What is it really like to teach English in China? I’ve been there, done it, and bought the t-shirt – here’s everything you need to know…
A lot of people think about moving abroad to teach English in China. Why wouldn’t you really? It’s a great opportunity to travel, meet new people, and get paid – all while having this amazing experience. However, it’s also a big walk into the unknown. Not only do you have to leave your friends, family and job but you also have no idea what it’s actually going to be like. And then come the questions…
Will you enjoy teaching abroad? What happens if you don’t? Will you make friends when you teach abroad? What if you get culture shock? Will you feel homesick and spend the whole time wanting to go home? Should you even go at all? I’m going to try and answer some of these questions in the post.
What is it really like to teach English in China?
I moved to Shanghai in China to teach English when I was 29. A lot later than most people do it! I’d spent the past few years considering it but I was apprehensive about walking away from my job and not being able to get back on the hamster wheel when I got back. It seems pretty crazy looking back on now. I dithered so much! However, in the end I took the plunge. I’m so glad I did, because living in China was one of the best experiences of my life. My only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.
That’s not to say everything was a walk in the park. There were plenty of things I didn’t like about teaching English abroad. Plenty of things! I’m going to share the truth about what it’s like to teach English in China. But first of all let’s look at the big questions you’ll want to ask first…
How much will you get paid to teach in China?
The short answer is: it depends. I dug through my old emails to find out how much as got paid when I was teaching English in Shanghai. It was this: 2200RMB each month. That translates as around £250 each money – so not a lot! However, I was doing an internship and this was framed as an ‘allowance’ rather than a salary. My accommodation was covered as part of the internship so this was just spending money. It was comfortably enough to be able to go out and enjoy the city each weekend.
You can earn a lot more than that though. At the upper end of the scale you can earn around 25000 RMB per month teaching English in China. That’s around £2800 per month. You can get a lot of entry level positions earning around 12000 RMB per month, which is still £1300 each month. With a little bit of experience you could probably get 16-18000 RMB each month, which is £1800-2000 each month. Basically, if you want to save some money while teaching abroad you’ll definitely be able to do it.
What hours do TEFL teachers work in China?
What you’re paid as a TEFL teacher (when means teaching English as a foreign language) depends what kind of school you work in. I was a teacher in a private school for pre-school children and I worked from Wednesday to Sunday each week. Monday and Tuesday were my two days off. You might think that not being off at the weekends is a bit rubbish. However, in a city like Shanghai it doesn’t matter; everything is open all the time. The teachers all worked the same days so it just meant that Sunday night was our Friday night! In terms of hours, we started at 9.30am and finished at 6pm. The classes at the school were two hours long (it was based on immersive learning) and so you’d teach a maximum of three classes a day, one class in the morning and two classes in the afternoon.
What holidays will English teachers get in China?
The holidays you get depend mostly on what kind of school you’re working in. A public school operates during normal school hours. A private school is a school that kids attend outside of regular school hours – usually in the evenings or at the weekends – where the students learn in addition to their regular schooling. I worked at a private school for pre-school children. You’ll also get schools that teach university students and adults who want to learn English.
If you work in a public school in China you’ll get a lot of holidays – two months off in the summer as well as 3-4 weeks for Chinese New Year. If you work in a private school the holidays won’t be quite as generous but you’ll get all the national holidays as well as the Chinese New Year holiday. You’ll work a 12 month contract whereas at the international school you’ll work a 10 month contract.
What should you pack for China?
This could probably be a whole blog post in itself but I’ll start with the basics. Deodorant, tampons, moisturiser are three of the biggest ones. The first two are hard to find in China while lot of the moisturisers have whitening agents in them. That’s not something you want to pick up by accident. I would also bring a hard drive so that you can bring films and TV shows to watch. I’d had to buy one over in Shanghai and even though it seemed legit it broke before the end of my stay! I ended up losing a bunch of photographs I’d moved onto it from my computer. You don’t want to do that!
Why should you choose China to teach abroad?
There are so many countries that have a high demand for English teachers – such as South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Dubai, numerous European countries – so why China? For me, it came down to the overall package that was being offered in China. The salaries are reasonably high, the cost of living is low, and when you teach English in China your flight and accommodation are often covered as part of your overall salary package, so you won’t have to worry about anything when you arrive.
You also don’t have to have lots of experience to be a teacher in China. With the Middle East, for example, teachers are required to be experienced or even be fully qualified as a teacher before they can get a job. Of course this means they’re paid extremely well. However, it also means you can’t just go if you want to be a teacher for six months or so. You have to be 100% committed to it as a career.
