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Teaching English in China

Jobs Abound with Minimal Requirements

Imagine receiving so many job offers you have to turn most of them down. Imagine a salary almost ten times higher than a native workers’. Imagine a job that includes a free apartment, at least three weeks vacation and a plane ticket to return home. Imagine that this job requires no previous experience.

Does this appear too good to be true? Not at all. This dream is reality right now for thousands of ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers in mainland China. There’s never been a better time to teach English here. With China’s acceptance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the thirst for English — especially American English — has reached a fever pitch.

Most ESL jobs require nothing more than a university degree and the ability to speak English. While at the time of this writing, the average position pays between 3,000 and 5,000 RMB a month (approximately $375-$625 US), the huge discrepancy between supply and demand makes it possible to earn substantially more.

I’m in my fourth year of teaching in Xi’an, China’s historic ancient capital. In a good month, I can make 15,000 RMB (about $1,900 US). How? The key is to have multiple jobs.

In China, every foreign worker must have a “work unit,” an official employer accountable for your conduct and safety. In theory, employment is forbidden outside the work unit. In reality, the law is rarely enforced. Almost every ESL teacher has at least one job “on the side.” As long as you fulfill the duties of your teaching contract, employers take a laissez faire approach to what you do with your free time. My current employer, in fact, grants me permission to work other places, facilitated by a letter of agreement between the two parties.

The stability of the work unit provides many valuable securities: a visa, green card, housing, plane tickets, transportation to and from the job, and sometimes free Chinese lessons to boot. The trade-off is a salary that, averaged hourly, is as much as 50 percent below market freelance rate. However, most work units require only 12 to 16 teaching hours per week. That leaves lots of free time to fill with other jobs.

When I was preparing to come to China, I used the Internet to find a job at a university (www.eslcafe.com, www.eslemployment.com, and www.bogglesworldesl.com are good sources). The position paid about RMB3,500 a month for up to 16 teaching hours (I wound up teaching 13). Like most teachers here, I had a Bachelor’s Degree and no special ESL training. Nonetheless, I was dubbed a “foreign expert,” and given an ID card that allows me special discounts at bookstores and on trains.

The first year went fairly smoothly, but afterward I wanted to try teaching in a different environment. Once you’re here, the easiest way to job hunt is through word of mouth. Networking, called guanxi, is the time-honored way of business in China. A recommendation from a trusted comrade is the most valuable credential one can have.

Through a friend’s referral, I got a job at one of the dozens of private English training centers in Xi’an. This school paid a lower salary than the university, with no housing, but required only 10 teaching hours a week and gave no exams (which take a lot of time preparing and grading). Via networking, referrals and cold calls, I was easily able to fill my plate with 10 to 15 extra teaching hours a week, at rates ranging from 100 to 200 RMB an hour. I have taught at an internationally renowned English school, substituted at universities, tutored teenagers, trained business employees, and even mentored a lawyer.

Already living in the city where you want to teach creates a “win-win” situation. Employers do not have to spend time and money arranging flights and housing. This saving is passed on to you in the form of a higher hourly salary. And you do not have to correspond through the Internet; work can be secured through a simple phone call or face-to-face meeting.

These “outside” jobs provide not only extra income, but also result in invaluable experience teaching a wide variety of students — children, adults, business people. This, in turn, can generate more opportunities as pupils approach you about special tutoring for their children, giving a speech at their company, etc. You can pick and choose the type of jobs you want. After I accept all I wish to handle (usually no more than 25 teaching hours a week), I start turning people down. When one course ends, often all I have to do to get another job offer is go for a stroll in my apartment complex. The opportunities are boundless.

The cost of living in Xi’an is among the lowest in China. My wife and I have a live-in nanny to help with our 4-year-old son (a luxury we could never afford in the States). We have a spacious apartment in a beautiful complex. I get one week’s vacation in October and May, as well as summer holiday in July and August. Also, my school closes for two months at Spring Festival during January and February. This allows ample opportunity for travel, or, if I choose, extra income (demand for English classes increases during summer and holidays).

Unless you know someone already teaching here, I recommend using the Internet to find your initial job in China. Make sure the employer has a license to hire foreigners, and is a reputable company or school.

If you really want to explore this fascinating country, and maximize your earning potential, plan to stay for at least two years. The first year will be the most difficult and least prosperous. Work hard, gain experience, fulfill your teaching contract, and keep your eyes and ears open. By your second year, when the culture shock begins to wear off, you’ll have the confidence and experience to maximize your opportunities.

Chinese students are a joy to teach. They are obedient, reverent and have a refreshing tradition of respecting their teachers. Economically, China is the fastest-growing, most vibrant market in the world. Teaching ESL is an exciting way to simultaneously learn about its storied history and take part in its rapid transformation.

Adam Worcester is a former journalist and reading therapist from Seattle, USA.

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