Signing a Teaching Contract in China – 8 Red Flags to Know!


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Receiving a contract for a teaching job in China is always exciting, especially if your job search has only just started. 

However, before you sign on the dotted line, the re are several red flags you need to keep an eye out for. 

Despite the many horror stories you may read online, not all red flags are related to downright scams – not every employer is unscrupulous and out to squeeze every teaching-bloodrop out of your soul (and yes – it’s safe to teach in China)

Most employers and schools in China are actually great and, although reputable recruiting agencies do their utmost to only deal with trustworthy and professional schools, that doesn’t mean you should blindly sign away 12 months (or more) of your teaching life.

You still need to read the fine-print.

If you’re new at this ESL teaching-abroad scene, now’s the time to get acquainted with the most common red flags usually found in contracts. Identifying them is a sure-fire way to up your chances of enjoying a fantastic working stint in what is a superb teaching destination.

What happens if you don’t? Well, you may just be stuck in a job you don’t like, in a city you don’t enjoy, tied to an employer with whom you’re frustrated and doing work you never (thought) you signed up for.

Contract red flags to look out for

Here are the most common red flags to know when signing a teaching contract in China:

They said one thing during your Skype interview and wrote another in the contract

Teaching contracts are traditionally offered after you’ve held an interview with your prospective employer. During the interview, you hopefully asked a bunch of important questions and noted the answers. 

You MUST ensure that what was promised to you during the interview is detailed in the contract

These things should include:

  • How much you will be paid
  • When you will be paid
  • How many hours you’ll be expected to teach
  • What other work will be expected of you (office admin work, social events, extra-curricular activities)
  • How much holiday-time you’ll be given
  • If you’ll be reimbursed for your initial flight and other moving-to-China-expenses

No matter what you were promised by voice, the only thing that matters is what you’re promised in writing. If details are missing and it was an honest mistake, the school should have no problem amending the contract.

The details of the school’s location (name, address) are incomplete or missing altogether

This is not so uncommon and although it’s not always sinister, it may be unfavorable and worth investigating. Education is big business in China and foreign-ESL teachers are a commodity. Sometimes, a school with several branches all over the country try to be vague about the exact location of the school in question because they want to have the freedom to move you around as they see fit. 

And they’re hoping you won’t notice. 

Foreign ESL teachers are alluring to parents so and if there’s a particular school branch that needs a little promotion, they may use you as the lure. The problem is obvious: after all you’ve done to research the right teaching destinations in China, you may end up working elsewhere. Sometimes in a more remote or less desirable location.

Make sure you know exactly where you’ll be teaching – and have the details on paper.

There are no details about your Z Working Visa 

Schools and teaching institutes in China don’t just employ foreign teachers, they invest in them: sponsoring you for a Z Visa – the only visa that allows you to teach there, legally – is an expensive endeavor. This means that, sometimes, you may come across an employer who’ll try to convince you to come into the country on another visa, like a tourist one.

This is all levels of illegal in China and both employer and teacher run the risk of huge penalties and heaven-knows what else. Stay away from these schools. 

BIG glaring red flag waving in the wind right here!

The contract is ’light’ on details and unnecessarily vague

Wishy-washy wording and working contracts aren’t normally compatible, right? Well, pay attention if your teaching contract is just that: vague, lacking details and ambiguous. Trust us when we say it’s probably drawn like that on purpose. 

Put it this way: by the time you finish reading your contract, you should have NO questions left unanswered. You should know exactly where and when you’ll be working, your remuneration and holiday time, holiday pay, teaching hours, working hours, reimbursement details and even accommodation details if the school has promised to provide that.

All of it must be in writing. Bar none.

The exit penalties for quitting your contract seem unduly harsh

A small exit fee and 30-day notice are common and reasonable penalties if you wish to quit your contract early for whatever reason – threatening you with the wrath of all the gods, being deported from China and blacklisted from ever visiting again, are not. 

As stated above, the school is investing in you when they employ you so it does make sense that they’ll want you to work through the entirety of your contract. But stuff happens, to all of us, and you need to know that it’s illegal to ever prevent you from quitting your job and quite awful to scare you into not leaving. 

If you can, avoid working for any school that manages to tick every red flag on this list, thus far, and also ticks this one off the list.

The school refuses to share contact details of past or present teachers

A chat with a teacher from the school in which you’re interested can be a gold-mine of information on what it’s like to teach at the school and work for the principal, and the employer knows this. If he or she is reluctant to get you in contact with other teachers, that’s a pretty good sign that something is amiss. You may have one unhappy employee, that’s reasonable, but if you can’t think of a single teacher who’d give you a glowing reference, there’s something wrong!

In our opinion, this is perhaps the best and fastest way to determine the quality of the school and character of the employer and a great red flag to identify – so ask this first and find as much info as you can online. 

Treat reviews with some caution (you’ll always find that one teacher who’s difficult to please) but, overall, the school should come up trumps.

The employer makes up 101 excuses not to amend the contract

There are only very few cases where you’d be advised to walk away from a contract at first sight – 99% of the time, you’d do well to ask for amendments to be made. Why? Because how the employer treats your request will be a pivotal sign of what’s to come. 

Happy to oblige, apologetic and swift in amending to include whatever you requested? GREAT!

Making up 101 excuses as to why the contract can’t be amended? Not so great…

The employer is pressuring you into signing and says they have multiple teachers interested

This may well be true but you should never rush the signing of such an important contract. The ‘I have many people interested’ tactic is used by used car salespeople and that’s definitely not the kind of employer you’ll want to work for. Don’t rush your decision and stay away from any school that dismisses any other questions you may have and seems irritated that you’re even asking them. 

The best schools in China value their teachers and understand that this may well be a life-changing decision for them – work for some who respects all of that. 

Interested in finding out more about teaching in China? Ask the experts at China by Teaching!

David O Connor is China by Teaching’s chief contributor. When not offering sage advice about teaching in China, David is a headmaster of a Bilingual kindergarten in Beijing. 


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