The Great Wall, the Giant Panda and You: Teaching English in China

Guest written by Beth Green

Do you want to teach English to dedicated, hard-working students? Explore one of the world’s oldest civilizations? Have a million and one stories to tell when you do go back home?

In short, I’m asking—do you want to teach English in China?

The People’s Republic of China is now one of the world’s top destinations for English teachers—if you doubt me, just check any online job board.

On the other hand, China has a reputation for being a hard place to live—and newbie teachers going abroad would be unwise to ignore some of the stories coming from the Middle Kingdom.

So, what’s the real dirt on whether it’s a good idea to teach English in China? Read on for my two cents:

The Good

●  Teaching Contracts in China Offer More Perks.  When you take a job in China, or do an internship like the one at, you usually get your housing paid for by your employer. Other perks may or may not include paying for your utilities, cable TV, internet service, Chinese lessons, phone bill, working lunches and travel bonuses. While there are other positions in the world that offer nice sweeteners like these, the proportion in China seems to be way higher.

●  They Won’t Mind If This Is Your First Job. Chinese public schools and training centers—even universities—are often open to giving greenhorn English teachers jobs that in other countries could only be had by more experienced educators. This may not be true of all cities, competition for teaching jobs in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai is fierce, but the broad-reaching demand for English instruction in China exceeds supply of teachers, especially in rural areas.

●  See History and History in the Making. China is just a cool place to be. It’s got thousands and thousands of years of history as a civilization—the Great Wall was started about 700 BC, and the Terracotta Warriors were buried about 200 BC—and its contemporary culture is changing about as fast as I can type this. While fast-paced modernization coupled with dusty relics won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, no one can say it’s boring.

The Bad

●   Chinese Language is a Puzzle. In English we call gibberish “Greek.” In Spanish they call it “Chinese.” The Spaniards may be closer to the truth. China has more than five official languages and dialects spanning more than eight language families. The two big languages we hear about in the West are Mandarin and Cantonese, however even if you’re working in a place that speaks one of these two, there are dialects to contend with. Of course, you don’t need to speak Chinese to teach English. However, being in a rural area or anonymous second- or third-tier city without a scratch of language can be very isolating for a teacher who’s come abroad for the first time. Extra effort is needed for even simple daily transactions. The good news is, most schools will lend you a helper (maybe a colleague) to translate for you while you’re getting set up in a new town and job, and finding people willing to help you learn basic Chinese is easy.

●  Don’t Drink The Water, But What About Breathing the Air? Big cities in Asia just don’t have the same clean, fresh air that North Americans, Europeans and Australians are used to. Attitudes to environmental safety standards in China are very different than you will see even in more developed countries in Asia. Slowly, more is being done to make Chinese cities a healthier place to live—but there’s no guarantee your city will have adopted these new measures.

●  The Giving and Losing of “Face.” It doesn’t matter what country you go to as an English teacher, you will find some cultural differences between there and your native land. Expect to feel a bit of culture shock wherever you go. But in China, many teachers say they have experienced much higher degrees of culture shock because of the differences between Chinese and Western cultures. One example is the importance of Chinese “face”: sometimes people will not concede a point simply because they don’t want to lose face for having been wrong. Or, they might say “yes” to something because they don’t want to lose face (or make you lose face!) by saying “no.” Another important cultural stumbling block to take into account before looking for work in China is that Caucasian or white-looking teachers often are given preferential hiring treatment at Chinese schools. If you are of Asian, African or other non-white origin, or if you even might look it, then you will probably be asked to explain your family history (proving that yes, you are a native English speaker) before you get a job.

Obviously, these are just a few of the common “good” and “bad” points that English teachers observe when they go to China. For most people, teaching in China—or even doing a short stint, as through—is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they will treasure the rest of their lives.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Don’t take a job in China on a whim. Research a little about the culture and situation before you decide to go. Like anything, it can be a brilliantly wonderful experience, or not.

TED’s Tips™ #2: If you do decide to go to China, try to bone up on some Mandarin before you go. While you won’t need local language skills for your classroom, even a few words will help you settle in to your new life abroad.

Teaching Internships in China







Teaching English in Thailand versus China: Which is Better?

Readers sometimes ask about teaching English in China versus teaching English in Thailand and we will try to help sort that out for you here.

As two of the three largest EFL markets in the world, it is a good idea to understand the differences between these two countries.

What are the differences and advantages/disadvantages of China versus Thailand?

Basic Requirements for Teaching English in China and Thailand

For China – a TEFL certificate is generally required (sometimes not if you have previous teaching experience) and often a degree is NOT required.

For Thailand – a degree AND a TEFL certification is required.  You’ll also need to provide a criminal background check (not a bad thing!).

Wages and Benefits Compared for Teaching English in China and Thailand

Wages for entry level positions are about the same between the two countries.  You can earn about US$1000 per month.  But benefits differ greatly. There is, of course, quite a bit of variation in wages in both countries depending on location, type of school and the qualifications and experience that you bring to the tabel

In China you will usually get free accommodation and reimbursed airfare.  Big expenses that Thailand does not usually offer to cover.

Contracts in China also often offer free internet in your apartment, plus a computer in the apartment as well as subsidized utilities (usually about 200RMB per month – sometimes enough to cover all the costs).  That is not going to happen in Thailand where you will need to find, rent and pay for your own apartment, utilities, internet and computer.  Sometimes though, a computer with internet connection is provided at work, but you will sometimes need to share that computer with other teachers.

Though wages are modest in both countries, because of the benefits provided you can probably save about US$2-300 a month in China, but it will be difficult to save anything in Thailand.  For Thailand, you should consider bringing with you enough money for your flight home.  You’ll earn enough in Thailand though, to have a good look around the country and travel a bit regionally.

