How did I get a job as an English teacher in China?
If you are thinking about going to work as an English teacher in China, you are wondering what it must be like and what requirements are needed; here I am going to tell you a little about my experience during the 3 years I was working for a Chinese school in the city of Kunming, located in the Yunnan province.
Although many people prefer to arrive in China with a job already secured, that was not exactly my case. After three months traveling through Southeast Asia, I arrived in China by crossing the land border with Laos, entering through Yunnan province.
To sum up my experience, I liked this Chinese province so much that I stayed studying Chinese in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. After a couple of years I moved to Xiamen, to see something different, and then I moved to deeper Thailand to work as an English teacher in a small village.
When I was in Thailand, a friend contacted me to inform me that the school where I worked in Kunming was looking for foreign teachers. Also, very importantly, they were doing work visas. As for me, I missed China and I was a bit tired of being alone in the Thai village.
Besides, as the offer was very good, I didn’t think twice. At the end of the course I returned to Kunming. And, nostalgic as I am, I traveled just as I had gone the first time 4 years ago: from Vientiane to Kunming by sleeper bus; a 24-hour trip from Laos to China.
Working in China: The job interview
Normally, in interviews in China they usually give you a 30-minute test to see how well you do with students and to take a quick look at your teaching methods. If you are lucky, you will be tested with real students. But if you’re unlucky, the school teachers themselves will play the kids and probably get a little “goofy”.
In my case, the interview was quite informal. Before going, we had already agreed on almost everything via Wechat (the Chinese WhatsApp). We talked a bit about general aspects; about my experience teaching English, my way of working, my availability, my salary expectations and, right away, he asked me about when I could start.
I gave him as quickly as I could all the documents I needed to get my work visa. In the meantime, I started working even though I had a tourist visa. According to my boss, if I got caught, it was okay because we were going to start the paperwork for the work visa right away.
What requirements and documents do I need to work as an English teacher in China?
The documents I had to submit to my school so that I could begin the work visa process were as follows:
- Passport: original and copy
- Diploma of my degree: original and copy (I had to go to the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Embassy in Spain to have the documents legalized and stamped).
- Criminal Record Certificate.
- Reference showing a minimum of two years of experience in the job position.
- International medical certificate (normally you do it once in China).
- All documents must be in English or translated into English by an official translator.
- Currently, they ask you to be a native English speaker or to have studied your degree in an English speaking country.
- In some cases, they will also ask for TOEFL, CELTA or TEFL certificates (in my opinion, the latter is the most useful).
In areas where there are few foreigners and there is more supply than demand. That’s why they don’t care much if you are not a native speaker. The important thing is that you can communicate in English and that you are a foreigner (and if you are Caucasian, even better). On the other hand, in more international cities like Beijing and Shanghai, you may have a harder time finding a job if you are not a native speaker.
If it is true that working in China without a work visa is illegal, it is also true that there are many foreigners who choose to work with a student visa. In these cases, many schools do not care much about your experience or your studies. In China, as in many other countries, it is forbidden to work without a work visa, so if you are caught you can be fined or, in extreme cases, kicked out of the country.
How long does it take to apply for a work visa in China?
The work visa is a procedure that takes a long time and can become quite heavy. It usually takes 3 months, which is what it took me. For that reason, I had to renew my tourist visa twice. The tourist visa is for one month and you can renew it a maximum of 2 times. Then you have to leave the country, and once out of the country, you can apply again for a tourist visa or another type of visa.
The process takes so long because first, the school sends the scanned documents to the corresponding administration, once they check that both the employee’s and the employer’s documents are in order, they inform the school that it is now possible to apply for the work visa. Then you have to leave the country and hand in all the original documents to the Chinese Embassy of the country where you are sent. Some people make them go back to their home country and do it from there. I was lucky and they were able to do it from Hong Kong.
So when my school got approval for my visa, they informed me that all the documents were ready and I could go to Hong Kong. Just as I was about to complete my third month in China. My boss notified me on a Thursday to go the same weekend to Hong Kong to get my visa. As you can see, the Chinese are not much for advance notice, but luckily, the company paid for the flight.
English teacher in China: The type of school I worked in
The school where she works is a private school that in the afternoons and on weekends gives English classes to children from 5 to 14 years old in its offices. But, the real business is in the nurseries (or kindergartens, as they say nowadays). As many kindergartens do not have the necessary permits to issue work visas to foreign teachers, it is the same private school that offers its employees to give classes in the kindergartens and they make a contract between them per semester.
