Mike Cairnduff from Hello Teacher!

Updated April 16, 2019
Mike Cairnduff

Tips for teaching English in China

You’ve probably heard a few tips when it comes to teaching English in China.

“Prepare for a different culture” and “pack the right clothes”, the so-called experts tell us.

These tips are neither helpful nor insightful.

So what do China TEFL teachers really need to know?

Well, you’re in for a treat because I’ve put together a complete list.

Let’s dive right in.

Weighing up your options

1. Ask yourself three important questions at the start

What part of the world do I want to work in? What type of school do I want to teach at? What salary and working conditions am I prepared to accept? These are the three most important questions you should ask yourself at the start to help narrow down your options.

2. Consider China’s cost of living

Did you know that the cost of living in Wuhan (central China) is 62% cheaper than in Sydney, Australia? Along with a generous local salary and great perks (like return airfare), you need to consider the cost of living as in important factor in your decision to choose China as your teach abroad destination. I love this free tool by Expatistan which compares the cost of living between two cities.

3. Only rely on trustworthy sources

Do you really trust the TEFL information on Wikipedia? Moving overseas is a big move and it’s not worth the risk of going it alone. Experienced and reputable recruiters are a trustworthy source.

Tip for teaching in China - beware of dodgy schools and recruiters

Make sure you do your research if you want to teach in China.

4. Beware of dodgy schools and job boards

Job boards like Dave’s ESL Café have loads of ads for teaching in China. While there are some good jobs available from reputable schools, I have three important words for you: do your research.

5. Don’t teach in China

Believe it or not, there are some undesirable traits for a TEFL teacher in China to have. For example, being inflexible, not taking the job seriously, having unreasonable salary expectations and more.

Job requirements

6. You really do need a degree

Only dodgy schools hire teachers without a degree. The only exception is if you’re teaching in China as part of a reputable internship program (like this one run by ImmerQi). Interestingly, ABC Australia recently reported that two-thirds of the 400,000 foreigners teaching in China in 2017 were unqualified.

7. You may not need a TEFL certificate

If you hold a bachelor’s degree (or higher) in education, TEFL or TESOL then you don’t need to complete a TEFL course for China. Everyone else must be TEFL certified (you can compare top TEFL courses here).

You need a TEFL certificate for China unless you have an education degree

Unless you're qualified to teach, you need a TEFL certificate for China.

8. Over 55? China is not for you

If you’re over age 55, your chances of getting a teaching job in China are slim. Although the official limit is 60, unless you’re already working in China as a mature age teacher, you're probably better off looking for a TEFL job in another country.

9. If you’re a non-native English speaker, expect hassles

The major, reputable teach in China recruiters (including Hello Teacher!) do not hire non-native English speakers. This is due to the strict guidelines set down by China. But as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way – you’ll see numerous job board ads that still accept candidates that don’t meet the guidelines.

The country

10. China is enormous

Geographically China is so big that the climate, language and culture in one corner of the country can be completely different to another corner. Choose where you want to teach as it will influence the kind of experience you will have in China.

11. See as much of the country as you can

Use China’s bullet trains to see as much of this stunning country as you can. Whether you spend a few days in Chengdu, explore the famous back alleys of Beijing, or do some cool things in Fuzhou, treasure every moment. You may never return to China.

12. Don’t expect China to be like your country

China isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s still a developing country! If you think China is going to be like your country, it’s time to re-set your expectations. For example, the pollution in China is something that many foreigners struggle with.

Polluted stream in China

In many parts of China you will see pollution.

13. Consider teaching in a third-tier city

Although he works in bustling, modern Shenzhen, British teacher Tim Robinson believes smaller cities in China are worth considering. “You can save the same on half the salary in a third-tier town and have twice the experience, but you will have to be more adventurous,” he says. You can even go one step further and teach in rural China.

The recruitment process

14. Beware of dodgy agents and recruiters

Slimy agents or recruiters may receive a portion of your salary every month, without you even knowing it. Avoid these unscrupulous providers at all costs.

15. First impressions are lasting impressions

Make sure your resume is up to date and error-free. If you do get an interview, dress well (even on Skype), speak clearly, and articulate why you would be a great teacher in China.

16. Ask lots of questions

To ensure you get the job and conditions that are right for you, ask your recruiter as many questions as possible before accepting a TEFL job offer. And once you arrive in China, ask the locals questions. The more you ask, the more you’ll discover!

