Thinking about teaching English in China? Before you move across the globe, here are 15 things I wish I knew before teaching English in China.
Teaching English in China: What You Need to Know
Teaching English in China is challenging at times, full of learning opportunities, abundant with chances to travel and experience a new culture, and an extremely rewarding job. When I first decided to move to China to teach English, I thought I’d be here for a year tops. Now, more than four years later, I’ve gathered a few tips to tell you what to expect while teaching abroad in China that I wish I’d known.
You’re probably qualified to teach English in China, even without a teaching degree
When I started working a 9 to 5 after college, I was resigned to the idea that I’d have to settle for ten paid days off a year. Then, when I learned that I could travel across the world and teach English with a bachelor’s degree, my life changed forever.
That’s right! The good news is that you don’t need a teaching degree to teach English in China. A bachelor’s degree in any subject will do the trick. That, along with being a native or fluent English speaker. The flip side is that many schools require you to earn your TEFL certificate or something similar. For me, earning my TEFL certification meant taking a 120-hour TEFL course online.
Aside from your degree and the TEFL certificate, you’ll need to prove you’re not a hardened criminal or wanted in 37 states. You’ll need to get a background check, a series of medical check-ups, get your legal documents notarized, and fill out a bunch of miscellaneous paperwork. Get ready for a lot of running around town gathering documents.
Relax. Getting your visa is a long and tedious process for everyone
I’m the first to admit that applying for your Chinese visa and work permit is stressful. You’ll be asked to gather, scan, and send an ungodly amount of documents. But the worst part is when everything has been sent off, and you’re left to wait for a response. No, you’re not crazy; it is taking a long time. And no, it’s not because they discovered you got a parking ticket in 2014. Breathe and trust the process.
The first step is getting hired by a school (more on that later). They’ll sponsor your visa and help you get your certifications and documents to the right people. Then, your school will help you apply for your work permit once everything is accepted. After that, you’ll go to your nearest consulate to apply for the Z-Visa (your worker’s visa).
Yeah, I wasn’t joking. It’s a long process. But you can take advantage of this time to save up a bit of extra money before you leave and spend quality time with your friends and family. Don’t waste your time worrying because I guarantee that if all of your documents are in line, you’ll be just fine.
Read and reread your contract. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
So, you’ve found a school, and they’ve given you an offer you can’t refuse. Before signing on the dotted line, read through it like any other contract. When I first arrived in China, I was nervous about asking questions about my contract and just took whatever the schools offered. I had no idea what a fair contract or salary looked like. Looking back, oh boy, if only I’d known.
It’s important to discuss your contract to make sure you understand and agree to what you’re signing. When it comes to teaching English in China, I suggest you ask about your total earned salary after taxes and whether or not they will provide a supplemental housing allowance. It’s also a good idea to ask if you have paid sick leave, if they provide health insurance, and if your holiday time is paid (typically, it’s paid at 60% of your salary).
By law in China, your employer must provide an English-translated version of your contract. Reading through it will be tedious but doable and vital. Remember, this isn’t just a vacation to China. It’s a job that you’ll be working hard at, so make sure you’ll be compensated fairly.
Choose carefully: kindergarten, primary school, or training center
It’s time to do some soul searching and decide what you want your typical day at work to look like. Working at kindergartens, primary schools, and training centers offer different experiences with pros and cons.
Many people, including myself, begin at training centers, then switch to a kindergarten or a primary school for the pay raise once we get more teaching experience. But, I also know people who love a training center’s schedule and the students’ age range. Let’s go through each option to decide which is best for you.
Working at a kindergarten, you’ll be doing a lot of childcare. This could be comforting the little ones during nap time, getting them to eat their veggies at lunch, wiping noses, and helping them change into clean clothes. You’ll likely be with the same group for the entire day, which helps to get to know them better. Your lessons will probably revolve around more than English vocabulary.
You’ll usually also be asked to teach social development, self-care, and STEAM or science activities. Something I learned the hard way is that one does not simply teach English at a Kindergarten.
