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How to Choose Your First Job Teaching English in China

People in Beijing, China
Street life in Beijing.

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 naive. To help you make the best choice possible, this article will discuss the most important issues you should consider when reviewing job advertisements and before applying for a position.

Pick the Type of English of Teaching School

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 the following broad categories: 

  • Primary and secondary schools (both public and private)
  • 3-year colleges and 4-year universities (public and private)
  • 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 Z-visa

The hiring of foreign teachers in China is regulated by the State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA), which is increasing the stringency of its standards on an ongoing basis. 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 can then be converted, working with the employer, to a 5-year Temporary Residence Permit.

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.

Credentials to be an English Teacher in China

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, though a TEFL Certificate and a BA is progressively more desirable. There are three principal reasons for the history of demand for English teachers. 

  1. The first is that the proliferation of private schools over the past few years has created a big demand for foreigners that cannot be met by those who are degreed and experienced. In essence, if you are a native English speaker from  either North America, the United Kingdom, Australia or New Zealand, you can generally find a job teaching oral English at a private language school in China. Again, recent regulations and competition from abroad do make having a BA with a TEFL certificate more of a requirement.

  2. 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 relatively de-professionalized by Western standards, regardless of the teacher’s qualifications. That is, irrespective of school type, foreigners are largely hired 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 jobs at joint-venture international schools in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Seriously credentialed 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.

  3. The third and final reason for the preponderance of relatively 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 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 native speakers with which to occupy classrooms is considered a necessary and very costly business expense. You won’t find many foreign language department heads 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 still expect to see foreign faces at private English language schools.

Who, from Abroad, Should Think of Teaching English in China?

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.

  1. The first comprises those who are relatively young and seeking some adventure before returning home. 

  2. 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. 

  3. 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 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, search the web for a listing of recent top Chinese university rankings: As a rule, students at the higher ranking institutions will tend to be more motivated with considerably better English language skills. 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 fewer private English language schools with less optimal conditions. Some TEFL certification courses will provide a courses in China and assistance with job placement for a fee, but usually require a B.A. 

Increase Your Chances of Work at a Good School

There are four major precautions you can take to increase your chances of working for a legitimate school that treats its teachers well.

  1. 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.

  2. Avoid using recruiters and agencies unless you know confidently that they are solid and you have researched them well. Although there are more and more reputable recruiters out there, the reality is, you don’t absolutely need a recruiter to find and secure a decent job in China. 

  3. Insist that you be given the names and email addresses of at least two foreign teachers, preferably one who is no longer employed at the school. Consult the previously mentioned summary checklist of questions to ask before contacting the teachers so you specifically know what to inquire about.

  4. 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 predictor 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 have a very rewarding and successful experience here in the Middle Kingdom. 

Note: Find links and articles on teaching English in China that can prove very useful to you in your research and job search.

Related Topics
Teaching English in China: Articles and Jobs
Living in China: Articles and Expatriate Resources
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More by Dr. Gregory Mavrides
Teaching English in China: Do You Really Need a Degree and Work Visa?
Culture Shock in China for English Teachers
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