As some of my long-time readers might be aware, English teachers often come in for a hard time from me. In the interests of balance, I think it’s time I had a look at the flip side of the coin and why you might actually want to teach English in China and how you might want to prepare for doing so.
The Why you Might Want To…
Teaching English abroad is not a glamorous profession. However, given the nose dive in Western economies at the moment, there are plenty of folks for whom a profession is better than the alternative. China’s certainly an interesting place to kick off a career, or just to take a working holiday while the economy sorts itself out.
History and Culture
Because of its peculiar past you can find a lot of interesting things in China, some that are even relatively unknown (despite the numbers of Chinese that have got there before you); the great wall, the Shanghai bund, possibly the only surviving representative of the Church of the East (though in fairness it’s also possibly just another pagoda), the Terracotta Army, the Tongli canals, the Gardens of Suzhou, and much more. That’s not discounting the natural beauty and the chance to get up close and personal with a Panda (you really can – in Chengdu).
Chinese culture is alien to us and that means you can learn a whole heck of a lot about different concepts. “Face” may often be ridiculed by cynical expats but nearly half the world operates in cultures where giving and taking face are extremely serious. It will open you up to thinking a little more before you speak and make you aware that the direct route, isn’t the only way to get things done.
Mandarin Chinese speakers are a rarity in the West. There are plenty of career opportunities for translators and interpreters. If you’ve already got some grounding in the language, heading out to China for a year or two will give you the chance to polish up your skills. It’s not the easiest language to learn though, it takes Chinese students approximately 7 years to learn all the characters necessary for reading and writing. So don’t expect to spend 6 months in Shanghai to lead to total fluency if you haven’t at least done a bit of work before you come to China.
The Chinese people themselves are (by and large) welcoming and kind, and while there’s a certain strangeness to your first encounters in cities where foreign faces are not the norm. It can make you feel like a rock star as everyone stops in their tracks and stares at your novelty.
Teaching English in China is not generally a terribly demanding job. Most teachers will do 20-25 hours work a week. Their job is usually to help students practice speaking and not to teach any finer points of the language (that’s usually handled by a local teacher). That means it’s not too stressful and leaves you with plenty of time to explore and enjoy the city you’re in. In most (but not all) jobs, accommodation is included in the package so what ever’s left in your pocket is yours to enjoy. Which is fair enough.
Money goes a lot further in China than in most other parts of the world. At least it does outside of the four mega-cities of Guangzhou, Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai. In those places it still goes further but nowhere near as far as in the provinces. Having said that, wages tend to be higher in those areas to compensate – be warned renting an apartment in these cities is not cheap, so make sure your deal pays enough to find a place. That’s because in the big cities, there’s often no accommodation package.
Preparation for Coming to Teach English in China
If you’re going to make the leap, then let me share a few things that will make your life easier.
- Get a TEFL (or better still a CELTA) qualification before you leave. On the job training for teachers in China is highly variable, some places are brilliant others offer nothing. So learn how to teach English as a foreign language before you come, you’ll feel much less lost if you do.
- Get a job before you arrive, you can normally get a better deal before you arrive in China than when you’re here. Here’s a website you can check for some details; TeacherGig for teaching jobs in China. They seem to be good at finding work for potential teachers who want to go to China.
- Get a VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection before you come. This is triply important if you’re going to take an assignment off the beaten path and outside of the big cities. Seriously, it might sound like a good idea to go and isolate yourself in another culture but it isn’t. You’ll go mad in a heartbeat. Facebook, Twitter, etc. are blocked in China unless you have a VPN. So cough up the $50-100 a year and make sure you can contact your mates back home. Phone calls are very expensive, and there’s even talk of possibly blocking Skype (the VPN will sort that too), so do it.
- Get networking before you go. Get on Facebook and other social networks and reach out to find other people in the same area as you. Even a small network of English speakers can be a God-send when you’re stuck a million miles from home with only a smattering of Chinese to your name.
Get a sense of humour. Not only will you be less annoying to the people you meet but it will enable you to cope with the transition between cultures much more easily. Don’t cry, scream, shout, throw things, etc. Just learn to laugh. It won’t make anything less frustrating but it will endear other people to you. That’s a vital skill to learn in making new friends and coming to terms with culture shock.
- Get a Kindle. an MP3 player and a laptop. Everything else is optional, but these three items will make it much easier to lose yourself for a few minutes when things get a bit much (they will at times). Being able to read a book, listen to some tunes or watch TV (torrents are your friends) can keep you sane for long enough for it to pass.