Primary school is my favorite group to work with. The students can express themselves, and they use English to show their personalities and sense of humor. They’re also much more independent, so your job will mainly be teaching English without the social and emotional components.
It’s also normal to have several different groups of students in a day compared to one kindergarten class. For example, I teach four to six classes of students a day, each only 40 minutes long. You’ll also usually have more office hours and a longer break time at a primary school.
Training centers give after-school English lessons to students of all ages, so if you like the idea of teaching a variety of ages from three to 12, a training center might be for you.
Working at a training center, your weekends will probably be Tuesday to Wednesday or Wednesday to Thursday. You’ll most likely have mornings off and work afternoons and evenings. Some of my friends love this type of unconventional schedule, while others like myself enjoy having a traditional weekend. So, if you want to teach English in China and plan to work at a training center this could be an important consideration.
Public, private, and international schools are not created equally
After working at a training center for two years, I didn’t understand the differences between public, private, and international schools. So, when I transitioned to primary school, I was a bit overwhelmed choosing between these three types of schools. Let me fill you in on the differences, so you don’t have to be as confused as I was.
Public schools are free for everyone. The students’ English levels are usually basic, and the class sizes hover around 40 to 50 in one room. The salary is lower, but this also means fewer working hours and less intense expectations. You’ll follow the Chinese calendar for holidays, which means you’ll work on Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc.
Private schools are more expensive for parents to send their children to, and the students may have higher English ability. Depending on the school, the class size could range from 20 to 40 students. Since they’re usually paying to have more English classes, you’ll have more teaching hours than at a public school. The pay is much better to match your increased workload.
International schools are interesting to work at because you might have students from around the world. These schools are expensive, and most of the students speak English fluently. International schools generally have many more requirements for teachers. Be ready for the highest workload but also the highest pay!
Some international schools require you to have a teaching license from your home country, but it never hurts to apply anyway. I worked for an international school with my bachelor’s degree, TEFL license, and a few years of experience teaching abroad.
The teaching style is very high energy
As a first-time teacher, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in China. But I sure didn’t think it would require as much jumping, clapping, and stomping as it does. Teaching English to kindergarten and primary school-aged students in China uses a lot of energy. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be up and moving around for a good amount of the lesson, and so will your students.
This high-energy style of teaching is necessary for many reasons. For one, you want the students to have fun during your lesson. One of the main goals of an English teacher for these ages is to build the student’s interest in English. You’ll also have much more fun playing English-based games than drilling and repeating vocabulary like a robot.
Something else to consider is that most students don’t speak English, at least not fluently. To avoid sounding like the mumbling adults from Charlie Brown, you’ll need to use a lot of body language and role-playing to convey your meaning as you teach new words.
Another reason is that the students are tired. They’re busier than most adults I know, between piano and art classes, swimming, gymnastics, and extra Chinese classes, to name a few. In order to keep them energized and engaged in your lesson, you need to give them an incentive to stay focused. This is as simple as using active or competition-based games to learn, moving your body as you drill language (clapping or stomping with each word), and generally being silly to make them laugh. Teaching English in China can be a great workout!
Your students really want to get to know their cool new English teacher
When I began teaching English in China, I didn’t expect to also be signing up for unconditional love from my students and hugs galore. Whichever age you choose to teach, the students will think you’re the coolest thing since sliced bread. They might be a bit shy at first, but once they’re comfortable, they’ll be hugging you, trying to give you small gifts like one of their erasers or pencils, and sharing all about their weekends (even if it’s in Chinese).
A huge reason many parents send their students to an English class is not only for the language but also for the Western style of teaching. For many students, your fun and interactive way of teaching is a peek into a new culture for the first time. Most of your students won’t have met a foreigner before, and they’ll be proud to call you their teacher. Even if you don’t always see it, coming to English class is an interesting part of their week.
It always touches me when parents share that their students tell all of their friends and family about their American teacher and that they can’t wait to come to class each week.
Observe as many teachers as you can
I’ve learned the hard way that there’s so much you simply cannot be prepared for, no matter how much you study or watch YouTube videos about teaching. But, observing other teachers is one of the most effective ways you can learn best teaching practices. No matter where you are in your teaching journey, by observing, you can borrow teaching methods that you like, and also avoid things you don’t like.
