University ESL Teaching: What you should be asking about!

Teaching ESL at a university in China is a good gig: low hours, long holidays, weekends and more than enough money to survive on.

If you’ve chosen this route you’ll find that most universities (and agents on their behalf) are very happy to offer basic terms, conditions and vague information to hurry you through signing a contract and securing you for a year.

There’s still a high level of incompetency in the hiring of ESL teachers across the board and I can’t help but think that we (ESL teachers!) are at least part of the problem. Go to any forum these days and you’ll be able to read the stories of digruntled teachers who got more than they bargained for, and you really don’t want to become one of them.

I think 90% of the bad stuff can be avoided by doing some research and getting things straight up front, before you sign the contract. I recommend you do this by ASKING questions.

[Disclaimer: Don't be surprised if some unis/agents refuse to answer or ignore your questions... but would you really want to work for them anyway?]

Here’s a lowdown of the things you should be asking about to make sure you’re prepared and you get a good deal:

The Standard Deal
(if the uni isn’t offering the below as standard, you should be asking why not!)

  • a set monthly salary for a set number of hours per week
  • free furnished accommodation
  • one-way airfare for 1 semester; return flight for 2 semesters
  • pick up from the airport
  • visa (and all other legal documentation) help

Teaching Conditions
(teaching and office hours, class sizes, courses, resources)

  1. Teaching hours are usually stated, and should range between 12 and 20 hours a week, any more than that and you should be wary.
  2. Ask about office hours, these are rarely mentioned but often expected. Usually under the guise of lesson preparation, time for the students to come and see you, helping colleagues etc.
  3. Ask about class sizes, average is 30 students but I know teachers who’ve been stuck with classes of 60 or 70.
  4. Ask about the courses you’ll be teaching. Most will specify “oral” English, but others will list multiple disciplines: reading, writing, listening, culture, literature, business etc. Whether it’s your background or not, you might be expected to teach it!
  5. What are you going to teach? Many unis have no curriculum, syllabus or core text books for English. You’re likely to have to create your own, with little or no assistance. Find out what support the uni will offer you in this regard.
  6. Class times. Most unis are Monday to Friday, with classes starting at 8am, many have evening classes however. Be aware you might be expected to work at night.

(basic salary, overtime, holiday pay, airfare, travel allowance, completion bonus)

  1. Most unis offer a salary range between 4500-6000RMB depending upon experience, make sure you negotiate your hours and exact pay.
  2. Overtime. is it compulsory? How much will you get paid per hour?
  3. Aside from a few days public holiday, the major holiday is Spring Festival (Jan/Feb) when you are looking at around a month’s holiday. Is it paid? How much?
  4. Airfare. Aside from what I mentioned in the “standard deal”, find out how much they’ll reimburse (there’s a limit!) and when they’ll pay you, it’s usually on completion of the contract. Don’t forget to keep ticket stubs and proof of purchase paperwork.
  5. Many unis offer a travel allowance of 2200RMB after one semester, this is a nice present if you can get it.
  6. Some unis offer a completion bonus, don’t rely on it, find out terms and conditions accorded to it.

(location, furnishing, utility bills)

  1. Rent free accommodation should be standard, if not a housing allowance might be offered. A few unis offer the choice for you to live in their accommodation or rent your own, offering a monthly allowance.
  2. Where is the accommodation? On campus usually, but is it local to where you’re teaching, or a long bus ride away?
  3. Does the accommodation include a kitchen? Some don’t and you’re expected to eat at uni canteens, with or without an allowance.
  4. Furniture. Most accommodation is fully furnished including: TV, fridge, cooker, washing machine, telephone but if in doubt, ASK.
  5. Computer and Internet. Some unis provide computer and Internet access in your accommodation, some don’t.
  6. Who pays the bills? We’re talking: electricity, telephone, Internet, gas bottles, water (drinking bottles and mains). Some unis pay all the bills, some unis pay some of the bills, some unis pay none of the bills, some unis give an allowance.
  7. Internet: Special note, Internet services vary depending on the province. Some provinces you pay by usage, some are just a one-off payment.

Legal Documentation
(visa, insurance, residence permit, health check)

  1. The uni absolutely should take care of everything in this category, and provide you with all the necessary legal documentation. If not, alarm bells should ring!
  2. I don’t want to go into depth about visas, but suffice to say that the school should provide you with ALL the paperwork you need to obtain a “Z” visa in your own country. Or, will advise you to come into China on an “L” visa (tourists). The first option is legal, the second is still much practised (but not exactly above board) and depends a lot on the unis relationship with the local PSB (Public Security Bureau).
  3. The uni must convert the “Z” or “L” visa into a residence permit within 30 days of your arrival. They should cover the costs. They will require your passport to do this, and a medical examination/health check.
  4. The health check can be done in China or in your own country. In my experience it is much easier and cheaper in China, where dedicated health centres process you in a couple of hours. Some unis specify you should get it done at home and will give you the form to complete, others will organise it for you in China. I would advise to try and get it done in China, and get the uni to pay for it.
  5. A few unis offer basic medical insurance and a small amount of cover for treatment in China, it’s advisable to organise your own insurance too.

Other Information
(other foreign teachers, Chinese lessons)

  1. A good tip is to try and get access to a foreign teacher who’s already worked at the uni you are applying to. Ask for this information early on. Some won’t agree! If you do get the chance to contact a previous teacher, use them as a guide, not an all-powerful authority.
  2. If you’re interested in the language, find out if the uni will provide some free Chinese lessons, quite a few do.

We all have different needs and wants from our ESL position in China, this is just a guide to help you make an informed choice and minimise the potential for all kinds of problems.

If I’ve missed anything, or others would like to contribute tips, advice, experiences, or even amendments, please do.

To all of you out there trying to make sense of the sea of job offers for September 2008, a sea I am currently dipping my own toes back into, for the third year, happy job hunting.