What It’s Like to Teach English in Beijing – A Teacher’s Account


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For English teachers considering a move to China, Beijing is usually at the top of everyone’s list. It’s one of the best-known cities in the country and is home to a ton of tourist attractions and monuments that are recognized around the world. Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven are popular draws for travelers to this area. For those who want to teach English? In Beijing, the opportunities for teaching positions are nearly unlimited – if you know where to look.

Looking for more on China?  Check out our guide to Teaching English in China or browse jobs!

When I taught in Beijing, one of the most surprising parts of my experience was just how dynamic the city is. It’s far from being some relic of the past. New construction, new trends, and new movements sweep the city in heartbeats. To me, this made it an exciting place to spend part of my life, but it wasn’t always wonderful. As with any new place, there were things about Beijing that could have been very challenging, had I not been lucky and confident with my decision to move there.

If you are considering a move to teach English in Beijing, there’s no doubt that you would have your mind opened and your life enriched. But before you sign a contract or hop on a plane, there are some things that you should know. It could be that Beijing is not the best fit for you, or it could be that you are not the best fit for Beijing. Or you may find that this information only makes you even more excited to take the plunge. Here’s what you need to expect as an ESL teacher in this part of China.

Modern, Fast, and Exciting: Beijing in a Nutshell

teach in beijing nightIf you were picturing idyllic Asian countryside, beautiful flowering trees, elegant and careful ceremonies being performed in slow motion all around you – or basically anything else that looks like The Last Samurai or any other Hollywood production – then you are in for a major shock. There are some very beautiful attractions in and around Beijing – the Imperial Garden is a must see – but don’t expect to find a city where history or nature trump progress.

In fact, Beijing is an incredibly modern city, with a fast-paced life style full of exciting entertainment and groundbreaking advancements. Expect the same sort of energy in Beijing as you might find in New York City or Tokyo. There are dozens of bullet trains connecting various parts of the city, as well as a very comprehensive transit system to help you traverse the huge area. It often takes over an hour to get from one part of the city to another, and the modern amenities rival any other major city in the world.

This means that for many English teachers in Beijing, they’ll fit right in. The creature comforts that you’ve come to rely on in the U.S. or the U.K., such as ATMs everywhere, or a lot of nightlife venues to choose from, are readily available.

Things Never Stick to the Plan

If you are the type of person who needs things to stick to a schedule, you may not be the best fit for Beijing. The reason this city is so modern and progressive is that things are always changing. Teachers frequently find that teaching jobs open and are filled in what seems like seconds. Circumstances change often. The Chinese are very pragmatic people, who tend to take the most direct route to getting things done. If you can’t be flexible as the plan changes, and often, then teaching English in Beijing is going to be more than a little difficult for you.

For example, most advertisements that you’ll see when you research from a Western country list a requirement of about 20 working hours per week. But in reality, most ESL teachers in Beijing end up working closer to 10 or 12 hours per job each week, if they are working for a company or providing private tutoring. Many teachers take on more than one job, but often you can survive very comfortably off these few hours of work.


Everything You Think You Need Is Wrong

You probably think you need to know Mandarin. You probably think you need to be a great, or even experienced, teacher. You probably think you need a good savings nest, experience with travel, a few courses of self-defense, or a lot of other unnecessary things. Beijing is an affordable city to live in, and it’s also one of the safest large cities in the world. English is used in many of the shops and businesses, and you’ll find that it’s far easier to pick up Mandarin when you have no choice but to use it.

The truth is that what you truly need to teach English in Beijing is an excellent attitude. Are you excited to experience something new? Can you adapt to new ideas of what defines comfort? Can you wake up every day looking forward to a new adventure? If you said yes, then you’re made for this experience.


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4 Responses

  1. An odd question, if you have time. I have been studying Mandarin using the program developed by the late Dr. Pimsleur and moving along reasonably well and am now 1/3 through. I would argue I have almost zero “ear” for it until I play the phrase several times but I am told this is normal, when learning. That being said I was speaking with a Chinese person who immigrated to Canada and asked her some questions about Chinese script. She suggested I teach English at her school in Beijing where she had taught. I am eager to learn, have lived in foreign countries before but, now retired as an accountant, this seems very interesting. The only thing I have ever taught is traditional wing chun kung fu. Does this ‘package’ make sense as an applicant to teach ESL in Beijing? I have read and appreciated your article but if you have any specific thoughts they would be most helpful. Thank you!

    1. Im not sure what package you’re referring to but living and working in China is a great way to learn the language. Do you meet the main requirements (native speaker, 4yr degree, etc)?

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