. Even in public schools, English may not necessarily decrease in importance, especially if top universities formulate internal English examinations as an additional admission hurdle.

In it for the paycheck or the experience?

On the supply side, teaching English in China for the most part has few entrance barriers. Foreign teachers are mostly employed as practice targets to “provide an English-speaking environment.” This requires little more than an ability to converse in English, though looking “foreign” and possessing charisma goes a long way in an industry governed by student feedback and economics. Oversupply puts a downward pressure on salaries especially in places where inhabitants have to contend with inflation at the same time. The pay may seem decent by local standards, especially if housing and travel benefits are thrown in. And in fact, it is, for those able and willing to live as a local (i.e. without “luxuries” like cheese). For those from a country whose currency is stronger than the RMB, savings would be out of the question.

Of course, not all English teachers are here for the money. China is still as an exotic destination and English teaching as a “working holiday” allows for a more in-depth travel and cultural experience. A country as vast as China offers experiences as varied as the bright lights of big cities or the scenery of the laid-back countryside. So there’s something for everyone, from fresh graduates seeking to spice up their resumes to mid-career switchers after a different experience. So goes the spiel on overseas teaching recruitment websites. Teaching schedules are seldom onerous, with delivery usually taking precedence over lesson prep. Teachers usually have adequate time on their hands for extensive sight-seeing and hard-partying, if they so desire. 

However, teaching in China does have its dark side. Working in China, like every other country, requires the right visa and enforcement is getting more stringent, ostensibly because of “security” concerns and “misbehaving” foreigners. In addition, teachers require a Foreign Expert Certificate. All this sounds straightforward enough, but papers have not been granted for anything from not having a degree to poor health. Other concerns pertain to life in China in general – an issue to those concerned about food and environmental safety. “Hardship” allowances are available to a lucky few Expats but rarely to teachers, bar maybe those in international schools.

Making it more worthwhile

All in all, having goals other than money would make teaching in China more worthwhile. Other than that, here are a few tips to increase your chances of a pain-free teaching experience in China.

  • Ensure you have the right visa and a Foreign Expert’s Certificate – sounds like common sense but some foreigners are simply too trusting, too desperate to wait for the right papers, or think they will get away with it. When discussing the contract with the school, make sure they provide you with the visa and cover the costs of it; if they won’t really consider finding a different school!
  • Check if you have to perform “office hours” – that could really affect your pay-per-hour
  • Google your potential employer – this can be very helpful if it is a major language centre
  • Bump up on non-verbal communication – learn to recognize signs of frustration or boredom as some institutions rely heavily on “customer” feedback

If you can think of other tips to making English teaching a smoother process add them in the comment section below.

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Keywords: teaching English in China English teaching; English teachers: Teach English

44 Comments Add your comment



I don't agree with any of this.. I only agree with the being legally working here. Everything else is BS.

Nov 06, 2013 08:24 Report Abuse



You either didn't read the article, or can't understand English. This article is makes perfect sense to anyone who's been in the English teaching trenches for more than a few months.

Nov 07, 2013 21:05 Report Abuse



Enjoy the experience of low pay or having to teach a class of up to 50 over worked students.... Pay is lower from the main places and they don't adjust for inflation and all benefits are gone..... I always tell others to not come to China if they want to teach. They should go to other, nicer countries in Asia....

Nov 06, 2013 10:37 Report Abuse



Inflation is taking a big bite out of my paycheck these days. If I live dirt cheap (like some Chinese) I can save a few bucks. But things in Shenzhen are getting crazy expensive. If there's a city where it's cheap to live, the pay is low. If you're willing to live below your means, you can make an ok living, but you won't be buying a BMW in the next 10 years.

