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A Primer for Prospective Teachers of English in China

A Diverse Market Awaits

What follows are various teaching scenarios you are likely to find when looking for a teaching job in China, along with my comments based on teaching English in China and Thailand for 15 years. All salaries noted are monthly, except when stated otherwise. They pertain to Shanghai, but Beijing and Guangzhou are similar.

Public Schools and Universities

Longer holidays, shorter teaching hours, usually no weekends or evenings although sometimes they may want to have an evening English Corner or event. Students are usually pleasant and keen to learn. Salaries on average range from 5,000 up to 6,000 RMB ($635 to $770) with free accommodation and other benefits.

Colleges and Vocational Schools

Similar to universities, however, salaries are traditionally a little lower and sometimes students can be a bit more difficult to motivate.

Primary, Middle, High Schools

This group offers the biggest portion of ESL Jobs in China and in many cases can be the most lucrative if you have an education degree. Salaries at the lower end of the scale are on a par with colleges, rising up to as much as, and sometimes more than, 20,000 RMB ($2,550) at international schools.

Training Centers

This sector also makes up a large proportion of the China ESL job market with new training centers opening monthly throughout China. Mainstream international chain schools like English First, Shane, and others are here along with a plethora of Chinese outfits of varying quality and standards. There are huge differences in both pay and conditions, so you need to study offers carefully. Teaching hours range anywhere from 20 to 30, with pay scales from 6,000 to 10,000 RMB ($770 to $1,280) being the norm; however, I have seen positions in the bigger cities offer as much as 12,500 RMB ($1,600). Most training centers in China do not provide accommodation, and again apartments in China vary in price greatly. You can pick up a decent 800- to 900-square-foot 2-bedroom place in a small city for as little as 1,000 RMB ($130) and as much as 5,000 RMB ($640) or more in Beijing for the same in a good location.

Teaching Kids

If you love ‘em, then fine. I like kids but I find them harder to teach. The younger the children, the less attention span they have so you really need a lot of activity and fun-based lessons to keep them busy. If you teach young learners from middle school through to tertiary you may be asked to teach EAP (English For Academic Purposes); if you are chasing the money and are good at grammar and very patient then it may suit you.

Teaching Adults

As with teaching younger learners, it comes down to personal taste. Most of my 15 years of teaching ESL in Thailand and China has been with tertiary, adults, and business English. Adults can be very demanding. The upside in teaching adults, and in particular business, is that I have learned nearly as much from my students as they have from me, which can make each and every lesson more interesting and enjoyable.

Freelance Teaching

While freelance teaching is officially not permitted, as in Thailand in the early ‘90s, it seems that a blind eye is turned as long as you do not upset anyone. In the bigger cities like Shanghai some Chinese agencies are actually procuring students for private study with foreign teachers and charging the FT a small commission.

How to be a Smart ESL China Teacher

Rates for freelancing in China vary greatly; freelancing is more prevalent in the bigger cities, so let’s take a snapshot of Shanghai. Take a bread-and-butter job in a small or medium school that only requires you to be at the school when you are actually teaching; let’s assume 16 x 45-minute classes a week. This will probably net you about 6,000 RMB ($770) a month plus free accommodation, with all legal paperwork taken care of and paid holidays to boot.

Handpick some lucrative evening classes. These can be found for 150 to 200 RMB ($19-$25) an hour—don’t accept anything less. One 2-period class five nights a week will net you between $650 to $750 a month. If you feel like superman you could work one weekend day a week and probably find four to five hours grouped together paying 150 RMB ($19) an hour, giving you another $400 a month. The math: school job $750, evening job $650 to $750, weekend job $400, accommodation $250. Total: $2,050 to $2,150.

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