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.
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…”
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.
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
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.
The monthly salary at a public university is about RMB 5,000-7,000. These jobs are quite stable and some teachers have been known to renew their contracts and to remain at the same university for years.
University students are a pleasure to teach.
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 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 very motivated.
If you’re lucky, you may even get a really awesome salary. 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.
You can get a great salary teaching in a private language center.
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.
They come to class expecting to be lectured and yet fall asleep when taught in that manner.
They will not ask questions even when they do not understand something because to do so would be a huge embarrassment (loss of face), will not take notes in class unless prompted and think that their job is to just turn up and listen to the teacher.
They will not take responsibility for their own learning and find it hard to study independently.
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.
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
For me, these include the smokers (virtually every Chinese man is a smoker) and the drivers.
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!
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.
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.