Travis in China – Interview with a Teacher

For a newly-graduated English major, lack of job opportunities at home lead to a career abroad. 

How did you get into teaching English abroad?

Like many college graduates in the early 2000s, I found myself stuck in the bog of a stagnant US economy. I was bartending and working construction to make ends meet. Most graduates are going to be drawn to job opportunities that capitalize on the four-or-five years’ investment they put into their education. So, I started to look at jobs abroad, where my degree could be put to use.

What is your educational background?

At the time I first went to China in 2003, I held a bachelor’s degree in English (Creative Writing) with a minor concentration in Religion Studies. Later, I earned a master’s degree in English Language and Literature, which proved to be very helpful once I transitioned from the private to the public sector.

Where are you currently working in the TEFL industry? Where have you worked?

I’m currently lecturer in the Applied Foreign Languages Department at Beijing Language and Culture University, where I teach English Reading and Writing (basically composition, style, and critical thinking) as well as Advanced Speaking. As the writing course director, it’s my responsibility to get other teachers on the same page regarding course content. I also design final examinations and provide support to new staff. Previously, I spent seven years working for English First (EF) English Centers in Beijing, where as an international teacher I delivered Cambridge University-designed classes to adults aged 18+.

For someone about to graduate college, interested in teaching in China, what advice can you give when it comes to finding a job?

My biggest mistake my first time around (2003) is that I was too willing to accept a job that sounded good without doing due diligence, and it resulted in several close calls through no fault of my own. If you are working for a shady company–and there are tons–you could end up being deported without any clue as to why. China has begun strictly enforcing laws that have always been on the books, especially for Americans. Therefore, my advice is simple: a reputable company will take care of everything and assist you every step of the way. The best private education providers are English First (kids and adults), Wall Street English (adults), New Oriental and VIP Kid, to name a few. There are hundreds of EFL/ESL start-ups that appear today and disappear tomorrow and horror stories to match. Do your research; ask to be able to contact current employees to get their take. A recruiter’s job is to recruit often more than to inform. Always make sure you receive visa assistance and evacuation insurance regardless of employer. If you’re interested in the public sector, universities have proven to be a safe bet, especially because they have an inside track when it comes to visa assistance.

China is a very large country; what are some considerations when it comes to picking a place to work?

For me, it was simple. I had a friend from my initial foray who had relocated to Beijing, where I have lived for the past eight-plus years. For others, it’s less cut and dry; so you have to ask yourself some important questions:

(1) What conveniences do you want/need? In American standards, there is no such thing as a “small city” in China. There are only tiers. First-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen etc., offer top-level amenities and great public transportation. Second- and third-tier cities offer fewer, but because of rapid growth there may be more job opportunities.

(2) How much culture do you want? While this question may seem ridiculous, it’s much easier to adjust in a first-tier city. The need for Mandarin is far less, so it’s easier to get around and do your day-to-day stuff like buy groceries. Of course, you’ll need some Mandarin, but even after eight years, my own language abilities are embarrassingly meager. To that end, a good company will provide some basic classes to get you going. Culture also includes things like food options and the amount of foreigners present in a city.

(3) Are you cool with some days of poor air quality? Beijing isn’t great. Other places could be better or worse.

(4) What kind of climate do you want? It’s a big country.

(5) Are you cool with compromising some freedoms you take for granted? The internet is heavily censored here–no Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix etc. There’s no English-language cable television. You can use a VPN, but often those don’t work or work poorly because they’re always fencing with China’s censors. Access to certain news sources may become problematic as time moves on. The police in some places may come into bars or even to your house and perform impromptu identification checks. 

6. How can someone planning to work in China ensure that they don’t fall afoul of authorities when it comes to work permits and such?

Only work where and for whom you are permitted to work. Simple as that.

What kind of credentials does, say, your average English major need to teach abroad after graduation?

As of last check, a bachelor’s degree in basically anything can get you a job. An English major isn’t necessary, but it may help you edge out the competition. Depending on the employer, you’ll also likely need some basic TEFL certification, which can be acquired online through a site like Bridge TEFL. If you want a big leg up, go for a CELTA certification. It’ll take a month or two; it’s not cheap; but it will prepare you the teaching side of things. To teach at universities, you’ll receive higher pay and often better perks if you have a master’s degree.

More personally, how did you deal with culture shock when you first moved abroad? Feelings of loneliness? Or did you experience those at all?

Culture shock for sure happens to everyone, but on totally different levels. At best, it’s the frustration with dense populations: a lack of personal space, pushing in crowds, slowness, dealing with bureaucracy, the helpless dependence that you’ll have on others (perhaps your company), etc. At worst, it’s a feeling of complete isolation that leads to loneliness. If you’re not good at meeting people or socializing, working abroad might not be for you. My first go-around, I lived in Shenzhen and Qingdao and had very few foreigners to meet, making things more difficult. In Beijing, I had a friend and therefore a support system to help me acclimate. I have experienced all of it, but a willingness to adapt and a desire to avoid the job struggle at home served me well.

How much can an English teacher make in China? How can a new teacher do more than just get by?

University salaries might range between just 5000-10000 ($750-$1,250) RMB monthly, but offer a ton of free time and vacation time. Private companies often will range between 12000-20000 ($1750-$2900) RMB monthly.

Some jobs, but very few, allow supplemental income, but that’s sometimes a blurry line that could get you in trouble. It’s best to check with your employer.

Also, check with your employer about end-of contract flights and health insurance.  It’s vitally important, especially now.

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