University ESL Teaching: What you should be asking about!

28 Comments

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.

Money
(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.

Accommodation
(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.

Talk on University ESL Teaching: What you should be asking about!


28 Comments
  1. Good article Tam. Well written and informative. I am leaving China soon and will need to acquire a new visa from my local PSB as my Residence Permit expires on June 30. I have been told that I will receive a standard tourist L visa with 30 days validity and that I will need to pay for it. I am happy with this but want to check if this is the normal procedure? Also, do you know if any bonus payments or travel subsidies are exchangeable within the 70% SAFEA foreign currency exchange allowance? No pressure! :-)

  2. Tim

    It is standard to have to pay for your own tourist visa after the contract ends.

    As for the currency exchange, it depends if you have been exchanging the maximum 70% every month. If you haven’t it shouldn’t be a problem, but if you have they may say no. It all comes down to relationships you have with them sometimes and also how above board they are.

  3. @Tam

    Another point that has always become a problem in all the unis I have taught at is the being locked in problem.

    Many universities lock the foreign teachers in their building at about 10:30 or 11 every night. Some unis don’t do this, some will give the foreign teachers a key, but sometimes you are at the mercy of some old man they hire to sit (sleep) there all night so as to protect the building from evil doers.

    I was at an interview last month in Beijing where I live and I was being shown the accommodation. Here is the dialog that followed, mind you it was in Chinese.

    Me: Excuse me, but when do you lock the door every night?

    Guard: What does he mean by that?

    FAO Rep: When do you lock the door?

    Guard: I don’t know, about 10:30.

    Me: What if I’m late?

    Guard: What does he mean late? We lock it at 10:30.

    FAO Rep: Will you often be late?

    Me: I don’t know, maybe. I am a 34 year old married man, I would like to know that I have the option of coming home after 10:30. We are adults.

    Guard: Adults?! What do you mean adults? (成人什么?!)

    FAO Rep: Maybe it is ok if you are not late very often. Maybe once or twice a semester.

    Perhaps this is a strange situation so some teachers, but I hear this kind of thing a lot and have experienced it a lot in Tianjin, Liaoning, and in Beijing. That is not to say I am a big partier, but 10:30 is the curfew I had when I was 15.

    One other thing to ask, and it is a touchy subject and you should probably ask the foreign teacher contact they give you, is whether or not you can have guests and what is the procedure. At BLCU in Beijing for example, if you have a Chinese guest they must have valid ID, sign in, and be out by 10:30. If they are not out, they will come a knocken.

    Some will say I am culturally insensitive and I should do the whole, “When in Rome” thing, but after a semester or two, you might crave more social life than the campus can provide.

  4. @Anna, Thanks.

    @Tim. Yes, agree with Sean. My school once converted (above and beyond the limit) of surplus RMB I had, I did have to wait for 2 hours at the bank, but it was in the VIP section, with comfy sofas & they brought me some tea!

    @Sean. Heard of, but never experienced the curfew thing, even though I’ve lived in campus accommodation, it’s never applied to the teachers buildings, just the students. It’s a good point. Don’t they even relax the curfew on Friday & Saturday nights ?

  5. @Tam: fantastic post, and a great primer on what not just prospective uni teachers need to know, but also what all ESL teachers should be thinking about when considering job offers. Thanks for sharing this.

    @Sean: “What do you mean late?” haha… that’s hilarious.

    It should be noted that any school I’ve worked for was happy to consider off-campus options for housing. Some allowed it, but wouldn’t pay for it, some gave an allowance and some just paid for the whole thing.

    I can’t imagine staying in on-campus accommodation much past my first semester or two.

  6. Excellent advice. I particularly like your advice regarding not wanting to work for someone who refuses to answer your questions. This is advice I often give to my law clients regarding their potential suppliers. One thing I would add, and you may find this strange coming from a lawyer, but you should not: if it FEELS wrong, it probably is. Sometimes you have to go with your gut and if your gut is telling you that your potential employer is a scammer, there is a damn good chance your gut is right.

  7. When I worked in Liaoning (Jinzhou and Dalian) Tianjin and now in Beijing, every job I have had has not given me an allowance to live outside. I now make enough thru part time work to live outside, but in many places where the salary is still around 3-4,000 a month, renting on your own dime is not very do-able if you ever want to go home.

    Weekends? No they didn’t do weekends. I guess you have to look at it thru their eyes and that means that people who go out drinking or to bars and clubs are not usually considered good people in Chinese traditional culture. Because of this I think some places can be less accommodating.