Nov 07, 2013 21:07 Report Abuse



The "bar" has not been raised, it has simply become more of a reality. No bad thing in my opinion either as it's perfectly rational to cut out those people who drift into the classroom for reasons other than wanting to be there to do a job. The changing patterns of English assessment at gaokao level aren't evidence of a sea change in the country's attitude towards English either, but are a very positive step towards a more rational situation. The only recent change I have baulked at is Shandong Province's removal of the "listening" section of its English language gaokao, that seems to be a pretty bad idea to me. Shandong has been playing around with its gaokao in recent years though, so I don't think that this will last. Regardless, the prominence of English within business remains a reality within China and that isn't going to change - to service those needs, and others, the real necessity has always been for "better" and not "more" English language teaching and learning.

Nov 06, 2013 15:57 Report Abuse



I wonder if people in China realise that if they pay low, that they get the drifters who care not for what they are doing? or to put another way. They ain't getting shiet.

Nov 06, 2013 18:20 Report Abuse



pay peanuts, you get monkeys. But that's what most schools in China want, a white monkey!

Nov 07, 2013 12:08 Report Abuse



enforcement is getting more stringent, ostensibly because of “security” concerns and “misbehaving” foreigners。。。 really??hahahahaha what were they doing? Behaving like local people?

Nov 06, 2013 17:08 Report Abuse



there were those stories of bad foreigners doing bad things. Mostly non English speakers however but we all look the same... Only a bit racist.

Nov 06, 2013 18:15 Report Abuse



Sexual assault mostly.

Nov 07, 2013 12:08 Report Abuse



Definitely, like with all jobs if you only pay peanuts you'll only hire monkeys. The chinese just don't care.

Nov 07, 2013 12:06 Report Abuse



Having taught a bit of English in China a few years back, I agree with most changes in the way they hire. I remember walking into one teaching company for an interview and being told to watch another teacher perform (as it really is closer to a performance/monologue, than an actual class), during which I realized literally anyone could have gotten the job, as long as they were white. Asking for things like 2 years experience, some certificate, or a degree, are all good things as far as I'm concerned and (hopefully) increase the quality of applicants. I've often found that companies drop a lot of these requirements pretty fast, however, as long as you meet one or two of them, which means it doesn't really matter much in the end. That, and the fact that it seems pretty easy to bullshit your way through an interview, as I can't imagine a lot of these companies actually checking whether or not your résumé is accurate, or even recognizing whether your accent appears to be what you claim it is (as most interviewers I've spoken to spoke horrible English themselves). Though I believe increasing hiring standards is a good thing, I get the feeling that companies don't put a lot of thought in their job offers, but rather look at what a few of the more well-known companies post and copy that. This would be fine if they offered similar benefits to the job applicants that great English teaching employers do, but they generally don't. It hardly seems fair (or effective) to me to raise standards for applicants by expecting them to go through training and obtaining whichever teaching certificate, while not improving the work environment/teaching facilities and expecting any improvements to come from outside the company. There are still way too many (pretty much all, with some larger institutions being the exceptions) teaching companies or even schools that don't supply any teaching materials, text books or training to warrant all the things they're expecting from their applicants. I quite enjoyed the brief period that I taught English, but wouldn't consider working for a company that offers a low-end salary (150/hour-ish), no text books or even some kind of curriculum. Rather than further increasing their hiring requirements, companies around here might want to put some thought into what it takes to attract and retain good teachers, besides the obvious increase in salary.

Nov 07, 2013 13:19 Report Abuse



I completely agree. Company/schools' expectations as to what an English teacher needs to be doing don't seem to match Western ideas on the subject. I once taught in a place where each class I was expected to teach students for 2,5 hours in a row with about 10 minutes break. This was a public college, so I went there assuming (or rather, hoping) that they'd have a proper curriculum and some kind of textbook. They did not. Instead, they told me to prepare classes and come up with reading materials myself (they told me this 20 minutes before the class started - I came there thinking I'd have some kind of an interview and was in no way ready to actually teach), which at that time was impossible. I ended up introducing myself in front of 50 students who couldn't care less and just ad libbing for the remainder of class. I was hoping for some students to raise a hand and somehow give me a topic to discuss, but this was rarely the case, as only about 3-4 students as much as replied or spoke up during those 2,5 hours. After this, I showed up for two more classes, having prepared some texts I thought might interest the students enough for them to at least raise a question or two (I was wrong), and decided to quit and look for something else. I really quite like the idea of my teachers, or me teaching others, having the freedom to just improvise and speak about things we deem interesting or useful, but this only works in a class where students are involved (and awake) enough to actively participate.

