Teaching in China Tips for First-year Teachers

Teaching in China: Tips for First-year Teachers

Most schools in China are nothing less than pleasant, with great staff, great hours and great kids. But, stay in China long enough and you’ll hear plenty of horror stories. Many of us have experienced a bad school first-hand, or, unfortunately, are continuing to. This article aims to give newer teachers some practical advice about what to expect, what to get over, and what not to tolerate as a teacher in China.

In China the first year is the gauntlet, and, if you’re not one of the lucky ones, it can be ruthless. Tossed into a place where workers have minimal rights, where blatantly lying to save face is a custom, where plagiarism is an institution, and where hours are so pointlessly long for both the Chinese staff and the students that it is hard to get them to do anything, save preparation for one of the myriad standardized tests, new teachers can get frustrated and fed up in no time. And if your one of the unlucky ones who has ended up at one of the hundreds of school in China that strive to import “clapping monkeys” and treat them like indentured servants, it can become a nightmare from which you cannot escape.

How to Prepare

1) Fools rush in

Don’t rush into a job: take it slowly, carefully, cautiously—there are more than enough jobs to go around, and, with a college degree and a TESOL (online course, cheap and very easy), you’ll have more offers than you know what to do with. Pick five or ten jobs, have them send you the contracts, and compare all the details meticulously. Research, weigh your options, and sift through the cities thoroughly; I’ve found that usually the schools that are looking for you to jump into a rash, impulsive decision will put the pressure on fast and quick—don’t succumb. Typically, public schools offer the best positions, hands down: minimal hours, a least one paid month off, unperturbed staff. Private schools are good for those without a degree, those looking to move up in the ranks, and those who have a lot of time to kill.

2) Relax

Classes will be cancelled and they will forget to tell you—students will be pulled out of class frequently—printers and copy machines will be broken—students will forget everything you’ve taught them in a week—your lessons will be totally demolished by the Fates—and no one else will even seem to notice. There’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t be too wound up from the onset.

3) Look into your new school at one of these websites:


However, take whatever they say with a grain of salt—I work for a great school that had previously received bad reviews. Schools in China change staff very frequently so check the date. But many of the reviews are dead on.

Things to Get Over

1) Saving face

In the workplace, the uglier side of this concept contributes to gossip, anger, and the creation of enemies among the Chinese, but what will mainly affect you are the very elusive answers, if not flat out lying.

2) Schedule changing

This can be one of the most frustrating elements of teaching in China, especially if you work for a private school. Public schools tend to have set classes and set weekly schedules, and when the schedule changes it is typically because a class has been cancelled, not added. In the private schools I’ve worked for, however, schedules changed almost daily because they were trying to squeeze a class or marketing activity into a schedule that was already maxed out.

3) Chaos

Chinese schools have a long, long way to go. Many schools look great on paper, but behind the scenes lays a disorganized jumble of administration, teachers and various staff, many of whom can’t be bothered to assist you even when it is their job to. Be independent; learn to deal with languor and its side-effects; and expect things to go wrong—be like MacGyver, learn to improvise.

What Not to Tolerate

1) Working overtime and late pay checks

Don’t think that you have to do your school any favours, at least when it comes to pay checks or overtime. Many schools pray on the passivity of beginners. Get paid on time; don’t agree to overtime without compensation. They may ask you nicely, put up a great front, and promise that, if you do it this one time, you won’t have to work much in the future, but if you agree to it once, you will almost surely be taken advantage of in the future.

2) Atrocious living conditions/standards

There are more than enough jobs in China for you to get what you want; don’t settle for a tiny, crumbling dorm. If you’re going to live off campus, don’t agree on the first place you look at, just because they pressure you to. And don’t feel like it is standard for you to be bunked with other teachers.

3) Threats

I have worked for a couple placed where I have seen teachers threatened for numerous ‘offences’: for not liking the hours; for not supporting the pandemonium; for demanding what they were promised in the contract; and, eventually, for wanting to leave. One private school, which conveniently had a stash of police officers as students, tried to force an employee who wanted out to sign a new contract, and, after he still wanted to leave, forced him to pay over 20,000 RMB to do so. Your school may try to bully you based on your ignorance of Chinese laws regarding foreign teachers. There is plenty on the web about them. Research them thoroughly.

In conclusion, while you’re in China, be aware of yourself; be strong, cool, collected; know your environment; try to know laws, customs, and values; don’t let yourself be taken advantage of because ‘you have money;’ and try, if you’re here for more than a few weeks, to know enough of the language to get yourself out of a jam.
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