Experiences of an English Language Teacher

How To Survive as an English Teacher in China by Kim Ooi

Teaching in China is becoming more and more of a popular destination for teachers of English who are keen to earn a decent salary and developing their career in English language teaching. Looking at recent job posts on this website, the majority of the job submissions are from China. So, what is the best way to survive as an English teacher in China? In this blog contribution, Kim Ooi attempts to answer this question.

How to survive as an English Teacher in China

China is currently one of the best places to teach English abroad. Teachers from all over the world are lured here by a strong economy, an abundance of teaching jobs, an exotic culture and breathtaking scenery. Shortly after arrival however, any feelings of euphoria can quickly be replaced by frustration and rage as culture shock begins to hit. This article explores some of the challenges likely to be faced by new teachers and provides some helpful tips on how to overcome these.


Preparing for China

So, you have an offer to teach English in China. Congratulations! The first thing your school will do is to send you the contract to look over. Make sure you read it carefully and ask as many questions you can think of about the job, the terms and conditions, salary, visa procedure etc. It is also a good idea to ask the school to put you in touch with one of their foreign teachers so that you can ask them how the experience has been like for them. Trawl the internet for any feedback you can find on the school. If you decide to accept the offer, you should sign, scan and email the contract back to the school. The school will then send you a medical form which you will need to complete. You will be required to have a chest X-ray, CT-scan, blood and urine test. Your height, weight and blood pressure will be measured. Should you test positive for HIV, you will not be allowed to teach in China. Assuming you get a clean bill of health, scan and email the results back to the school. They will then send you an official invitation letter –it is very important that this letter is issued by the Chinese government and not the school. Take this letter together with your passport to the Chinese Embassy to get your visa. Note that the only visa which allows you to teach legally in China is the Z visa – DO NOT believe any school that tells you it is OK to come to China on a Business or Tourist visa, you will get arrested and deported if you are caught teaching on either of those two visas! Once the Z visa is in your passport, you can book your flight and off you go! This process can take several months so make sure that you give yourself enough time.

Tell your school the date and time of your arrival and ask if they can send someone to pick you up at the airport. If they can’t, make sure that they give you the address of the school in English and Chinese together with instructions on how to get there and a contact name and phone number of someone you can ring if you have any problems.

Learn some basic Chinese. In spite of the fact that China is the world’s largest EFL market, you’d be hard-pushed to find anyone who can speak English here. Knowing basic phrases like hello, thank you, can you help me, I want to go to…, where’s the toilet, how much is that and most importantly, the name of your school in Chinese will help you enormously.

Make sure that you take all your degree and TEFL certificates with you to China as you’ll need them when applying for your next job. China now stipulates that all certificates must be legalized before they can be used and that is a 3-stage process: firstly they must be authenticated by a solicitor then apostilled by your government and finally legalized by the Chinese Embassy.

Before you arrive in China, subscribe to a virtual private network (VPN). A number of useful websites are blocked in China, the main ones being Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.


Free time activities

Be warned that boredom and loneliness may be a problem in China! To survive in China, you need to be someone who enjoys their own company. There are many things that you can do on your own, if you think about it e.g. reading, watching movies online, blogging, playing computer games, taking part in online professional discussions, walking, jogging, going to the gym, swimming, learning Chinese etc.

Be friendly and approachable. Give out your email and phone numbers to your students and you’ll find that they will be very keen to invite you to hang out with them. Obviously, this won’t work if you teach children so one way of avoiding boredom and loneliness in China is to teach adults or university students. Also, it’s a good idea to find out how many other foreign teachers your school has, as they will be another source of social activities for you.

Try a Chinese massage. The Chinese seem to be quite skilled at this and options range from a foot massage and pedicure to a full body massage. Also, travel and sightseeing is a must for any visitor to China. Away from the city centres, China boasts some beautiful mountains and traditional buildings full of history and culture.


