Doctor X’s guide to teaching ESL/TEFL in China. Part 1 – The gap year graduate

Part 1 of 4

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Chinese High School

I’ve been teaching English in China for five years now so this post is aimed at those of you who might be thinking about coming to China to teach or you might have made the decision to come to teach and are right now agonising about what to put in your suitcases for the 10 months or so you will be away – which I will come to later.

Let’s begin at the beginning and ask the question ‘why do you actually want to come to China to teach English?’ After all it’s a long way away, the culture is pretty alien, if you’ve been looking at the jobs websites you’ll have noticed that the wages are not up to much when balanced against what you could earn at home and then there’s the smog.

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Smog over the Lotus stalks

But then again I have been here for five years and probably will stay for another five. I’ve been having a blast, enjoying myself, travelling, meeting wonderful people, sleeping with them and saving enough money en-route to become debt free in the UK.

So what sort of people come out to China to teach English? Based on very little actual research, apart from living and working here five years carrying out much of the participant observation the following is based upon in the various pubs and bars I have frequented I have come to the conclusion that English (ESL) teachers in China can be classified into four distinct groups.  Which one do you belong to?

The Gap Year Graduate

The Redundant, the Alienated and the Dysfunctional

The Untouchables 

The Entitled

The Gap Year Graduate.

You have to have a degree to get most of the bona fide teaching jobs in China. In most cases it usually doesn’t matter what your degree subject is. In some cases you might not even need a degree at all but you need to be suspicious of these job offers because they might not come with a Z visa and will expect you to travel on a tourist visa and work illegally. Be warned as I write in 2017 the police are cracking down on phoney degree certificates. New rules that came out on April 1st insist on notarised degree certification and Applicant’s police clearance (issued by your home country local police department) and notarised. You can calculate your visa ranking here 

Crucially though you have to be a native English speaker, unless you are a tall blond beautiful Ukrainian female – then you will be a shoo in for the job.   Once you are in China you will find a glut of this type of ‘teacher’. Graduates that have had little or no experience of teaching other than some group work when doing their TEFL qualification who think that coming to China will look good on their CV when they go back home to find work or to continue their academic career by signing up to an MA programme.

The type of work they tend to find is in low grade schools, kindergartens and some low-grade colleges and universities.  In many cases they are simply filling the role of a ‘white face’ native English speaker so the said school or college can market their ‘credentials’ to gullible parents.  Remember, education is big business here, parent have to pay for their kid’s education. Interaction with students at these types of schools/training centres is often very basic, often restricted to ‘conversational’ English, working with a set book or working with young kids with audiovisual material provided by the school.

Often classes are monitored by CCTV, especially so in kindergartens and training schools, so that doting parents (and the managers) can watch their kids being taught. Some schools then demand a ‘performance’ from these teachers so that the parents believe they are getting their money’s worth.  This ‘performing monkey’ role is often more about keeping sleepy and unmotivated young students awake, having fun, than teaching English.

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Kids at a training school I worked at

These types of teachers are very transient. Some might be travelling and stopping off to work illegally, on tourist visas to make some money before moving on to the next place.  Some might be here for the adventure, the nightlife, the cheap beer and the party atmosphere, which you can find easily enough amongst the young ex-pat ‘teachers’.  Some might even be here to teach as they have the notion that it will be good practice for back home when they get around to that pesky Education MA. Regardless, it’s easy to hop from low paying job to low paying job if you are prepared to prostitute yourself for a few hundred RMB an hour.

Many of these types of teachers, and I have to say the majority of them are from the UK, Australia and North America, may have two or three jobs on the go to make ends meet and to keep the party and the travelling going. Over the course of their tenure in China these types of ‘teacher’ might have many jobs from many different employers, often in different cities, as they move around from place to place after losing jobs, getting fired, or just not turning up at all. Most of this extra work being carried out by graduate gap year ‘teachers’ is probably illegal if the strict letter of the Chinese employment law was applied.

I have heard (and have personal knowledge) of this type of teacher turning up drunk after a hard night not quite finishing in time to get some sleep, or just reeking of alcohol and cigarettes when they turn up to teach blurry eyed and still buzzed. Teachers getting arrested for being drunk, teachers falling asleep in taxis because they are drunk, teachers having no money left to pay the taxi so the taxi driver calls the school or college liaison officer to come and pay the bill. Most schools/colleges will provide a card with an emergency contact number on. Teachers falling off their scooters and motorbikes getting injured because they drink and drive – therefore also risking a three week jail sentence and possible deportation. It is not surprising that teacher turn over in some training schools and colleges is quite rapid.

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Gap Year Graduate – US version – the eyes have it.

As far as employment law for foreigners is concerned to work as a teacher, legally, in China, you must have a Z visa in your passport then you have to have a foreign experts certificate and a residency visa which your school/agency will get for you. (As I write these are still in flux with the April 1st changes) Once you have a Z visa you should only work for that single employer. If you have multiple jobs with different employers you are breaking the law. Okay, everyone does it. But as some ex-pat teachers have found out to their cost, should you be found out by the police, who do occasionally visit schools to check the status of the foreign employees, not having the correct visa will see you being deported from China with three days notice of your removal. The employer also faces significant fines.

