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Freelance English Teaching in China


Written by MKL contributor Alex Schofield

This article is designed to help foreign teachers in China when working freelance, i.e., doing extra English teaching in addition to their main employment.

Freelance work can be lucrative as the hourly pay is generally much higher than what you will typically receive working in a school. It discusses such aspects as your target market, sales (how to attract students), what to charge and how to get the best possible price. It is based on the market in first tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. I have lived in Shenzhen since November 2009 and have not lived anywhere else in China, so my market knowledge is based on what is available there. It does not go into detail on the mechanics of teaching English in a one-on-one or small group setting, nor does it discuss the debate regarding whether or not it is better to work freelance exclusively or in addition to a regular school contract. For an excellent summary of the terms and issues, I recommend the following two articles from the TEFL Wiki: Freelance Teacher and School v Freelance.

Why Work freelance?

The main reason FT’s work freelance in China is to make extra money, pure and simple. The salaries afforded to us working for a school in China very rarely enables us to save very much money or provide us with a considerable amount of discretionary income. If you want to save money either to provide security, make large purchases or to travel, then working freelance will enable you to do this if you work hard and work smart.

There is a second reason which is probably the main reason I personally work in this way. The school in China is a very political and bureaucratic place, it is very rare to find a teacher in China who feels his/her work valued by their employers . You will often feel very frustrated working for a school for the reasons outlined in various chapters in the MKL guide, which provides a much more thorough discussion of this than I can here. When you work privately, you can often build a much better and more personable relationship with your students, as they usually value what you are doing and the skills you are giving them. It is a much purer relationship, If you provide a quality service, they will be happy and pay you accordingly, and that’s it. If you aren’t comfortable with the student, you can leave and vice versa.

Section One: Ways of working Freelance

Training Centres AKA Language Schools

As discussed in the MKL guide, private language schools are booming across China. They hire all year round and are relatively easy to secure employment at. I personally do not recommend working for them as I believe they are the only winner (at least financially) in the student-language centre-teacher relationship. They do not tend to be great payers, In Shenzhen it is quite rare to find one that will pay more than 200RMB an hour and 150RMB is more the norm. They charge their students around 100RMB per student per hour with around 6-8 students per class. Another thing to remember is that they are businesses first and schools second, and their monetary interests trump all other considerations. There are so many cowboy outfits that you need to be extra vigilant when choosing a language school as reports of unscrupulous owners doing a runner one night with all the money are not uncommon, and they can be tardy when paying salaries. The other reason I personally avoid them is because when they hold their classes, i.e., weekday evenings and weekends, is the peak time for you to earn through other, more lucrative sources.

Private Individuals: Teaching Executives

If you have an aptitude for teaching Business English, then this may be the avenue you wish to go down. They can be quite demanding but often make excellent motivated students, especially if they are either paying for the class themselves or have something to gain by learning English, i.e., a promotion or an overseas placement. Sometimes they just want someone to talk to and blow off steam with during or after a hard day at work. The problem is they are often very busy and will often cancel the class due to work commitments, tiredness etc. You will usually teach them at their place of work and you can charge to reflect this. In a first tier city do not consider charging less than 250RMB an hour for such a class. If going to their office, be sure to wear professional attire, i.e., a collared shirt, trousers and shoes. Turning up in a T shirt and pair of shorts to a company where everyone is wearing business suits will not look very good.

Private Individuals: Teaching Children

Love it or hate it, I personally really like teaching children. If your main job is at a kindergarten or a school then customers should be quite easy to find, as if you are good at your job then their parents may be interested in extra classes. Can either be one-on-one or in a group. One-to-one classes usually start at the 200RMB per hour mark, but I usually try for 250RMB. You can give a slight discount if they want multiple hours per week or are willing to have a 2hour class, meaning I don’t have to travel to their home twice. Teaching one-to-one is not always easy, but you can build a fantastic relationship with the student and develop a real bond. You are free to devise your own curriculum, use a book or not as you see fit, and develop the material to the needs of the individual. It can be very rewarding as you see your student grow and get better week by week.

Teaching children in small groups is where the money is. What often happens is a few parents get together and correctly figure out that hiring a teacher themselves is cheaper than enrolling them all at a training centre. I charge 80RMB per child (You can try to get up to about 100RMB) per hour with a 250RMB minimum. As you can see getting 300-400RMB an hour in this way is not too difficult. Also, generating new business by doing this is quite easy. The kids tell their friends, the parents tell other parents, and soon you are inundated. There is nothing more powerful than word of mouth. If a parent is interested, you can simply invite them and their child to one of your current classes as a demonstration. The best place to hold these classes is simply in one of the child’s homes which has a large dining table, and get a portable white board. Teaching from your own home can be risky. Financially, in my opinion this is the best and fastest way you can make some good money freelancing.

Section Two: Things you can do to aid yourself

Business Cards

Essential. They are cheap to have made at between 20-50RMB per 100 cards. They should have one side in English and the other in Chinese, and include obvious information such as your name, job, telephone number and e-mail address. Always carry some in your wallet.