Nov 14, 2013 14:42 Report Abuse



It's BS, the economy in the west hasn't been bad for over 3 years. If you don't have any valuable skills you can't get a good job, don't blame the economy. ESL teaching is bunk cause you don't learn any good skills or experience.

Nov 07, 2013 17:19 Report Abuse



That part, about the economic refugees, is the BS part. Not that there arent economic reasons to be here. A friend working in finance in NYC makes close to 100 grand a year but his lifestyle is similar to an expat making a third the salary here in east coast China, where a 20 minute taxi ride across town costs 3 bucks. Most western restaurants have similar prices to ones I go to in the west, maybe a bit more, but certain things in the supermarket (like imported beers) can be cheaper.

Nov 09, 2013 19:00 Report Abuse



yeah but your friend is upwardly mobile so it's not a fair comparison. At close to six-figures he's probably around 30 (give or take) in an Associate role at an investment bank (or similar institution). He puts in a few more years good work and he's making 250K as a VP. The ESL teacher might have an *acceptable* income and living standard for a young person with no kids, but no prospects for the future. THAT is why ESL is bunk. It's selling any hope of a nice adulthood for a few extra years of adolescence. You can't just go back to the West at 30+ years old and expect to even be able to start at an entry level position for a good career track, those positions go to ambitious 23 year olds. Your buddy can move to Fairfield or Westchester in a few years and have a nice house and access to great private and even decent public schools for their kids. If they ever want to say the same, young ESL teachers need to get their careers in order ASAP. It's an easy journey from carefree 24 year old to bummy, lame 40 year old.

Nov 11, 2013 09:12 Report Abuse



"upwardly mobile" Meh, sounds like a recipe for being rich yet unhappy. We have two different sets of standards for what makes a person "successful". "good career track" Reminds me of the story of the big-name banker who was on vacation in Mexico and found a fisherman who spent his days fishing, and the rest of the time at his house with his family. The banker advised him to go to school, get a degree, and get a respectable career. The fisherman asked what that would get him, and the banker said he could work for 20 years then retire at a beach-side house and do nothing but fish all day. The fisherman replied, "that's what I already do."

Nov 11, 2013 15:43 Report Abuse



haha yeah...point taken my friend, it's a nice thought, but in practice recreational fishing and subsistence fishing are two very different things. Success to me is about having choices and options. I'm 26, and I can't believe how much my goals have changed in the three years since i graduated. Who is to say what I will want from life even at 30 (let alone 40) is going to be the same as it is now? By working in finance, despite putting in a ridiculous amount of hours, I give myself options for the future. Hell, maybe at 30 i'll be burnt out on the corporate grind and want something simpler and it will be an easy choice to hand in my resignation. But conversely, let's say I spent my twenties teaching ESL or working at starbucks or something. If i'm 30 and start to look wistfully at a car I like or a home that I can't afford, I would have an extremely hard time reversing course and trading up to a fast-paced, high-reward lifestyle. I don't really care about owning a home now, but what if when I'm in my 30s I'm ready to settle down and do the nice suburban home thing, and I realize that I blew my shot at ever getting to do that? Your twenties is the time we have the energy to make a name for yourself. It's easy to trade down that lifestyle to a more casual one, nearly impossible to trade up.

Nov 11, 2013 16:21 Report Abuse



1. Always rent, never buy. 2. You never know when youre going to die. Do what's fun and the money will follow. 3. ESL teaching can be a gateway to bigger and better things. It is also possible to turn it into a financially rewarding career, if you get the proper qualifications. I see no reason to diss people taking advantage of the opportunity to teach and travel. Also I dont see it closing off any doors assuming you play your cards right.