Normally, the kindergarten asks for an English teacher to come one day a week to give classes. As a result, some of the employees of the private school work more in different daycare centers than in the private school itself, as was my case.
My work schedule in China
I made an agreement with my boss not to work weekends and not to work office hours, so in the mornings I went to the daycare centers, and some afternoons I taught at the private school.
Basically, my work schedule was as follows: Monday through Friday, every day I taught at a different daycare. Some days I would go from 9:00 to 11:30 and others, when the kindergartens were bigger and there were many students, I would also teach at noon from 15:00 to 16:30. Normally, I went 3 days in the mornings and two days in the mornings and noon, so in the kindergartens I did about 15 hours of classes per week.
In the afternoons, I would go 1 or 2 hours to the private school, from 18:30 to 20:30. So in total, counting the hours at the daycare centers and the private school, I had 20-25 teaching hours per week.
Number and age of students per class: How are classes divided in Chinese kindergartens?
Classes in Chinese kindergartens are divided into 4 groups of students, literally translated, it would be:
- Baby Class (宝班 – Baoban) (2-3 years)
- Toddler Class (小班 – Xiaoban) (3-4 years)
- Medium Class (中班 – Zhongban) (4-5 years)
- Large Class (大班 – Daban) (5-6 years)
For many kindergartens it was not worth teaching Baoban classes because they were too small, so mostly, I had Xiaoban, Zhongban and Daban children. The number of classes per group varied according to the size of the nursery. However, usually for each group there were 2 or 3 classes.
The number of students per class varied from 10 to 35, which is quick to say. In the afternoons, in the private school, things changed quite a bit: classes ranged from a minimum of 6 students to a maximum of 14.
English teacher in China: The duration of the classes
In the kindergartens, it was normal to have 30-minute classes and 15-minute classes for the younger children. So, if the schedule was from 9 to 11:30 (since lunch was brought at 11:30), I would do 5 classes of 30 minutes or 4 classes of 30 minutes with a short break between classes. If there was a baby class, then I could do 6 classes; two 15-minute classes and 4 30-minute classes without a break. On those days I would end up exhausted.
So it was a fairly simple job, but very repetitive. For example: 2 times to teach the same thing to two classes of small children, 2 times to teach the same thing to two classes of medium children with small variations, and 30 min class with the big children. Or, when there were classes at noon, it was perhaps 3 classes of Xiaoban, 2 of Zhongban and 2 of Daban.
In the afternoons, at the private school, the students had one hour a week with me. Personally, it was much more satisfying. Since there were not so many of them and I was with them for one hour, I could learn their names well, get to know them well and evaluate their progress. In addition, in the private school classes I had students for two years, so I was able to have a closer relationship with them. On the other hand, I was usually sent to different kindergartens every semester and, consequently, the student body changed.
How did I communicate with Chinese students?
Every day I was accompanied by a Chinese assistant in class who helped me in the control of the class and who was in charge of translating the most important things; the rules of a game or the meaning of a phrase.
There were some assistants who were good; they translated just what was necessary. In addition, they helped me to keep the children in line when necessary. There were others who were clearly inexperienced, but at least they tried and were improving. And, unfortunately, there were also some (few) very ones who had no idea how to do their job and didn’t feel like learning it; they arrived late, translated badly or not at all, during class they didn’t help in the organization of the games and collecting the material, etc.
Classes without assistant
My last days at the school they started to make staff cuts and sent me to the day care centers as is, without an assistant and the truth is that it was quite noticeable. On the one hand, I was glad to no longer work with those who did nothing and only got in the way.
But on the other hand, I noticed the absence of the good assistants. Not only because they helped me to control 30 children, but also because, if I started translating something in particular, when they heard me speaking Chinese, they would suddenly go crazy. Their eyes would pop out of their sockets, they would start imitating my accent among themselves and they would laugh their heads off. So in the end, I decided that it was better not to translate anything during the class unless it was absolutely necessary.
I have to admit, though, that before and after the class, those who approached me sympathetically to talk and asked me kid stuff, I answered them and had a few laughs with them saying silly things in Chinese.
What are Chinese students like?
Without a doubt, the best memory I have of working in China is dealing with my students. To put it in a nutshell: they are better than bread. As I mentioned in another article about the things that impacted me the most while living in China, the Chinese are taught from an early age to respect their elders, parents and teachers.
