Tag Archives: Teaching

on teaching in China



I recently completed an email “interview” with John Bardos of http://www.jetsetcitizen.com/, about my experience as an English teacher in China.  I thought I’d share a copy of my responses to his questions:

How long have you been teaching English in China?

I’m now in my 4th year in Chengdu, Sichuan.

How did you find your first teaching job?

I found my first teaching job in China on the internet, through AbroadChina.org.  I also spent two years doing research about China and about teaching abroad, reading forums such as those on Dave’s ESL Café, and finding all the information I could about various cities and universities.

How easy is it to find teaching jobs?

One of the reasons I chose China is because of the high demand for English teachers there.  Once you register your resume on a job website, for the first couple of months your inbox will be filled with job offers or advertisements for schools.  Most jobs will tell you that they require a TESOL certificate and teaching experience, but in practice many teachers are hired without these credentials. I didn’t even have a phone interview for my first teaching job here.  As times goes by, however, if you’re a serious teacher looking for a professional environment and high standards, you will become much more discriminating in your search.

Is it necessary to have teaching certificates or training to find employment?

In theory, yes, in practice, not always.  I completed my TESOL after I’d arrived in China and had already started teaching.  The universities I’ve been associated with base their pay scale on your education level (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) rather than years of experience.

How did you get your first work visa?

The procedure is to have a job offer in hand; your future employer will send you a certified letter of employment, which you take to the Chinese consulate in your home country.  You’ll be given a temporary visa, and once you’re in China your school must apply to the local Public Security Bureau within a couple of weeks for the official residence permit.

Is it possible for teachers to arrive without a work visa and look for a job?

I haven’t tried this.

What is the cost of living in China? (Expected expenses on rent, food, going out, etc.)

It depends on what kind of job you have, where you live, and what your expectations are.  I teach in a university, which provides a furnished apartment and utlities in addition to my salary.  I live simply; my monthly budget is about 2,000 RMB [about $300].

How much money can the average teacher expect to save?

Once again, it depends.  I save about 50% of my monthly salary.  During my first 3 years in China I was still paying off my U.S. credit card debt; that was difficult, and I don’t recommend bringing your debt to China with you.  Now, whatever I don’t spend on monthly expenses (food, clothing, books, etc.) goes into my travel fund.  At the moment, it’s almost impossible for me to contribute to a retirement fund or a savings account.

What is the typical number of teaching hours per week?

At a university, expect about 14-16 classroom periods (45-50 minutes) a week, with overtime paid for extra teaching hours.  At a private, for-profit language school you may be expected to have 30-40 hours per week; the salary may be much higher but I have no desire to work that hard.

How many weeks of holidays per year can teachers expect?

Depending on when the Spring Festival holiday falls, I have 4-6 weeks of paid winter vacation each year.  You also get paid for the standard Chinese holidays – National Day, Spring Festival, etc.  Summer vacation [July-August] is unpaid.

Did your employer provide you with medical Insurance? If not, was it expensive?

My employer requires teachers to buy medical insurance; I paid about 200 RMB for 10,000 RMB [$1,300]worth of coverage.  I hope I don’t get seriously ill.

Do you recommend China for other English teachers?

That depends on a lot of factors.  The culture shock can be extreme; I came here with no knowledge of the language, and many people are immediately put off by the vast differences in cleanliness, sanitation, living conditions, or other factors.  If you read the message boards online, there’s a vast amount of bitching and moaning about teaching environments, salary, and lifestyle that you have to take with a grain of salt.  Do your homework before you come here; be sure to get contact information for at least two or three current or former teachers at your prospective school.  Know what you want:  are you coming to China for a one-year teaching “holiday” or for the long term?  Do you want to spend the rest of your working life being a “Foreign Expert,” or do you plan to return to your home country to work eventually?

What advice would you offer for others thinking of teaching English Abroad?

As I said, do your homework.  When I came to China I made a complete break:  got rid of all my possessions, left my job and apartment, gave away a lifetime accumulation of books, put my cat up for adoption – to basically make a new start in a country I’d never even visited before.  I spent 2 years saving money, getting teaching experience in Los Angeles, paying down my debt, and doing research.  Have practical goals:  save some money first, take language classes, know about the differences in education, etc.  For example, in China you may have large classes, up to 50 students for “oral” English; there’s a huge emphasis on rote learning in the country’s education system; education is controlled by the single political party; there are “forbidden” topics – Tibet, Taiwan, religion, politics – that can’t be discussed in class.  If you are gay or lesbian, don’t expect the kind of openness you would find in urban environments in the U.S.  Know about health issues:  pollution levels in Chinese cities can be deadly; Chengdu is about twice as polluted as Los Angeles.  Choose your country carefully; if you want to save piles of cash, China might not be for you.  If you want a different or challenging experience, maybe it is.

Week 3…


…and I’m falling naturally into the rhythms of a new life. This semester is going much more smoothly than the last, which was simply an endurance contest of long classes and recalcitrant students.

