Section I: Teaching English in China continued—Teaching Employment
The best way to approach your job search is to first determine the desired location and then the school type (see units on Teaching Locations and School Types) as the type of school you are interested in teaching for will greatly influence the timing of your job hunt.
As a rule, public schools and universities hire foreign teachers on 10-month contracts commencing sometime in late August, which means they start reviewing applications during the preceding March and April of that academic year (see China’s Educational System for more information). If you are interested in working for a government school or university, your application should reach them about a week or two following the commencement of the spring semester (sometime in February or March, and certainly no later than early April, depending on the lunar calendar). Although a few universities do post advertisements on EFL job websites, most do not, so you will have to be proactive in finding listings and contact information for universities that hire foreign English teachers. Please check our EFL Teacher Resources page for a listing of EFL websites that provide such information.
Although many private English language schools are organized across the same two-semester system that public schools adhere to, just as many do hire foreign English teachers all year round, especially those that have very successful adult and corporate training departments.
However, you need to carefully consider that although a private school can provide you with the flexibility to start teaching in China at just about any time during the year you care to, doing so can be extremely self-limiting in terms of future employment. That is, if your six-month or one-year contract anniversary date falls after or significantly before August or February, you will either have to continue to work at private language schools for as long as you are in China or face the extremely troublesome necessity of having to break your contract and pay a considerable breach penalty in order to later seek employment at a public school or university (assuming the private school even agrees to let you go on good terms and most will not). Consequently, if you are a qualified foreign teacher, i.e., you have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and two years of teaching experience, you should coordinate your commencement date at a private school so that it corresponds closely to the academic calendar followed by the public school system.
We are aware of at least two highly qualified foreign teachers with advanced degrees who had no choice but to pull a “midnight runner” (leave suddenly and unannounced) in order to break free from the grasp of unscrupulous private English schools that simply refused to let them leave even six weeks earlier in order to start employment at a university. However, if you are only interested in short-term teaching employment in China, or otherwise not competitive for a teaching position at a government school or university, then this caveat doesn’t apply to you.
By far, most people find English teaching jobs in China by reading and responding to advertisements posted on TEFL websites on the Internet. Please bear in mind, though, that acceptance of an advertisement should never be construed as an endorsement of the credibility of that employer by that website: Ads are accepted strictly because they generate income for the website owner and not necessarily because the employer is reputable (even when there is strong anecdotal evidence that, in fact, the employer is not reputable). Job advertisements are a very profitable business for China EFL websites, not a foreign teacher public service.
Although many foreigners do have rewarding experiences teaching English in China, there are more than a few teachers who have suffered horrendous ordeals. Due to the vast differences in culture, and no less so to the enormous language barrier, it is absolutely imperative you exercise extreme caution when choosing your first school in China. The reason for this is that a newcomer—who is still disoriented from his long trip with no Chinese language skills or knowledge of the local laws and customs—is entirely at the mercy of that school's integrity and legitimacy. In essence, one becomes either supported and protected or, conversely, desperately entrapped and menaced by whatever circumstances he or she just happens to encounter at that first position.
As a rule, foreign consulates in China cannot get directly involved in contract as well as other civil disputes. Aside from providing common citizen services such as renewing passports or providing official documents (such as those required for marriage), your consulate will not be able to intervene in employment disputes, despite what many foreigners who have never traveled before tend to think.
Keep in mind that if and when you do call your consulate in any city in China, you will not be initially speaking with a fellow native but, rather, with a Chinese clerk who has received training in fielding and answering the majority of questions callers typically have.
Another method for finding employment in China is to seek the services of a recruiter. Although a few people have reported favorable outcomes through recruitment agencies, the vast majority have reported horrific experiences including outright fraud and last minute changes in location, teaching assignments, and salaries (after arriving in China). Consequently, using a recruiter or recruitment agency is highly ill-advised unless you have it on excellent authority (from a personal friend or colleague) that the recruiter or agency in question is entirely trustworthy.
