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How Hard Do Foreign English Teachers in China Actually Work?


Exhausted Foreign Teacher

While foreign teachers employed by Chinese colleges and universities do work the fewest number of hours, the average number of base contract hours was reported as over 17.

A reader recently sent me a link to an article titled Foreigners Are Teaching Machines,” in which the author laments about not only how he is teaching 20 classes per week in China, but as many a five in just one day. Anyone who has ever taught English in China knows how tiring even four classes in one day can be and 20 classes a week is an awful lot of work when it comes to teaching English as a foreign language.

This teacher’s predicament raises several interesting questions regarding foreign teacher employment in China: On the average, how many hours do foreign English teachers in China work; does workload vary by school type or the teacher’s level of education and, finally; do teachers who work more hours have more money to show for it? The answers to these questions were mined from our ongoing survey study of foreign teachers in China that has been running for more than a year and has received 445 responses to date.

Base Contract Hours Worked Per Week

The average number of base contract hours reported by our study’s respondents was 21.74, SD = 9.12 hours, and the average number of additional hours devoted to preparation and grading papers and exams was 10.13, SD = 9 hours. ((For those unfamiliar with statistics, one standard deviation (SD) ± equals approximately 68 percent of the sample or population)) Table 1, below, shows the cut-off points in hours per quartile. (Note: For the purpose of this article, respondents who omitted salary information (N = 1) or reported working simultaneously for more than one school without the benefit of a contract or foreign residency permit (N = 20) were omitted from the analyzes, so the total number of respondents being reported on is 424.)

Table 1: Base Contract Hours by Quartile Cut-Off Points
Frequency Percent
15 or fewer hours 100 23.6
16 to 19 hours 100 23.6
20 to 24 hours 104 24.5
25 or more hours 120 28.3
Total 424 100.00

As you can see, just over 47 percent of our respondents work anywhere from 16 to 24 hours per week, not including prep time, while just under 24 percent work fewer than 16 hours per week, with the remaining 29.1 percent having reported base contract hours at 25 or more. Foreign teachers in China who are under contract for 20 hours per week of work (which we defined as the total of face-to-face teaching hours plus any other work commitment, e.g., office hours, English corners, etc., but not including prep time) are just at the 50th percentile cut-off point.

Base Contract Hours per School Type

Foreign teachers working the longest number of hours per work are employed by private schools and those teaching the least number of hours per week are employed by universities, and this finding was both expected and highly significant (χ2(4) = 89.76, p < .001). Table 2, below, summaries the number of base contract hours worked by school type.

Table 2: Base Contract Hours by School Type
School Type
Private School
Primary School
Junior or
Middle School
College or University
≤ 15 25 8 0 68 4 100
16 to 19 8 4 0 88 0 100
20 to 24 40 16 4 40 4 104
25 or more 64 12 20 20 4 120
Total 132 40 24 216 12 424

Base Contract Hours, Education Level, and Base Salary

Just under 51 percent of our respondents reported having a three or four-year bachelor's degree (N = 216), 34 percent reported having an advanced degree (N = 144), and the remaining 15 percent (N = 64) reported teaching with either a high school diploma or some form of post-secondary education, i.e., a vocational diploma or two-year degree.

There was no significant difference between education level and base contract hours F(2, 421) = .138, p = .87, but there were highly significant differences between school type and base salary, F(4, 419) = 6.11, p < .001, and between education level and base salary, F(2, 409) = 8.41, p < .01. The difference between education level and base salary is accounted for almost entirely by the fact that those with advanced degrees (master's and doctoral) are more likely to work at international schools and private joint-venture junior and senior middle schools, which were, by far, the highest paying school types in China as reported by our survey's respondents. Figure 1, below, illustrates mean salaries by school type.


Without having access to genuine population parameters regarding foreign teachers in China (such that they don't exist), it is impossible to know if our sample of 424 respondents is in fact representative of the entire foreign teacher population in China.

One well-known bias with all online surveys, such as our China Foreign Teachers' Satisfaction Survey, is that they tend to attract respondents who are better educated than the general population at-large.

Based strictly on anecdotal evidence, it is unlikely that 85 percent of all foreign teachers in China are in possession of bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degrees, although, it is also possible that this frequency distribution is a reflection of the fact that foreign teacher demographics in China are changing, especially in the aftermath of the economic meltdown in the West.

Nevertheless—and despite the question of external validity, i.e., generalizability—there is no obvious reason to suspect that there would be a significant difference in base contract work hours strictly on the basis of education level, and that was confirmed by the results of the Wilcoxon signed-rank test reported above. Consequently, I suspect that the base contract hours being reported by our respondents are representative of the foreign teacher population at-large in China.

While foreign teachers employed by Chinese colleges and universities do work the fewest number of hours, the average number of base contract hours was reported as 17.33, SD = 5.2, suggesting that the days of receiving university contracts requiring only 12 to 14 class periods per week of work are rapidly coming to an end. Related, teachers working at private English language schools reported working an average of 26.91 hours per week, SD = 9.93, which is also in excess of what used to commonly be the 16- to 22-hour workweek required by the majority of private English language schools in China.

If the relatively high percentage of degreed teachers among our respondents is in fact representative of a true demographic change occurring among foreign teachers in China, it would appear that this change is having an adverse effect on foreign teacher workload: Namely, as schools continue to receive an increasing percentage of applications from more qualified candidates, such that teaching employment in China is apparently becoming more competitive, the employers feel more at liberty to extract a greater number of hours than they had even three years ago. This new Chinese employer mindset is succinctly summarized by the following comment from one of our survey's respondents:

As more foreigners are coming to China, and China experiences greater prosperity, it seems that we are becoming less and less valued. Furthermore, our school continues to tighten its controls on its foreign teachers, segregating us into dormitories and restricting our freedom. We may leave in another year or two and go to another country.

Are foreigners in China "teaching machines" as suggested by the aforementioned article? If our survey's respondents are any indication, it appears that the answer is a resounding yes.

If you haven't already done so, and you are either a former or current foreign teacher in China, we encourage you to take our China Foreign Teacher Satisfaction Survey. It will only take about 20 minutes of your time to complete and your responses will go a long way in helping us to quantify and understand the conditions faced by foreign teachers in China today.


# RE: How Hard Do Foreign English Teachers in China Actually Work?Josh 2010-02-19 06:09
One thing that I think would be interesting to compare this information to would be the average rate of pay of foreigners and how it relates to historical trends for foreign salaries. When I was working in a public university in a second or third tier city, I was making 4000 a month, not including benefits for 16-20 hours per week (but we never went more than 16). In the same city, I briefly had a job for 6000 a month for 30 teaching hours where 3 class hours allowed for 1 prep hour, resulting in a total of about 22+ hours during non-peak periods (after which everything changed.) As for the restrictions to freedom, I’ve also experienced this. My former university insisted that for my safety, the front door to the dormitory I was given to live in had to be locked after 11:00 PM and only gave me a key after I pressured one of the student workers into giving me one. My requests to the foreign affairs office went ignored.

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