ESL in China is far too expansive to cover in a single post, so I’m creating a series where you can learn the inns and outs of the industry, its pros and cons, its inspirational figures and downright crooks, its incredible experiences and nightmare level plights.
The acronym stands for English as a second language, which basically means teaching English to non native speakers.
I have years of experience and knowledge of the ESL industry, both personally and from countless acquaintances, past and present. I also know many managers and owners of private academies, as well as teachers involved in the public school system.
The information I will offer in my series will help you sidestep pitfalls before you even step on the plane. I will inform you about the recruitment industry, the variety of teaching establishments, renumeration, city life, Chinese working culture, students and parents, legal and immigration issues, and more.
My series will contain a lot of general information that can be applied nationwide to China. Some other aspects, like city life, vary greatly from province to province, in which case my primary focus will be on the Chongqing Metropolitan Area.
Since you will discover a world of differing experiences in China ESL, from amazing to downright miserable, I’m going to tell you everything straight while maintaining a neutral and balanced perspective.
The reader I am targeting is a young to middle aged adult, with little knowledge of China, and practically no Chinese language skills.
Without much ado, let’s start from the beginning.
The background to ESL
English is booming in China, and there are still vast swathes of the country waiting for its expansion out of the major cities and into the provincial areas.
In China alone, there are more potential English learners than there are native speakers worldwide, and while the level of English nationwide is generally very low compared to, say, Scandinavia, and the relatively low number of teachers who can speak the language proficiently, the demand for native English teachers and assistants is greater than ever. As long as you possess the credentials and desire, there will be no shortage of amazing opportunities waiting for you all over the country.
However, the industry also teems with unlicensed academies, licensed schools that operate beyond their authorised scope, or semi legitimate institutions that operate in that magical grey area, called ‘Playing the ball-court borderline擦边球(Ca bian qiu) in Chinese.
Customers value foreign teachers very highly, and this attraction incentivizes unscrupulous owners to employ them by almost any immoral and illegal practice. It is mainly this category of school you must avoid, and I will explain the homework you should do before even considering accepting an offer.
Basic requirements 基本要求
There was a day when almost anyone could walk through the door and teach anybody, even with no experience or background checks. Those days are long gone.
The very basic requirements you should possess to work legally in a reputable Chinese school are;
- A native level of English
- Nationality from the UK or Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand South Africa.
- A bachelor’s degree from a mainstream university
- Possess a TEFL/TESOL qualification (Though most do offer training post arrival).
You will may well find workers who don’t match these requirements in the same school, but these are often people on student, business or marriage visas working on the side. I won’t delve further into this matter today.
International Schools 国际学校
Technically, this category is not ESL, as the language of tuition for all curriculum subjects is English. The students are generally proficient, and study in these schools because their parents either work here for foreign companies, or they have overseas passports, and parents wealthy enough to pay the fees.
The best working conditions and high status teaching positions are offered by the international schools. You can enjoy a career with high incremental pay, family accommodation, personal development, paid Chinese and western holidays, plus long summer and winter vacations.
However, these are full time positions that require official degree qualifications like the PGCE, or equivalent from another country.
The best known example in Chongqing is Yew Cheung International School (YCIS).
ESL Big Boys 大品牌学校
The safest option for the newcomer is to contact one of the reputable ESL chains directly. The best known examples that come to mind are New Oriental新东方, Meten美联, Webb韦伯, Owen欧文, English First英孚, First Leap励步. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I consider these as relatively safe choices because they are well established, licensed, and have the authorisation to employ foreign teachers. On top of this, they are familiar with the visa process, offer standard working conditions, and understand the mindset of their foreign staff to a reasonable extent.
You can contact this schools directly through their official websites, Facebook Pages or other western social media platforms. Eliminating the middleman allows more efficient communication and even higher pay, as there aren’t any agency fees to be levied.
In return, you will be expected to complete between 80-100 teaching hours per month, with 5 day weeks covering weekend daytimes, and three midweek shifts mid-afternoon to evenings.
Private academies are businesses in a highly competitive industry, so you can expect more pressure to achieve results as compared to a public school. You will probably have set working hours where you’re expected to be present in the office, and you’ll use this time to prepare lessons and liaise with other staff.
The rest 其他机构
Apart from the handful of famous names, there are probably at least thousands of independently run language schools scattered across the country. You will find the whole spectrum here, from professional and above-board, to dens of slippery chain smoking crooks.
A big issue for many independent academies is that they don’t meet the requirements for the civil education permit民办教学许可证(Min ban jiao xue xu ke zheng). The stipulations on school premises are complex, then there’s a myriad of documentation that must be approved by the local education bureau, and even then, local governments are reluctant to issue permits lest the schools go bust, leaving officials to clean up the mess of citizens’ complaints.
The lucky few who manage to receive their license and wish to employ overseas teachers need to apply for status as a ‘Foreign related unit’涉外单位(She wai dan wei)’. For this, the owners need to push forms at the city level PSB, explain their motives, receive visits, then wait for their trust rating if they are approved. The trust rating affects the validity period of a foreign teacher’s work visa. Normally, workers of a trusted institution are allowed one year visas, while others eyed with distrust may be given as little as three months a time.
As a result, most of these schools don’t bother with licenses at all, and operate quietly under the radar. Whenever somebody asks about education permits, they tend to just say they’re in the application process.
For these schools, the only way to have foreign teachers in their school is to employ overseas students part time, maybe Chinese spouses on a marriage visa, or most commonly, through an agency that secures business visas, arranges their accommodation, sends them to a client school to work, then pays them every month. By the letter of the law, all of these practices are considered illegal to immigration, and you run of risk of being detained and deported if you’re unlucky to be caught working during raids that periodically take place.
