What’s Teaching English in China Like? The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Mao and Then: Teaching English in China

Have you ever considered teaching English in China? Perhaps it’s the cultural difference that fascinates you, or you simply want to make a change and try something different. Whatever your reason may be, China is certainly a very interesting place. The country has advanced so much in the past two to three decades, but at the same time it is still very much a developing country. Hopefully by learning more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of teaching English in China, you can decide if it’s right for you.

For me, it started during my freshman year attending Renmin University in Beijing. I was simply looking to make some extra cash so I could move out of my 500-square-foot, 6-person dorm room. The dorm was so small and crawling with so many people that I couldn’t stand it anymore. Having gone to an international school for high school, English had always been my best subject in college.


Chinese’s Obsession of Learning English

As the Chinese try to gain a competitive edge in both school and careers, learning English has almost become an obsession. Parents send their kids to English classes even before kindergarten, and all the way through college and into their adult life. My college, Renmin University is famous in Beijing for Friday night’s “English Corner” on campus, where people from all walks of life come together and practice talking in English to one another. It is quite an extraordinary scene.

Needless to say, there’s a huge market demand for English teachers.

I applied to a few listings through reputable sites such as the Beijinger, and started getting calls. Having gone through a few interviews at different places, I quickly got an idea of what they are looking for.


Mao and Then: Chinese Classroom
Photo Credit: Rex Pe



Be Careful of Scams

I personally was quite lucky and never had any problem, plus I only used reputable sites for my job search. But even so, there are some sketchy agencies or brokers that may scam you.

It could go from the less severe such as not getting paid on time or the amount promised and all the way to having a visa denied, detained or even losing money out of pocket. Bottom line, do your research and never give people a large sum of deposit that you could potentially never get back. It may sound like common sense, but you would be surprised. These scammers make their living by doing this.



We Just Want A White Face

It used to be the job posting would flat out say that they are only looking for a white face. Or the nicer way to say is “send us your resume, and must attach a picture”. Before you get offended, you have to understand that China is still a developing country. Especially because the country itself is 99% Chinese, They simply don’t have this kind of racial sensitivity like the western world, especially America.

Chinese people somehow perceives white people as more authentic English teachers even though English is not the first language for many of them. For Asian English teachers, it could be hard for the Chinese to grasp that “you are Asian, what do you mean English is your first language and you are from the U.S.?” As for black people, unfortunately they may be the least desirable.

However, don’t be at all discouraged! The Chinese are starting to understand that diversity is a good thing and value the teacher’s experience and skills. I have many non-white friends who are still able to find good jobs. The institutions that are just “looking for a white face” simply serves one small segment of the market.

For instance in my case, I was able to demonstrate that the fact that I’m bilingual with native efficiency in both Chinese and English, and it would be very beneficial for the students. I ended up getting multiple offers within two weeks.


Mao and Then: Mao and another English Teacher from Switzerland
Me and another English Teacher from Switzerland



No One School/Institution is the Same

When you are doing your search, it’s important to know the difference between public and private schools. There are also many different focuses within private schools. Public school teachers typically follow specific textbooks and it leaves little flexibility for curriculum. Your goal is to help them pass standardized tests that’s required by the school system. Also class size is typically a lot larger than private schools (i.e. 50 vs. 15).

As for private schools, there are a lot of agencies that are designed to help students to get higher grades in standardized testing. Thus you will be doing a lot of test-prep and the environment may get intense at times.

I ended up teaching at two private institutions that were not test-prep oriented. First is an after-school care for kids that are just beginning to learn English, and I taught one-on-one with an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old. The second place was a classroom setting with 15 kids who already knew the basics of English. Since I am not a big fan of standardized testing, I really enjoyed the flexibility and stress-free environment with the kids.

It’s important for you to think about what your goals for teaching English. Do you prefer adults or kids? Public vs. private schools? What’s your teaching style? What kind of clientele or students you want to work with? These will all affect the pay you get, but in my opinion, it’s better to take less pay and be happier with where you work.


Click here to more about the difference between Asian and western education system. 