    But again, these are my experiences and they are Northern Chinese experiences too. That might make a difference.

  8. Profile photo of

    @Dan: I agree absolutely – my gut has rarely led me wrong – except with those raw oysters … in employment though, never.

    @Sean: The question then needs to be asked – why work for a uni? There are an endless number of private language schools (also teaching adults, if that’s the thing) and the lower-level public schools that do offer accommodation allowances and pay at least as well or better. I’ve never taken a full-time post at a uni just for that reason… the pay/benefits was never enough to convince me it was worth it. When I taught, I was paid 6,000RMB/mo + 1,500RMB for living allowance to do 15 hours a week at a primary school.

    I guess, as with most things, you’ll get what you demand. There’s no shortage of ESL jobs out there, putting even the least-experienced at an advantage of being able to pick and choose to some extent.

  9. @Sean. 3000 is peanuts and any school offering it doesn’t deserve a look-in.

    My first job, for the record, was in a (very) low level college in Liaoning Province (NE) and I got paid 4700RMB a month for 16 hours. That was over 3 years ago.

    Serious teachers shouldn’t be looking at less than 4500RMB in my opinion (and I’m loathe to use that as a bottom figure, but if you negotiate on the package for extras it’s okish). Working for less than that is really playing into the hands of unis who pretend to be poor, but who charge students a LOT of extra money for the “privilege” of being taught by a native speaker!

    @Ryan. Good question. I like unis because of the long holidays (at least a month at Spring Festival) and (until the new shortened breaks now in operation) a week each at May and October. Not usually offered by Private schools right ? Also you get weekends free, and with my last 2 jobs, Fri, Sat, Sun free to go off travelling. Plus, shorter hours, ideas of a 25 hour plus teaching week – and all that prep – just scares me. As does teaching kids.

  10. Profile photo of

    @Tam: Any public school system should be similarly in line with holidays – though paid or not is sometimes an issue. Private lang. schools usually limit the Spring Festival holiday to a week – and more and more are paid (wasn’t when I arrived).

    You are right though, private lang. schools have the bulk of their classes on weekends – but any good school will still give you two consecutive days off (Mon-Tue, or whatever). Practically, it’s the same, and functionally, it can be a benefit as you are travelling during working hours for most people – giving you a chance to see things without the weekend crowd.

    If you’re friends with ESL teachers at universities though, it really hurts your Friday nights – or rather, hurts your Saturday morning classes :-)

    The hours are another area where it’s mostly perspective. Many priv. lang. schools will offer 15/20/25 hours/week contracts, and adjust the pay accordingly. I always advise folks to take the 15-hour contracts, and then if the school wants more they need to pay OT – or you can just supplement the time with tutoring and earn much more than what your school is effectively paying you per hour.

    Prep? What prep? If anything, the lang schools are better for this – as they’ve generally got a well-formatted system (particularly the chains). It’s the human equiv. of copying and pasting.

    As for kids… like I said, there are priv. lang. schools that cater specifically to adults. They’re not as common, but are there for the hunting. But kids are great. I really learned to love teaching them – was scared shitless at first though.

  11. I would underline the “or a long bus ride away” if you are here in Nanjing. Any of the universities with a good location downtown will give you accommodation there, but you’ll have to travel up to an hour to get to where you’ll be teaching.

    As well, most universities that I’d looked into in places like Nanjing and Chengdu don’t even have downtown campuses. Any expat you talk to will tell you of the question:

    Do I take a job teaching at a training center but live where I want, or do I live on the outskirts of a big city, a big cab ride away after bar hours when the buses are closed down.?

    I always opt for the downtown dwelling, it’s just a more rewarding experience for me, both culturally and with the ex-pat community.

  12. Hello again Tam. I am trying to find out some concrete information about current laws concerning Foreign Experts in China. I am looking for details on contacts, pay, accommodation and travel subsidies. The best and most trust-worthy site I have found so far is: http://www.jobschina.org/
    Do you know of anything better? Thanks.

  13. Profile photo of Tam

    Hey Tim. Yeah, I’ve spent a while trying to find them online before and not succeeded. You can find the 2002 regulations online at that site you’ve mentioned. I object to buying a copy of 2008’s, especially when the “regulations” are in practice only “guidelines”…

  14. hello Tam,
    question about fees for international schooling (we have an 8 yr old) : is this affordable with both parents teaching at a uni; even better, do the unis subsidise intern schooling for their staff?

  15. Hi Duane, Sorry, but I can’t help you with this. I’d imagine though that every university has a different policy as some seem to actively encourage married couples and families whilst others..well.. don’t. I’ve not met any families in this situation… perhaps someone else can help ?