Nov 11, 2013 18:28 Report Abuse



I dont wanna put anybody down for wanting to teach and travel. And no, teaching esl doesn't mark you with a permanent stigma. But...the time you spend teaching and travelling, while fun, is time you don't spend building to something more long term. Sure take a year after school to travel and decompress, I did, but then start thinking about building up your options for the future. Teaching in china isn’t bad, but if you get a more professional job here, people react very differently to you. Hell I work my butt off but I still have the weekends to enjoy life, I don't feel like i'm really missing out on life because I can't go out during the week. If anything I feel like teaching limits your social life as a young guy, definitely in terms of dating. You can’t really approach any of the hotter European or American girls here and say you’re an ESL teacher and not get an eye roll at least for your lack of originality. Maybe that’s not what you want from dating, but it gives you the OPTION if it is, or at some point in the future you look at that Italian girl here on a modeling contract and think “hey, why not me?” Like I said, the only thing you cant (responsibly) do as a professional is stay out partying all night during the week. Other than that you still get holidays, you still get to travel and you get the confidence which comes from being someone who has a leg up on the pile.

Nov 12, 2013 11:30 Report Abuse



True...but I've also heard stories of young to mid-young expats who worked in ESL in China for a few years and eventually transitioned into a different career path (more relevant to their backgrounds or majors). I don't know how much of a success this would be depending on what factors are at play (guanxi, ethnicity, race, nationality, related work experience or background and interests). Though I'm not entirely refuting your stance, I would have to say that ESL in China still provides the possibility to delving into other fields (eventually)...or maybe quickly...who knows, right? As sam239 puts it: "...Also I dont see it closing off any doors assuming you play your cards right."

May 28, 2014 02:19 Report Abuse



Addtionally, the company I currently work with offers Education Development with a well-reknowned International Business School, given that I work with the company for two or more years. That provides me the opportunity to move into less-teacher involved positions, and more chances to get more involved in Managerial/HR type positions; coupled with the opportunity to attend a sponsored school to obtain an Exuctive MBA or International MBA, and open up many other doors besides ESL... so it's like gaining more non-ESL experience (eventually), while pursuing a higher degree...again, just a thought ;-)

May 28, 2014 02:26 Report Abuse



Well yeah, its not closing doors but it's not necessarily opening them either. No one is going to look at your resume and say "Oh god former ESL teacher this goes right in the trash!" But at the same time it isn't going to excite them either. Lets say you get a business degree and spend 5 years teaching in China...those could be 5 great years, but then you go back home and you don't have the experience for a mid-level position but you're kinda too old for the entry-level ones which are often sourced from college recruiting. You're competing with 22 year olds who just learned the stuff.'s NOT BAD, but spinning the tires ISN'T GOOD either. You have to be proactive to get ahead, its not just going to magically happen.

May 29, 2014 11:19 Report Abuse



I totally respect that view, in many ways. One has to put the extra effort, and multi-task in the right ways to acheive those momentous goals and "get ahead?" or "move to the next phase" in life. Have you read my replies to syoung108 in the following comments page? That'll probably give you a better understanding of my more recent circumstances. I know it's not a perfect explanation or narration of my situation, but it does illustrate (roughly) the frustrations and discouragements I went through when I was back in the States for eight months (shortly after parents and I moved overseas again...long story) Will explain later.

May 30, 2014 13:25 Report Abuse



I think for the young guys they will want to go also as the economy ain't so good that will also bring others over. Whatever the reason they have to remember that the longer they stay they are missing out on paying National Insurance payments( to get the state pension) and unless they really do want to become teachers then they are making it harder for themselves to start their career back in their own country. Yes it can be fun for a year or two but after teaching for 6 months I'd had enough of it. Now retraining to do something years later is back on the cards.

Nov 07, 2013 18:57 Report Abuse