I’ve been in some situations where I’ve thought, “Wow, I really like how he handled that disruptive student, I’ll save that strategy.” And other situations where I’ve thought, “Oh, I don’t think the students fully understood that lesson. How could I approach this topic differently in my own class?” Observing others gives you space to think about how to improve your teaching style as a passive third party in the room.
Some of the best ESL games in my repertoire have come from observing other teachers’ classes. When you see a game that can both get the students speaking English and having a blast, you know it’s one to save for later. It’s also a great way to get your creative juices flowing when you see a game or activity that inspires you if you’ve been in a planning slump.
Sharing lesson plans, materials, and games will save your life
When I first started teaching, I was so stressed about planning the perfect, totally unique, and creative classes. I was making my life way harder than it had to be. I and so many other teachers fall into the trap of putting too much pressure on ourselves to make each class totally cutting edge. Get comfortable teaching and hone in on your style, then you can be more creative with designing new games or activities. Learn how to walk before you run.
I cannot stress this enough: share materials. Most schools have a binder of master lesson plans or a list of tried and trusted games. Use these! They exist for a reason. Also, ask around about game or worksheet ideas your coworkers have. Most teachers are happy to share and help. Someday when another teacher comes to you asking for ideas, you can repay the favor.
Another thing to note is that if you plan an overly complicated class or game, it may end up actually hurting the students’ English learning. They’ll be too focused on learning the rules of the game that they won’t have the brain power left to use English. Most times when teaching English (especially the younger ages), simple really is better.
Making connections with locals at work will make your life ten times better
Before you arrive in China, you’ll think a lot about my class, my students, and my lesson plans. But what you might not know is that you’ll be paired with a local teacher, so you should think in terms of our. Sometimes this teacher will be called your teaching assistant, and other times they’ll be considered a co-teacher. Regardless of title, the local teachers will be one of your biggest support systems while teaching in China.
Think about it, Chinese English teachers know firsthand what it’s like to learn English as a second language. They know what works for kids, and what doesn’t. They’ll be delighted when you ask their opinions about which games to use or for feedback on your lesson plan.
Aside from advice at work, they’re a great resource if you need help with language barriers or China-life tips. I’ve had coworkers come with me to set up my bank account, talk to my landlord about an issue, and tell me the best places for local food.
We all get stressed, and we all disagree sometimes, but if you have a strong and professional relationship with local staff, the good times will outweigh the bad ones tenfold. Some of the lifelong friendships I’ve made in China are with my past local coworkers. To be honest, this has definitely been great as foreigners tend to come and go often so having local friends means some stability in the transient life of an expat.
There will be cultural differences at work
Even if you have the best co-worker relations, conflicts may still arise. One of the major cultural differences I’ve noticed in China is how locals approach these situations versus how foreigners do.
Generally, when foreigners have something they want to discuss, they’ll either bring it up in a casual setting or if it’s more serious, schedule a meeting. But in China, many people want to avoid confrontation as much as possible. So, when they have a concern, instead of bringing it up to you, they will often go directly to management and ask them to speak with you about it.
When I’ve asked the locals about this, they said it’s to avoid embarrassment on both sides, let you know about the problem, and move on. When this happens, don’t be offended, even if it’s natural to feel betrayed in a way. Try to understand that this is a cultural difference.
Don’t underestimate a good work-life balance
When you first come to China and begin teaching, you’ll be learning so much and experiencing so much so quickly that you’ll be riding a wave of newbie excitement. But when the initial rush fades away, it’s easy to get into a cycle of work, sleep, eat, and repeat. I’ll let you in on some of the best ways to avoid burnout while teaching in China.
One of the best ways to achieve a good work-life balance is to make your home your safe place. Whether you live in China for a year or a decade, having a cozy place to return to every day will help you feel relaxed after work. Decorate it and make it yours.