Teaching contract

17. Go over your teaching contract carefully

You must be comfortable with everything in your China teaching contract before you sign it. Your recruiter can help you with this.

Go over your contract is a great tip for teaching in China

Read your contract carefully before you embark on your journey teaching in China.

18. Changing employers can be tricky

Leaving a school before a contract is up requires a letter of release from the school.  This letter authorizes another school to register you with the government and enables the transfer of the resident permit. You should complete your contract unless there are exceptional circumstances for you to leave early.

Preparing

19. The visa process is more robust than it’s ever been

In 2017 the China Z visa documentation requirements got a little stricter. Gone are the days where you could arrive as an unskilled foreigner and expect to get a teaching job straight away. Getting a visa to teach in China takes time so you need to plan in advance.

20. Travel insurance might save you

While you’ll receive basic medical insurance as part of your teaching contract, you should consider taking out travel insurance as well. This can cover things like evacuation, emergency dental work, trip cancellation and your baggage and personal belongings.

21. Don’t buy the cheapest airfare

Once your contract is finalized, you’ll know how much money the school will reimburse you for your return flight. In most cases, the amount should be more than enough to fly with a reputable, full-service airline in economy class. There’s no need to fly with a no-frills airline! You can compare flights on Skyscanner.

Tip number 21 for teaching in China - do not buy the cheapest airfare

You can avoid no-frills airlines once you know how much the school will reimburse you for your flight.

22. Bring a few things with you

Bring your laptop or notebook, bank cards, unlocked phone, travel adapter, and any special medications or toiletries you use. It's also a good idea to bring a few interesting teaching materials from your country, like foreign currency and restaurant menus.

23. Don’t bring expensive stuff

Apart from your laptop or notebook, don’t bring expensive stuff. You might lose it or, it in the case of clothing, get it dirty (things get dirty in China quickly!). There are some other things you should not bring to China too.

24. Learn about China before you arrive

If you’re unfamiliar with China and all its quirks, you could do some reading, check out some YouTube videos (like the comprehensive one below) or watch movies about China (The Joy Luck Club is still my favorite!).

Arriving

25. Register at the public security bureau (PSB)

Make sure your school takes you to the PSB (essentially the police station) straight away to register you as a foreigner living in China.

26. Check your apartment

If you’re teaching in the public sector, speak to your school contact if your apartment doesn’t have everything you need. If you’re teaching in the private sector, you’ll rent a furnished apartment. Simply buy any extra bits and pieces you may need (like cutlery). You can find your nearest Walmart store here.

TEFL teacher housing China

Typical housing for a TEFL teacher in China.

27. Get your address written in Chinese characters

This tip is a life-saver! Take a photo of your address on your phone. Whenever you jump in a taxi, simply show it to the driver.

28. Get connected

Ask your school for help to set up a bank account and mobile phone account, as well as connect your apartment to the internet.

Language and culture

29. You don’t need to speak a word of Mandarin

Even if you don’t know what ‘ni hao’ means, you can still teach English in China! Mandarin is not required at all. Some schools offer free Mandarin lessons for foreign teachers. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could learn some simple Mandarin phrases before you go.

30. Chinglish is rampant

The Chinglish language really does exist in China! It’s cute, it’s frustrating, and it’s very much engrained in English classrooms across the country.

Teaching in China

You don't need to speak Chinese to teach in China.

31. Culture shock is real

Unless you’re totally bulletproof or you’ve been to China before, you’re going to get some form of culture shock in China. Don’t worry though – it’s normal and you’ll adjust fairly quickly.

32. You will become Chinese

The longer you spend time in this crazy country the more Chinese you will become. I’m serious! But don’t fight it – embrace it. You’ll eventually start to enjoy karaoke and even jump queues.

33. Brace yourself for the weird and wonderful

From the quirky Chinese souvenirs you can find at the markets to the locals who sleep in Ikea, you’re bound to experience the weird, wacky and wonderful in China.

A Britney Spears cupcake - only in China!

A Britney Spears cupcake - only in China!

34. Ignore the myths and the stereotypes

Well, not all of them. Spitting in China is still widespread. But things like “all Chinese people eat dog meat” and “no one can speak English” are simply untrue. China is full of surprises.

People

35. Chinese people are fundamentally good

There’s a tendency to be on your guard at first, to listen to tales of thievery and scams and believe it’s safer to assume the worst in people. But that’s a mistake. While you should still follow safety precautions in China, don’t let that get in the way of getting to know and trust the local people.