Dealing with culture shock

China will be quite different to any other country you may have visited before. In many ways, it is still a backward and uncivilized country. The traffic in China does not seem to follow any laws and vehicles will not stop at pedestrian crossings even when the green man is flashing. Many Chinese people smoke and pollution is also a problem. The concept of a queue is non-existent in China so you may find Chinese people barging right in front of you without a second thought. You will see Chinese people openly spitting all over the place too. “Face” is more important than truth here so a Chinese person would think nothing of telling you a lie to save either you or them from a potentially embarrassing situation. Contracts are easily broken so make sure you network with as many recruiters as possible and that you know all the main EFL job sites e.g. seriousteachers.com so that you can find a new job easily if your contract is unexpectedly terminated for any reason.


The Classroom Culture in China

Unlike in the West where education gets harder as you progress, in China, students put all their effort into passing the Gaokao (equivalent to A Levels) and then have a honeymoon at university. University education in China is largely just a formality and every student whose fees are paid and who is not guilty of misconduct is guaranteed to graduate. When you also consider the fact that English is a very unimportant subject in China and that cheating in exams is commonplace, it is easy to see the scale of the challenges facing the foreign teacher here.

Students in China are also extremely powerful. This is due in no small part to China’s one-child-policy which has resulted in a generation of “little emperors”. Student feedback forms a large part of teacher evaluation in China. Disciplinarians will have a hard time here because at some (especially private) colleges, attendance can be a huge problem and the students who do bother to turn up may decide to sleep, use their mobile phones or do Chinese homework in your class. To survive professionally as a foreign teacher in China, one needs to be lenient, popular and thoroughly entertaining. Turning a blind eye to student misbehavior, making the students laugh and giving everyone a high grade regardless of their ability will get you further than any attempts to actually “teach” ever will – that is the sad reality of life as a foreign teacher in China.

Please also be aware that unlike students in Western countries, Chinese students, even at university level, lack analytical, lateral and critical thinking skills. China’s education system is entirely based on memorization and regurgitation. Therefore, teachers should not try to get students to engage in any activity or sit for any assessment that relies on those skills. Making lessons too difficult in China may result in complaints against the teacher and a high failure rate in exams which is tantamount to vocational suicide for a teacher.


Safety precautions for living in China

Finally, some basic safety precautions. I have to stress here that China is an extremely safe country to live in. I have lived in China for 4 years and have never had any concerns about safety. Nevertheless, we should not be complacent and following a few basic precautions should help to make your time in China happier and safer.

Although you may hear some horror stories about scams and people being murdered for their body parts, as a foreign teacher in China, your biggest danger is getting lost. Therefore, buy a SIM card for China, charge your mobile phone every day, make sure that there is always enough credit on it to make a call, store the phone numbers of some people whom you can call for help and make sure that you have the address of your school in Chinese on your phone. In some of the larger cities, pickpockets can be a problem so it’s not a bad idea to consider teaching in a smaller city.  Never let a stranger take you anywhere, check and confirm the price before consuming any food or drinks, only buy medicines from legitimate pharmacies (these have a large green cross), avoid doing business with street touts, stick to public buses and legitimate taxis and to avoid counterfeit money, make sure that you only get your cash from an ATM or a licensed money changer.

Best wishes for a successful teaching career in China!

About Kim Ooi

I was born and educated in the UK. I hold a BA (Hons) in Business Administration from the University of Southampton and an MA in Information Management from Thames Valley University (now the University of West London). I have had quite a varied career and have worked in retail, in the public library service, in administration and in telecommunications. Made redundant in 2009 as a result of the worldwide financial crisis, I decided to train as a TEFL teacher and obtained an online Diploma in TESOL in 2010.

From 2009 – 2013, I did various temporary jobs and also taught EFL at summer schools in the UK. I obtained my CELTA in 2012 and have been teaching in China since 2013, mainly in the university sector. My hobbies include swimming, windsurfing, badminton, dancing, rifle shooting and horse riding. I also enjoy collecting coins, militaria and stamps.

1 Comment

  1. Hi kim, would it be possible to write a blog for your guys?

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