Hiring Procedure

Thailand interviews will almost always require you to be on the scene and often to present a demonstration lesson before you will be offered a position.  China usually hires you directly from abroad after a Skype or telephone interview.

Teaching Conditions

Because Thailand requires a degree and TEFL certification, they tend to expect more of their newbie teachers.  Classroom numbers tend to be high and if you are teaching at a public school, you might have as many as 50 students in your class.   Really a tough way to get started.

China seems to be a bit more ready to accept totally newbie teachers, probably because even the TEFL certification requirement is fairly new and they were quite used to taking teachers literally off the street.  Because of this they tend to offer smaller classes, fewer teaching hours and (very often) a Chinese teacher assistant in the classroom with you.

Living Conditions and Culture: Thailand versus China

Thailand is know as probably one of the easiest places to live and adapt to the culture and lifestyle.  It truly is a wonderful place to live and enjoy life.  Thailand has a long history with foreigners in the country and easily accepts them and you can find yourself quite comfortable there – from day one.

China is often a bit more difficult for people to adapt to as foreigners.  Especially in out of the way cities, foreigners have not been around much.  You can easily find people staring at you and they can be quite curious about you – though in a polite way.  Thais, will tend to not pay you much attention unless you are in a very rural area.

TED’s Tips™ #1:  In almost every category, China offers better options for the new teacher. BUT, most people find Thailand a more enjoyable and easier place to live.  You’ll need to decide for yourself what works best for you.  If you need to save a bit of money and are not confident about your teaching skills (yet), then China is probably a better option for you.

Teaching Internships in China

Internships Teaching English in China

TEFL Internships in China

An interesting new program:  Short-term internships teaching English in China.

This is a good way to get your feet wet.

The program is designed for people who:

  • aren’t ready to make a one-year commitment
  • still need some training
  • want only a short-term placement
  • want some experience before making a final decision
  • want to stick their toe in the water to see if it is what they really want

The program includes a 140 hour TEFL certification that – at the end of the program – will also be endorsed with over 200+ hours of on-the-job teaching practice.

If this sounds like a good program for you then head over to TEFL Internships and take a look at what they have to offer.   The stipend (internship wages) is about double most similar programs and the fees are about half of similar programs.  If you decide to stay in China, most of the time you can be hired directly by the school where you did your internship.

TED’s Tips™ #1: I wish they had had these kinds of programs when I first started out!  It would have helped me a lot.  Take a look and see if it is for you.

Teaching Internships in China

The OTHER Side of TEFL . . .

What you DON’T hear about TEFL on the Internet

On the Internet we read so many stories about crazy TEFL schools around the world, crazy recruiters, crazy countries and ideas, but it seems no one ever posts about the difficulties that teachers cause or the craziness that teachers bring to the mix.

It is pretty much a one-sided story out there. Unless, of course, you are reading the Chinese EFL School Owners forum (if one exists).

Anyway – I thought long and hard about what to name this post.

Some strong contenders:


What are you guys watching on TV over there?

Are you all crazy!?

Do you BELIEVE everything you read?

Yeah . . .

What has me saying that?

Well, today – and the names will be changed to protect the innocent – a teacher who had already been hired and was 90% of the way through the visa process for taking up her position in China – and part of that process was to take a final health exam on the China side – wrote me the following:

. . . I was warned to NEVER let anyone, no one, draw blood or stick a needle in me.
And, I will never take a Chip.
[she means have someone insert a radio tracking chip into her body – like for a dog or from Sci-Fi movies!]

If these two things are promised to never happen, all is well.
(If you think my questions are out of line then you are not aligned with the real world.)

Note: in the contract the written words must be in ink, everything that I have written above.

I don’t see why what I have asked (demanded) are out of line.

My response was as follows:

I am curious where you heard about getting a “chip” – amazing! But I’ve not heard anything about such a notion.

She wrote back AGAIN saying:

Note: in the contract the written words must be in ink, everything that I have written above.

My response: The part about the “chip” is a little bit like insisting that there be a clause that you won’t be required to ride in their space ship.

About the use of needles by a clinic, that I can’t guarantee and I quite doubt the school will put that in the contract – they can’t really, as they don’t own, control or manage the health clinic. Contracts are printed in ink though . . .

OF COURSE you have control over your body while in China. Absolutely. No one is going to hold you down and force you to do anything. But the medical exam is required for the final validation of your working papers (it is so in every country in which I have ever worked over the last 21 years). If there is a test required for that exam and if the procedure for that test requires a needle, you may certainly refuse that. However, how that affects the health exam and if the provincial authorities agree to finalize your working papers – that is a different story.

My personal opinion, is that if this is a deal breaker for you then let it break the deal. Life abroad is full of such things that need to be handled on a semi-regular basis. It ain’t America. Over the last twenty years I’ve signed blank contracts, had blood tests, had schools hold my passport, all sorts of stuff that people who know nothing of the real world out here yell about on the Internet.

But once you get to know the wider world a bit more there are often reasons why things are done, things operate a bit more on faith and trust abroad and personally I think that is a very GOOD thing.

Will you always have the choice to refuse a procedure or anything done to your body, of course.. Will it queer the deal for you on that side or anywhere else or lots of other places, quite probably.

The contract isn’t going to change – nor are China immigration rules – in this instance.

TED’s Tips™ #1: I don’t even know what to say for this one! What would you suggest to someone who believes that taking a health exam in another country will include getting a “Chip” inserted into your body or brain??

What are you watching on TV over there!?

Gives a whole new meaning to the marketing phrase, “Intel Inside” doesn’t it?

What’s up in China? Learn about a great internship program on offer if would like to Teach English in China