29th May 2018

Teach English in China: finding the right position for you

By Tom Garside

China has grown into a fascinating, diverse, challenging and ultimately rewarding place to be an English teacher (though of course this depends on the situation where you find yourself when you get to the school you are working with). The range of education groups, schools, kindergartens, university departments… where English Language Education (ELE) is practised means that your experience in China will depend on your choice of position and the role you go for. Here are some ideas to get you thinking about how to find teaching jobs in China:

Look for warning signs

When you are looking for TEFL jobs in China, read between the lines of the job ads you are looking at. Jobsites like daveseslcafe, esljobsfeed or itefl are a good starting point, but ads that don’t specify salary or terms of employment may need closer inspection, and if a school ‘urgently’ or ‘desperately’ needs teachers, be aware that there is probably a reason for that! Look for positions that give enough time for preparation and planning. Look for a balance of contact hours (the hours you will actually be in the classroom) versus working hours (hours you are expected to be in the centre) and clarify what this means. If you can, get hold of a couple of teachers’ email addresses and make contact directly to get a more realistic picture of what it is like working there, and do a quick search for comments about the school on other sites. Broadening your search onto facebook groups and other teacher resources can give you another perspective and throw up other opportunities too.

Finally, make sure the job requirements for working in China are fulfilled by the position that you are looking at. In order to get a legal employment visa, you should fulfil the requirements set out by the immigration authority both in the region where you will be working and by the national requirements. Check what these are and make sure your school is abiding by them, or you could find yourself in trouble without realising it. Schools should NEVER withhold documents (certificates / passports) from staff for the duration of contracts, though they will need to take them for visa applications. This is usually not a problem, but if something doesn’t feel right, get a second opinion from a more experienced China hand and check that something strange is not going on.

Work to your areas of interest

The range of fields within TEFL is fully represented in the Chinese market. Think about what kind of teaching you want to do, and match your interests to the type of teaching that goes on at the centres you are looking at. Find out the ages of students, the range of products the school advertises, any exams or other specific goals students are working towards, and find out what this could mean if you are asked to teach them. From experience, the most common teaching settings in China are:

  • Kindergarten English classes

This is by far the biggest TEFL market in China. Chinese parents typically want to give their kids a head start in language education from a very early age, and kids can get this from their time in pre-school centres. Kindergarten can be a challenging environment, but support is usually provided by teaching assistants and full-time school staff who can help you to lead classes and deal with the discipline and personal needs of young kids. Learning through play is a relatively new concept in China, and if done well can be an incredibly rewarding experience. However, don’t expect too much from the younger ones, as your classes will be part of their overall development as kids. Lots of positive reinforcement and praise is necessary to motivate kindy learners, and a lot of the time will be spent reading stories, singing songs and doing short bursts of play-based language work.

  • Extracurricular English for primary and secondary learners

Another huge part of English language education in China is after-school or weekend classes for school-age kids. This has more tangible results, but be aware that in China, students are often required to work from early in the morning (with school starting as early as 7:00 am in many provinces) until late in the evening, with many kids getting home from after-school music, tutoring or language classes at 10:00 pm at night. This means that motivation can be low, and discipline issues can manifest themselves very easily. Plan to make learning fun, with projects, plays, games and video tasks to maintain engagement (planned to include focused language development, of course), and the results will be clear to see.

  • Exam preparation

At older ages, and for adults, exam prep is another specialism in TEFL that is well worth getting familiar with. Testing is an ancient and traditional part of Chinese education as a whole, so the value of formal assessments such as IELTS, TOEFL, Trinity and Cambridge suites of exams is very high. Teachers who can teach these well, soon get a good reputation and can write their own meal ticket through formal classes, private tutorials and extra classes. If you want to develop your skills as a teacher, get to know these exams and look for practical resources which develop exam skills and language at the same time. Be aware that Chinese students (and more importantly their parents) are incredibly results-focused, and are used to cramming and repetitive exam practice. For English language exams such as those mentioned above, however, this is not always an effective technique. Focus on the study skills and processes of learning which underlie exam performance, and you will bring out the best in your students. This approach can meet resistance from students and parents, but stick to your guns and you will see tangible results.

  • English for Academic Purposes

Further down the line, students who wish to go overseas to universities in the US, UK, Australia or other English-speaking countries will often need to do some academic language preparation. Often combined with ESOL exams (above), this kind of study aims to prepare Chinese students for the realities of study in a totally different academic environment. There are many joint-venture universities (overseas universities partnered with Chinese institutions) which offer combined study programmes (two years in China and two years overseas, offering joint degrees from both institutions, for example). Positions in language centres or English departments at these institutions offer great packages, with attractive salaries, relocation, insurance, rental allowance, etc., but often require higher qualifications (DipTESOL, DELTA or similar) and longer experience. In contrast, positions at Chinese universities are more accessible and though salaries may be lower, accommodation and subsistence is often provided, and it can be a great way to see aspects of life in China that are not often experienced.

If you are thinking of stepping in to China to work, go for it, but keep your eyes open from the beginning and stay positive - more than anywhere in the world, in China you get back what you put in, so meet people with a smile and go with your positive instincts. Living and teaching in China is a step outside of most people’s comfort zone, but that is what makes it such an incredible experience. As a teacher, you will meet people and go to places that you never expected, form relationships with your students and their families that will show you how hospitable and generous China can be. It will also be frustrating at times, so be prepared to leave your western assumptions at the door and go with what feels right. Doors will open to amazing experiences, beautiful places and rewarding work all round.

If you're in Hong Kong, come and join one of our upcoming professional development workshops held reguarly throughout the year. TESOL taser workshops are free, while teaching skills workshops are $200 per session. As part of our committment to the English education industry, all EfA TESOL graduates may attend teaching skills worksops free of charge.

Tom Garside, EfA’s former Director of Teacher Training, has 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He has trained teachers in Europe, as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project, provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and provides in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations. He is the author of the essential CertTESOL course supplement, Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.