Moving to China to Teach: 5 Tips to Consider Before You Go

So, you’re thinking about teaching English in China or you’ve possibly already accepted a job. If you’ve never traveled or lived in China before, you might be wondering what you’re getting yourself into. I know I did!

China is a unique place to live and there are a number of things you ought to consider before you move. Having taught English in China myself for over three years, I’d like to share some of the tips I wish somebody had given me before I moved.

Tips for Moving to China as an English Teacher

#1: Research Different Areas on Where You Want to Teach

The first time I visited China, I went to Beijing for a summer of study. Why? Because it was the only place I knew existed in China apart from Shanghai.

After a week of living there, I also learned that I didn’t like Beijing at all.

Luckily for me, I only had to be in Beijing for several months. But for each ESL job you take, you sign up for a full year. While you can certainly break your contract (although I don’t recommend this), you don’t want to take a job and realize later on that you don’t like where you are living in China.

Before looking for jobs, research areas across China to learn where you would like to live most. For most of us, teaching abroad is something we only have one year to devote, so you will want to teach in an area of China you will enjoy and hopefully grow to love.

move to china tips

My best advice here is – if you have the ability – to take a trip to China to the places you want to visit most. After finding a place you could see yourself living for a year – or several for that matter – see what schools are nearby and if they need English teachers.

Editor’s Note: A trip to China was exactly what motivated me to teach there a few years later!  I spent 2 weeks exploring Shanghai and Beijing and while I ultimately decided on teaching in Guangzhou, China never would have even been on the map had I not traveled there!

#2: Learn the Differences Between ESL Training Centers and Public-School Jobs

There are many types of schools where you can teach English in China. The most common of which are at training centers, which are typically chain schools located in every major city in China.

While training centers are easy shoe-ins for landing your first ESL job in China, especially if you don’t have prior experience or a TEFL certificate, you can expect heavy workloads and minimal paid-time-off.

When working at Web International English, I generally taught 5 one-hour long classes a day, five days a week, and worked weekends. The worst part was that I only had 5 paid days off each year. Looking back on that job, it wasn’t great.

Related: What It’s Like Teaching for EF in China

If you have teaching experience, I suggest working at a public school as salaries are generally higher than training centers, you can look forward to teaching the same group of kids each day, and you get plenty of time off for Golden Week, Spring Festival, and the summer holiday.

During your job search, you are also bound to come across working at universities. While you can check these jobs out, don’t expect a high salary as university jobs are often the lowest paying positions you can find in China.  

#3: Make Traveling in China a Priority

Unless you plan on making a career out of teaching English, chances are you won’t be there for too long. I suggest you make the most of your time and travel to your heart’s content during major holidays and on your time off of work.

Sure, it may be tempting to use your time off to be lazy and sleep, but I guarantee you’ll never regret the time you spend exploring this fascinating country!

Everybody’s familiar with the excellent guides published by Fodors or Lonely Planet that can help you figure out what to see and where to stay. As a first-time traveler, I’m also going to shamelessly plug my new book Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go.

Editors Note: I’ve read Josh’s book and it does a phenomenal job of not only preparing you for your trip but also serving as an invaluable reference once you arrive.

The latter teaches you all the how-tos of China travel such as using public transportation, navigating the Chinese language barrier and even applying for your visa while the Lonely Planet covers all the must-see travel sites and recommended hotels in each city.

Most teachers move to China and arrive looking like deer in headlights. It’s a culture shock, and the more you can do to prepare yourself for that shock and lay the groundwork for some amazing travel experiences in China, the better!

#4: How to Land a “Good” Job

Finding a good ESL job in China can be tough if you are applying from outside of the country. Not because there aren’t plenty of open positions, but because it is so easy to take a bad job.

I’ve heard so many stories of teachers getting fooled into paying “program fees” to scammers online, not getting paid on time or at all, or just teachers finding themselves in unwanted situations. That’s one reason why finding jobs through a trusted job site or recruiter is so important.

Before taking a job in China, know what you’re getting yourself into by doing plenty of research on your intended employer.

See if there are any reviews on online forums so you are aware of any “dirt” that may exist on the school. Also, it’s a good idea to ask to Skype a couple of the current teachers to gauge their feelings on the school.

If you are a student or recent graduate, check with your Career Services office to see what resources they have on finding jobs in China. LinkedIn is also another great tool to find ESL teachers online and get introduced to quality schools. If you’re traveling around China, see if you can visit a few of the schools in person.

Of course, you should always see available China teaching jobs listed here on ESL Authority.

#5: Get a TEFL Certificate

After deciding I wanted to teach English in China, I resented the idea of investing hard earned money into getting a TEFL certificate. This was a mistake.

Having a TEFL certification in many ways pays for itself as it earns you a higher salary no matter where you work. It also makes getting a job at schools in more competitive cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen a lot easier.

For me the biggest regret in not having a TEFL is that I had no idea how to teach English despite my initial thoughts of, “as a native English speaker, how hard can it be?” I later learned that there are many different theories to teaching English as a foreign language when it comes to introducing material, teaching pronunciation, correcting mistakes, and lesson planning.

Had I invested in a TEFL from the very beginning, my initial year of teaching would have been more enjoyable in contrast to the painful process of trying to figure things out as I went along.

There are plenty of options available to you, including online TEFL courses as well as some good TEFL courses in China.

Just remember as you do your research online that you get what you pay for with a TEFL course. Don’t expect dirt cheap TEFL programs to teach you anything about how to manage a class and teach effectively.

Final Thoughts on Preparing for Your Move to China

Teaching English in China has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Unlike preparing for a job at home, however, preparing to move to China to teach ESL is an entire lifestyle change.

Make sure you do your research, find a good school or training center, and prepare yourself with a good TEFL course. And while you’re there…make sure you get out and travel!

Josh-SummersAbout the Author: Josh Summers is an author and entrepreneur who first moved to China in 2006 to teach and study Mandarin. For more than a decade, he has traveled and written about China for the BBC, Lonely Planet, DK and others. His primary writing can be found on TravelChinaCheaper.com.

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