Teaching English in China: How to Start Teaching English in Shanghai - And How to Get Out!

Whether someone has been in China for one year or ten, the answer as to how they began their time in China is often the same: they taught English.  

Perhaps this was not their vocational agenda - to become a teacher of sorts - but one of the easiest ways to make your way to China and begin living a comfortable life, is through teaching English.

Ed. Note: However, it might not be the best way to begin your career - check out our article “Escape ESL Hell” for how to break out of teaching English in China and while starting the career you really want!

Some teachers end up here after a year long bike trip through China and decide they want to stay and start their own outdoor travel business (yes, rather specific but I happen to know someone pursuing this at the moment). Others choose to make headway in the environmental sector, where China sorely needs help.  

That being said, if teaching English is your goal, the plethora of choices can make it difficult to hone in on the right positions. The first, slightly overwhelming fact is that you have the whole of China to choose from- from first tier cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen all the way down to 2nd and 3rd tier cities in provinces as remote as XinJiang, which, if you didn't know, borders Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yes, China is big. Additionally, there are so many websites that lead you to this or that education company or school that the whole ordeal of trying to find a job can be overwhelming – as it is in most industries.  

I can tell you from my experience, I did not find a teaching job suitable for me until I arrived in China.  Yes, it was a big leap of faith, but I decided that coming here would make it easier for me to envision the environment I would be working in. Although the way I found a job once I arrived was not much different from how I was looking for one at home in the US, I was able to have in person interviews and actually see the possible schools I could have been working in.  When it comes down to it, you need to follow your instinct; does this academy or school seem unreliable? Are they being truthful about how far away their town might be from the city? Is there a chance I could get stuck in a situation that I won’t like? Keep in mind there is no system in place to vouch for each institution, and agencies in the industry rarely do quality checks.

Although the myriad of options is daunting, if you don’t find the right one initially, then there are still more to choose from.  Another way to think about what kind of school you want to go to is what they will offer you. To give you a rough outline, some places can grant you these basic clauses in your contract:

  • Housing stipend (not included in your salary for tax purposes)
  • A round-trip flight from your Home outside of China, to China and back again (not all places have this, but I considered it when I was looking for a job considering the price of flights being rather expensive)
  • Health Insurance (usually no dental included, so get those teeth cleaned before you come. You can find a dentist through a site like Emergency Dentist USA.)
  • Vacation days/Sick days (in my experience, I did not have a set number of vacation days, rather they said I “have” vacation days, which ended with me taking way more than a job in the US would have given me)
  • Visa expenses (medical check, visa fees, etc.)
  • Travel expenses/reimbursements (this includes food and transportation if you have to travel for work. Often times this includes visa runs if you are on a Visa that requires you to leave the country every 90 days, then the company will pay for your flight - this also depends on where you are located)

To comment on the last point, traveling for a school or education company can be very taxing on the body and soul (especially in you have to take the high speed trains to outskirt cities and wait in lines that seem to never end).  When I accepted my job, I made sure to have my employer change my school/center location to “Shanghai”, and not just the wide-sweeping “China”, then subsequently made them take out a clause that stated that the company could send me to any center in China if they needed more staff elsewhere.  If these considerations had not been met, I would not have taken the job.  The moral of the story is to be aggressive with what you want.  China is a country that likes to bargain, so if you can muster up the courage to finalize what is best for you, then go for it.

Another mess to expect: no clear-cut, planned or even organized scheduling.  You will have no idea when your holidays might be or what your class schedule will be like until a week, but usually only a day before your first class starts.  When you are looking for schools and opportunities, you can get a sense of what your schedule may be like.  If you would like to teach at a kindergarten, don’t expect to have weekends free or evenings throughout the week.  If that does not sound like your cup of tea, then there are also private education companies that sell particular classes to students that come from wealthier backgrounds.  Teaching English is a business, after all.  In my situation, I was teaching private test prep (the SAT, to be specific) and other specialized courses like critical reading and writing classes, so my schedule was based on demand.  There was an entire month where I had no classes at all, and then suddenly at the end of the month I was blitzed with students that seemed to come from nowhere.

Want More Tips? Sign up for our Newsletter!


Another option is to work for a University, which can sometimes be provided through a fellowship through American Universities or just by finding openings at these universities.  For the most part, you would probably be in a part of China that you have never heard of before (even though you would still probably be in a city of 3 million people).  This can be a very rewarding experience, since it will also force you to speak Chinese and learn the language, which proves to be very valuable in the countryside, where barely anyone speaks English, but also in the city, where the ease of knowing how to order your food can provide less stress to your day.

Again, it all comes down to holding your own and making sure you get what you want out of the experience.  China, and specifically teaching English in China, will teach you how to live life, especially if you are a recent college grad like myself, where being a student was all you really needed to worry about.  However, if teaching English is not necessarily your first choice vocation, then doing it for a year is just enough.  If your main goal is to be in China and tap into the numerous opportunities it can provide, then teaching English is a good start- however we urge you to find an internship if you’re looking for career experience. If anything, teaching helps you get an outside sense of how China’s intricate web of networks connect or things in China operate, because wherever you are coming from, I can assure you, things are done differently here.  But that’s what drew you to China anyway, wasn’t it?

Continue reading with Escape from ESL Hell: Stop Teaching and Land the Job You Want!



About the Author
Author: Alicia

Alicia was born and raised in San Francisco, California, attended undergrad at UC Berkeley, has been living in Shanghai for the past year and now has bleach-blue hair. You will probably find her in one of her favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants slurping up some burn-your-mouth xiaolongbao or shui jiao.

Follow Us!