In the first two weeks, I’ve had two moments of clarity. For those not familiar with 12-Step-speak, a moment of clarity translates as a “lucid moment,” and falls somewhere between clear thinking and a startling revelation. The first occurred during one of the best classes I’ve ever taught, last Tuesday, in which I drilled and prompted my six students into greater fluency by practicing short phrases of a sentence, then gradually putting them together into one smooth unit. I also taught how to “count” the syllables in a sentence, saying the numbers rhythmically instead of the words, to train the ear for the sounds of English. It was teaching at its most brilliant, yet I couldn’t repeat the performance to save my life during the rest of the week. Oh well.

The second moment of clarity came in the middle of my classical guitar lesson, when I realized that berating myself and feeling like an untalented failure was a waste of time and energy. I have the rest of my life to become a proficient guitar player, and it will take as long as it takes; my fingers will obey me when they’re good and ready. I think my mini-revelation involved understanding “practice” for the first time. I was able to equate guitar practice with Zen practice, in terms of understanding it as just an extension of my meditation or reading. Words of wisdom:

“Rather than placing discipline into the category of self-flagellation, we should exalt it to its rightful position of self-love and get on shamelessly with it.”

It’s a question of sitting still, paying attention, and making the mind one with what is happening that moment. All my life, since childhood piano lessons, “learning” something or “practicing” it were bound up with guilt, shame, impatience, misery, and harsh self-judgment. Funny how a state of mind becomes a way of life.

This clarity may also have been inspired by The Book That Changed My Life: Bill Porter’s Zen Baggage: a Pilgrimage to China. I’ve now read it twice.

I’m back into my exercise routine at the gym – sometimes. You see, since I last updated this blog I’ve become afflicted with lower back pain. It’s been more severe and lasted longer than in the past. A couple of massage therapy sessions seemed to make it worse, so now I’m experimenting with stretching exercises and light workouts.

In the meantime, I’m maintaining my stair-climbing lifestyle: apartment on the 6th floor, guitar lessons on the 6th , classes on the 5th (and sometimes the 3rd). It’s a living.

a tangled web


The semester officially ended for me on Friday after the Closing Ceremony at the Intensive Language Training Center. Since none of my own students were there, I felt a little redundant, as if I were just for display purposes. It’s been a long time since anyone thought of me as “decorative,” so maybe I should be grateful.

The day before, I’d spent 3 hours helping to administer final oral exams to the students in the Going Abroad program – teachers and post-grad students who will be sponsored by the China Scholarship Council to do research in English-speaking countries.

Yesterday (Saturday) I attended the 百日 “bai ri” or 100 Days party for my “niece” Cristina Garzon, daughter of two friends at my former school. I didn’t stay for all the festivities, which lasted from lunch through the afternoon all the way through dinner. It’s a Chinese custom to celebrate the first 100 days of a baby’s life with a grand fete.

So what will I do with my 7 weeks of (paid) vacation? Hard to say. I will continue my Chinese classes up until Spring Festival the 2nd week in February. Next Friday I’ll begin classical guitar lessons with a teacher who lives not far away. The communication may be a bit strained – he speaks no English – but I may study along with another student who does know English.

I may watch some movies, but at the moment I’m a little “movied out;” it’s my preferred form of relaxation, plus I made my way thru 6 seasons of “The Sopranos” in about 4 weeks. Do I see an addictive pattern forming here?

Happy New Year.

December 11

leafy walk


Yesterday was my birthday. I was in class much of the day, and for some reason I was incredibly stressed out. Classes went fine; in fact, a couple were much better than usual. In my afternoon class the four students actually stayed for the whole 2-hour period, and spoke English virtually the entire time.

In the evening I gave the final exam to my Business English Class, employees of a local Chengdu pharmaceutical company. This morning at 9 am I received an emergency call from the teaching department, saying that they had to have the scores by 9:30. I said that it was impossible; it’ll take me a whole day to grade the exams. We later compromised when I promised that all of the students will pass the course. I know from past experince that final scores are merely a formality; the students all receive a certificate of completion anyway. However, many companies ensure good performance in class by requiring employees who score too low to pay a penalty of up to 10,000 yuan.

Anyway, this afternoon I’ll visit the company with the other teachers to take part in the awards ceremony, then we’ll attend dinner afterward. My birthday celebration will wait until tomorrow.

Vocabulary lesson

The hazards of teaching:

I’m always correcting my students’ pronunciation when it comes to the similar words “snack” and “snake,” as in “We ate some food at the snake bar.”

Yesterday during the class break, as I was on the school balcony enjoying some “fresh” air, one of my students said, “Roger, our other teacher brought snake today!”

I said something to the effect of “Oh, well that’s great – did he give you some food in class?”

At that moment another student appeared, carrying a clear plastic box that contained – you guessed it – a real SNAKE. Yipes.

I learned my lesson. Believe it….or not.