Teaching English in China can be a great way to experience the country while gaining experience in a field that’s expanding rapidly. It can be tempting to jump at the first offer when you start applying for jobs online from the familiarity of your home country. We give you some tips to avoid the scams that more than one unfortunate soul has been prey to over the years.
As in many parts of Asia, the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (‘TEFL’) business in China is, in many instances, just that – a business. According to the State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA) – the Chinese body that regulates the hiring of foreign teachers – prospective teachers must hold a Bachelor’s degree and have at least two years’ teaching experience. In order to be legal, schools offering TEFL courses must be licensed by the SAFEA. Unfortunately though, many schools register as companies, bypassing the expensive process of obtaining a license, and leaving their foreign employees unprotected by the relevant laws. These schools are most often language training centers. The other major options for would-be TEFL teachers are public universities (often a better bet than private universities) and primary and secondary schools. Both universities and schools are often a safer bet than training centers.
Both universities and schools are often a safer bet than training centers.
Photo: Sam Haldane
Unscrupulous recruiters look for unsuspecting newcomers to scam them out of an initial ‘deposit’ or ‘recruitment fee’. Avoid ads with titles like ‘Teach English in China – No Degree Required’, or ‘Weekend TEFL Certification’. In addition, the website China Business Central urges all applicants to teaching jobs in China to “avoid recruiters who cannot produce verifiable identification and a SAIC [State Administration for Industry and Commerce] business license that vouches for their authenticity”. Reputable recruiters will be happy to provide you with the relevant documents; never agree to pay an up-front recruitment fee or provide a passport scan without proof that the recruiter is licensed.
For would-be teachers with a Bachelor’s degree and at least two years’ (read: twenty-four months’) teaching experience, finding a teaching job in China is relatively uncomplicated. Websites like tefl.com offer hundreds of positions to prospective teachers, updating their databases daily or even hourly. Going through a recruiter is thus unnecessary for candidates with some job experience and common sense. Always request contact information for at least two TEFL teachers who currently work for or have worked for the school you are applying to; hearing their perspective will help you get a sense of what the working conditions will actually be like, rather than the rosy portrait painted in the job posting. The willingness of the school or recruiter to provide you with this information will in itself be an indicator of whether or not the position is a trustworthy prospect. In this same vein, this tip from long-time China resident Gregory Mavrides comes in handy: “Ask to see recent photos of the same apartment you will be placed in upon arrival (not one “just like it”). The quality of the housing provided by the school is the single strongest predicator of how foreign teachers are regarded and how you will be treated by that school throughout the duration of your contract”.
A more serious scam is the issue of identity theft, with many cases being reported over the years. After doing some research, what emerges is that identity theft is almost always carried out at the hands of bogus recruiters. These recruiters collect teachers’ personal information from passport scans, resumes posted online, and visa copies, and sell it on to identity thieves at a hefty price.
The Visa issue
If you’ve worked as an English teacher in China, it’s highly probable that you’ve met one or a few other teachers who were working illegally on a tourist (‘L’) visa. Though this practice has continued throughout the years and many so-called reputable language centers continue to recruit teachers from abroad and bring them into China on a tourist visa, the authorities are cracking down on it. Regular sweeps are carried out in schools, with a heavy fine (of up to 20,000 RMB) for the illegal teacher being the best-case scenario, and deportation the worst. In some cases, the police will confiscate your passport while investigating the case, leaving you stranded in China at the mercy of the authorities. We strongly recommend candidates avoid recruiters and/or schools who offer to fly them into China on a tourist visa – if nothing else, teachers are in most cases required to pay for the requisite trip to Hong Kong to obtain a work visa out of pocket. Make sure your potential employer recognizes the importance of securing a work (‘Z’) visa for you before entering the country to begin working.
If your potential employer is willing to secure a work visa for you before you begin working, you will have a chance to look at the contract before accepting the position. Make sure the contract is signed and chopped, and that the English version is acceptable to you – don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, and keep an original signed copy for yourself.
When in doubt, trust your gut. Contacting current and former employees of your potential employer will give you a clearer picture of working conditions. Do your homework: run a search on any potential school with the keywords ‘scam’, ‘complaints’ or ‘issues’. Arm yourself with information and make sure you pick a reputable school that will respect you as an employee and stick to the terms of your contract. If you use common sense and ask the right questions, teaching English in China can be a breeze.