In China, you just have to have a degree and your TEFL qualification and you’re good to go. In fact, you don’t even always need to have a degree to teach in China. Two of the people I were there with didn’t have degrees for example, so you can still go and teach in China no matter what your experience level!
What else should you know?
I can only speak about my own experience teaching English in China but here are a few things to think about if it’s something you’re interested in. There’s a huge market for English teachers in China. If you can demonstrate that you’re a good teacher you can potentially have the pick of the jobs.
However, with that comes a lot of expectation. Even though a lot of the kids learning English are really young there will be high expectations from their parents. So as much as you might be going to China thinking teaching abroad is an easy way to make money you are playing an important role in these kids’ lives and their parents are paying a premium for you to do it. So do take it seriously.
Another thing is that teaching in China is a business. When I taught in China it was at a relatively new school that was just establishing itself and during my time there they opened a new school on the other side of town. I basically had to go over there twice a week to do test lessons to recruit new children for the school. It was fine, but I did feel like a bit of a performing monkey each time! I guess what I’m saying is that the ‘rules’ can potentially change at any time and you just have to go with it.
10 things you need to know about teaching English in China…
OK, so now that I’ve answered some of the big questions that people usually have about teaching English in China, let’s take a deeper dive into my personal experience, warts and all…
1) You’ll make amazing friends
Truly, the friends I made in Shanghai were some of the best I’ve ever had. I still remember arriving at our meeting point at the airport and everyone else showing up one by one, one curious stranger at a time. By the time we were on the bus on the way to the hotel we were chatting and making jokes. It just grew from there, really instantly. I was older than most of them – they were all about 22 – but it didn’t make a difference. We were all on this crazy ride together and we connected through that.
The friendships you develop when you’re teaching abroad are so powerful because you literally don’t have anyone else, you don’t have that support network, and so you become each other’s family. I actually wrote about this is in a post about friendship that you can read right here. I even met one of my Shanghai back home in Edinburgh once or twice. Even though I haven’t been in touch with them for a while now, I look back and treasure those friendships as some of the best in my life.
2) You might not love teaching
You might want to move abroad to teach English in China because you KNOW that you want to be a teacher. I wanted to go to China so that I could try out teaching as a career option. However, I quickly realised that it wasn’t for me. As a natural introvert I learned that having to be high energy all the time (and high energy for kids – a whole new level) was kind of exhausting. Teaching is a performative act by nature and when you’re teaching super young kids you do have to dial up a notch. As crazy as it sounded I actually kind of missed sitting at my desk in my old job! So just be mindful of that. What I did love was creating all the arts and crafts materials for the lessons, which you can see on the below!
That said, if it’s something you’re not sure about but are considering then give it a try. It’s much better to do this way than apply for a PGDE and drop out halfway through. If you’re going to try something might as well do it in an cool city and have an incredible cultural experience alongside it, right?
3) You’ll fall in love with the kids
You can’t teach English in China and not fall in love with the kids you’re teaching. I’m not really a kid person but even I couldn’t help it. What can I say? You do grow attached to some of them and have your favourites – you are seeing some of them once or twice a week for months at a time after all. It feels amazing when you see start to see their English improve. Especially and when they shake off their shyness and get comfortable around you. I feel really proud I had a positive impact on these kids’ lives, for however short a period of time I was in China. I didn’t even mind singing Frozen with them for the millionth time. Every time I hear the soundtrack it takes me back to Shanghai!
4) The food in China is amazing
There are pros and cons of moving abroad to teach English in China, of course, but the food certainly wasn’t one of them. I LOVED the food in China. My advice would be to try EVERYTHING. I ate cow brain, chicken foot, more dumplings than I could ever possibly count, tofu… everything.
One of my favourite rituals was on a Sunday night when we all finished work for the week and we’d head over to the Cantonese restaurant in the mall across the street to eat crispy sweet and sour pork served alongside cold beer. We even visited a North Korean restaurant once where we ate Korean barbecue and I was told off for taking too many photographs. I also ate dumplings as much as I possibly could. Try as much as you can. Do it right and you’ll be an absolute pro with chopsticks by the time you go home. That probably will impress your friends.
5) You’ll see some amazing things
Shanghai is an incredible city and there are so many amazing things to see and do. The beautiful leafy streets of the French Concession area, the Oriental Pearl Tower in the famous Shanghai skyline, and the old town districts are just a few. There are also SO many things to talk about in China that are just wild. If you have light coloured hair, like me, you’ll might get people approaching you for a photograph. Squat toilets are another one – you haven’t lived until you’ve used a squat toilet after too many beers.