For starters, you need to appreciate that the school, not you, is the recruiter's client: You are just a commodity in this transaction. Second, there is no such thing as an “official” recruitment agency in China. There is both a business and recruitment license required for agencies to legally recruit foreign experts but there is absolutely no agency in China that can honestly tout itself—or any of the items being sold on its website—as “official," although in fact many do. The oldest recruitment agency in China, founded in 1954, is ChinaJob.com and it is the only one specifically recommended and linked to by the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA). For 30 years they were the only recruitment agency in China. Now there are hundreds upon hundreds of such agencies, many claiming to be “official” or “government approved.” Any China recruitment agency or EFL website that refers to itself as "official," e.g., Official EFL Website or "government-approved" is engaging in fraud, owned and run by unethical people, and should most definitely be avoided. Reputable people in the China EFL industry do not refer to themselves as official or government-approved.
Barring special "all-in-one" cultural exchange programs that offer certification training in addition to job placement (see sub-heading below), a reputable recruitment agency will never charge the teacher a fee at anytime. If an agency or recruiter asks you for money at any point in the process, you need to cease all communication with that recruiter immediately.
Legitimate agencies and individual recruiters clearly identify themselves as recruitment agencies upfront while non-reputable agencies and individuals will attempt to deceive prospective teachers by using official sounding or academic types of names that suggest they are educational facilities, "not-for-profit" organizations, or even government agencies, e.g., East China Research Academy, International Cultural Cooperative, and Harbin Institute for Foreign Studies, etc. (by the way, these are not real names but fictitious examples).
In addition, legitimate agencies respect and adhere to the advisory guidelines set forth by the SAFEA, which include a bachelor’s degree and two years of work experience (without shoving volumes of meaningless laws down your throat in an attempt at appearing "official"). If you find an agency that specifically claims to specialize in placing foreigners who do not meet these basic guidelines, that could suggest that you are dealing with an illegitimate agency and you might be headed for a lot of heartache. The reason for this is that recruiters know that the less qualified a teacher is, the fewer employment options he or she will have and, therefore, the teacher is less likely to complain or run when confronted with an abusive situation. Although provinces and municipalities are free to adopt their own set of rules regarding the hiring of foreign experts, most government officials do consider the possession of a bachelor’s degree and two years of work experience to be the de facto, if not de jure, set of minimum requirements. Schools may petition the local foreign expert bureau for special dispensation to hire foreign experts who do not meet the minimum requirements that have been officially adopted by the local or provincial government agencies.
Reputable agencies are simply acting as brokers, such that your actual contract will be with the school itself and not with the agency. However, non-reputable agencies will attempt to solicit foreigners on behalf of schools that are not licensed by the SAFEA to hire foreign experts by either: 1) attempting to convince the teacher that it is perfectly legal to enter China on a tourist or business visa with which to begin employment or; 2) by using a third-party’s license number with which to process the foreign expert work certificate and letter of invitation (also referred to as the "Official Invitation Notice" or "Visa Notification" as of summer 2009). Unless you have excellent reason to trust the source, it is unwise and potentially risky to enter China for the purpose of earning income on anything other than a Z-visa (see the next chapter The Z-visa Debate).
Finally, if you have used a recruitment agency to obtain a job, be absolutely certain to verify that the name of the hiring institution that is listed on the letter of invitation (visa notification) is the same school that you have been promised. Many agencies will even attempt to sign you up as an employee of the agency itself and will then sub-contract you out to the highest bidder each week or month: This is most definitely a situation you want to avoid at all costs.
Another rather interesting and creative ruse engaged in by several individual Western recruiters is to obtain a foreign expert recruiter’s license under the name of a privately owned “not-for-profit” foreign or cultural exchange "organization," i.e., an organization of one. Of all the questionable tactics engaged in by recruiters in China, this is probably the lowest and most deplorable because it is deliberately the most misleading and disarming. That is, the “not-for-profit organization" status is intended to create the impression that the single owner of the organization, i.e., the president, is recruiting teachers as a public service and is acting without bias in the best interests of the foreigner. In fact, these sole proprietors earn anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 yuan per teacher. Recruiters employing this mendacious ploy should be avoided like the plague because: 1) They are clearly being dishonest in how they represent themselves, and; 2) They are usually working for a very small group of schools (sometimes just one) and, therefore, will deliberately steer you away from far better opportunities in the same municipality.