That’s why you rarely find a rude or “bad boy”. There are some, but it is not the norm. At most you find these hyperactive ones that really make the classes more fun because they are always motivated.
Also, unlike in Spain, if a student has a problematic behavior and you or your assistant have to go to the extreme of talking to the parents, very rarely they will contradict you or blame you. Normally, they will take it as an embarrassment to the family, worry about “what people will say” and try to fix their child’s attitude.
English teacher in China: What did he/she teach and what was the curriculum like?
Both in the kindergarten and in the private school I was given the curriculum to follow and all the necessary material. The only thing I had to plan was the organization of the classes, the games and the teaching methods. Here you have an example.
In the kindergartens, I taught 4-5 words each week and in each class we reviewed the vocabulary learned in the previous class. For each topic we also taught one sentence. For example, if it was time to teach colors, while teaching the colors we encouraged them to say “It’s blue” or “I like blue”. In the private school it was similar, but as the children were older, the vocabulary and sentences were much more extensive and complex, we practiced written English and we also taught some grammar.
In the kindergartens, at the end of the semester the parents of the children would come and we would have an “Open Class” per group; where the parents could see everything that their children had learned. On the other hand, in the private school, parents came once a month.
End of my contract as an English teacher in China
After finishing my three years as an English teacher in China, at the end of my contract, I declined to do a fourth year for several reasons: I had been wandering around China for a total of 8 years and I already felt like going back home. My brother was getting married and having a child and I was not going to miss it for the world. On the other hand, my passport was expiring and to renew it I had to go to another Chinese province where the nearest Spanish Embassy was, to Guangzhou (more or less like going from Spain to Italy to renew my passport).
And finally, and one of the most important reasons for not renewing, was that the school had been paying us, both foreign and Chinese teachers, late for months. The theory was that, as the school had grown (it had many contracts with daycare centers and many foreign teachers working for them) it was impossible to pay all the teachers month by month, as the daycare centers paid the fees at the end of each semester. But truth was that the boss was an alcoholic who spent all the money on parties and we also suspected that he invested it in his own business.
Problems to receive the salary when it was due
Payments began to be delayed in November. For Christmas, with all the teachers already on the hook, a big Christmas dinner was organized: banquet, music group and karaoke. Most of us teachers went thinking that we would get paid on the spot. But that was not the case. During the dinner we were repeatedly promised that everything was fine and that in January everything would be back to normal. But it was all a sham.
We stopped getting paid on the 10th of each month as usual and continued working without knowing when we were going to get paid. He gave you an approximate date, he gave you hope. When the day came, he would give you another excuse, another date and so on until you gave him an ultimatum or you missed a day of class. Then, he would worry and pay you something. But he never paid you everything, so you didn’t leave him because you were afraid you wouldn’t make up the classes he owed you.
For me, usually when he owed me two months he paid me one month thanks to ultimatums (plural, because I made several). I held out until the end of my contract because at the end of the day I was getting paid. Also, because I wanted to finish well with the school so that it would give me a good reference. Other teachers, those who had been at the school longer, trusted him more and did not give him so much trouble, were 3-4 months without getting paid. Some of them left him and ended up losing a lot of money. Others, they denounced him, threatened him… come on, total chaos.
English teacher in China: a unique and unforgettable experience
Despite this last aspect being a headache for half of my last year in China, overall, I can say that I loved the experience of working in China. Working only 25 hours a week meant I had time to play sports, hang out with friends, study Chinese, decipher a bit of the different and curious Chinese culture every day, and so on.
The salary was very good and, as China is so cheap. It gave me enough to save and live for three years without thinking a single day about the money. Besides, I had all of February and August off, so I made good use of those two months traveling around Asia. Also, during the year, about every two months, there were 3 public holidays. We took advantage of them to discover the province of Yunnan, which I am still madly in love with. So much so, that I intend, in the near future, to organize trips to Yunnan for those who want to visit the most exotic province of China.
Last but not least, I have wonderful memories of the time I spent with my students in class; how nice they were, what I learned with them, the laughter and their craziness, which was not few.
More information or contact
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Attention! The Chinese government has announced that from December 2023 to November 2024, no visa will be required for 15-day stays in China! For citizens of France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia, ordinary passport holders from these countries will be able to do business or travel to China without a visa for up to 15 days. It’s a perfect year to go, take advantage and travel now!