Some agencies treat their workers well, but these school budgets are tight, and the middlemen want their cut, so you can expect worse conditions than the branded chain schools you can apply to directly.
Finally, because these foreigners aren’t working legally, they have little to zero recourse when treated unfairly by either the school or agent.
It may be difficult to distinguish between direct employers and agents, so the rule of thumb should be contacting schools directly through official media platforms.
Schools and Universities 高校
Schools and universities are actually the least demanding ESL jobs available. Instead of taking a lead role in a course of study, the teachers here are simply relegated to the role of plain assistant. Usually, they will see up to twenty individual classes once a week for forty minutes a time, and are left to decide for themselves what to do. There is little oversight to the lesson content, and anything goes as long as order is maintained and common decency adhered to.
Classes often seat in excess of sixty pupils, and inexperienced teachers often struggle to interest them beyond the first few lessons.
The main advantages are that you are free to come and go as you please, providing you turn up to the lessons. Once you are done, the other Chinese staff will be too busy to care whether you leave or not.
Another upside is that you might only need a single lesson plan each week, and you just repeat the performance for each class. This saves you a lot of preparation time.
I will cover effective strategies for large timid classes of young students later in my ESL series.
A disadvantage to public schools and universities is certainly the pay. While they do provide the necessities, you will earn considerably less than the more demanding private academies, maybe far short of 10,000RMB per month.
The biggest downside to schools and universities is their tendency to ‘pimp’ their teachers without their consent.
Senior staff at the big schools are well connected throughout their city and neighboring regions, and it’s often the case they promise to lend their foreign teacher for a few hours here and there in return for favours and hard cash.
From the teacher’s perspective, they are usually told with very little notice or details. They might literally come out, jump into a car, and be driven considerable distances, then put in front of tens, hundreds or even thousands of eager faced students excited to see a foreigner for the first time.
Afterwards, the teachers are usually treated to a good thank you dinner, and stuffed an envelope with one or two hundred yuan. This happened to me in my first year in China, and though I can’t say the experience was necessarily bad, the lack of courtesy, time taken away, and scant reward always left a bitter taste.
Schools and universities usually employ through reputable agencies, but sometimes consider direct applications through their website emails. A safe bet for those wishing to work in this sector are cultural NGOs, such as the British Council英国文化协会 or counterpart organisations, who send out at least thousands of teachers to partner institutions worldwide, not only China. NGOs usually set standards for pay and conditions that schools must satisfy before they cooperate with them.
When you apply directly to a school, it’s most likely the admin staff don’t speak any English, so it may be your carefully scripted e-mail is binned on sight without any examination or response.
Nursery schools 幼儿院
Many foreign teachers work full time at nursery schools, particularly higher end chains like Montessori蒙台梭利 and Eton伊顿 in Chongqing. In these institutions, you normally assist a Chinese homeroom teacher, while often taking the lead in choice activities.
For more mainstream options, Chinese nurseries still like the word ‘International’ in their name, so they often try to arrange a foreign teacher to visit a few times a week and interact with the children.
As long as you are active, friendly looking, good with children, and not averse to jumping around like pet rabbits or singing nursery rhymes with vigour, this is a job many foreign teachers enjoy.
Unless you are in the first category of a full time position, be prepared to do the rounds in your district, or even further afield!
Private tuturing 家教
This is where the largest earning potential for ESL is to be found. Parents like the undivided attention this offers, and though you receive considerably more per lesson, the parents pays less than they would to an academy, and don’t need to stump up months’ worth of tuition in advance.
Lessons are normally conducted at the family’s home, but are sometimes arranged at a coffee shop or other relatively quiet places.
Unfortunately, your scope for this is limited. Many school contracts expressly forbid you from doing this under threat of punishment, and academies will fill your schedule at peak times, leaving you little time and energy to do this quietly on the side.
Also, gaining the trust of parents is difficult, and many will only want to deal with you if you have some proficiency in Chinese.
Incidentally, this also classes as illegal work.
Should I travel to China first？ 我先来中国应聘怎么样？
You may feel surprised, but I highly recommend you don’t do this.
One obvious reason is the great expense. China is a long haul flight from all the native English speaking countries, so looking for prospective employers in-country can be prohibitively expensive.
Secondly, in a city like Chongqing, there are simply too many schools to prospect, and if you don’t speak the language, understand the culture, or have any contacts, you will find yourself completely at a loss.
Even in the unlikely case you manage to find a school willing to make you a satisfactory offer, you will have to travel to Hong Kong to apply for a Z work visa. The documentation for this can take weeks before you even go to Hong Kong, and you can expect to spend easily as much money there as on the mainland.
Take my advice and apply directly to a reputable academy, or through a state NGO for public schools and universities.
Great expectations 不现实的期望
Finally, you must be aware the psychology of ‘Face’ and ‘Keeping up appearances’ is so important to people in China, and is equally misunderstood by westerners.
The effect is that people often drive cars they can’t afford, live in homes beyond their means, over-lavishly entertain, and more importantly to you, exaggerate the renumeration and conditions promised to you.
As long as you have your expectations down on paper in a contract, you needn’t worry too much, but when you see highly generous salaries offered on a website, bear in mind these are probably the maximum you could theoretically receive, if you were to do considerable amounts of overtime, and satisfy whatever out of contract activities they may have in mind.
In future ESL series posts, I will delve in contractual issues, but I will finish on the point that Chinese is the language that matters in a contract, and the English version is for your convenience only. When you are considering an institution you don’t necessarily trust, it might be a good idea to have somebody compare the translation to the original.