Teaching English in China: Every Teacher Becomes a Student
By Smitha Murthy
Crossing an ancient bridge in China.
Landing in China to find a job teaching English can be either a rewarding, learning experience in this eastern land of adventurous promise or a frustrating, chaotic, experience in an Oriental morass. Your experience will depend in part with the you
and mostly due to a bizarre combination of factors that go by various names such as luck, destiny and yes, even karma.
Having just completed a 10-month assignment teaching spoken English in East China to a group that ranged from teeny kindergarten kids to scrawny teenagers to adults in all shapes and sizes, I could sum up my experience here in
one word: learning. No matter how difficult the conditions or how fantastic the adulation showered on you, ultimately this is what it boils down to. Teach in China and you end up being a student yourself. An unwilling, grumpy learner or a grateful and
eager learner — the choice is yours.
Finding a Good School: Practical Considerations
The paths you have available to get into China are fairly straightforward, be it through friendly contacts, the omnipresent Web, or placement agencies. The way doesn’t matter really in the end. Investing 10 months of your life
and your career in a new land is a risk you take, and the success of this investment sometimes depends on a mere roll of the dice.
First, you could run the risk of being cheated out of a positive experience by some less-than-honest people who run what can hardly be called schools. I taught in China’s biggest education group, which runs more than nine boarding schools all over the country
and still had to face an initial harrowing time with visas and bogus work permits that the school conveniently chose to pass off as its own. In reality, the school turned out to have no license to hire foreign teachers. Make sure you have come educated with as many facts as you can find.
Check, check, double-check, and verify the credentials of the school, university or institute that you are considering. The Web is a wonderful source for such information, and a few hours of careful surfing should land you in contact with someone who knows someone
who knows someone who has taught at your chosen school. The entire shape of your journey could be molded as a result of your research and networking.
The location of your school is equally important. There is more to China than Beijing and Shanghai. A fair number of cities are quite well-developed and can certainly provide you with a wonderful peek into the heart of China. Looking
for a mild winter? Head to South China. Prefer a balanced mix? Consider East China with its beautiful beaches. Avoid as much as possible the Northwest, generally the least developed section of China, unless you are really looking to rough it.
After location and the school comes your contract. This is your lifeline. Make sure you have the original stamped contract with you before you even set foot on these shores. The sign of authenticity in China is the red stamp on
the contract. Make sure your contract states the pay, the number of hours to be taught, and the airfare reimbursement…all the little details necessary and needed. Clarify with the school whether weekdays are free and whether you get paid holidays.
Clarify anything and everything. Better to sound like a fool than be one. The Z-Visa is a must; landing in China on a tourist visa is fraught with difficulties.
Although most schools in China wouldn’t negotiate with me, there is no reason why you should settle for anything less than RMB 6000 (US$900). The average range is between RMB 6,000 to 16,000+ for public schools, private language schools, with universities and especially international schools offering much more. A school or university that offers you less than RMB 6000 is really trying to cut corners and should be avoided.
Don’t be persuaded by glib claims that the average salary of the Chinese teacher is only half of what you will be receiving. That may be true, but then the average Chinese teacher hasn’t left his country. So hold out for a decent salary, especially if you have an advanced degree with a TEFL certificate. Inquire about
your living conditions. Does your apartment have heating and a working air conditioner? Small matter to some teachers, perhaps, but considering that I nearly froze one winter when the school decided to switch off the heating, you should feel more comfortable if you know these details. Obviously, WiFi is ideal, but you cannot count on having access at your provided apartment.
Are there other foreign teachers around? Other Chinese who know reasonable English? When my International Officer suddenly left my school I was in a sorry situation where communication with the school’s Chinese-speaking "leaders" turned
out to be virtually impossible! Such details can make a really big different in your quality of life.
Teaching the Classes
Now comes the easy part, the actual teaching. Insist on co-workers or Chinese teaching assistants to be present for your classes, at least during the initial period. If you are walking into a classroom full of running, scampering, and screeching
kids alone, then good luck! It would be helpful if you could take some books on teaching Conversational English with you, links to some websites offering lessons plans, and certainly even more helpful if you are a born linguist who can pick up Chinese faster than your students pick up English.
Most classes are generally unstructured, and as the “foreign expert” you are given a lot of independence in the framing of your lessons. Some schools might provide you with instructional material. Even so, be innovative. The Web
is a wonderful storehouse of lessons. Ideally, your school will be hooked up with Wifi so you and your students will have access to existing lesson plans or those you may have devised. Whether you are in China on a lark or with the serious intent of adding to your resume, the fact remains that your school is paying you to teach.
Smitha Murthy is a freelance writer and teacher who finds herself inexorably drawn to the Chinese landscape time and again.