Opportunities to Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in China are as abundant as the country is expansive. A huge country with a massive population, China places strong emphasis on learning English, either for the future advantages it offers students or for specific purposes used in professions like business, piloting and science. There is a range of TEFL jobs on offer in every region of China – especially the Western Province.

Teaching in China is an experience like no other. Teachers are held in high-esteem, especially if you’re coming from the West. You will be treated with great respect, dignity and given lots of opportunities to explore every aspect of Chinese culture. The demand for native or fluent English teachers is high, with many parents paying more money for their children to be taught by one. Plenty of people have gone, come back and written about their experience.  So, what’s it actually like to teach English in China?

Paifang - What It's Like to Teach English in China
Paifang is a traditional style of Archway found throughout China. Source: See-Ming Lee – Flickr.com

Schools and Institutions in China

First things first. Who will you be teaching, and where?  There are a variety of institutions in China that you can teach in; from kindergartens, international schools and private schools to universities, as well as pupils on every part of the ability spectrum. Of course you won’t be teaching seasoned veterans of the English language, but some will be learning the very basics of the language while others may be grappling with fluency. Work conditions are favorable for a TEFL teacher, with many host institutions providing a good salary, accommodation and Mandarin Chinese lessons as part of your package. Locals and elders really appreciate foreigners attempting to learn their language, so you should view the classes with a degree of importance.

Class sizes normally range between 20 to 40 students. Unlike in Western cultures, Chinese students are more respectful of their teachers and in general are less problematic. In almost all cases, students face pressure from their parents not to fail, which motivates them to focus and co-operate in class. Working closely with your students in a classroom setting, you will spend approximately 15-20 face-to-face hours a week teaching. You will be tasked with improving their listening and speaking skills, while making the learning environment as friendly and engaging as possible.

Teaching English in China - What It's Like to Teach English in China
Happy English: Many Chinese schools and students are crying out for native English speakers to teach them. Source: Brian Yap – Flickr.com

It’s claimed schools in China are robbing the young of their individuality, and teachers don’t do enough to foster the unique personality each student possesses. China is known to promote rote learning as the standard method of learning, where the students read, cram and memorize for the exam, then forget the information after. Creating an open-minded, positive atmosphere is vital to break the mould and allow students to think for themselves and voice their own opinions. Typically, term times start in September and March.

Salary and Cost of Living for a TEFL Teacher in China

Depending on what type of school you teach in and what city/province you will be based in, your salary will vary. In a super-city like Beijing or Shanghai, the wage will be larger to reflect the higher cost of living than in a smaller city. The local currency is the Chinese Yuan Renminbi (RMB) and your salary can also vary depending on what is stipulated in your contract. If housing and meals are included in your work agreement, then your monthly wage will be lower, potentially around the 2,000 RMB mark. If you are tasked with arranging your own food and accommodation then you might expect to get paid anywhere between 6,000 RMB and 18,000 RMB a month. It really all depends on the type of school and location.

Tsinghua University Beijing - What It's Like to Teach English in China
Tsinghua University, Beijing. Source: Jon -Flickr.com

An important cultural difference you will need to know before you travel to China is the sociological concept of Face. Face is showing people respect based on their rank, social status or belongings. It’s a difficult theory to understand, but this is a more than useful guide. Although the concept of Face isn’t applied as rigorously to Westerners, it’s meaningful to Chinese people when you make an effort to engage with a pillar of their culture.

Public schools are run by the Government and pay a monthly salary of 6,000 – 10,000 RMB. Universities offer around the same rate of pay, 7,500 – 10,000 RMB each month, but there is a lighter workload and more time off. Private language institutes are open to anyone who wants to learn English and the wage ranges from 6,000 – 16,000 RMB. The disparity between the two figures is based on the differing demands of the institutes; how many years experience you have, what level education you possess and the prestige of the school. Finally, international schools give salaries beginning at 12,000 RMB and rise to 30,000 RMB. The huge difference in figures is due to the location of the school mostly. In this school you’ll be expected to teach an entire year and hold a teaching certificate from home. The students are usually children of expats or Chinese families who want their offspring to work abroad when they finish studying.

While the wage might seem comparatively low to your own country, it’s important to bear in mind that the cost of living is still far cheaper in China. This doesn’t mean the quality of products or produce is inferior, it just reflects the market they find themselves in. You’ll learn a little goes a long way, and savvy savers will manage their finances with ease for the duration of their stay. Teachers have a few months holidays each year, so with your savings your time off can be spent freely exploring the vast landmass before you.

Chinese Market - What It's Like to Teach English in China
Spend your hard-earned cash in one of thousands of local markets. Source: Robin Zebrowski – Flickr.com

Your New Celebrity Status

This might be oversold already, but living as a Westerner in China comes with lots of unusual perks and conditions. People greet you with a genuine interest, and some might stop and ask you to pose for photos with them. If you plan on doing a TEFL course in a metropolitan city you may not experience this as much, but if you’re going to be based in a more local, rural setting prepare for the residents to approach you with a degree of curiosity. If you’re tall, you’re likely to tower above almost everyone you meet, and if you have red hair locals might want to feel your amazing color.

Your work life might spill over into your social life, too. Some people might see this as a negative, but it should be seen as anything but. As a foreigner to a new country, your colleagues can provide a lifeline to your new world. Prepare for late nights singing karaoke or after work drinks becoming commonplace. Always remember, however, that even when you’re off the clock with your colleagues, you need to keep up your work persona. Remember the concept of Face.

Karaoke Bar - What It's Like to Teach English in China
This sight could become commonplace during your TEFL experience. Source: Susanne Nilsson -Flickr.com

New Horizons

You may have worries about entering the classroom for the first time or upping roots and moving to China, but fear not. Every day will present new challenges that you will adapt to overcome, but thousands of people before you have conquered them, and thousands after you will. There are many reasons to intern in China, without even mentioning the room for potential professional development and personal growth. The cultural experiences are unique as they are abound in this country. Where else can you stay in a temple or taking part in a tea ceremony?

Chinese Tea Ceremony - What It's Like to Teach English in China
Take part in a traditional tea ceremony during your stay in China. Source: David Boté Estrada – Flickr.com

If you yearn for a lifestyle change or are seeking a new challenge, pore over our page dedicated to internships to China. Countless, invaluable opportunities await you! Are you prepared to take a leap of faith this year and go East?