36. You’ll make friends (but it takes work)

Some EFL teachers in China find it easy to make friends while others find it hard. Either way, you’ve got to put time and effort in to make friendships work.

Teaching in China

You can make friends while teaching in China.

37. Establish your support network

Call home once a week, have a regular dinner with the other English teachers, attend a monthly expat Meetup – do whatever it is that drives you, makes you happy and gives you some structure.

38. Dating is not as easy as you think

Are you hoping to come to China to hook up with a local? Well, it’s not as easy as you think. Teacher Nicholas has written a blog on how hard it is to date local Chinese girls while teacher Kim explains the reasons why English teachers in China are single. If it’s all too hard, remember why you came to China in the first place – to teach English!

Food

39. You will find Western food in China

Although it might not be exactly what you’re used to, you will be able to find Western restaurants and food that will remind you a lot of home. For example, in most cities in China you’ll be able to find a decent steak restaurant where you can eat your meal in absolute comfort with a knife and fork.

40. Avoid McDonald’s and KFC

Sure, everyone feels like junk food now and again. But there are so many delicious kinds of Chinese food that you’d be silly to eat Western food every day. Plus, it’ll drain your bank account.

A food tip is do not eat Western junk food

Avoid Western junk food in China.

Health and safety

41. Get jabbed before you go

Before you head off, get the right immunisations for China. See your doctor to find out what vaccinations and medicines you need.

42. China’s healthcare system is different

China doesn’t have doctor’s clinics like those in the USA, UK and Australia. If you get sick in China, you’ll be taken to see a doctor in an actual hospital. Hospitals are generally modern and clean. Don’t forget to bring your passport!

43. Look after your mental health

You may experience loneliness, anxiety, depression or other mental health issues while working and living in China. The good news is you can prepare for good mental health abroad.

Look after your mental health while teaching in China

Look after your mental health while teaching in China.

44. Don’t drink tap water

Tap water in China is unsafe to drink. Drink only bottled water or boiled water. Your tummy will thank you for it!

45. China is safe (apart from the water)

China is a safe country for foreign teachers. People will generally leave you alone, unless you ask for help. According to China Daily, in 2016 the homicide rate was 0.62 per 100,000 residents. What other country can boast statistics like that?

46. Pedestrian crossings are a free-for-all

Cars, motorcycles and bikes tend to use red lights as a suggestion to stop, rather than a blanket rule to stop. Even though you might have the right of way, a car might still blaze through the red light right in your direction. Always be on the lookout.

Busy pedestrian crossing China

Be careful crossing the street!

47. Beware of scams

Be aware that scams do exist in foreign countries and China is no exception. While China is a safe country to work in and visit, there are some classic scams to be aware of.

Law

48. Respect the law

You’re subject to all local laws and penalties, including those that might seem harsh by Western standards. Gambling, prostitution and preaching your religion are illegal. The use or possession of even small quantities of ‘soft’ drugs, such as marijuana, is also illegal.

49. You must teach on a Z visa

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has warned that if you work on any type of visa other than the Z visa, it can result in large fines, detention and deportation.

Teaching English in a Chinese primary school

You need to have a Z visa to work in China.

50. Criminals, move on

In September 2018, TEFL teacher and former police officer Daniel Hiers was arrested in Shanghai for allegedly killing his wife and molesting a young girl in South Carolina. He was spotted on the US Marshals’ most wanted list by a Chinese student, after being on the run for 13 years. Nowadays, prospective teachers need their criminal record check legalized as part of the visa process.

Technology

51. Buy a VPN before you arrive

Numerous foreign websites and apps including Facebook, YouTube and Gmail, are not accessible in China. You must get a VPN for China before you arrive. That’s because VPN sites are blocked in China.

52. Download your apps

Download the best apps to use in China, like Google Translate, Didi Chuxing (China’s Uber), and of course your VPN app.

53. Get used to paying on your phone

Chinese people link their bank card to apps like WeChat and use it to pay for stuff. And you can do it too! Some restaurants don’t even have menus anymore, instead they have a barcode you scan using WeChat so the menu appears on your phone.

Scan your phone to pay for food in China

Scan your phone to pay for food practically anywhere in China.

Shopping

54. It pays to shop around for TEFL certification

There are countless TEFL courses available. It’s hard to know what represents good value and what the minimum requirement is for China. That’s why you should rely on a TEFL China course specialist.

55. Haggle but don’t tip

Whether you’re shopping for clothes at the local market or taking a risk by riding in an unlicensed taxi, haggling is the norm in China. Just never, ever tip – it’s not part of the Chinese culture.

