So you want to teach English in China?
I’ve taught in China a couple of times. Some things I did well, other things not so well.
I’d love to help you avoid making the same mistakes I did!
Call me biased, but I think the best advice comes from people who have “been there, done that”, not businesses trying to make a quick buck off you.
So, here are my top tips if you want to teach English in China.
1. Plan the heck out of it
I know planning sounds boring.
But if you don’t get the planning right, you’re planning to fail (or however the saying goes).
Would you prefer teaching in the humid tropics (down south), in the freezing cold (far north) or somewhere in between?
China covers a massive area and doesn’t have one climate. So, choose your city wisely.
When it comes to the kinds of schools you can teach at in China, public schools and private language centers are like chalk and cheese.
For example, public sector positions pay lower but you work fewer hours, while private positions pay higher but have way more hours as well as weekend work.
Choose the age of students that suits you. If you’re young, have loads of energy and love little kids, then teaching in a Chinese kindergarten may be for you. But if you’re older and have less patience, perhaps teaching at a university would be preferable.
Once you’ve narrowed these things down, you can then focus on other stuff like your salary expectations (I’ll talk more about salaries next).
The mistake that I made when it came to planning my teaching adventure was I allowed the program I was on to dictate where I was sent.
I ended up teaching at a private boarding school in the middle of nowhere. While teaching in rural China does have its positives, the lack of things to do in the town meant that things like a cinema or even a pizza were a one-hour bus ride away.
Also, because it was a boarding school, the students had limited parental guidance and basically ran amok. I saw China’s ‘little emperor syndrome’ firsthand.
Teaching spoilt students was hard. Many of the kids disobeyed simple instructions, some were disrespectful, and I even had to teach a class of special needs kids (I’m not qualified for that at all).
It pays to do your research.
2. It’s not all about the salary
Choosing a teaching job in China based on salary alone is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
Some jobs may seem enticing with a salary of double what’s on offer at another school. But you need to carefully weigh up everything as the schools that offer the highest salaries generally expect you to work 40 hours a week.
This may include what’s known as office hours – compulsory time you need to spend in the staff room preparing lessons and marking papers.
And, typically the higher paying roles involve weekend work in lieu of a couple of days off mid-week.
If you’re looking for more of a work-life balance in China, consider working fewer hours and a smaller salary.
I remember asking my recruiter years ago to find me a role that had the least possible teaching hours. I wanted as much free time as possible to explore China!
It’s a trade-off and only you will know what’s right for you.
Here’s one of the best teaching english in china salary guides.
3. Be careful with job boards
Don’t get me wrong, job boards do have their place in the teach abroad community.
After all, even The Helpful Panda has a China job board!
However, it’s important to remember that anyone can post ads, even unregistered or dodgy schools in China.
While there are some good jobs available from reputable schools, make sure you look into each school carefully.
If you haven’t taught English in China before, I personally wouldn’t recommend finding work on a job board.
Why? It’s hard to compare apples with apples, and you’ll need to research each school and offer separately. It’s a lot of work, and doesn’t come without risk.
As I mentioned, you have no idea if the school is legitimate or not.
When I did my second stint teaching in China, I dealt with a reputable recruiter.
A recruiter can help you find the ideal role and school based on your needs. Plus, they’ll have a list of vetted schools and can help you get the legal working visa for China.
(You can check this list for teacher recruitment agencies that specialize in China.)
So, if you are going to use a job board, consider applying for jobs which are advertised by reputable recruiters only.
See also: How to find a job in China
4. Don’t buy the cheapest airfare
Practically all China teaching jobs include a free return flight for a one-year commitment.
Some prospective teachers mistakenly pay for their airfare before their contract is finalized. They don’t know how much the school will reimburse, so they opt for the cheapest route to China.
Your contract should be signed by both you and the school before you even think about the airfare.
Once your contract is finalized, you’ll know how much money your school will reimburse for the flight. This is important because it varies significantly between schools.
In most cases the amount should be more than enough to fly with a reputable, full-service airline in economy class.
There’s no need to fly with a no-frills carrier, unless you’re on a really tight budget and can’t afford the initial investment to get you over there.
But if that is the case, i.e. you are on a very tight budget, I’d probably rethink teaching in China. This is because teaching in the private sector requires you to have upfront rent money (more on that later).
Side note: You may be interested in reading about my experience on a Beijing Capital Airlines flight – possibly the worst Chinese carrier ever!
