Teaching English in China: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Updated: Jan 28, 2019

Camila Luna

You can teach students from the ages of 3 to 22+

Most of us have at some point considered teaching English in China, and some of us already do. Whether English is your “native” language, you have a degree in education, or not, here is some important information to know before you take the jump, based on my personal experience of teaching in China :

I’ll start off with The Good because frankly, teaching English in China can be really amazing. Salaries at top international and IB schools in China’s major cities (Shanghai, Beijing) start at around 50k per year (after taxes) and, as far as I've heard, can go as high as 75k (USD)... with way fewer taxes than you'd pay in the US. That means $4,000-$6,000 straight to your pocket every month. If you live in a major US city like Los Angeles or New York, this might sound like pennies, but for Chinese standards, you will live VERY comfortably, as the cost of living in China is low. Of course, to get these kinds of jobs, you need at least two years of teaching or education-related experience, and having a Master’s degree is a plus, and sometimes required. These jobs are not just good- they are AWESOME, because you get 3-4 months of paid vacation a year (depending on the school), have at least one free round-trip ticket to your home country every year, and since you will be living a baller Chinese lifestyle, you will have enough money to travel the world and do whatever your heart desires. These jobs are also great because many of these schools are European, so you have the chance to interact with children and teens from all over the world, and learn from a different educational philosophy that you had not been exposed to. Also keep in mind that if you teach English at these schools, you may be more of a literature teacher than an ESL teacher, as the students generally have a high level of English. Kids at these schools come from families who value education and many of them speak 3 or more languages and have lived in multiple countries around the world. Honestly, this is the kind of life I want to give my future children one day.

Next, I’ll talk about The Bad, which honestly isn’t really bad at all- it’s still pretty good. These jobs are usually at the lower-tier “international” schools (they may have “international” in the name but are really all domestic Chinese students) and “training schools”, which are after- school English programs. Salaries in training schools and some “international” schools hover at around 25k-45k per year, which still allows for a comfortable lifestyle in any major Chinese city. Issues with some of these schools might include difficulty adjusting to Chinese workplace practices, and variability in management and HR customs. If you have a bachelor’s degree, a TEFL certificate, and some teaching experience, getting a job here will be a breeze. However, even if you have one of these jobs and feel short on cash, don’t fret- Chinese parents are known for splurging on private English tutors. Highly skilled tutors charge up to 600 RMB (96 USD) per hour, and even if you’re not feeling totally qualified to charge this much, a nice 300 RMB (45 USD) per hour is cutting your clients a good deal.

THE UGLY: buyer beware. The Chinese government has become increasingly strict on who can come into China to teach English. This can be good because it means that salaries will be higher, and it can be bad, because there will always be companies, or even schools that try to subvert Chinese immigration and labor laws and basically hire you illegally. If you are hired illegally in China, you are very, VERY vulnerable. I have even heard stories of human trafficking coming from these scams. In addition, your employer can basically pay (or not pay) you whatever they want and change your contract at their will. You have no rights. The best, and really, the only way to know if your prospective employer is scamming you is to ask very clearly and directly if you will receive a legal Chinese working visa. If they say yes, no matter how reputable the company/ school seems, DO NOT take their word for it. ALWAYS, ALWAYS go on LinkedIn, type in the company name, search for past and present employees, and write to them, asking if you can CALL THEM (on the WeChat app) to talk about their experience with the company. Even if the company does give you a legal visa, working conditions could be horrible. I've heard stories of rat-infested obligatory housing, teachers being sent to random small towns and then having their passports taken away, and no sick days or vacation days, etc. You want to make sure you're safe. And yes, even if current employees are only available to talk at 3am in whatever time zone you are in, you'd best believe you should wake up at 3am to just get a few minutes with them. These people will give you gems. If you're about to move to the other side of the world for a job and an adventure, you want to make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. Pay for Linkedin Premium if you have to, seriously. Your physical safety could depend on it.

I don't mean to scare you- life in China can be amazing. Honestly, I've been living the life of my dreams: I travel internationally 6-7 times a year, get super long vacations, meet amazing people from every corner of the Earth, and have a higher salary and quality of life than I ever could have afforded in New York. But still, you need to know the risks. All in all, I’d say that 95% of the people I have spoken to who are or have been English teachers in China have had great experiences.

So yes, leave everything behind and take the jump! Close your eyes and press "purchase" on that one- way ticket. DO IT! DO IT! Live through your soul! You won't regret it, and worst case scenario, you'll have a cool story to tell ;)

"Maybe the journey isn't so much about becoming anything. Maybe it's about un-becoming everything that isn't really you so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place"

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