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The English Teaching in China Experience

We decided to come to China for a variety of reasons. Wade has spent years here before and wanted to return, Mandarin Chinese was one of the languages we wanted our daughter Petra to learn on her travels, and we wanted to make some money. I am a preschool teacher and working at as an [...]

We decided to come to China for a variety of reasons. Wade has spent years here before and wanted to return, Mandarin Chinese was one of the languages we wanted our daughter Petra to learn on her travels, and we wanted to make some money. I am a preschool teacher and working at as an English teacher in a Chinese preschool seemed like a good way to have a steady income while continuing our family adventure around the world. I really had very little idea about what to expect before I came here. I have a childish habit of not doing much research about a place before I go, so there were many surprises once I arrived. This, as well as having met many other English teachers in China who also did not seem to know what they were getting into inspired this article. Here are some things I didn’t know about working in China:

It’s a real job

Teaching English is not just a cool way to travel in a foreign country. You will actually have to teach class, write lesson plans, evaluate students. If you work in a school, you will have to teach kids and even deal with their parents. If you don’t like working with people or teaching or grammar (do you know what the negative past perfect progressive tense is?), this profession is probably not for you.

That being said, many people, especially travelers, do not treat teaching English like it’s a real job, and, likewise, English teachers rarely get much respect.

Expect to be treated like a human resource

You will probably be asked to do things that aren’t in your job description while working in China. You are there as part of a for-profit business. The company will use you however they want, regardless of whether it’s in your job description. That being said, a lot of times your Chinese co-workers also have to do things that aren’t in their job descriptions — like helping you open a bank account on their weekend or translating the directions to your new ice cream maker. Also expect to have your photo used in promotional materials without your prior consent. Right now, a flier with a big picture of my daughter and I is being distributed all over the city we live in. It’s strange, to say the least, to find pictures of yourself lining the streets and piled up in the trash cans of a Chinese city.

But being used in ways that are not in your job description or contact is just the way it is for everybody working in China, so get used to it.

Employers will tell you things that aren’t necessarily true in the hiring process

Believe only what is written in your contract, treat all the other information they give you about the job as a best case scenario.

You have to be flexible

It helps if you like surprises and don’t get frustrated every time people forget to tell you things. Like last week I was told that I actually have three once-a-week classes that nobody told me about until they started. Surprise! Or today I show up for class and the Chinese teacher was lining up the kids to go outside. When I asked her what was going on, she told me the whole school was going out right now to make three year olds stand in lines and watch the flag being raised. Surprise! Yes, it can be a little stressful having last minute changes flung upon you, but that comes with the territory of working in a foreign country.

Teaching tips

There are so many different ways of teaching a foreign language that I am not going to venture into that territory. All I can say is if you think the material is boring, it’s probably boring for your students too. If you’re having fun in class, students have a better chance of having fun too. Students (both kids and adults) like games, and a fun, interactive class will probably go better for everyone.

Creativity is key. There are definitely those times when students fly through lessons you thought would take two classes or when they just aren’t getting a concept you thought they would understand (come on guys, present perfect continuous tense isn’t that difficult!) or they look like they’re ready to fall asleep and you still have four more new words to drill them on. Learning some good games and improvisation are essential for any ESL teacher.

The benefits of teaching in China

Finally a word about some of the unexpected benefits of being an English teacher in China.

Naming your students is one such benefit. Chinese names are usually nouns. Likewise, they tend to give their kids English names after English nouns. So while many kids are named Mary and John there are also kids with English names like Robot and Shark. If you work teaching English, you will probably get to name people, which is actually a lot of fun, especially if your husband wouldn’t let you name your daughter Rocket.

You can treat all your weird eccentricities as normal foreigner behavior. I have used the excuse “That’s how we do it in America…” more times than I care to remember.

When taking a teaching job in China you also walk in to a pre-set identity. Chinese citizens are used to seeing foreign English teachers. You don’t have to give a vague explanation as to why you are staying for months in their town and where your money comes from. Also, there are often other foreign English teachers who welcome other foreigners as friends.

Have you ever worked as an English teacher abroad? What were you surprised by?

Travel the world and teach English now

Vagabond Journey has recently partnered with Star TEFL to offer their 140 hour online TEFL certification course for just $199 — a big discount, as it sells for $425 on their site. This certification course offers plenty of user-friendly material, tutors to help you through the process, email, chat, and phone support, feedback on your performance, and you can complete the course at your own pace. Upon completion of the course, you will receive an internationally recognized TEFL/ ESL/ TESOL certification. You can take advantage of this 53% discount by ordering this course directly from Vagabond Journey. Contact us at vagabondsong@gmail.com to find out how.

We also recommend i-to-i TEFL courses. My wife took their 120 hour course, which taught her a lot and has always worked well at getting her jobs abroad. Take a look at their offerings here.

After you have your teaching certification send me an email and I can help you find a good job in China!


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Filed under: China, English Teaching, Work

About the Author:

After traveling on her own for three or four years, Chaya met up with Wade Shepard, the editor of VagabondJourney.com. They were married in 2009, and continue to travel the world together with their young daughter. From time to time Chaya blogs about family travel and life on the road. has written 102 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Chaya Shepard is currently in: Xiamen, China

3 comments… add one

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  • Elisabetta February 16, 2013, 7:24 am

    I’ve been travelling for 7 months so far and also experienced most of the things you mentioned in your post: I worked as an English teacher in Beilun (a Ningbo district) and it was a real nightmare! Not to mention the children’s English nicknames like Only or Nono. I left after 2 months: China is not my element. And they treated me like a business card.

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  • Kelly February 5, 2014, 1:40 pm

    I have been reading these blogs for the past several days and found them AMAZINGLY helpful and hilarious. I am moving to China in June to teach English and have been doing my research. I found out that the everyday news of China was boring, dry, and skewed. I was so pleased to find this blog because it gave me a much better understanding of the inside workings of China, the people of China, not just China itself. I’m still reading through these blogs, but I wanted to say thank you for your insight on this country. This has been the most honesty I’ve read about China so far. It’s been entertaining too!

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    • Wade Shepard February 6, 2014, 4:07 am

      Wow, thank you. This is very much appreciated.

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