5. Do a combined TEFL course
A TEFL certificate is one of the main requirements to teach English in China, though technically it isn’t legally required.
(You can read more about TEFL certification for China here.)
Most prospective English teachers choose the simplest and cheapest option, that is, they choose a purely online TEFL course.
While this is an okay approach, a combined TEFL course might be more beneficial. A combined course is a mix of both online theory and real teaching practise.
Check this page for combined TEFL courses for China.
The minimum TEFL course length for China is generally 120 hours. In a combined course, this usually translates to 100 hours of online work and 20 hours of practise.
If you’ve never had teaching experience before, I think it’s risky doing it all online thinking you’ll love teaching in real life.
You may arrive in China and find that teaching is not your thing.
The combined course I chose had the practical element carried out in Beijing. However, the ‘students’ were my fellow TEFL course participants!
I don’t recommend a course component like that because it’s a bit unrealistic. Teaching your peers is nothing like teaching little Chinese kids who don’t understand a word of English.
Not keen on forking out a little extra for a combined course? Then I recommend this purely online course by Global Language Training.
At last check, it’s the cheapest and even comes with a bonus 40-hour module for online teaching.
6. Buy or rent a bike
Getting around China is fairly straightforward, especially in the big cities.
You’ll find yourself using buses and trains, which are cheap and frequent. You’ll also use DiDi, which is China’s Uber, and taxis too.
Because it’s so cheap, some TEFL teachers even catch a DiDi to work every day (like this teacher who taught English in Dongguan).
What I’ve found though is China’s cities are just as easy to get around by bicycle. Just keep your eyes on the traffic.
On a bike, you’ll be able to get off the beaten track and discover little gems of places that you would otherwise never come across.
Exploring by bike is also good exercise. If you’re like me, you’ll be eating lots of dumplings in China. This starts to show if you’re not careful!
If you don’t want to invest in a bike, you can always hire one of the many share bikes dotted around the city.
There are a few bike share companies in China so you won’t have a problem finding one, especially if you’re in a big city.
Rides start at just 1.5 yuan (about US 20 cents), making it the cheapest mode of transport around.
Each time I’ve left China, I’ve sold my bike to another foreigner. Easy!
7. Download all your apps
There’s a bunch of mobile apps that will make your time in China more enjoyable.
I’ve outlined all the best China apps here.
In addition to what’s on the list, I recommend WeChat Pay so you can pay for everyday things like food. It just requires a Chinese bank account, which your school will help with.
Downloading and getting used to your new apps before you arrive is a good idea.
The most important app to download before you go is a VPN. This stands for virtual private network.
The internet is censored in China and without a VPN on your phone and laptop, you’ll find life in China almost unliveable!
The kinds of foreign websites and apps that are blocked include Google, Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, The New York Times, BBC and so many more.
The thought of not being able to use Google to look stuff up, or Facebook to stay connected with friends back home, makes me shudder.
Luckily, there are VPNs that work in China. You can check out my review on the VPNs that work in China here so you can make the right choice.
If you forget to download a VPN until after you arrive, it may be very difficult, if not impossible to arrange this, as the sign-up or payment page will be blocked.
Luckily, I haven’t fallen into this trap, but I know other teachers who have! Don’t let it happen to you.
See also: Banned apps in China
8. Bring some money with you
If you want to teach English in China, I recommend bringing a bit of money with you.
You’ll need a comfortable buffer of cash to see you through until you receive your first pay.
If you teach in a public school in China, housing will be included as part of your salary package. This means you can forget about ever having to pay for rent (which is an awesome feeling, by the way).
However, if you want to teach in a private language institute (also known as a training center), accommodation generally won’t be included.
If you don’t move in with a fellow TEFL teacher, you’ll need to find and rent your own place with the assistance of the school.
The initial rent payment can be quite high. This is because rent is typically paid every few months. There may also be a one-off real estate agent fee on top of that.
So, before you pack your bags for China, ask your school or recruiter how much money you should bring with you.
9. Bring some things with you
If you want to teach English in China, you need to make sure that you’re all ready to go once you arrive. I suggest bringing the following things.
A laptop with all the latest software on it
Sure, the latest computers are widely available in China, but the last thing you’ll want to do is look for one when you arrive. This is particularly the case if you’re starting work not long after you touch down.
Bring a sturdy laptop that has a big enough screen for you to plan your lessons as well as use for leisure time.