You need to know that many (if not most) recruiters in China commonly use a “bait and switch” tactic of mass mailing advertisements to anonymous e-mail recipients—through several TEFL sites they have subscribed to—that describe very promising positions with unusually high salaries. Of course, once the recruiter is in possession of the recipient’s real name, e-mail address, and application materials, these positions never seem to be available (the teacher is informed that either the school just withdrew the position or that it’s already been filled). The applicant is then offered a much lower-paying and far less desirable position in exchange for the promise that he or she will be given priority the next time a better position comes along, but, of course, it never does. One of the most frequently cited offenders of this unethical tactic, as well as perpetrator of other egregious acts of exploiting foreign teachers with abusive employment arrangements and inadequate housing, was the Beijing Epoch recruitment agency owned and operated by a Leslie Dong (she apparently modified her business name in the summer of 2009). Unfortunately, she is not alone in her flagrant and infamous exploitation of foreign teachers and, therefore, it is safest to avoid any recruiter or agency that has attempted to contact you through unsolicited and anonymous bulk e-mailing, particularly because once the word is out and business falls off, the agency simply changes its name and e-mail address (and individual recruiters will simply adopt a new Western name) .
The strongest case for using recruitment agencies can probably be made for those teachers who are having enormous difficulties finding work on their own due to the fact they are not White native speakers or under the age of 60. For such teachers, using a recruiter makes sense because they are allowing the agency to engage in all the pre-screening leg work instead of wasting their time sending out one application after another only to have them discarded out of hand. For everyone else, especially for those who are highly qualified, using a recruiter is entirely unnecessary and should be avoided.
Finally, there are several "all-in-one" types of genuine and long-standing not-for-profit cultural exchange programs—most of which are based in the United States and often affiliated with universities—that provide screening of both candidates and schools, training (leading to TESL or TEFL certification), orientation, Chinese lessons, and guaranteed job placement for fees ranging anywhere from $1,000 to as much as $3,500 per person. For those who are capable of conducting their own due diligence (with the help of this Guide) or feel that TEFL certification would not provide them with any distinct hiring or vocational advantage, e.g., in the case of a career educator, these comprehensive orientation-training-placement programs will not be worth the considerable expense. However, and on the other hand, they may be ideal solutions for those who will definitely seek TEFL certification prior to applying for jobs and want to maximize their chances of working for reputable schools only. Unlike other recruiters and agencies, these types of programs are accountable to their teachers after they are placed. Three examples of such programs—that were simply gleaned off the Internet and are listed here for informational purposes only—are the China Colorado Council, Appalachians Abroad Teach in China (sponsored by Marshall University in West Virginia), and the U.S. Chinese Culture Center.
Unfortunately, the very best teaching jobs are rarely advertised because they are filled through word of mouth and by personal referrals from teachers already employed at and known to the school or university. In addition, competitive positions located in the three most developed cities in China (Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) almost always require a personal interview. The schools can insist upon this as a prerequisite to employment because these three cities house the largest number of foreign teachers—which is to say, the best teaching positions are typically available only to those who are already living and working in one of these cities and can appear for an interview on demand.
Please visit our page on China EFL Teacher Resources for a listing of websites that advertise TEFL positions.
Once you've found a few job advertisements you are interested in, you'll need to formally apply for the positions by sending e-mail correspondence. To maximize your chances of receiving a response, your application should contain all the attachments and suggested information discussed below.
All scanned digital copies should be in jpeg (jpg) or gif format only. Do not embed copies of your degrees and photos inside Word, Powerpoint or other types of documents or include links to online copies of them. Keep the image size the same as the original but be sure to reduce the file's resolution to no more than 100 pixels. This will reduce the size of your documents considerably so that it will take far less time for you to send them as well as for the employer to receive them. If you don't have a graphic editing program such as Photoshop, you can use anyone of several free resizing utilities available on the Internet. Your résumé should be submitted as a Microsoft Word document, version 2003 (or below) or, in the alternative, as a PDF file. If you don't have the full version of Adobe Acrobat, you can use a free conversion utility called PDFCreator. The advantage to converting your Word to a PDF file is that it will look the same regardless of which system fonts the recipient may or may not have installed. Related, limit your use of fonts to those included in a standard installation of Microsoft Word only (unless you are able to convert the entire document into a PDF file).
The following is a list of items you should absolutely include in your application with advice about how to approach the cover letter.
Schools advertising extremely competitive positions in highly desirable locations will probably receive well over 100 applications over the course of a single 30-day ad placed on a busy EFL job website.
