In the early days of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), Europe was the usual place for youthful teachers setting forth for new horizons. Primarily, they headed for France and Italy where folk were taking advantage of the opportunities in foreign enterprise, or perhaps places such as Spain and Greece where the opportunity for tourism was growing at an unstoppable rate because of package holidays and lower cost flights.
It all started 50 years ago but as the decades have passed the TEFL world has transformed considerably. Although TEFL in Europe has made something of a recovery in recent times, thanks especially to the growth in countries like Russia and Poland, Asia is now the strongest market for people planning to make a decent living teaching English overseas.
For years, Japan led the way. There was definitely a point when two or three years teaching English in Japan could help pay off a sizable piece of a student loan. Those times have long past, however many of the best TEFL earnings can still be found there.
For a while it seemed like South Korea would be the Asian country to lure English Language teachers away from Japan, but in the last three or four years the big mover in Far East TEFL has been China.
Salaries in China can't match those in Japan but living expenses are substantially lower. Expendable income is for that reason quite similar. Furthermore, inexpensive travel has made Asia accessible as a region to get started on an English teaching career, even for individuals just out of university.
Finding English Teaching Jobs In China
While this would seem to make China a workers market as far as English teachers are concerned it should be noted that all teaching jobs are created equal. Salaries and working conditions can vary hugely between schools, companies and regions, as well as between the public and private sectors.
TEFL jobs in China fall into three basic categories: premium, regular and those that are a last resort. The premium jobs are generally filled by those for whom English language teaching has become a career choice rather than a means to earn some money while traveling the world. They will have extensive classroom experience and further qualifications related to TEFL, especially Dip. TEFL/TESOL or an M.A. in something like Applied Linguistics.
In the private sector, teachers falling into this category will be looking for posts at the major education companies. When taking into account the cost of living in China, the salaries and benefits at the top end of the scale are getting close to those on offer for similar positions in the West.
In the public sector, the premium English teaching positions are found at the big Universities. Even then they can’t compare with the highest salaries in the private sector, but there are other factors to consider. Whereas work schedules in the private sector can be quite intense, public universities enjoy long holidays and a much lighter timetable. Not only that, but these jobs usually provide a furnished apartment as part of the package.
Other teaching positions in China can outwardly look quite similar and yet vary wildly when you get down to the fine details. For this reason it is essential that you are clear about all aspects of your contract, your obligations and your employers expectations before you sign on the dotted line. Not only that, but after you arrive in China, it’s important to ensure that all aspects of that contract are being adhered to.
As mentioned above, it’s the fine details that will separate a good job from one best avoided. The first one is salary. Some will be happy earning less money in the public sector so that they have more free time to make the most of their stay in China. However, some people become resentful when they make friends with other foreigners who are earning quite a bit more than them.
Conversely, some people want to save as much money as possible while they are in China and feel that a job in the private sector would be better for them. Again, the long hours, often teaching late into the evening, can become a chore when they notice that they are missing out on the fun things that their friends in public schools are doing.
Another big factor in whether your experience of teaching English in China turns out to be rewarding one and a living nightmare is location. In both the public and private sectors, there are some jobs that can be in quite remote, industrialized areas. Some teachers have been in situations where they have been the only foreigner in town, and where the Chinese staff at their school or company only spoke rudimentary English.
Of course, it’s all subjective. While this situation might be very difficult for an inexperienced teacher with little or no command of the Chinese language, others might find the challenge quite exciting. It’s something you have to decide for yourself.
Another things to consider is the reputation of the company or school offering you a job. Search Google for reviews and opinions of former teachers. Most employers will treat you well, but there will always exist a few disreputable organizations that will try to deceive inexperienced teachers in particular. The general rule that applies to all walks of life is also relevant here. If something appears to be too good to be true, it probably is.
After you’ve arrived in China it’s important to be equally vigilant, especially in the first month or two. Make sure that you are being given everything that you were promised in your contract and that working conditions and schedules are exactly as described. If you let things pass in the first few weeks then your employer will take you to be a pushover and the situation will likely only get worse.
The other thing to remember is that if you are just starting out teaching English as a foreign language, then you can’t expect to get the salary and benefits that more experienced teachers are getting. For some reason, people tend to forget this when they go abroad, and become resentful. However, hard work, a smart appearance and a good attitaude will go a long way in China, are there will be opportunities for development.
One thing remains true for all teachers, though, and that’s to do lots and lots of research, and get all the country information you can before you book your plane tickets to China. And when you’ve done that, do some more research!