There were also be some not so nice things that it’s worth preparing yourself for, poverty and the treatment of animals being just two of them. I also saw some pretty shocking things during my time in China. One of the apartment blocks opposite mine, which had just been built, was ripped down by government officials without warning. It had been built illegally – apparently a pretty common occurence in China. People were crying and in distress because it was their home. I’ll never forget it. So just keep in mind that you are in another country and things are going to be different.
6) You’ll find your groove
Yes, you’ll be out of your comfort zone when you live abroad – especially when you’re moving to the other side of the world as I did – but you’ll also find your groove, trust me. When you first move abroad everything is new and overwhelming. You don’t feel like you have a firm foothold on the world anymore. However, you will acclimatise. It definitely took me a while to settle into teaching in China, but even if you are a bit apprehensive as I was, you’ll find your place and your confidence with it.
You’ll also find that you develop routines like you would back home. We’d always go out as a group on a Sunday night for dinner and drinks (our Friday night) and then Mondays were mostly chilling in the apartment – we stayed out pretty late on Sundays! That meant Tuesday was our day for hanging out together and exploring the city. I also ended up doing other random things that I never would have expected, such as pole dancing classes with one of the teachers in the school. I was the only western person in the class so my friend (who was Chinese) would translate what the teacher was saying. It was great fun and such a memorable experience. Pole dancing classes in Shanghai, really!
7) You might get ripped off
I think this happens a lot so it’s definitely something to be aware of. As I mentioned earlier I signed up to do an ‘internship’ in China. That meant that the salary was lower than the standard rate, but you got benefits like your accommodation paid for and having added support throughout your stay.
I was only a couple of weeks in when I found out that I (and the rest of the people I’d arrived in China with) were earning about a quarter of what the other teachers at the school were earning. A quarter! That was a bit of a kick in the teeth. If I’d have known the gap would be so big I probably wouldn’t have signed up. However, I hadn’t moved to China to make money. I’d come for the experience. So you can be philosophical about it or you can let it ruin your time there; I chose the former.
8) You might not get to do everything you want
One of my biggest regrets about moving abroad to teach English in China is that I never went to the Great Wall of China when I was there. However, I did have good reasons for that. Like I said, I got stung financially, so while I had plenty of money to live on and explore Shanghai and other cities nearby, I couldn’t afford a flight to Beijing along with a number of nights accommodation. I could have just taken the hit financially and stuck it on a credit card, but I didn’t know what the situation was going to be like when I moved back home and whether I wouldn’t be able to get another job for months.
So I played it sensible and didn’t go. However, I’m optimistic I’ll get there at some point in the future. In fact, my boyfriend just said the other day he’d like to visit so we might try and go in the next year or two. And I’d be able to enjoy it properly without worrying about money – win-win.
9) You’ll miss your friends and family A LOT
When I left for Shanghai to teach English I’d only been with my boyfriend for 18 months and we were very much still in the honeymoon period of the relationship. It was the first relationship I’d been in that just felt right, as cheese on toast as that sounds. So as much as I loved living in China, and I really did love it, I did miss him a lot. By the end I was almost desperate to come back just to see him again.
You’ll also have to watch from the sidelines – or social media – as life carries on without you on the other side of the world. That can be tough. You just have to remind yourself that you’ll have plenty of time to catch up with everyone when you get back. Everyone will be envious of you and thinking their life is run of the mill in comparison to yours right now, so don’t sweat it too much!
10) It won’t be perfect – but that’s OK
If you want to teach English in China you’ll have to accept pretty early on that not everything is going to be perfect. If I’d have known about the metro journey I would have to get every morning I probably would have thought twice about moving abroad to China! I’m joking, really, although I did have to stand with my face in someone’s armpit WAY more times than I would care to remember.
There were loads of things that weren’t perfect about my trip; the accommodation was tiny, the management at the school could be annoying and as I said we were working for peanuts. On the flip side, there were also so many unforgettable moments that I will literally cherish my whole life.
Popping into the tiny cafe a few minutes walk away from my apartment to order dumplings several times a week, trying different foods at a street market with my best buddy Joe, going to a theme park and whizzing around on rollercoasters that would never pass health and safety testing in the UK, prancing around an urban beach in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world, and so on. If you’re thinking about teaching English abroad just go for it, because the pay-off is definitely worth it.