56. Forget about clothes shopping

Unless you’re tiny, forget about going clothes shopping in China. The same goes for shoes.

Travel and getting around

57. Trains are better than planes

The best and cheapest way of getting around this enormous country is by bullet train. The network is modern, extensive and most cities are connected this way. You'll need your passport to go anywhere (as well as checking in to a hotel) so don't travel without it. If you’re traveling to a far-flung place like Xinjiang, you'd be better off flying.

58. See some of China’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

There are plenty of opportunities to go sightseeing while living in The Middle Kingdom. With 53 UNESCO World Heritage Sites to its name, China is only one site short of equaling Italy’s world-beating record. Many of the sites are largely unknown outside China despite their significance, such as the stunning Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan province. Book a weekend away with Trip.

A teaching in China tip is to visit UNESCO tourist sites

The Giant Buddha in Leshan is a UNESCO site.

59. Always carry toilet paper

In China, toilet paper is not provided in public restrooms. The last thing you want to contend with is a squat toilet with no paper, especially if you’re suffering from diarrhea in China. So always – and I repeat, always – bring toilet paper with you whenever you leave your apartment.

60. Fly to other countries in Asia in just a few hours

China is a stone’s throw from many Asian countries including South Korea, Japan, The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Keep your eyes on cheap flights.

Adventure

61. Say ‘yes’ as much as you can

It’s easy to turn down a dinner invitation from a Chinese teacher and instead watch Game of Thrones in your apartment all weekend. Get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience and say ‘yes’ as much as you can.

62. You’ve got to be flexible

It’s probably one of the most important tips on this list. Having realistic expectations and a flexible attitude will help prepare you for the stress that can accompany living and working in a different culture.

63. Eat things you wouldn’t normally eat

I’m not saying eat gross food every day, but eat things you’d probably never try back home like chicken feet, duck tongue and pig brains. You might surprise yourself!

Try eating things in China you would not usually eat

Try eating some weird stuff in China!

Salary and money

64. Some schools pay a lot more than others

Private training centers pay a lot more than public schools. The trade-off is longer hours, evening classes and a non-standard ‘weekend’ (e.g. Tuesday and Wednesday). I’ve written a whole blog on typical teacher salaries in China if you want to dig a bit deeper.

65. Don’t choose a teaching job based on salary alone

Choosing a teaching job in China based on salary alone is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. You need to equally consider factors like the school’s location, whether housing is included, working conditions, class size, and other benefits in the contract.

66. Bring enough money

Have a comfortable buffer of cash to see you through until you receive your first pay check a month later. You’ll also need rent money upfront if you teach at a private language institute in China (housing is included if you teach at a public school).

67. If you’re smart, you’ll save

Thanks to China’s low cost of living and generous local salaries for TEFL teachers, China is one of the best countries where you can work and save money. While this couple saved $21,000 in a year teaching in China, they lived really frugally! You should at least be able to save up enough money to do some travelling around Asia before you head home.

Benefits

68. You’ll get holidays

You’ll get the Chinese holidays off, including the oddly named Tomb Sweeping Day. You might get other time off too. It depends on the school.

69. There are secret perks

You might already know about some of the main (and might I add, awesome) benefits of teaching English in China, like airfare reimbursement and free accommodation at some schools. But there are plenty of other benefits when you teach in China, like school activities, attending parties, making new friends and networking events.

EFL teachers socializing in China

There are numerous perks for English teachers in China.

70. You might pick up some other work

While most teaching contracts don’t allow for you to do other paid work, you might be able to do paid tutoring or even online teaching in your own time. Run it by the school first or risk getting into trouble.

71. TEFL in China can open up career doors

Teaching in China can lead to bigger things. Take Jonathan Arthur, for example, who went from a teaching job to a marketing role in Shanghai, and Preston Thomas, who went from teaching to running a fancy restaurant in Beijing. And there are many more success stories!

Schools

72. Respect your host school

Be mindful that your host school has gone to great efforts to invite you to come and work with them. If there are any teething issues, communicate effectively and act professionally at all times.

73. Some schools are enormous

Some school campuses, especially universities, are enormous. It could take 15 minutes to walk from one classroom to the next. The solution? Buy a bike!

Ride a bike to get to your classes

Ride your way from class to class!

73. Some schools are run like businesses

Unless you’re working in the public sector, your school may be privately owned. According to ExpatFocus, one of the top misconceptions about teaching abroad is that schools always have the students’ best interests at heart. You need to be comfortable with the concept of a profit-making educational enterprise.