  16. Tim wrote: “I am trying to find out some concrete information about current laws concerning Foreign Experts in China. I am looking for details on contacts, pay, accommodation and travel subsidies. The best and most trust-worthy site I have found so far is: http://www.jobschina.org/
    Do you know of anything better? Thanks.”

    I do. The site is called http://middlekingdomlife.com and I consider it to be the best overall guide on the internet about living and teaching English in China. And it’s free.

    Emily Rosco

  17. One more piece of advise. I’m having troubles with my residency right now. The Uni said they would take care of getting our residency for us, but unfortunetly it was not completed within 30 days. The fine for that is 500RMB per day up to 5000RMB. We are now sitting at 5000RMB and it’s now our fault for not getting the residency completed :S
    MAKE SURE YOU COMPLETE YOUR RESIDENCY WITHIN 30 DAYS! Even if the school says they will do it for you, make sure you push them to get it completed. You become the one paying the fine, not them.

  18. What an interesting and informative post. The questions you say to ask are excellent. Let me ask you something. How would a 50-year old who does not speak Chinese be welcomed in China? Would it be an onerous task to get around?

  19. Hi Jose.

    In general the Chinese seem to have a lot of respect for older teachers; this has been my impression based on 5 years’ experience. You would not be expected to speak Chinese (Mandarin), so this won’t affect your welcome. It goes without saying that any Chinese you can learn once you arrive will be helpful in many ways, making friends and getting a deeper understanding of the culture etc.

    If you travel on the tourist trail, you’ll find English widely spoken, so travelling won’t be onerous because of your lack of language skills. Travelling in China is usually onerous to some degree though, even when you do speak the language… patience is a prerequisite. Most people are friendly and helpful, especially to older travellers.

    You will also find that before long many students will be offering you their help, and welcoming you to guided tours of their hometowns that may well be off the beaten track. No doubt that if you do want to go somewhere obscure, some knowledge of the language is going to be useful.

    If you’re heading for a city like Beijing, where I live now, you probably don’t ever need to know a word of Chinese… but if you’re planning on going to a town/city that is smaller or more rural, there will be less English spoken. I do know many people who have been in China for years, and have basic or very little Chinese.

    Hope this helps & Good Luck :)

    • Tam:

      Thank you so much for your detailed and thoughtful reply. Out of respect and to participate more fully in the culture, I would of course learn some Mandarin. My family and I are considering our options. Thank you again!

      Jose

  20. 6000? Are you guys on crack? Serious teachers shouldn’t be looking at anything less than 10,000…. I don’t understand why you guys want these low paid crap jobs when there are good training centers that pay in upwards of 20,000 after your first year.

    • Hey –

      Can you tell me by chance which training centers will pay upwards of 20,000 as you mentioned? Are these in smaller cities, or places like Beijing?

      thanks!

  21. @Tam

    Is it possible to work in other places besides your university, is it legal, illegal or do the authorities turn a blind eye to it?

    Thanks

  22. The last comment to this was quite some years ago, but would be interested in others’ take to changes occurring recently, at least in Guangdong. It appears that public colleges and universities in Guangdong are pulling back significantly in terms of benefits and pay methods, amounting basically to a pay cut. Many are no longer offering paid summer vacation, some not even accommodation, or asking now for the teacher to pay utilities that were free before. A number have even switched to not offering full time contracts with benefits at all, and are paying by the hour. Others are inserting clauses in their contracts which basically does away with a base salary, stipulating that if they give you less than 16 hours a week, your pay will be cut. My college is inserting some such changes in our contract this year, saying that “everyone else is doing this”. I have an excellent reputation in my college, am respected by my colleagues and am often given verbal appreciation for my serious work, so this is a huge surprise. My response is that with mounting inflation, they should be paying us more, and have decided to move to the private sector for work (where, actually, I can earn a great deal more)–am wondering if others are doing the same and if a trend might be developing with more foreign teachers doing this.

  23. My last job in Harbin paid 4,450 for 21hrs a week, but I was working off my TESOL Diploma scholarship. My current job in Zhuhai pays 6,000 a month for 21hrs plus a lousy 800 RMB a month for housing. My next job is in Dalian and pays 10,000 RMB a month. All of the above are language training centers.

  24. Hey ESLteacher1983,

    I’m also thinking of going to Dalian and I’m looking around for a ESL job too.

    I should be in Dalian end of this June. Drop me an email at laurenphang gmail.com

    Hope we can connect somehow!

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