I wouldn’t recommend a tiny little notebook unless you’re 100% comfortable that you can spend many hours on it creating lesson plans.
Sometimes the internet connection may not be great where you’re teaching (particularly in China’s public schools). So, have a think about anything you could pre-download onto your laptop for those awkward situations in the classroom where you’re left to think on your feet.
I started each of my classes with some music playing in the background, while students made their way into the classroom and I marked the roll.
I had my entire collection of iTunes music downloaded so I didn’t have to rely on the internet if there were any issues with streaming.
And, I used songs and music in some final exams that I set, so in terms of technology I was confident that the exams could proceed without hiccup.
A week’s worth of lesson plans
It’s worth bringing at least a week’s worth of lesson plans with you.
This will give you time to settle in and focus on other things (like getting familiar with your surroundings, buying stuff for your apartment, and so on).
I wouldn’t lug heavy textbooks with you halfway across the globe.
Special interest items
Your students will be interested in you and where you come from. You can plan whole lessons around the following things, which your students will love:
- Photos of your family and friends
- Foreign currency
- Restaurant menus from your hometown
- Interesting videos and electronic music files, or even a small musical instrument if you can play one.
Things you can’t live without
Toiletries (like shampoo) and over-the-counter medications (like pain relief drugs) are available everywhere in China.
However, if you’re a bit fussy like me and only like using certain brands, you’d best bring your own.
Deodorant can be hard to find so I always bring a few cans with me. Once I’ve settled in, I find out where I can get more (e.g. Walmart).
10. Plan for worst-case scenario
Ok, we’re back to planning again (sorry).
But this isn’t about planning what you want to do in China, this is planning for when things go wrong.
Hey, you could be the kind of person that just flies by the seat of their pants, and that’s absolutely fine.
But if you’re an over-analyzer like me, you’ll want all your ducks in a row.
Don’t get lost
Whenever I’m in China, one of my biggest fears is getting lost.
That’s why I make sure I have the address of wherever I’m staying written in Chinese characters.
So, the minute you arrive at your apartment, get someone to write the address in Chinese for you. You’ll probably have a liaison officer or senior student who can do this for you.
If you don’t do this, and you find yourself even a few blocks away from your new home, you’ll have absolutely no way of knowing how to get back.
Take a photo of your address (so you can keep it on your phone), and slip the original paper into your wallet or purse. That way, even if your phone unwittingly dies, you’ll still survive!
Money in the bank
A family member may become very sick. A loved one could even die. Whatever it is, you may need to leave China straight away.
Breaking a teaching contract is a major pain for the school. It’s near impossible for a school to replace a foreign teacher partway through a term.
But it could also be a bigger pain for you if you’ve been living pay-by-pay and can’t afford to fly home for an emergency.
That’s why it’s a good idea to have emergency funds in your bank account ready to go.
As an absolute minimum I would say keep US$1,000 aside for a one-way ticket out of China.
However, you’d be safer with US$5,000 in case you want to return to China after the emergency, or for living expenses back home while you look for a new job.
Travel insurance is a pretty boring topic so I won’t go on about it.
You’ll receive basic medical insurance in China as part of your teaching contract.
However, you may also need travel insurance to cover things like evacuation, emergency dental work, trip cancellation and your personal belongings.
If you’re strapped for cash you could just take out insurance on your flight over and back (e.g. two days of cover). It’s up to you, but I recommend getting travel insurance.
The Helpful Panda offers great rates on travel insurance for China here.
I always like to know what I’m doing and where I’m going after a stint overseas.
This will be different for everyone, but for me it’s about knowing where I’m going to be living and what kind of jobs I’ll be applying for back home.
Can you easily get your furniture out of storage? Can you use your old car again, or do you need to buy another one?
The list of questions goes on, but the more prepared you are the less you have to worry as your teaching experience comes to an end.
Either way, just make sure it’s at least 120 hours in duration!
And before you leave your country, remember to download a China VPN on your devices so you can have access to the Western internet over there.
Teaching in China all wrapped up
So there you have it. You can now teach English in China with a bit more knowledge up your sleeve.
I hope you can learn from the mistakes I made, and take on some of the advice as it relates to you.
Best of luck teaching in China!
Do you have any questions? If so, leave a reply below and I’ll get back to you. You may also like the article I wrote about TEFL certification for China. I bust a few myths!