Learn Chinese

Obviously not all of your customers will speak English. To learn Chinese, in my opinion you cannot beat investing in a private tutor. Ask other foreigners in your city for recommendations, and check online advertisements. You should get references from current and former students. I pay my teacher 120RMB for a 90minute private class, obviously this varies from city to city and also on whether or not they come to visit you at your home/workplace or they have their own classroom. In the 6months I have been studying with my teacher my Chinese level has improved considerably. The classes have been worth every penny not just in my work but with reducing the stress in my day to day life.

Look the part and have the right mentality

You should take pride in your work and be professional. You should try and be neat in appearance. Realize that you are providing a quality and valuable service and price it as such. Take it seriously, It is a business and treat it as such.

Get the right equipment

Get a good computer and a quality printer, these are invaluable. There are numerous brilliant websites to get quality ESL teaching materials. If you teach children, it is also good to have stationary such as glue-sticks, coloured pencils, felt-tip pens, scissors etc to make arts and crafts in lessons. Turning up ill-prepared is the worst mistake you can make. If you have an array of useful stationary so you can do a variety of activities in class it looks very good and parents (IE your customers) will notice and appreciate it. If you teach young kids, some song videos on CD are often useful, these are easily downloaded. For one-to-one classes taking your laptop can be useful if their home has Wi-Fi as there are numerous sites to play online games and do activities. Again for kids, a laminating machine to make your flashcards can be useful. You can buy a decent one for around 300RMB.

Section Three: Sales and Marketing

Finding Students

There are numerous ways of doing this, and it’s always good to be creative. The easiest way is obviously to use your existing students if you work at a Public School, University or Kindergarten. They couldn’t care less if you moonlight, as they do not lose anything from it. This is another reason why in my opinion you shouldn’t work for a language centre in China. They will not tolerate you trying to steal their students and you will already be working the hours that your client base is available, due to the language Centre’s workweek. Just let parents, other teachers etc know you are looking for extra classes and you should pick some up. Often they will enquire themselves.

If you have a Chinese Partner then they can be a significant help. See the MKL guide’s article on “Advantages of having a Chinese wife”. They can look on Chinese websites, join parents QQ forums (My girlfriend has had a lot of success doing this), and network better than you. I pay my girlfriend a commission for every student she finds me. If you live off campus then put posters around your block.

You can make your own website, but to be honest I wouldn’t know the first thing about doing this! Use expat websites like in Shenzhen we have and sometimes people advertise on there. You can go to places like bookstores where they sell English language material and there will be people there potentially interested in private classes. These are all good ways, but none of them beat recommendations from your existing students and their parents.

What I don’t advise doing is using agents or recruiters, I am still yet to find one person in China who has had a positive experience with them, and my own experiences with them are horrendous. They take a ridiculous commission too.

Getting the best price and Negotiating well

This is more of an art than a science. But there are a few things that are very important:

  • Do not be afraid to charge at the top end of the market range
  • The price you start with is most likely the price you will finish with when the relationship with the student(s) ends, it is very difficult to raise it.
  • Justifying your price is about showing the value of what you are doing.
  • You cannot get what you want over the telephone, it is much easier when you are in front of them, showing what you are going to do and how you will do it as it adds value.
  • People buy from people, price is a lower consideration than what most people think

A bit of backstory, I worked in the recruitment and headhunting business for nearly two years before I came to China. Most of what I am sharing with you now is from the training I received whilst working in that field. It has served me very well when negotiating prices with students in China. This is how I do it.

Whenever my girlfriend or I receive an enquiry, either by telephone or face to face, the goal is simply to arrange a meeting where we can demonstrate value to them. Try to avoid discussing particulars, especially price. So far you have not showed them anything to justify your top price so they may just say you are too expensive.

Go and meet the student(s). I take my girlfriend with me for two reasons: First as a translator and second to show that I have a stable life in China and am not a transient worker or backpacker. She works in sales for a foreign trading company so she knows how to sell. When you get there, test the student's level by taking some age appropriate books and some short activities. Talk with them generically. Then you need to educate them about what you are going to do, you can do this by creating a bespoke (custom made) solution for their needs such as a progress plan, and maybe show them the book you are going to use. You can also take bring along some references from other satisfied customers.

Once you have done this and they want to hire you, the price will not nearly be as much of a consideration. When you quote them top dollar, they will have far fewer objections as they will have seen your value. I remember a few years ago in England, I went to the Bang & Olufson shop, a Scandanavian brand high end stereo store with prices to match. I baulked at the price, but as soon as the salesman put a CD in it from my beloved Radiohead and I heard the quality of the sound my card was out of my wallet in a flash. People don’t buy on price, they buy from people and on quality and value. Why do car showrooms encourage potential buyers to take their cars out for test drives? Because when you have driven the car, you want it! That’s why we do demonstration classes. The people earning the most money freelancing in China are not the best qualified or the best teachers, they are the best salesmen with good business brains.

If you have any questions or comments about the article, Alex Schofield can be contacted directly at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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