Travelling Welshman
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Blog,  Teaching

The Life of an ESL Teacher in China

I never imagined that there was ever a possibility of becoming a teacher, let alone being a teacher abroad. However, 9 months after my very nerve-racking first day, it’s time to reflect on life as an ESL teacher. What’s the work like? How difficult is it and how demanding? Its important to remember that life as an English teacher abroad isn’t quite the same as your typical high-school teacher back home. Each have their own unique challenges and techniques to tackle them. As such, here’s a quick break-down of a typical English teachers life in China.

Whats the Work?


The majority of foreign English teachers don’t work in normal schools. Like myself they work in training schools i.e. an after-school class which the parents pay (a considerable amount) for their child to attend. This means that your busiest hours are outside typical business hours and run into the evening. The students generally get 2 classes a week and you’ll be given anywhere between 3-6 different classes.


You’ll be teaching classes ranging all the way from 3 to 12 years old, split into grades based on a combination of their age and their ability. Which grades you’ll teach depends on the schools opinion of your abilities rather than you having a choice. They’ll base this on how you perform in your training and your experience (if any). Not often are teachers deemed not good enough. They’ll be less willing to give the higher-grade classes to people they don’t believe can handle it.


Also, within certain schools they’ll provide opportunity for 1-on-1 private lessons. These have a different feel completely to teaching classes, as all your attention is focused on one student. This makes it harder as it calls for a more specific focused form of teaching. Seeing visible improvement are important, failure of which is reflected back on you.



As is the way with English schools in China, you’ll come to terms with the fact that you’re working for a business, and getting business is key. At least once (possibly regularly) you’ll have to perform a demo class. Essentially these are a set-up lesson for potential customers to see what they can expect for their child. Unanimously among teachers having to do these demo’s is an all round ballache. Pumped with false enthusiasm show-ponying around the class usually for one child and their parents sat in the back observing and judging, all in a vain attempt to get money off them. The silver lining is at least you get a bonus, IF they sign.



How Much Experience Do You Need?


In short, if you speak English (particularly as a first language) then you’re more than likely to find someone who’ll hire you. Its frighteningly easy to get work, as native English speakers are in such high demand. For years, China has had a resistance to learning English. As an up-and-coming superpower China found no need to become another global sheep, relying on English to communicate internationally. However, in recent years the Chinese have begun to appreciate the potential of learning English and the doors it will open for them.

As a result, there is a current boom of business. Adults hope to speak English and give their kids the opportunity to learn. This means that countless English schools and companies have been established all over China. This means there’s an enormous demand for native speakers. To the Chinese, being taught by a native speaker is immediately more legitimate than being taught by their own countrymen. They’re a commodity which is very much well paid for, because of the return that they bring the companies that hire them.

One of the many photo’s CTs take mid-class for the parents


The qualifications you need to get a job; absolutely zero, other than the ability to speak English. No TEFL or degree needed (although possession of which means a higher wage), and prior teaching experience isn’t required either. However, an important thing to consider is the parent won’t know about this.

As you might imagine, the parents would be appalled knowing that their child’s £2,000 a year education is carried out by an inexperienced, unqualified, incapable twat like myself. Simple solution, just lie. You’ll be given a fake backstory which if you’re expected to keep to, even if you’re questioned by the students’ parents.


My fake backstory paints me as a 26-year old biomedical science graduate from Cardiff University who worked a year at an international school in Jakarta, Indonesia. After that I came to China to work at the company’s headquarters before deciding I wanted to take part in teaching the children. All bullshit.

It won’t be unusual for people outside of North America to be made to say they’re American. This is a common problem for white South Africans or non-British Europeans that find themselves having to claim they’re American. For the South Africans it’s a harsh reality of slight Chinese ignorance. Unofficially, the majority of parents won’t be able to comprehend why the teachers are white if they’re supposedly African…


The Risk


What risk can there be with teaching children? Well the risk is that you could be arrested. Much like the rest of the world, your required to have a working visa to allow you to work. The problem is these are very difficult to obtain. Therefore, the English schools will assist you in getting a different visa; either a student or business one. These DO NOT allow you to work, therefore you’d be breaking the law.

The repercussions of which can be quite serious, the conclusion being your deportation. The law is obviously aware of this situation as schools are regularly raided, searching for illegal workers. More than likely at least once in your time as a teacher you’ll be instructed to leave the premises of the school (in other words run) to avoid deportation.

This is the case in practically every English school, all the way to the biggest companies. Its just the way its done. If you’re lucky enough to work for a big enough company with the right connections, the risk is less. Simply because these companies are able to pay the right person to give them a heads up when a raid might occur. For those lesser companies, you’ll quite literally have to hide in basements from the law.


Ease of Teaching

Initially the seemingly vast amount of work and responsibility dumped on your lap can seem daunting, particularly when considering the utter lack of experience. This is why so many people give it up within the first few weeks. Initially the problem is quickly learning how to be a teacher after being thrown into the deep end. You quickly have to find your feet teaching a range of ages and levels. Its a case of learning as you go, from the experience and mistakes you’ll inevitably make. After a while it becomes one of the easiest things you can do.

