top of page

All you ever wanted to know about teaching in China but forgot to ask. Part 1 (of 4)

My year 11 students

So you are ready to teach ESL/TEFL in China? Part 1 - The gap year graduate

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

Let's begin at the beginning and ask the question. 'Why do you want to come to China to teach English?' After all it’s a long way away, the culture is 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.

The following is based on very little research, apart from living and working here for six years, hanging out in insalubrious bars, and watching ‘teachers’ come and go like a bad case of herpes. Based on these experiences I believe English (ESL) teachers in China can be classified into several groups.

  1. The gap year graduate

  2. The redundant, the alienated, and the dysfunctional

  3. The untouchables

  4. The entitled

You have to have a degree to get most of the bona fide teaching jobs in China. In most cases it rarely matters what your degree subject is. For some jobs you might not even need a degree at all. But you need to be suspicious of these offers because they will not come with a Z visa and the school will expect you to travel on a tourist visa or another type of spurious visa and work illegally. Be warned the police are cracking down on phoney degree certificates.

Check List

To get the Z VISA, you will also have to provide the following documents:

  • Original copy of your bachelor (or higher degree) certificates. You need to provide an authenticated/notarised copy and get that ratified in a Chinese Consulate or Embassy in your country

  • Original reference letter from one or more non-Chinese companies that prove you have at least 2 years of full-time teaching experience (after graduation).

  • They will require you to provide a current medical certificate from your doctor.

  • And a clean criminal record check issued by your country of citizenship and translated into Chinese.

(Plus the usual passport stuff, letters of reference from past employers etc.)

  1. The gap year graduate

Crucially, to be an ESL teacher in China you have to be a Native English Speaker[1](NES)--unless you are a tall blond beautiful Ukrainian female who wants to work with kids. Once in China you will find a glut of these gap year ‘teachers’. Graduates that have little or no experience of teaching other than some group work when doing their TEFL qualification. They think 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 work they find is in low-grade schools, kindergartens and some poorer colleges and universities. Most times they are filling the role of a ‘white face’ native English speaker so 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 audio-visual material provided by the school.

Classes are monitored by CCTV, and especially so in kindergartens and training schools, so that doting parents (and the managers) can watch their kids being taught. Some schools demand a ‘performance’ from these teachers so 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.

These types of teachers are very transient. Some might be travelling and stopping off to work illegally on tourist visas to make money before moving on to the next place. Others might be here for the adventure, the girls, the nightlife, the cheap beer and the party atmosphere which you can find easily enough amongst the young ex-pats. A few might even be here to teach as they have the notion 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 teachers 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 employers sometimes in neighbouring cities. They move around from place to place after losing jobs, getting fired, or just not turning up. Most of this extra work carried out by graduate gap year ‘teachers’ is illegal if the strict letter of the Chinese employment law is applied.

I have heard (and have personal knowledge) of teachers 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 give you a card with an ‘emergency contact number on). Teachers falling off their scooters and motorbikes getting injured because they drink and drive. (Also risking a three-week gaol sentence and deportation.) It is not surprising that teacher turn over in some training schools and colleges is rapid and the reputation of foreign teachers low.

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 expert certificate (FEP) and a residency visa which your school/agency will get for you. 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 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 work enhance your CV/Resume? The answer is a resounding No. Employers in the West are not stupid. They know 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 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, at home, in the job market, even after returning to take an MA, the jobs are just not there. One young woman I knew returned to the US and took her Masters. She waited twelve months to get a face-to-face interview for a suitable job.

If you are a graduate traveller, then you might need to consider how you can develop yourself while you are here. How to spend your time wisely so that being in China benefits you over and above meeting new people, finding out about new cultures and travelling. If you 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. You can take the CELTA courses 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 twelve months after CELTA qualification you can become an examiner for the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) examinations, which pays well.

You might also consider doing courses at your local university. Some Chinese universities run MA courses taught in English or you might spend your time learning Chinese – there are many accredited courses available. It is likely if you are a gap year graduate then the teaching job 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 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 they 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 a local university.

There is a lot of opportunity if you look for it and sometimes it 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 because someone approached him when he was out on the town one night.

It is probable that most of these people are doing this work on Z visas they got for starting a teaching job. They might still be doing it or have left hoping the school doesn’t contact the authorities to retract the visa – which is usually the case. They might be on tourist visas; consequently, a lot of ex-pat work is done illegally. You 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 get paid in cash.


As far as salaries go most teaching jobs that come with a Z visa for graduates start at around 6000 RMB (approx. £700/$900 - salaries for these types jobs have not risen in the 6 years I've been here) a month (Colleges and universities.) The contract will often include free accommodation, free utilities including Wi-Fi 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 it meets your requirements.

