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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine August 2008 Issue
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How to Choose Your First Job Teaching English in China

For those of you who are seriously considering teaching English in China for the first time, it is imperative that you choose your first school and teaching position very carefully as there are a myriad of traps and pitfalls that await those who are relatively naïve. To help you make the best choice possible, this article will discuss the most salient issues you should consider when reviewing job advertisements and before applying for a position.

The first decision you need to make is what type of school you would like to teach at. Teaching positions in China fall primarily into five broad categories: Primary and secondary schools (both public and private); three-year colleges and four-year universities (public and private) and, finally; private English language schools (all ages). In the three international cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, one can also find several large companies that provide their own in-house English language training programs and are in need of experienced foreign teachers as well (although these positions are not nearly as plentiful and are rarely advertised). 

The hiring of foreign teachers in China is regulated by the State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA). In order to enter China legally for the purpose of earning income, one must enter with a work or Z-visa. Only schools licensed by the SAFEA can apply for a letter of invitation and a foreign expert work certificate, which—together with one’s passport—are then submitted to the Chinese embassy or consulate in the teacher’s country of origin for an entry work visa. The work visa is then converted to a one-year multiple entry residency permit within 30 days of arrival.

The SAFEA requirements state that a "foreign educational expert should hold a minimum of a bachelor's degree and more than two years of experience." As the regulation uses the Chinese character for the word "should," instead of “must,” there has been a great deal of "flexible" interpretation across provinces regarding the minimum educational requirement over the years. While a bachelor's degree is generally regarded as the minimum educational requirement to legally teach in China, this currently appears to be the exception instead of the rule.

Irrespective of differences in provincial interpretation or enforcement of the educational requirement, most universities in China insist on a minimum of a bachelor’s degree (and many prefer teachers with a master’s degree), while most private English language schools will take whatever they can get. There are three principal reasons for this. The first is that the proliferation of private schools over the past few years has created an insatiable demand for foreigners that cannot be met by those who are degreed and experienced. In essence, if you are white and a native English speaker from  either North America, the United Kingdom, Australia or New Zealand and you can breath, walk and talk without assistance, you can easily find a job teaching oral English at a private language school in China.

The second reason for this flexibility in enforcement of the education and experience requirements is that the role of the foreign English teacher in China is de-professionalized, regardless of the teacher’s qualifications. That is, irrespective of school type, foreigners are hired almost exclusively to facilitate the students’ listening and speaking skills. The more technical aspects of the English language are delegated to the Chinese English teachers. One could correctly think of the foreign teacher’s role in China as a “Chinese teacher’s assistant.”

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Certified foreign teachers, especially in math and science, who have taught in their native countries can find academically and professionally satisfying positions at joint-venture international schools in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Real academicians with advanced degrees in English, literature, linguistics, and related fields will be highly competitive for university positions teaching more than just “oral English” to master’s degree students in foreign language, e.g., literature, intensive reading, writing, etc.

The third and final reason for the preponderance of unqualified foreign teachers in China has to do with the fact that, as a rule, foreign English teachers are not recruited by deliberate choice or preference on the part of either the educational system or the private English language school industry. Public schools and universities are simply meeting a highly contested and bitterly resented national requirement of the Ministry of Education that states all Chinese students of English must be exposed to a native English speaker and, in the latter case, the hiring of white faces with which to adorn the classrooms is considered a necessary and very costly business expense. You won’t find one foreign language department head in China who truly believes that the presence of the foreign teacher is anything but superfluous (at best) and, similarly, you won’t find one Chinese owner of a private English language school who wouldn’t prefer to replace every single one of his foreign teachers with a licensed Chinese teacher if he knew doing so wouldn’t hurt his business, i.e., Chinese parents expect to see foreign faces at private English language schools.

So, what does all of this mean to you as a prospective foreign teacher? What it means is that there are only three broad categories of foreigners who should even be thinking about teaching English in China.

The first comprises those who are relatively young and seeking some adventure before returning home. The second category consists of those who are ready to retire, have already enjoyed meaningful and successful careers back home, have some money saved with no significant family ties or obligations, and are looking to stretch their pensions by spending Western earned money in a country where the cost of living is still relatively low. The third category of appropriate foreign teachers in China are those who have deliberately sought to make a career of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL): This type of teacher usually holds an advanced degree in education or TEFL and will eventually work as a director of studies (DOS) usually at a joint-venture institution or, at some point, will even open his own school. Western academicians in fields other than English, seeking to spend six months to a year in China on sabbatical, should abandon the idea of teaching oral English in China altogether and should apply to Project 211 universities with International Schools in China where they will be able to teach in their own fields (and where they will be appreciated for doing so as well).

If you have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree (field related or not) and any type of teaching or training experience, you should focus your job search on universities only. By definition, all public (government) universities will be SAFEA licensed and, therefore, conditions there—particularly around how foreigners are treated—tend to be fairly standardized. In addition, check the Internet for a listing of recent Chinese university rankings: As a rule, students at the higher ranking institutions will tend to be more motivated with considerably better English language skills. Related, avoid private universities, as these were essentially established to provide alternatives to students who scored too poorly on the national college admission test (Gao Kao) to be admitted into the public university system. 

For those of you who do not have a degree but some college education, focus your job search on lower ranking universities and on second and third tier vocational and 3-year colleges that award certificates and diplomas instead of degrees.

If you only have a high school diploma or equivalent, your choices will be limited to private English language schools and this is where the greatest abuse and exploitation of foreigners occur. To maximize your chances of having a safe and relatively rewarding experience, it is highly recommended that you refer to the 26-item summary checklist of questions to ask and issues to raise that I have compiled. This list is part of a comprehensive online guide I have written for foreigners who are thinking about living and teaching English in China.

There are four major precautions you can take to increase your chances of working for a legitimate school that treats its teachers relatively well. First, make sure the school is licensed to hire foreign experts by the SAFEA, because only an SAFEA licensed school can sponsor your work visa. Under no circumstances should you ever move to China for the purposes of earning income on anything but a Z-visa, regardless of what anyone tells or promises you.

The second precaution you should take is to avoid using recruiters and agencies. Although there are a handful of reputable recruiters out there, you have no way of knowing who they are and, the reality is, you don’t need a recruiter to find and secure a decent job in China. For a description of common scams used by recruitment agencies, it is suggested you refer to my unit on Finding Teaching Jobs in China.

The third precaution you must take is to insist that you be given the names and e-mail addresses of at least two foreign teachers, preferably one who is no longer employed at the school. Consult the aforementioned summary checklist of questions to ask before contacting the teachers so you specifically know what to inquire about.

Finally, ask to see recent photos of the same apartment you will be placed in upon arrival (not one “just like it”). The quality of the housing provided by the school is the single strongest predicator of how foreign teachers are regarded and how you will be treated by that school throughout the duration of your contract.

If your reasons for teaching English in China at this time are realistic and based on a clear understanding of the current forces at play, and you choose your first position carefully, you can in fact have a very rewarding and successful experience here in the Middle Kingdom

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