My first year teaching abroad in China as an English teacher was a disaster. I was teaching English (one of the most popular teaching jobs in China for foreigners) and was severely underpaid. Living and working on a factory-lined highway (where I was the only foreigner for miles), I was working for a school that wasn’t legally allowed to hire me. I even had to owe up to $8,000 (my entire salary for the year) if I tried to leave early. Yikes.
I studied abroad in China for 7 months, was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, traveled all over the country to remote places like Tibet and Xinjiang, and even lived on my own in Beijing for a few months teaching under the table.
You’d think out of most first-year teachers I should’ve been set up for success. Right?
WRONG. So wrong.
I made SO many mistakes my first year teaching abroad in China. I didn’t understand the industry or my value. I was dead-set on having an “adventure” and didn’t complain when things went wrong. At age 22 I was also a naive recent college grad with no idea what I was doing. Want to teach English abroad? You might be cottoning on that there are potential hazards out there!
Thankfully after a few years of trial and error, I finally figured it out. I landed a high-paid job as a college admissions consultant in Beijing, making literally four times the salary of my first job. I had my own private (purple!) office in downtown Beijing, 20 vacation days, and a job that actually felt meaningful.
Through this mini-training you’re reading in this post today, I’m going to teach you about all of the major mistakes my friends and I have made over the years.
This means you don’t have to waste approximately 5 years of your life figuring out all of this for yourself! Skip that first year of trial and error, and arrive to teach English in China with the knowledge and advice of a 5th year teacher. Woohoo!
Here are the top 10 worst mistakes first-time teachers in China make. Take note and avoid them to have the best teaching experience in China you can get.
I can’t tell you how many people take the very first job that’s offered to them, even if it’s not exactly what they wanted going in. Now, I’m not one to talk, I also applied to one job and took it my first year, and that’s a huge mistake!
My very first teaching in China salary was 5,000 RMB per month (roughly $800 USD at the time), which is criminally low for a teaching English in China salary. I definitely believe that even with no real experience, I could’ve gotten a job for at least 8,000 RMB in the same exact city in a better location, and maybe even 10,000 RMB if I shopped around or negotiated.
Many English schools in China go after first-year teachers because they don’t know the market, or what their experience is worth. Most chain training centers and teach abroad programs offer somewhat low blanket salaries set by HR, and many housing stipends are also too low for a one-bedroom or studio apartment.
If you do have teaching experience or an advanced degree, this is especially important. There are so many advanced high-level international teaching jobs abroad that most teachers have never heard of!
For example, I had a friend making 12,000 RMB per month teaching English in Beijing at a popular training center. Not only did she have a Master’s degree in early childhood education, she also had teaching experience!
I encouraged her to shop around a bit in China’s education jobs, and she ended up switching to a job that gave her 26,000 RMB per month and a better housing stipend working as a guidance counselor at an international school (international school jobs in China are pretty great). That’s an extra $17,500 USD a year!
Who knew I could work as a college admissions consultant? Who knew she could work as a guidance counselor? The answer: neither of us our first year.
Want to know how to get a job in China? Well, don’t do this! When trying to find a job in China, it can be tempting to use a teach abroad program. Many universities promote them, you’ve got friends applying, and they offer so much stuff for FREE.
Many of these programs claim to help you find amazing English teaching jobs for teachers in China with a good salary while giving you a free TEFL, free orientation, free Chinese classes and more, all with a vibrant Facebook group and community.
Good right? No.
I used a teach abroad program my first year, and I was underpaid living on a factory-lined highway in the middle of nowhere, when they promised us we’d all be at schools together in the city. Not to mention, my school wasn’t legally allowed to hire me, the Chinese lessons never happened, and my free TEFL could’ve been purchased online easily.
Nothing in life is ever free. Teach abroad programs lure in first-year teachers and often place people in schools that wouldn’t otherwise be able to hire a foreign teacher. The way they do this is by accepting you into “the program”.
You get all excited, join the Facebook group, start working on your TEFL, and by the time you receive your less-than-ideal job placement within the world of TEFL jobs, you’re so invested in the community you don’t want to leave.
