China is a place where the past, present, and future collide. The Middle Kingdom lays claim to both a storied, 5000-year old history and, at the dawn of the 21st century, a bright future. An integral component to that future, however, is English. China is home to nearly a fifth of the world’s population and nearly a fifth of them – some 300,000,000 men, women, and children – are English language students. With six years of compulsory English education in school complementing the rising importance of English as the lingua franca for international business, the sheer scale of the demand means that native English teachers are an increasingly hot commodity. Before you set your sights on Beijing, however, there is a lot to know about teaching English in China.
English teachers are drawn to China for a number of reasons. Still, while its people are friendly and its vast expanses are the stuff of legends, it is the role as the world’s next great economic superpower that draws the average English teacher. Indeed, many people, when asked why teach English in China?, would doubtless answer “because that’s where the money is”. Indeed, China’s booming economy means that even while other ESL stalwarts like Japan and South Korea have seen stagnating demand for English language classes, more than a 100,000 English-speaking men and women can find work in its ever-expanding ESL industry.
In theory, the qualifications to find an ESL position in China are simple. To qualify applicants must 1) be a native English speaker, and 2) possess a bachelor’s degree in any discipline. In practice, however, competition among players in the market and the high demand for native teachers in general means that private ESL schools in China have dramatically reduced their standards. Because the private sector is the largest employer of foreign teachers in China, even those without a degree may be able to find a position in the Chinese market.
It should be emphasized, however, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. Schools with low hiring standards, for obvious reasons, make for poor business partners in general. After all, if they will not honor their agreements with the government what makes you think they will honor their agreements with you?
Scads of reputable private schools exist through China and they, along with public schools and universities, form the backbone of China’s ESL industry.
As related above, private English schools in China run the gamut from one-room startups to national franchises. By and large, however, private schools pay some of the highest salaries in Chinese ESL. This is partly in compensation for increased workloads, reduced vacation time, and split shifts. At the same time, because of the prevalence of owner/managers private schools offer your greatest chance to negotiate salary, housing, and benefits.
Government positions, by contrast, offer the greatest degree of standardization possible in the Chinese ESL industry. Along with this security comes guaranteed housing and a reduced work load. Lower pay completes the picture but many ESL teachers report that, while their overall salary may be lower their hourly rate is higher. While facilities and resources, like teachers, are occasionally inadequate in public schools, so too is the supply of university positions. Only those with advanced degree or considerable experience will be able to find a position in reputable a college or university.
The best time to apply to teach English in China varies. Private schools hire year-round while public schools, whose terms begin in August, typically begin to interview candidates in March and April.
The ESL job market in China is dominated by recruiters and job boards; either avenue can be pursued from your home country or in China. It is important to note that both ESL job boards and recruiters see listings as revenue-generating commodities regardless of their quality. It is important to do your homework – a number of white- and blacklists exist – and, if possible, speak to current or former teachers at the school. Finally, it is worth noting that knowledge is power and the very best teaching jobs are rarely advertised because they are filled through word of mouth references.