International teaching gigs often look appealing to those looking for adventure and an immersive cultural experience. China has long been a teaching destination for speakers of English. Over the years, the market has become more competitive for those willing to teach outside of their homeland. With the Middle East, South America, and other Asian nations vying for candidates, what are the pros and cons of teaching in China?
For many looking to teach, China has plenty to offer. The country itself is vast and diverse with cheap travel options, kind people, and stimulating cuisine. Teachers in China get more respect than any other country in the world, and their students are diligent in their studies. The school year and workday are organized with more consistent free time than one often sees in the west, and pay is good relative to the cost of living.
Conversely, it can be difficult to navigate the restrictive Chinese law system including offers of employment contracts. Accommodation may or may not be provided and the same is true for health insurance. Finally, recent years have seen the Chinese government increasing its control over who gets hired as international teachers. Today, to be qualified to teach in China you will need a bachelor’s degree and two years of teaching experience.
The Basics of the Chinese Education System
The school year in China consists of two terms, February to July, and September to January. There is a six-week summer vacation and a 4-week winter vacation separating the two terms. Many schools begin their day at 7:30 am, give students a two-hour lunch break, and end around 6:00 pm. Schools will often offer supervised homework time from 7-9 pm, there may also be morning classes before school or a 4-hour Saturday session.
Students in China will typically begin school at 3 years old for their preschool education and proceed until the approximate age of 15 when they will need to make a decision to continue on the vocational or academic path. Those on the academic path who wish to go on to university will need to take the National Higher Education Entrance Exam. In 2020 10.7 of the 25 million secondary school students took this exam and between 9%-35% will earn entrance into a top tier university. Changes to the exam system may be on the horizon as both universities and employers in China complain the test does not prepare students for real-world scenarios. But for now, this system remains and serves to elevate the role of teachers in the culture.
According to the most recent Global Teacher Status Index, China ranks first worldwide in teacher status. Social status doesn’t always translate to pay as the average Chinese teacher brings home $12,000/year compared to the $44,000 average found in the United States. International teachers of English in China can earn salaries ranging from $10,000-$50,000/year, with private school teachers, paid more than public school employees.
Advantages of Teaching in China
With pay relatively low why teach in China? There are plenty of benefits for teachers in China. Despite long student days, teaching hours seem to be limited to an average of 18 teaching hours and approximately 40 working hours per week.
The cost of living is fairly low in China and the average rent for an apartment ranges from $300-$500, with some employers covering the cost of accommodation. Meals are cheap and are often $5.00 or less. Generally, the school will provide free lunches (and sometimes breakfast) for teachers.
Many teachers will find the two-hour lunch a luxury. The students go home during this time leaving the teachers duty-free to catch up on work, socialize and even nap at their desk, which is culturally much more acceptable than it may be in other places around the world. The high status of teachers in China makes it likely students will be respectful and attentive.
Of course, the adventure of living and working in China may outweigh all of these benefits. China is an immense country with a wide variety of cultures and environments to explore. Travel is relatively cheap with a ticket on the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai around $75, and flights often less than $100. There are travel companies that cater just to expats living in China, giving adventurers the chance to meet one another.
Living in China also means exposure to the language. Over 1 billion people speak Mandarin making the immersive experience of living in China a priceless career development move. Teachers who want to learn Mandarin will have no trouble finding a language school or tutor, and their employer may even cover the cost. The Chinese people are known to be kind toward those who are attempting to speak their language, they are often impressed as it is known to be difficult.
Disadvantages of Teaching in China
If you don’t read the language knowing what you are committing to in contracts can be challenging. Your employment contract will most likely be in Mandarin and English. If there is a dispute of any kind the Mandarin portion of the contract will stand under Chinese law. More than one international teacher has found out the hard way the English and Mandarin portions of the contract were not the same. You will need to find out if your teaching contract offers health insurance and ensure you understand what is covered. If your coverage isn’t sufficient you will want to purchase additional coverage through private companies.
China is a communist country with a history of tightly controlling the behavior of its people. In 2021 the Ministry of Education released guidelines for hiring and managing foreign teachers. These guidelines include adding foreign teachers to available ‘social credit’ systems, ostensibly this is to monitor their actions and determine if they should continue in their employment.
Many behaviors seen as minor criminal offenses in the west, may come with much harsher punishments in China. This includes things like drug use, shoplifting, or speeding. As tensions have risen with western countries over the last decade, China has become less flexible with its international employees. In recent years there have been reports of American teachers failing drug tests when hair samples were used, resulting in deportation or prison time. Marijuana can show up in hair samples 90 days after it was ingested or inhaled. This makes the pre-employment drug test for those legally enjoying the drug in their home country a one-way ticket permanently out of China.
Finally, the new guidelines for foreign teachers also require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree and at least two years of teaching experience. Gone are the days when young people ready for an adventure could try out teaching as a career while experiencing the delights of a totally new culture.
Weighing Pros and Cons
Ultimately the individual will have to decide if the adventure of teaching in China is worth the potential headaches. Challenges can be a pathway for personal growth or a sign the endeavor was a mistake. If you are willing to put the work into avoiding the disadvantages, finding out what the contract says, understanding Chinese law, and abstaining from drugs before your arrival; you could be on the path to an amazing experience!
If you do decide to take the plunge, share your experience so others curious about the pros and cons of teaching in China can learn from you.