Teach abroad programs can sound really fun, but take it from my personal experience: you want to have control over what school you end up at, and you’re really paying for all that “free” stuff with a much lower salary than if you’d just applied directly yourself.
When I opted for a Teach Abroad Program to get my “free” TEFL, I was under the impression that TEFLs were a solid $3,000 USD. I had met a few people doing expensive TEFL programs in China. While on the ground TEFLs usually do run at least $2,500, you do not have to get your TEFL in-person.
You can easily get a reputable online TEFL with MyTEFL for just under $300 USD. If you use Alice’s code you even get 35% off!
Both Alice Teacake and I are huge fans of this company, and your TEFL will be just as valued by schools as a fancy one you spent $3,000 on.
The only exception to this is if you decide to invest in a CELTA. The CELTA is an extremely reputable brand of TEFL from the University of Cambridge. If you do want to spend a few grand on your teaching qualifications, be sure it’s a CELTA so you’re at least investing in something that schools will really be impressed by.
I 100% recommend getting your TEFL online for your first year. If you really love teaching and want to make it a career, you can then invest in a more prestigious certification later on. You can use the money you’ve earned from your first year teaching to pay for it too!
Alice Teacake did a CELTA and got some excellent jobs from it. She was teaching English in Shanghai China to celebrities’ children in the top paying Kindergarten in the city. I would personally recommend becoming a certified teacher in your home country though (you can do it online). This means you’ll be able to teach at an international school. If you’re going to invest, why not invest in something that will really boost your career and salary down the line?
One popular money-saving option is a TEFL program that offers you an on-the-ground TEFL in China if you agree to work for free for a few months. Amazing, right? You get to live in China, obtain a $3,000 value TEFL for free, and you even get classroom experience!
Good right? Nope.
What they don’t tell you is that you ARE making money while you’re teaching, but the TEFL company pockets your entire salary. So you are definitely paying at least $3,000 for that TEFL (if not more) by working for free.
If you are actually very strapped for cash, this can be a good way to get your TEFL, but personally, I’d rather pay the $299 upfront to pocket that $3,000.
So you know how I said I signed a contract that stated I’d have to pay my school up to $8,000 if I wanted to leave early? Yeah. Most of you may be shaking your heads at me for letting this happen, but you’d be surprised how many people end up with horrible contracts after finding work in China!
Even if you use a teach abroad program, your contracts are not standardized. You need to really understand your contract and read through it with a fine-toothed comb. If there’s something in there you don’t like or that is confusing, please ask questions and negotiate!
As an ESL teacher in China, my main tips are:
Did you know you can negotiate your teaching English in China salary? Neither did I my first year!
Many schools will actually negotiate your salary and benefits, especially higher-level jobs and positions. I highly recommend negotiating for an extra 2,000 RMB per month ($300 USD), or vacation time, depending on what’s more important to you.
While there is a lot of strategy when it comes to negotiating, my main tips are to negotiate for just ONE thing and remember that flattery will get you everywhere.
Remember, these schools need you more than you need them, and the worst they can say is no! They’re not going to hate you for politely negotiating for a slightly higher salary because you have student loans to pay off.
One of the main reasons I used a teach abroad program was because I incorrectly assumed that these programs vet the schools and will look out for you if something goes wrong. Not only did my program not care that they placed me in the middle of nowhere by myself, they also placed me at a school that wasn’t even legally allowed to hire foreign teachers!
Pretty much anyone who helps you find job opportunities in China (recruiters, programs, TEFL providers) all make money off you showing up at the school. If you don’t take a job with them, they don’t get paid.
While many recruiters are great, and I used a recruiting company to help me find my college counseling job, you have to remember that their main goal is to get themselves a commission for finding you.
A good recruiter will place their own reputation over working with sub-par schools that offer a high commission. Yet you still need to look out for yourself and remember that their end goal is to get paid by having you show up at school and stay there.
When working with any job placement service, just be sure to speak up for yourself and ask for additional information, photos, a website, and an exact address. You can even ask to speak with a current teacher if you want!
