Life in China

Teaching in China   

This is based on a January 2007 letter to a friend regarding teaching in China.
Much of it is still relevant in May, 2010 when this was posted here.


At the University where I am teaching now, Jiangnan, they only hire four native English speaking teachers each fall term. There is a college associated with the university, Lambton college, which hires up to 40 native English speaking teachers each term.

Our contracts with Jiangnan are from September 1, to July 15. The Lambton college contracts are single term contracts, 5 or 6 months. (I think this is changing in the 2010-11 school year – switching to 1 year contracts)

Contracts and Salaries 
Usually the contracts will follow the terms or semesters at the school. Many schools in China offer one year contracts (which are usually 10 or 11 months in actual fact like our Jiangnan contracts), some offer two year contracts, and some will do six month or even shorter contracts. Generally a one year contract will get you a round trip airfare reimbursement (many places put a maximum amount on this so watch for that as the maximum often won't cover the entire cost -- especially coming from the center of Canada). A six month contract generally offers half of whatever the one year contract offers for airfare.

Salary varies a lot. Private schools tend to pay more, but you may have less motivated students to work with, large classes, and long hours. The first school I worked for in China, in Tai'an, gave me my best salary at 6000RMB/month. This is a pretty good wage for China and you can live very comfortably on that here, but it doesn't go that far in Canada. In big cities like Shanghai and Beijing the salaries are usually higher (often over 10,000 RMB/month because the cost of living in those places is higher and those contracts usually don’t supply your accommodations)

Universities usually pay less, sometimes as low as 2500 or 3000 RMB/month. At HIT in Weihai (Shandong province, the second school and first university we taught at), we were making about 3200 RMB for the first 3 months and 3600 RMB after that. It would have gone up to 3800 if we had stayed. Jiangnan University provides a higher salary, in fact one of the better salaries I have seen for a university.

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Other Compensation
You have to look at the whole compensation package being offered by schools though. Do they pay for or supply your accommodations? If not, they should be paying you enough extra to cover the cost of accommodations in the city you will be (in Shanghai or Beijing that will be substantial, but I don't know exact amounts). If so, what are the accommodations? These can vary pretty widely. Do you pay utilities or does the school cover these? Internet? Is there a travel bonus? a completion bonus? any other extras? What is the airfare reimbursement? Is hot water available 24 hours in your apartment?

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Cost of Living
The cost of living in Wuxi is a little more than Weihai was, which was a little more than Tai'an (also Shandong province, our first school) For example, taxi's start at 5 RMB here, in Weihai it was 3 RMB, Tai'an it was 2 RMB -- buses are 1.5 RMB here compared to 1 RMB in Weihai and Tai'an. Food is around the same in grocery stores, and close to the same cost in restaurants, maybe just a bit more expensive. Here we have a village market for vegetables close at hand, which is cheaper than the chain grocery stores. There are more Western imports available here in Wuxi, and they are more expensive than buying locally produced stuff, so it really depends are what you need to feel comfortable how much you will spend.

As I said, the salary paid here gives you a very comfortable standard of living in China. We take taxis much more often than buses, in Tai’an and Weihai we used to eat out almost every day. Now we are cooking most days not for financial reasons, but because we want to have less oil, sugar, msg and salt in our diet. We have a ton of musical instruments all bought here, and are not lacking in anything we feel we need for our basic comfort levels.

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Hashing out Contract Details
If you are serious about teaching in China (or anywhere overseas), make sure you hash out all of your contract details in advance and get everything in writing. Even though the Chinese have a different approach to contracts than N. Americans (for them the contract is just the agreement for that time and they often want to change it or ignore it as their circumstances change) it is good to have it, if nothing else as a reminder of what was originally agreed to. Make sure you read everything before you sign it. We signed contracts our current school while we were in Weihei and did things over fax. When we arrived in Wuxi they wanted us to sign copies of the contract in person. The copies we were handed to sign had a change in one area (changing the amount of supplied electricity for our apartment from 1000 kwh/month each to 500). We caught the change, had it corrected to match what we had previously signed and everything was happy.

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Degree or Not
Many schools prefer that you have a degree, but often they are more interested in having a native English speaker than they are in your level of education. To teach at a University you need a degree. I am not sure about what Lambton college requires.

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Teaching Hours
I didn't mention that the teaching at Lambton college is much more an ESL teaching environment. The teachers there teach up to 24 hours/week and are with the same 20 - 40 students for their teaching time. Our teaching at Jiangnan (and at HIT before that) was teaching university courses, generally in the English department. We teach up to 14 hours/week and our courses are things like Western Culture, Writing, Speaking and Listening, News Publication Reading and the like. I find these courses are more interesting to teach than the standard ESL stuff, but they require huge amounts of preparation and/or marking. So while it looks like less time on paper it is at least as much, if not more, of a time commitment.

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School Year and Holidays
At University (and for the middle schools -- junior high and high school) the students have classes from around the beginning of September until their winter holiday (the Spring Festival break, which is usually around 4- 6 weeks beginning sometime between the middle of January and the beginning of February -- it is a lunar festival so the time moves from year to year). Their second term then runs from Feb/Mar until sometime in June or July. Then they have their summer holiday. There is also a a week off at both the beginning of October (for National Day -- China's birthday), and the beginning of May (labour day – the labour day holiday is now only a long weekend, and several other long weekends have been added for other traditional Chinese holidays). There are a lot of summer teaching programs that need foreign teachers during the summer holiday. These are short -- 4 to 6 weeks or even less -- and can pay fairly well, but likely won't give a full flight reimbursement. There are lots of jobs posted on the Internet and there are many ESL sites that let you look at jobs so you can poke around and search for what might work for you.

Overall, I have been very happy with my China experiences. I have found the people to be tremendously friendly and helpful. It is definitely worth doing.

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University students at Jiangnan University working on an assignment in class, Wuxi, China

Students working on an assignment in class.
It is winter and there is no heat in the classrooms so everyone wears a coat.