Don’t forget that teaching English in China isn’t your entire identity. Get hobbies. Try new things, travel, join a gym, go on street food tours of the city, go people watch at the park, explore your neighborhood, find your favorite local coffee shop, or take Chinese classes.
Yes to making friends with your coworkers and double yes to making friends with other foreigners and locals in your city. Use WeChat to join your city’s “foreigners in X city” group. You’ll meet awesome people and find out about parties or events taking place in your area. I’ve been able to find group workout classes, English poetry reading events, English comedy nights, live music performances, and writing meetups through these groups.
Say No to Overtime
Lastly, say no. There is a great chance that your school will ask you to volunteer for an event or a new student demo class on your weekend for overtime pay. If you feel up to these, they can be really fun and a bit of extra money doesn’t hurt. But if you need a break, the Earth won’t stop spinning if you tell them you can’t help this week.
Government policies change. . . a lot
Before teaching in China, I know there was a stereotype about having strict policies. But I didn’t think about how the specific policy changes might affect schools in China or my job. While it’s true that new policies regarding education can pop up seemingly overnight, don’t be nervous. Most times these are only minor changes.
For example, a few years ago the government announced that schools can no longer officially celebrate Christmas, Halloween, or other Western holidays. So, instead of an annual Christmas party for the students, we changed it to a winter-themed party.
Your school should hold a meeting about these policy shifts so that everyone is on the same page and there’s no confusion. Rest assured most policy changes only entail small tweaks to how things are already done.
The culture shock is real
From “squatty toilets” to the drastically different beauty standards, and being charged for napkins at a restaurant, you’ll face many culture shocks in China. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how many culture shocks I’d experience at the schools I’ve worked at.
When I arrived in China, it was summertime. One of the first things I noticed about my students was that they all had a cloth coming out of the back of their shirts. I learned these are worn to wick the sweat from their backs, and parents will get very upset if their child is sweating without one.
During the wintertime, almost every child’s coat has sleeve coverings put over the sleeves of their jacket, for no other purpose than to keep them clean. This blew my mind because if they never take the sleeve coverings off, what’s the purpose of having clean sleeves underneath?
Culture shock in lessons?
During my time working in a kindergarten, I was also shocked by the number of students who hated getting messy. Children are notorious for loving messy play. But from shaving cream to finger painting, my students all were anxious to wash their hands after a few moments of getting dirty. If they got anything on their clothes, they’d also want to change those immediately.
When I transitioned to teaching at primary school, I was so nervous to face a class of 40 students. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the students are relatively focused, engaged, and very respectful, even in these larger classes. Now, their motivation for this could have very well been that they didn’t want to be yelled at by their Chinese homeroom teacher.
Lastly, I remember the first time I ever heard a Chinese homeroom teacher yell at her class. I knew the stereotypes of strict classrooms in China, but I never thought I’d see a teacher slamming books and yelling at her students the way she did. In the USA, it would be all over the news if that happened. When I asked my local friends and other teachers if they’d ever seen this, they all said yes, it’s normal when a class doesn’t listen.
You don’t necessarily have to understand or agree with all of the culture shocks and surprises you meet, but you do have to accept that it comes with living abroad.
Getting out of your comfort zone will change your life
I’m not going to lie, it’s extremely easy to limit your interaction with the locals. You can easily order food on the food delivery app, order clothes, and supplies on the shopping app, and take a didi (like Uber) to and from work each day, never stepping foot on the subway.
But, I’d bet there’s a good chance you didn’t move to China just to watch Netflix on your sofa. So many of us who choose to teach English in China do so because it’s a chance for adventure and to experience something new. So, do the things you’re scared to! Try the food, see the sights, take the train rides, and meet the people. Don’t let a language barrier stop you from exploring China. The memories you make here will last a lifetime and give you invaluable life experience.
Time flies when you’re teaching English in China
One of the biggest things I wish I knew before teaching English in China is that each year will fly by faster than the last. When you say goodbye to your family and friends and board the flight to China, you might have a moment of questioning your decision to leave. But just know that you’re about to embark on one of the biggest adventures of your life, so slow down, make the most out of it, and enjoy your time in this beautiful country.