74. Get to know the kind helpers

Some schools have designated student helpers. Find out who they are. Not only can they answer questions about the school, but they may also help you with things like translating, shopping and taking you to hospital.

Planning lessons

75. Carefully plan your lessons

If you’re teaching in a private language institute you’re probably going to have a set syllabus, textbook and lesson plans. Great! If you’re teaching in the public sector, however, you may have to create your own lessons from scratch. Teacher Nicholas says the GANAG lesson plan works every time.

76. Get your game on

Playing games in the classroom is a crucial part of teaching a foreign language. Students become more engaged, taught content is reinforced and class morale can increase. Even if you’re teaching in one of China’s large public classrooms with limited equipment, you can still run games that get everyone interacting.

77. Use multimedia to your advantage

If you have access to multimedia, use it! Your digital classroom in China might include a digital board. You could also plan lessons around movies or even video games.

Multimedia in Chinese classroom

If you have multimedia in your classroom you should incorporate it in your lesson planning.

78. Mix it up

Do lots of different activities in your classroom to keep your students on their toes. Things like short videos, stories, pictures, jokes, student projects and role-plays can all work well. Chinese students are very competitive so quizzes and competitions also work well.

79. Teaching can be stressful

While you’ll have a blast teaching English in China, at times it can still be stressful. Things may not go to plan, your students might cheat or be unmotivated, and your lessons may not hit the mark. Luckily, there are ways you can take the stress out of teaching. Plus, there’s always meditation!

In the classroom

80. Chinese students can be challenging

Young kids can be noisy, disruptive and may not understand you. On the other hand, older students are quiet, shy, passive learners. They’re afraid of making mistakes in public and losing face. Teaching in China will challenge you!

81. Chinese students learn by rote

From a young age, Chinese students are expected to memorize a lot of information. They can therefore find it difficult to think outside the square, be creative and critically analyze information. You’ll need to find ways to work with this mindset.

82. Classroom facilities and equipment can vary greatly

You might have the latest in multimedia equipment or just a chalkboard – it all depends on the school.

Teach English in China

A traditional Chinese classroom setup.

83. Never discuss the ‘three taboos’

If there’s only one classroom rule you follow as a TEFL teacher in China it’s this: never discuss politics, religion or sex. Ever.

84. Find out if you’ll have a teaching assistant

There are many benefits to having a teaching assistant (TA) in your ESL classroom in China. You won’t have a TA if you teach in the public sector, but you might if you teach at a private language center. Find out before you sign your contract.

85. You may teach more than English

Some schools may love you so much that they’ll ask you to teach subjects other than English, such as Western culture and history. According to British teacher Kim, who teaches in Zhenjiang, you should ask about this during the interview process. “Don’t assume that just because your training is in TEFL you’ll be teaching English,” he says.

Life as a teacher

86. Prepare to be photographed

Particularly in China’s smaller cities, foreigners are still quite rare. People might want to take a photo of you when you’re out and about. It’s all part of the teach-in-China experience.

87. Expect the unexpected

Things don’t always go to plan in China. Rules and procedures can change without prior notice, timetables change and things never stand still. As a TEFL teacher in China, you need to be flexible and adaptable, and just go with the flow.

Two female English teachers China

Things can change quickly in China so try to go with the flow.

88. Don’t whinge and complain

Try to focus on the great things about China and don’t sweat the small stuff. (I’ve actually written a whole blog about the annoying things that TEFL teachers do in China.) Constant whinging and complaining about China is my pet peeve (if it’s really that bad, why are you still there?).

89. Consider what you’ll do at the end of your contract

Should you stay or should you go? There are many things to consider towards the end of your teaching stint in China. Keep your school and recruiter informed along the way.

In summary

I hope you got a lot out of reading this epic list!

To summarize, when embarking on a journey to teach English in China you should:

  • weigh up your teach abroad options and see if you meet the job requirements
  • understand the recruitment process and what’s in your teaching contract
  • prepare well and do some important things as soon as you arrive in China
  • appreciate what makes China special, such as the language, people and food
  • respect China’s culture and laws, and look after your health and safety
  • make time for fun stuff like shopping and traveling
  • receive a good salary and benefits, and build your career, and
  • understand what the Chinese school environment is like.

Now I’d like to hear from you.

Which teaching English in China tip is the most helpful? And have I missed any tips?

Either way, let me know by leaving a comment below.


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