Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated August 15, 2022
By Kim Ooi

Students in China

In August 2013, I left for China to start my first overseas teaching post. I am now partway through my fifth year here.

I thought it would be a good idea to write this article so that prospective teachers can find out what it is really like to live and teach in China.

The language

Since English is not widely spoken in China, I’d highly recommend that any new teacher coming to China for the first time learn some basic Chinese prior to arrival.

Surprisingly, this is not as daunting as you may think. I was very surprised to discover just how far I could go with only a handful of phrases like “How much is it?” and “I’d like to go to…”

Translation apps such as Memrise and iTranslate can easily be downloaded to your mobile phone so language is not a huge barrier.

Teacher accommodation in China

This varies from school to school but most primary schools, middle and high schools, and universities will provide a free apartment.

These should have a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and toilet as well as a bed, mattress, pillows, sheets, a table or desk, TV, a chair, stove, electricity, hot and cold running water and an internet connection.

You may have your own washing machine or you might have to use a communal one.

ESL teacher accommodation in China

Teaching building at Sichuan University, west China.

If you enjoy cooking, you may have to buy a few items for the kitchen, including cooking pots. And if you’re an ironer, you’ll need to buy an iron and ironing board.

Some school apartments have air-conditioning but if yours doesn’t, you might need to buy a portable fan or heater.

The school should also send a repairman at their expense to fix anything that goes wrong in your apartment.

If you work at a language center, you may have to find and pay for your own accommodation. Usually they pay you an allowance to go towards this.

Types of schools in China

I have had the chance to teach at a wide spectrum of schools in China.

These are as follows:

1. Public universities and colleges

In my opinion, these are by far the best places to teach in China.

You may be teaching for about 15 hours a week and may have about 6 classes of approximately 30-40 students. Students at a public university are generally well-behaved, enthusiastic and a pleasure to teach.

Chinese schools seem to think that expat teachers can teach anything so don’t be surprised if you are asked to teach a subject other than English.

A public university will organise a number of social activities for foreign staff throughout the year. You also get time off during the semester breaks.

Teaching university students in China

Chinese university students are a pleasure to teach.

The monthly salary at a public university starts at around RMB 7,000 and is often a lot higher depending on your qualifications and experience.

These jobs are quite stable and some teachers have been known to renew their contracts and to remain at the same university for years.

2. Foreign language schools

A good foreign language school is also a good choice. They are very similar to public universities except that the emphasis here will be to help the students pass their public exams, e.g. SAT, TOEFL etc. 

The students are in their teens. The pay is generally more than what you would get at a public university.

3. Private colleges

The students at private Chinese colleges are those who have failed their final high school exams and have not been able to gain admission to public universities.

The attendance levels here can be quite bad.

4. Language centers

Language center students are paying students who come to these places to learn and improve their English. These centers are commercial businesses so their expectations can be quite high. 

The teacher gets much less academic freedom than in public schools. The centre will control what you teach and how you teach.

The hours are long – you will have to be present in the office for up to 40 hours a week and your ‘weekend’ is generally two weekdays. On the other hand, the students are generally quite motivated.

Teaching in a language institute in China

You can get a great salary teaching in a private language center.

If you're lucky, you may even get a really awesome salary teaching in China. Some language centers offer salaries of around RMB 20,000 a month. However, not all language centres will offer such a high salary – when I worked at a language centre, my pay was only RMB 8,000 a month.

5. Primary schools

This is a good choice if you love children.

The poor kids seem to be treated quite harshly by their Chinese teachers so it does not take much to earn their affection. All you have to do is to smile at them!

Some primary school classes are huge and the teaching of oral English there may be nothing more than repeatedly drilling the same reading text into the children until the school is satisfied that they have got it. There may sometimes be scope for varying the lesson by using songs, rhymes and movies.

Chinese learning styles and teaching methodology

Chinese students, even at university level, are incapable of analysis or critical thinking. Their entire education system is based on learning by rote.

This was the biggest surprise I had when I started teaching in China.

They come to class expecting to be lectured and yet often fall asleep when taught in that manner.

Chinese student won't:

  • ask questions even when they don't understand something (because questioning the teacher is viewed as disrespectful in China)
  • take notes in class unless prompted, and
  • take responsibility for their own learning.

To engage your students, the trick is to incorporate many activities into your lessons, such as games, student presentations, stories and videos.

The school will expect you to set an exam twice a year and the students seem to do well in multiple choice or oral exams but cannot cope with subjective questions.

Live and teach in China and meet other foreign teachers

You'll have to set exams in China while teaching in China (pictured: teacher meeting).

Be warned that foreign teachers in China have little authority. Students are generally very respectful towards teachers but you should be in no doubt as to who has real power in the classroom (i.e. the students!).

If you have a problem with the students, tough, but if they do not like you, your contract may not be renewed. When it comes to employment protection and workers’ rights, China has a long way to go.

English may not be as important as other subjects in Chinese schools and most of your students will never have to utter a single word of English once they graduate.

In many ways, foreign teachers are therefore regarded as glorified entertainers whose task is to keep the students happy and the parents paying. It’s one of the sad realities of teaching in China.

Culture shock in China

If you have never lived in China before, there may be many things that irk you when you first arrive.

For me, these include the smokers (virtually every Chinese man is a smoker) and the drivers.

What I found really irritating was the lack of any sort of laws on Chinese roads – cars will not stop at pedestrian crossings even when the green man is flashing.

In China, when you are in a bar, a stranger may come up to your table, pick up one of your drinks and help themselves to it without asking you first.

Then there are the queue jumpers. For Westerners used to queuing up politely in their home countries, having someone barge in front of you in a queue can be very annoying!

Man smoking cigarette in China

When you live and teach in China you will see a lot of men who smoke.

There is an expectation that every student whose fees are paid must not only pass all their courses but at a high grade, even if their English ability is mediocre at best.

If a foreign teacher were to fail any student, either as a disciplinary measure or because the student really does not know anything about their subject, the school will allow them to pass anyway.

Or, the student will be entitled to re-sit the exam again and again until they receive that coveted passing grade! This takes some time to get used to.

Finding love in China

If you’re a woman, China will be paradise for you because the general expectation is for the man to foot the bill for everything when taking a lady out.

Chinese girls are usually materialistic and do not date for fun. The expectation is for the relationship to end in marriage.

However, in order to marry a Chinese girl, you will first need the means to purchase an apartment and to provide a dowry.

Your Chinese girlfriend will be constantly testing you on this by asking you to buy her many expensive gifts.

In fact, some Chinese women even expect their husbands to surrender their entire earnings and wealth to them!

Many Chinese women target foreigners because they think that all foreigners are rich and will be able to provide them with a life of pampered luxury. As you would know, that’s not necessarily the case.

Low cost of living in China and other advantages

One of the advantages of working in China is that the cost of living is extremely low. Where else can one live on RMB 500 (£50) a week?

The Chinese have been taught to respect their elders so as a teacher, you will enjoy a high level of respect from your students. At good schools, Chinese students are well-behaved, hard-working and a pleasure to teach.

Your school may throw a party or invite you to a dinner to welcome you when you first arrive. Some schools even organize sightseeing tours and activities throughout the semester.

Foreign teacher welcome dinner in China

Foreign teacher welcome dinner.

You will get to see some amazing sights and sample some exotic food, and traveling around is generally cheap and easy.

And once you’ve finished your contract, who could argue with an airfare reimbursement?

China has been a real eye-opener and I’ve grown as a person and as a teacher. Who knows, I might be here for another five years!

In your opinion, what is it really like to live and teach in China? Share your comments below.


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