One common issue you’ll find and begin to sympathise with your former teachers is how kids won’t listen if they’re bored. From toddlers to teens, if they’re not interested they simply wont listen to you. You then have to find fun new ways of teaching the boring ass subject you’re being told to teach. Each age are entertained in different ways, and there becomes the challenge of trying to find what works and what doesn’t.


The schools in China will almost always provide you with a Chinese teacher (CT) who essentially co-teach with you. You are in command; however, they are there as the link between you and the students. They’re there when there’s difficulty with translations and essentially helping you explain and keep the students in order. They’ll also deal directly with the parents, meaning you don’t have to (which, trust me, is an ENORMOUS relief).

One of my wonderfully helpful CTs

You’ll find difficulty with some classes over others. This could be down to many things, the preparation needed, the level of work and the students, or simply having terrible students that make your job that much harder. In some cases you could even have trouble working along-side your CT. Everyone has their favourite classes.


Level of Students:


Another to consider would be the level of the students. Both have their unique difficulties when it comes to teaching. With the younger students in many ways its much easier, because they’re learning simple stuff. It shouldn’t take too long to teach “A is for Apple”. However it can be more difficult because of the limited vocabulary and ways you have of explaining something to a 4-year-old child.

For the teenagers, there’s a greater understanding of English, and various ways of attempting to explain something. However, the older they get, the more difficult the work. The topics they learn require even more explanation, such as trying to make them understand grammar rules that most first language English speakers get wrong. It’s the difference between trying to explain the meanings of the words tree or summer and independent variable. It takes much more work.




As jobs go, it has to be considered a fun one. Generally, there isn’t a great deal of difficulty in the job, however at times there is stress. You start to empathise with your high-school teachers as your students begin to lose control and you just happen to not be having a good day. Lack of preparation means a complete unprepared disorganised lesson.

Another potential stress of the job would have to be dealing with demanding parents. Much like the parents at home I guess, where some will believe their child to be the son of Christ and expected to be treated as such. Any sign that isn’t the case could be met with repetitive complaints and parents questioning your teaching techniques.

However, a cheesy sentiment would have to be there are few other jobs as gratifying at the end of the day. Mostly down to seeing the visible improvement and advancement of the children due to your teachings and efforts. The other would be the emotional connection you create with these young children who scream your name in excitement when they see you. You simply begin to adore them and look forward to your lessons.

Pre-kindergarten class graduation, possibly the cutest thing ever

Plus, with the younger kids its so easy to have fun in your lessons, as that’s how they learn best. You end up playing games and activities designed to make the children laugh and get them excited, all while they unknowingly learn.




The level of preparation totally depends on the school you work for and you personally. Such as the school I work for, all the lesson plans and materials required for the lesson are provided for you. All you’d have to do is follow the lesson plan. However, they do allow you a great amount of freedom to chop-and-change as you see fit. There’s nobody looking over your shoulder watching and judging your every decision. You are the teacher, and it’s your lesson. The school will tell you the rough subject that needs to be learned, and its up to you to decide how its taught.

Class presentation on sea animals with pre-made flashcards

If you want to challenge yourself and become a more proactive teacher, then you’ll have to put in extra preparation. This includes creating worksheets, powerpoints, flashcards etc, which can take quite a lot of time. Time is something you have as only half of your working hours are spent in class. However, this does provide the problem that if you don’t want to put in the extra effort, you don’t have to, resulting in some lack-luster lazy teachers.

Another to consider would is the level of the students. The younger students won’t need a great deal of preparation for their lessons, as the work is much simpler. Some eye-catching flashcards and powerpoints might take a little bit of time, but nothing compared to the extra work needed for the older kids. As there’s a much greater understanding of English, more worksheets are needed and topics are in much greater detail, which require even more explanation.



As stated earlier, the work isn’t necessarily hard. Its not terribly demanding and becomes much easier with a bit of routine. However, if you set a high-paced energy while teaching your students (which you’ll have to do to keep the interest of the youngsters) then you’ll be expected to maintain that high energy level in every single class. Easier said than done on those days where you haven’t had enough sleep or just can’t be arssed.

Working hours will vary quite some bit, and which hours you’re made to work will be down to luck more than anything. Some days you’ll be working long and hard, other days you won’t. As this is an after-school class, most classes will occur after 4:30pm all the way until 8:30pm, and the weekends become the busiest time of the week. Some find it a bit too demanding not arriving home after a day of work until almost 10pm.

Side-note: all the stress of preparation and amount of energy spent is ultimately down to you. For instance, teachers are fully (unofficially) aloud to sleep at work whenever they don’t have class. Obviously, the time should be spent preparing future lessons, however if there is none left to do, you’re welcome to nap. So, if you wanted to, potentially you could sleep throughout the day and turn up to your lessons with almost 0 preparation and an equal amount of energy to go with it. Of course inevitably this would make you a bad teacher.

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