It’s Very Rewarding

Having never taught before, I had no idea that I would enjoy teaching English this much! In addition to making money, teaching was indeed very rewarding for me.

I followed a textbook that the institute gave me when I first started teaching. However, I quickly realized that my students lost interest and weren’t as excited to be in my class. In my opinion, learning a different language is about having fun and being able to communicate to one another. The Chinese system focuses heavily on standardized testing which kills the fun and practicality of the English language (i.e. the Chinese can tell you the difference between past participial vs. present tense but they wouldn’t be able to carry a conversation).

I started bringing movies and comic books in English to classroom and that immediately sparked the interest in my students. We sang and danced and I made my students read Garfield comic books in English. Not only did they have so much fun, they were progressing very quickly and had better English speaking skills than all their peers.


Mao and Then: Chinese classroom
Photo Credit: Dominic Rivard



Great Way to Immerse Yourself in the Chinese Culture

When you are interacting so much with your students and their parents, you start to pick up on a lot of cultural nuances. One thing I notice was that besides teaching English, I sort of had this big brother figure for my students. Due to the one-child policy in China, kids often grow up alone and don’t necessarily have the sibling relationships like we do.

In one of my one-on-ones, I would play computer games with the student during breaks. There were a few classes that I didn’t play games with the student (because I thought they only wanted to learn English), and the mom told me that it would be great if I could spend more time playing with him instead of just teaching. In a sense, I was more than just an English teacher but also a brother and playmate.

I also did one-on-ones with a student’s mom. The mom got bored waiting for her son to finish class so she thought she would take classes too. It was a great experience for me because the mom was just taking it easy, and she was quite interested in the western culture. So we ended up talking a lot of random stuff such as popular culture, TV shows, education differences in China and the west and more. It was a really casual and fun environment. Not only did the mom learned some English, I was able to learn a lot from the mom as we exchanged ideas.


Students Probably Will Fall Asleep in Front of you

This didn’t happen to me as my kids were all very energetic. But if you teach in high schools or universities, Chinese students are notoriously known for sleeping in class. Typically in a class of 50 people, you would find 3 or 5 students napping on their desks the whole class.  That’s always the case in my high school, college and basically everywhere else.

Again, it’s just different culture, nothing against your teaching skills. I would be sympathetic because the students are just so stressed out, stay up till early hours studying, and rarely get enough sleep.



You can Save Some Serious $$$

I was making 120 RMB per hour when I first started, which is roughly $18 USD. Considering I’d never made that much before, I felt like I was rolling in cash! The best part being I was able to move out of the  dorm that I hated so much. Once I started private tutoring (where parents bring their kids to my house), I was able to charge upwards of 200 RMB per hour.

A lot of agencies will offer free accommodations (even including utilities) and travel and/or meal allowances. Considering I didn’t work full-time nor did I have certifications like TESL or TESOL (which I highly recommend getting if you are serious about teaching English in China), I only got paid a normal hourly rate.

Blogger Agness of eTramping was able to save up to $18k teaching English in China while traveling. Which is absolutely amazing!


Mao and Then: Agness and Cez of eTramping
Agness and Cez of eTramping



It could Open Doors for More Opportunities

Whether you are only teaching short-term to get a taste of China or making it your career, teaching English in China could potentially lead you to other opportunities.

For instance, my roommate form New Zealand got offered a cool job in the aviation industry by one of his student’s parents. China’s economy is growing at such a quick pace, and families who can afford to send their kids to private tutoring often come from strong backgrounds and can be very influential if they like you. That is certainly the case for my roommate.

Other friends I knew even started out their own agency in China as they see different market needs for English tutoring.


Final Thoughts

Teaching English in China was definitely a great experience for me. In addition, it really allowed me to understand the culture even more. However, there were a select few English teachers that I met who were quite arrogant and perhaps rude to their students and agency staff. This is more of a common problem that goes beyond just English teachers. Many westerners come to China and think that they are somehow superior and often times disrespect the Chinese culture. I have witnessed English teachers being very disrespectful to agency staff and even student’s parents. Again, I get that there are many differences, but still treat others like you would in your own country.



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