I have been working in China for a little over two years. I earn approximately $1500 a month in exchange for 16 hours a week of my time. My girlfriend earns the same, so together we can afford to live a semi-luxurious lifestyle whilst saving almost two thirds of our salary (just shy of $2000 a month). We are English teachers, and we are lucky in that our school asks for no office hours. Whilst our contract is relatively good, it is not exceptional, and is quite easily attainable. Also, we work in a third tier city with a population of 6 million – higher salaries can be found in the bigger cities, but life is much more expensive there and for a jobseeker the competition is greater.
Many of the more famous schools, whose job advertisements are more prevalent, offer closer to $1000 a month, sometimes less. They get away with this as most English teachers in China are young travelers who feel safer signing a contract with a more famous school, and they leave after a year or so and return to their home countries. Whilst the high turnover of newcomers helps some schools keep salaries lower, it allows those who are prepared to stay a bit longer and offer stability negotiate higher pay – especially in the smaller schools who struggle to get new teachers.
You need to have a bachelors degree (any subject, any grade), and a TEFL certificate of any kind is preferable, but not essential. I don’t have one, and won’t be getting one any time soon. Being a white native speaker is the most important thing, as this is what the parents of the students will pay the most for. Discrimination is unfortunately an issue here, but there are non-white and also non-native teachers who do well here, it is just harder for them. Also, you don’t need to speak Chinese; most schools have an English only rule for the classroom (always unenforced).
The two obvious choices for working as a teacher in China are private schools and public universities. The former pay more, but the latter can lead to one better opportunity in particular, which I shall address at the bottom of the next paragraph. Working in private schools means teaching during evenings and weekends, from 14-25 hours a week. The students will usually be students, but for those looking to teach teenagers and young adults, IELTS training centers are good places to look. Most schools do require office hours, and the more famous the school, the more advanced and time consuming their admin system is likely to be. I wouldn’t advise anybody to accept a contract with more than 20 teaching hours (not classes – hours) unless the pay is at least $1200 a month. And it is worth arguing for more.
Working at a Chinese university is much less stressful and energy consuming than teaching unruly kids. 10 hours a week is a normal workload, for which you are likely to get $700 a month. You will always be offered free accommodation (private schools usually offer it). Negotiating a significantly higher salary is pretty much impossible, as the government controls the universities and they set the maximum salaries. But a masters degree can get you a bit more, and a PhD is even better, as the government has slightly different maximum salaries for different qualifications. Although the base salary is relatively low at universities, there are plenty of opportunities for part time work, for which $20 an hour is easily attainable. The opportunity mentioned above is becoming an IELTS examiner. For this you must have a TEFL; the CELTA and Trinity Certificate are the two most recognized TEFLs available. You cannot become an examiner immediately, as you need 3 years of ESL teaching experience, 1 of which must be after you get your TEFL. IELTS examiners are in demand in the smaller cities, and they earn $450 for 1 weekend’s work (1.5 days). 3 weekends a month is the maximum, but you can work less if you want. It isn’t difficult to earn more than $2000 a month in China as a university teacher and IELTS examiner.
Which way you go depends on your situation. If you want to save some money in a short space of time (1-2 years) I would recommend teaching at a private school. Be prepared to negotiate hard, research your potential employers, and if you are told the school has ‘fixed contracts’ it is probably best to look elsewhere. If you are in it for the long term, I would recommend teaching at a university. Your timetable will give you more time to work for yourself, which for motivated people is far more lucrative in the long run. Also, universities are much more trustworthy than private businesses, are they are government run.
If you stick around in the same city for a long time, and take advantage of the various opportunities for extra part time work, you can save tens of thousands of dollars. And for those who do really well, you can save more than a hundred thousand dollars in less than a decade (double for couples). This could allow you to return home in the future and buy a house outright, allowing you to enter semi-retirement at a very early age.
This is just a general overview of the opportunities in the Chinese ESL industry. I will be happy to answer any questions, or write further articles dealing with specific issues.