While many recruiters are genuinely good people, you just need to remember that this is a business and the only person who can truly look out for your best interests is you.
To find a teaching job in China you can:
There’s definitely pros and cons to each.
Recruiters can take out the initial ‘hassle’ of finding your first job, but remember that they might not care so much about where you are actually working. Remember: they make money from you.
You can search on TEFL job websites to filter out what you don’t want and focus on what you do. There are all sorts of jobs on there. Some are going to be great and others terrible.
Make sure to find out as much information as you can before taking the plunge.
Turning up to the country yourself can be expensive, but if you’re there – you can physically meet and see your potential employer and the school you’ll be working in! Plus you can get a real feel for the area, negotiate face-to-face and possibly discover the best of the best jobs in the area. It can happen that the ‘best’ jobs are never advertised online; i.e – it’s not what you know but who you know.
If you meet all the legal requirements for employment in China, there is absolutely no reason why you should be working on a tourist or business visa. Don’t let schools convince you they’ll fly you to Hong Kong after a few months. And definitely do not work for a different school than the one that’s on your contract.
When my school handed me a contract to sign (because of course, I arrived in China on a tourist visa), I noticed that the name of the school on the contract was not the school I was actually working for. My school told me this wasn’t a big deal, and I believed them until my friend was deported a few months later for the same exact thing.
Please only work for the school that’s on your contract, and don’t let schools convince you to work illegally when you meet all the legal requirements. There are so many amazing jobs out there, there’s no legitimate reason to work illegally.
That’s a good question, because there are so many jobs and every school, city or province seems to make up their own rules on this. The requirements to teach in China below are a general guide.
Officially, the teaching English in China requirements are to:
Have a Bachelor’s degree in any subject
Be a native English speaker
Quite simply, no. Teaching English in China without a degree used to be a possibility, but now, they are cracking down big time. Don’t even think about risking it. You’ll get into big trouble with the law and potentially have to pay a lot of money. Do not accept any teaching jobs in China without a degree.
Every few days I get a panicked message from someone whose school isn’t paying on time. It got to the point where I had to write an in-depth guide on what to do if your school doesn’t pay you.
Contrary to popular belief, if you work in China teaching English LEGALLY, you DO have legal rights. If a school refuses to pay you on time (this happened to me my first year) or if they refuse to give you your release letter if you want to change schools, there is actually something you can do about it.
China is a contract-loving society, which is why it’s SO IMPORTANT to fully understand your contract. If your school isn’t paying you on time or refuses to give you your release letter, print out your contract and highlight the portion they are breaking. If this doesn’t work, you can actually go to the police with a Mandarin-speaking friend and they will step in.
China is sick and tired of schools that take advantage of their foreign teachers, so if you follow your contract the police almost always side with you.
Teaching abroad in China is an incredible experience. Not only do you get to have the adventure of a lifetime while exploring a new culture, but you also get to earn money while making a difference in the lives of your students.
My name is Richelle from Teach Abroad Squad and I am a HUGE fan of teaching English in China. I mean, I did live there for five years! That said, with a booming Wild West of an ESL jobs industry, there are going to be schools and programs that take advantage of first-year teachers. It’s important you hear about teaching English in China experiences (both good and bad).
It’s my goal to really get the word out there, and help everyone avoid my mistakes. Every time I get an email about someone who hates their school or isn’t getting paid on time, it just fuels me to keep writing and talking about this industry.
I can’t go back in time and fix all my mistakes, but I can at least help you come in with the knowledge, confidence, and experience of a 5th-year teacher. So many of us in China have a “throw away” first year as underpaid teachers at a not-so-great school.
Why not avoid that experience and go straight to an awesome position right out of the gate?
If you’re really interested in taking your training to the next level, I’d love to invite you to join me for my FREE 3-Part Video Training Series!
In this free video training, I’ll walk you through all of my points above and more!
Have you taught English in China? Have you held some other position in China? Share your experience working abroad in China with us below!
We look forward to hearing how you earned money abroad!