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Teaching English in China

English is compulsory and taught in China to an estimated 200 million students from the 3rd grade through college; however, the current emphasis in schools at all levels is on the Chinese language and mathematics. Although education is practically free up to age 15, the requirements to know English are significantly reduced for college entrance exams and tests for higher level education. English language study requirements will vary, however, according to the standards of each school. It is obvious, of course, by the sheer number of students that a huge demand exists for ESL teachers in public, private, and international schools, as well as for corporations and language institutes. ESL job openings can be found throughout China, but the majority are in the larger, heavily populated, modern cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. Xi'an, the ancient capital and home of the Terracotta Army, is another city for ESL teachers to consider because of its central location and cheap cost of living compared with other large cities in China.

Credentials/ Qualifications/ Documentation / Hiring process

Positions are available for ESL teachers with little to no experience, primarily at lower grade levels or in rural areas; however, two years' work experience after university graduation and one year of teaching experience are required to teach in China's major cities.

Standard qualifications to teach ESL in China include a 4-year degree, TESOL or CELTA certification, and age restrictions of 24-55. You must have proof of citizenship from the U.S., UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada. A personal interview, health examination, references, and other credentials are also part of the hiring process. Once accepted, it can then take up to two or three months to obtain the Z work visa which the school will sponsor and pay the costs. After your arrival in China, you will have 30 days to obtain the required residency permit.

An ESL teaching contract is usually for one year, but essential for any time period, and must include detailed information on pay, hours, time off, and accommodations (if provided) with pictures, as well as the grade level and size of class you will be teaching. The amount of flight reimbursement, end of contract bonus, and any other extras must also be written in the contract.

Work Schedules & Salaries

The school year runs from September to July, and classes are held 5-6 days a week from 7am-4pm and often later, with additional courses in science and math taught on Saturday mornings. The size of classes varies, but they are generally smaller in primary grade schools and larger at universities. You'll probably average 10-20 hours a week of actual teaching time, with extra hours for preparation and school functions. Many students attend buxiban (cram) or tutoring classes to prepare for college entrance exams and tests for higher level education. You will have several weeks of vacation time, a week off for Chinese New Year, and 10-16 paid holidays. Salaries range from $1,000 to more than $2500/month, subject to a deduction for taxes (5-10% annual rate), and most schools pay a bonus at the end of your contract. Of course, the highest paying jobs are at universities, and can be as much as $40,000/year at private colleges or international schools if you're a career teacher. Competition for these positions, however, is tough, and you must have considerable experience, outstanding qualifications, and be proficient in more than one language to be considered. You can earn $18 an hour or more by private tutoring, always a good way to supplement your salary.


The cost of living in China varies considerably in each city, but it is generally lower in comparison with the U.S. or the U.K. Affordable living arrangements are available to fit within your salary and every budget from the high end to a more moderate lifestyle. Living expenses in Shanghai, for example, can average $1,000/month if you live outside the city center, shop at markets for food, and avoid high-priced international restaurants by dining out at local Chinese restaurants where a simple meal can cost as little as $5/per person. (Note: Check out the Numbeo website for the average cost of living prices in various cities.)

Your contract with a public school may include free housing on campus in a dorm or shared apartment to compensate for lower salaries than private schools. Some private schools do provide housing, or at least an allowance for it, but it is seldom free because the salaries are sufficiently higher at private schools. Be sure the contract specifies exactly what is covered and not covered. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment outside a city averages $500, or $800 if living in the city center, with utilities for a month about $65 and $20 for the Internet.

The health insurance provided by the school will cover the majority of your medical bills, although some type of supplemental coverage is advisable. Overall, the medical facilities are quite good, with clinics being the exception since they probably won't live up to your expectations when compared with the United States, for example.

Airfare is usually paid for by the school, or you are reimbursed, and transportation in and around the cities is very inexpensive.

Possible disadvantages (or things to remember)

Although Chinese is not required to teach ESL, it will be to your advantage to learn the Mandarin language while you're in China by taking free lessons which many schools offer or include in your employment package. It may take time to understand and adapt to the significant cultural differences and Chinese customs, many of which are based on the teachings of Confucius.

Job Outlook

China continues to offer the most job opportunities in Asia for ESL teachers. Good sources of information on jobs and living conditions are learn4good, reachtoteach, transitionsabroad, and Dave's ESL Cafe which features a separate job board for China.


China is rich in tradition and culture and certainly one of the most exciting destinations in Asia, with both cosmopolitan and provincial appeal. Schools frequently provide travel bonuses which facilitate seeing more of the area during your vacation or off-duty time. ESL teachers must have patience, determination, and flexibility to enjoy and get the most out of their teaching experience in China. The students are receptive and eager to learn English, and many have their plans for the future clearly in mind. Teachers should show interest and get involved in helping students achieve their goals toward success in life. Unless you have previously worked in a country in Asia, you will find living and working in China is very different from the West. If you keep an open mind and are realistic in your expectations, accept the differences and recognize the similarities, you will gain a new perspective and view this assignment as an exceptional opportunity to explore this fascinating country.

Sharon L Slayton

December 2013

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