6000 RMB is more than sufficient to have a nice life and to save money to travel and do stuff. As I have noted, there is always the possibility of picking up extra part time work to boost your income. Part-time teaching pays about 150 – 250 RMB (£17-£30/$23-39 approx.) an hour depending on how good your negotiating skills are. One to one lessons range from about 200 – 300 RMB (£23-£33/$31-37 approx.) per hour and most people I know do them in their local Starbucks or somewhere similar. One colleague was chauffeured to his student’s house to do the lesson and given lunch or dinner with the family and often invited on a family day out – which 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 for 800RMB which included two or three 90-minute lessons (depending on the week and/or the number of kids turning up). 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. This is not counting the one hour+ travelling time into town and the one hour+ back home.

I left this job when the owner suggested she could Photoshop my Z visa and my passport ‘just in case the police came and visited the school’. I was working illegally so it was a risk, but a risk I didn’t want to take with fake documents, so I left.

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

The first time I was in China I bailed out and went home with my tail between my legs. 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. The result is I am now debt free in the UK.

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


Tips from the front line.

Computer: Bring a decent laptop computer with you. I recommend bringing a Mac because you don’t have to worry about viruses. When you are teaching you will use the computers in the classrooms. You will use audio and visual material in your classrooms, such as YouTube videos and so on. You will use a USB stick. The computers in the classrooms are usually full of viruses because the students use them for various nefarious activities so as soon as you put the stick back into your Windows computer you get the viruses.

Your computer is your main window onto the world. Even if you have a TV in your apartment there is nothing to watch apart from CCTV news in English. So you will watch movies and TV via the many ways you can, usually using torrents.

You will also want to use your computer to contact friends and family so download SKYPE in your home country as the Chinese version of SKYPE is monitored and is often down.

Torrents I Use

Pirate Bay


I use Vuze BitTorrent Client to download the torrents -

Smartphone: Make sure your Smartphone is unblocked back in your home country so that when you come to China, you can buy a Sim card from China Mobile or China Unicom (Unicom is best for iPhone). You Smartphone is your lifesaver.

Make sure you have maps APPS, so you don’t get lost. A translator APP so you can at least communicate on some level. Once you are here, you can download the local taxi APP. - DiDi works in English. Download social media apps like WeChat and QQ which everybody uses.

Remember you cannot use Twitter or Facebook here in China without a VPN.

Buy a Huawei smartphone in China. They are cheap and compete very well against iPhone. I dumped my iPhone5 for a Huawei and I am very happy with the phone. 95% of the functions are in English and I have no problems at all.

VPN: Virtual Personal Network. To access Twitter, Facebook, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and so on which are blocked by the Chinese government you need to download a VPN onto your phone and computer. The best VPN for China is EXPRESSVPN. You do have to pay for the service, but it is cheap week by week, and works very well on my MacBook, smartphone and tablet.

Professionalism: Just because you are young and a graduate doesn’t mean you should turn up to teach in shorts, scraggy tee shirt and flip-flops like the rest of the herd. Set yourself apart from the rest of the drunks and dope heads and dress (and act) like a professional teacher. They hold teachers in high regard in China, they have a Teachers Day; your students will give you gifts. You will generate more respect from your colleagues and your students if you dress the part. So for males, shoes, trousers and a long-sleeved shirt (especially if you have tattoos as I do – tattoos are the mark of a low person or criminal in China).

Some schools do have a dress code and will even stipulate that teachers wear a tie. I wear trousers, shirt, jacket if its chilly, decent shoes. If I am meeting parents, then I will wear a suit and tie.

Hint- get a suit made here at your local tailor costs about 1200rmb. For females’ similar formal/casual clothes are more appropriate too. Around the campus where I live, in my free time, I wear shorts and tee shirts with my tattoos on show – but that is my free time, not my professional time.

Where to find your job

There are lots of ESL job websites on the website. You could do worse than look at Dave’s ESL café - to start with.

TEFL Course

If you have not yet done a TEFL course which is usually a minimum requirement after the degree you can often find an online course cheap on Groupon. I used an online company called i to i you can Google it – also all the answers to the hard grammar questions are on Google.


Make sure you have a CV or resume you can post which in some way or other suggests that you have some teaching experience even if it is a stretch of the imagination. Running groups at work, working with kids and so on.

If you have no teaching experience apart from the weekend class you took on your TEFL course, then maybe you should think about how you can get some between now and turning up in China where you will be dropped in at the deep end and be expected to teach a large class of bored teenagers on that first day.

Watch out for part two of this four-part series.

[1]Generally, the big 5 – U.K., U.S., Australia, Canada and South Africa.

[2]Nanjing area/Jiangsu Province – other provinces might have different pay scales.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page