Is Teaching English in China Worthwhile?

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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