If you want to be seriously considered for a highly competitive EFL position in China, the following is a list of what you should definitely not do. Each point, below, has been derived directly from actual teacher correspondence based on a recent pool of EFL job applications.
Once a school has expressed an interest in you, you absolutely and positively need to request the names and e-mail addresses of at least one current foreign teacher and, preferably, one former teacher as well. Keep in mind, however, that no school is going to give you the name and contact information of any teacher who left under unpleasant circumstances. However, it is an entirely reasonable (and necessary) request and if the school balks at all or delays considerably in supplying you with the name of at least one current teacher, you should be terribly concerned. My advice would then be to run, not walk, away from the offer as quickly as you can.
Before contacting the school's former or current teachers, prepare a list of questions or concerns that are particularly important to you or first consult with our summary checklist (included in the appendices). Be sure to specifically question everything and anything that could be a significant issue to you. Ask the teacher about the quality of the housing (especially the type of mattress that is provided and the adequacy of the air conditioning and heating), the school's responsiveness to reasonable requests for repairs, which floor your apartment will be located on, whether the apartment building has an elevator and, if so, whether the building has a backup generator and, finally, whether the school pays on time. Related, you should also ask about the proximity of the foreign teacher housing to not just the main branch but to the school's multiple branches, if that applies. Similarly, you will want to ask about how much traveling time is involved (between branches and from your apartment to each branch) and whether you will be reimbursed for these expenses. Perhaps no less important, you might want to ask the teacher how foreign teachers are regarded and treated at the school (i.e., as factory piece workers or valuable teachers).
When speaking with a teacher, especially a current one, bear in mind that he or she will necessarily have to be careful about how much and what is shared with you, a perfect stranger. So you will have to read between the lines. If the teacher admonishes "the DOS (director of studies) has a very strong personality" that probably means the DOS is extremely demanding and very difficult to get along with. In regard to whether the air conditioning is adequate or not, if the teacher replies "Well, I'm older and I don't like it too cool, so it's fine for me and I haven't heard anyone else complaining about it, not really," then your answer obviously is "it is entirely and absolutely inadequate."
Conversely, you should specifically question the reasons behind a very bad review, in the event the teacher is bold enough to offer you one. For example, if the teacher tells you that the FAO is a "jerk," you need to specifically ask why this is so and not just take it at face value. This teacher might tell you that the FAO took a whole week to replace the broken water cooler in his apartment and, so, from that point on, relations were sour. However, from my perspective, when you consider how usually overworked most FAOs are, the fact that he was able to attend to something as trivial as a broken water cooler in only a week's time suggests to me that the foreign teacher was highly valued. The point is, you really do need to critically evaluate everything you hear and read about, whether it is positive or negative, and then determine for yourself what you are and are not willing to live with and how you personally feel about the conditions that exist at that school.
Former and current foreign teachers who take the time to write a school review fall into one of three categories: Those who are extremely angry, particularly grateful, or have been instructed to do so by the school (usually in response to a bad review). When you carefully consider the context in which school reviews are written, rarely do they constitute a fair representation of what that school is like for the average foreign teacher.
Generally speaking, isolated instances of either glowing or extremely derogatory school reviews should be completely ignored because no attempt is ever made on the part of website administrators to confirm the veracity of the report. Most are so eager to accumulate content for their sites that they will publish anything, even reviews that are clearly meritless, libelous, and even vindictive.
When considering school reviews, you need to look for a particular pattern over time, assuming that more than one or two reviews have been submitted. You should only be dissuaded by bad school reviews if there are several over a period of time that essentially purport the same problems. Related, and if possible, you need to determine whether the complaint contains face validity. For example, if several teachers have written bad reviews indicating that the school routinely pays late and often cheats its employees out of overtime pay, then you should be concerned because: 1) there is a clear pattern of such behavior and; 2) it is reasonable for teachers to expect to be paid on time.
If, on the other hand, the bad review seems to be based on unreasonable or unrealistic expectations or even false information, e.g., "The other foreign teachers in my city told me that I am entitled by law to three months paid vacation every year," then the entire review needs to be disregarded.
Generally speaking, school blacklists and "white lists" written by anonymous website and forum members are far less reliable and valid for learning about current conditions at a school than direct communication with former and current teachers. For a more detailed discussion regarding the issue of blacklists and why we don't offer them on this site, see our forum topic China School, Recruiter, and EFL Website Blacklists.