Does this type of work enhance your CV? The answer is probably a resounding No. Employers in the West are not stupid. They probably are aware that a young graduate spending a year in China is not there to develop skills that will translate easily to the work place back home.  I know, personally, young graduates who have spent two or three years in China having, to be honest, a great life.  Travel, parties, lifelong friends, Chinese girlfriends, boyfriends from their own part of the world and earning more than enough money to indulge themselves.  But back in the real world, back home, in the job market, even after returning home to take an MA, the jobs are just not there. One young woman I knew returned home (to the US) took her Masters, then waited 12 months, one full year, to get a face to face interview for a suitable job.

If you are this type of graduate traveller then you might need to consider how you can develop yourself professionally whilst you are here, to spend your time wisely so that your time in China actually does benefit you in the future over and above meeting new people, finding out about new cultures and travelling.  If you actually do wish to develop your ESL teaching skills there are courses available in China where you can qualify for the CELTA (University of Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages) qualification. The CELTA courses can be taken in Beijing and Shanghai, or if you want to travel and learn you can spend a month in Thailand getting the qualification.

Once you have this qualification you can not only move on to better jobs with higher salaries within China but the qualification will also be respected in your home country once it is on your CV which means you could find work in schools and colleges at home teaching ESL.  Also in China 12 months after CELTA qualification you can also become an examiner for the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) examinations, which pays extremely well.

You might also consider doing courses at your local university. Some Chinese universities run MA courses that are in taught English or you might spend your time learning Chinese – there are many accredited courses available. It is likely that if you are a gap year graduate then the teaching job you take will only take up a few hours of your time per day leaving you with plenty of time for professional development of this sort, unless of course you are chasing money by taking as many part-time jobs as possible or partying all the time.

The more enterprising of this graduate group might find that they really don’t want to spend their time babysitting students who don’t want to be there.  If you look hard enough there are other work opportunities in China. Work in the media is always a possibility; the advertising industry uses western models to promote products. Voiceover work, TV work, film extras are all jobs I have seen advertised on the social media groups I belong to in China.  I have seen westerners doing bar/restaurant work, DJ’ing, another ex-pat I know is the singer for a jobbing band for weddings and corporate events, the guitarist on one of the biggest TV shows in China, The Voice of China, a Chinese version of the X Factor, is a British ex-pat who fell into the job by accident.  Some ex-pats start up businesses or enter into business with Chinese colleagues.  I, myself, have written an IELTS speaking test primer textbook with a Chinese colleague published in Beijing, written for a student newspaper in Shanghai and I do proofreading for my local university.

There is a lot of opportunity here if you look for it and sometimes it just falls in your lap because you are the foreigner in the right place at the right time.  The brother of a colleague of mine picked up a modelling contract simply because someone approached him when he was out on the town one night.

Of course, it is probable that the majority of these people are doing this work on Z visas they originally got for starting a teaching job which they are still doing or might have left hoping the school does not bother to contact the authorities to retract the visa – which is usually the case.  Or they might be on tourist visas; consequently a lot of ex-pat work is done illegally. You have to weight that risk up yourself but most of it is paid in cash and I would recommend that if you do extra work on the side, you do get paid in cash.

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Cash in hand

As far as salaries go most teaching jobs that come with a Z visa for graduates start at around 6000 RMB (nearly £700 now that the pound is so weak) a month.  The contract will often include free accommodation, free utilities including WiFi or Internet access, free food in some school canteens (School dinners in China are much the same quality as at home), reimbursement of airline tickets, health insurance, some schools offer Chinese lessons for teachers and trips around the local countryside.  You need to check your contract carefully to see that it meets your requirements.

6000 RMB is more than sufficient to have a nice life and to actually save money to travel and so on. Of course, as I have noted, there is always the possibility of picking up extra part time work to boost your income.  Generally part-time teaching pays about 150 – 250 RMB (£17-£29 approx) an hour depending on how good your negotiating skills are. One to one lessons range from about 200 – 300 RMB (£23-£35 approx) per hour and most people I know do them in their local Starbucks or somewhere similar. One colleague was regularly chauffeured to his student’s house to do the lesson and was often given lunch or dinner with the family and was often invited on a family day out – which often translates as ‘free time with an English teacher for my kid’.  The plus side of this is he got to see and visit different places with someone else footing the bill so a win-win situation for both parties.

I worked at a training school with young kids every Saturday and was paid 800RMB a day which included two or three 90-minute lessons a day (depending on the week and/or the number of kids on any given day). I also had to be at ‘my desk’ for the rest of the time, on show for the parents. The day, for me, started at 8:30am and ended at 5:30pm with a two-hour lunch break.

I left this job when its owner suggested to me that he could Photoshop my Z visa and my passport ‘just in case the police came and visited the school’. Of course I was working illegally so that is always a risk, but a risk I didn’t want to take, especially with fake documents, so I left. But saying that in my five years of living and working in Nanjing I do not know of any teacher or any ex-pat that has been found to be working illegally by the police although I do know it has happened in other cities.

If you are a ‘gap year graduate’ who is thinking of coming to China do come. China is a fantastic place; you will meet great people who will become your best buddies. Everyday is an adventure. Even after being here for five years, every day I leave my apartment I see something new or something that blows my mind. If you find the right job you will find it rewarding and character building. Do not buy into the ‘China is shit’ mentality of people who have never stayed here long enough to really understand the place.

The first time I was in China I bailed out and went home with my tail between my legs. You can read about it in my forthcoming memoir on Kindle. But the reality of it was when I got home there was no work and I missed my friends and I needed to work, I needed to earn money and I knew I could do that in China if I found the right job.

So bite the bullet, do the TEFL course if you haven’t already, cut the apron strings, pack your bags and come to China.

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My jet plane to China

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