With roughly 15,000 teachers leaving the UK each year to teach abroad, more and more UK teachers are leaving British shores to take up roles in the UAE and beyond for attractive salaries and a more relaxed workload, China is proving extremely popular to teaching ex-pats. But what should teachers expect when making the leap to the Far East powerhouse?
Below are just some of the things to expect when taking a teaching role in China, and how to negotiate your first few weeks there.
Where to work
Your experience in China will vary depending on what type of setting you work at. This can range from Chinese public schools (where salaries are lower with fewer resources) to private school where salaries will be much higher (and expectations to match). Other workplaces will include top British international schools, but these are harder to get in to - salaries are very competitive. Although the workload is generally less than in the UK, much of your role will be familiar. Failing this, you could work for private training providers where you will teach adults, small groups or on a 1-2-1 basis. For Chinese public and private roles, recruitment agencies are best, with more established international teaching websites the better route for British International schools.
Language and culture
No matter how much you prepare, the change in culture will come as a shock. Difficult at first to acclimatise to, the simplest way to acclimate is of course being to learn the language. This will be difficult to do before arriving, but a tutor can easily be found through expat websites such as The Beijinger. You can survive without the language (and will probably need to on first arrival), but make sure you have a few essentials with you: a wordless travel book (which provides pictures of everything you’ll need so you just need to point to what you need), a translation app on your phone and a written copy of your home address in Chinese characters are all completely essential.
Chinese workplace culture can be very different to what you may have experienced in the UK. In the UK, open discussions on any issues are normal, as can be openly challenging middle and senior leaders in the right environment. In China, the opposite is true: it's seen as very rude to contradict a superior. Hierarchy, saving face and commanding respect are everything in the Chinese workplace and anything approaching a challenge to this must be done behind closed doors.
In line with this policy of respect in the workplace, it is very much frowned upon to discuss politics, religion or money with co-workers. Engaging with colleagues is fine, but please save them the embarrassment of speaking about politics; many of your colleagues may have been raised with communism as the one and only system and so engaging in discussion about anything else can actually land them in hot water - similar with religion.
Other cultural differences include an inability to directly say ‘no’. Anything other than a direct ‘yes’, should be further investigated!
A Star Is Born
Depending on appearance (i.e. blonde hair, bald or above average height) or where you decide to work in China, you may become the star attraction in your neighbourhood. Many more rural areas of China have not had the influx of Westerners that major hubs such as Beijing and Shanghai have, and can view Westerners as a curiosity. Though charming and amusing at times, it can become tiresome being photographed or being stared at on public transport or when you go out for a bite to eat. This can, however, be enormously positive as it allows you to develop good relationships within your neighbourhood and this will help you to settle in and gain local knowledge.
With relatively cheap internal travel (you’ll pay no more than £60 for 2nd class return train travel), and plenty of holiday time, travelling in China is very accessible and extremely fulfilling. Ranging from -10 degrees C in the winter and up to 40 degrees C in the summer, China experiences a range of climates which means that although there are plenty of international travel opportunities, you won’t need to take them.
We visited an ancient city called Ping Yao - the entire thing is ran on coal: the wifi went down and we saw a guy running past the room with a bucket of coal. He came back out 5 mins later and the wifi was back on (literally coal powered electricity and wifi). We paid £4 per night for a hotel 'room': the bed frame was made of bricks and had pipes for heating built in under the mattress. Any of that lot or the travelling (we visited Xi'an, Shanghai and most of the big attractions).
With tropical weather in the likes of Sanya to the very south, winter sports more prominent due to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and everything in between, China certainly has the climate for any holiday as well as arguably the richest and most diverse culture on Earth. From the Great Wall, to the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an to the ancient city of Ping Yao, China really does have something for everyone.
Whether working in China for the attractive salaries or simply to enjoy the rich heritage and culture, China can be a fantastic place to work and with more and more teachers choosing to teach abroad, it will surely only become more popular. Check out more great teaching locations around the globe.
About the author
Jonny Kay is Head of English and maths at Tyne Coast College. He has previously worked as an English teacher and Head of Department in KS3/4 and tweets @jonnykayteacher . He also regularly blogs at www.thereflectiveteacher.co.uk.