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My Experience Teaching English in Shanghai

Updated on July 22, 2017
Typical school lunch
Typical school lunch

When I was growing up, I never wanted to be a teacher. My dream job was to be Indiana Jones: finding lost tombs or cities. Of course, things rarely pan out the way we’d hoped. Teaching English as a Second Language just… kind of… happened.

A friend and I had both recently graduated, and were ready for something new. She had found a company (that no longer exists and which turned out to be a huge scam that conned us out of €600 each) which set us up with an English teaching agency* in Shanghai. This agency is one of many which employ foreigners and sends them out to various schools around the city to teach. Some schools were lovely with great kids, and some schools, well… were not.

I still remember my very first class. My TEFL certificate was a two-day event- the cheapest I could find simply for the official document- and I was totally unprepared for that nerve-racking feeling of having 30 pairs of eyes watching and waiting for the foreigner to do something. When the teaching supervisor pushed me to the front of the classroom, and told me to “teach them”… I thought I was going to vomit. It was the longest forty minutes of my life.

In the beginning I wanted to be a great teacher. I naïvely thought I was doing something “special” and “unique”. The truth is English teachers in China are ten a penny. Most of them are not great teachers. Most of them are only there because they wanted a new adventure, to travel, or an easy job which earns them easy money and a work visa whilst pursuing other opportunities. I spent hours of my free time making great lesson plans and concocting new games, most of which went to waste as the kids either hardly understood me, found the games boring or too complex, or they were so noisy and hard to control that I’d run out of time to get through everything anyway.

In a typical week, we would be sent to two, sometimes even three, different schools per day (remember that Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world, so travelling between schools sometimes took up to an hour). In total we would see around 500 kids each week. I only remember the name of one of them and the faces of two more. The others are just a blur now. The ones I remember were an incredibly smart girl who named herself Cheese (seriously, that was her English name), and an autistic boy who was the best in the group, and a cute little girl who looked like a frog, had her front teeth missing and a croaky voice.

At least once per week, there would be an issue with our school timetables, so in order to grab a taxi and make it to class in the next school, we were told to leave the previous class 20 minutes early. As teachers got involved in various problems, situations or quit the company, they would be regularly changed, so the kids rarely bothered to learn our names, either. If the agency was not happy with our performance, they would simply not pay us properly, without any explanation. Test days were shocking. In order for the agency to keep their contracts with the schools, they had to make sure the kids had great test results. That meant we literally wrote the answers on the board for the kids to copy, or changed the results a bit. The whole thing was a farce. Overall, my first teaching job was pretty terrible. So my friend and I left China thinking we’d never return. We stayed with this agency for 18 months.

Exercise time
Exercise time

One year later, I returned to China to try again.

This time I was ready for it: I knew what NOT to do.

This time I went out alone and applied directly with a job on tefl.com. No scam company this time! The company that hired me was an after-school academy*. The test results were real; the training was real, and even better, no running around from school to school. I even had my own desk!

I stayed with this company for six months, mainly leaving because the hours were crazy. On weekends I would literally teach for 12 hours with quick ten minute breaks between classes (and an hour for lunch, of course). Here the lessons were a staggering 90 minutes each. Even adults struggle to stay alert for that long, never mind grade 4 children! I quickly became an expert in time-wasting games and activities that one of my favourite assistants would happily supply me with. The classrooms, however, were great and well-equipped with interactive whiteboards and other materials.

I was very sad to leave that particular company. I’d made some nice friends with whom I am still in touch even several years later. However, I was exhausted from the irregular hours, long shifts and was constantly getting sick from the dirty office which had rats living in the walls and the air-conditioner unit which was constantly blasting dusty air on us (they have since moved out of that building into a much better one).

Finally, I found a job at a “real” school*. This time, as well as my own desk in the office, I had my own classroom!! One that I could decorate how I wanted! The pay was also much better than my previous jobs. It was great. My colleagues were a fun, energetic, interesting bunch. The kids were for the most part, really nice, happy, and eager to learn. The commute was long: Almost a 90 minute journey each way. I didn’t mind the travelling too much, though, as for me it was a time to read, day-dream or people-watch (or nap!). I stayed in this school for three years until I finally understood that teaching is really not for me.

Overall, teaching in China is not seen as we see teaching in the West or many other countries. It is not well-respected within the so-called “expat community”. You are mostly seen as a “white monkey” at the bottom of the pile and for the Chinese teachers (who are VERY good), a chance to give them a break during the day. However, I do think that it was an awesome experience. Not all the foreign teachers were bad of course (and believe me, I saw some bad ones: constantly late, drunk, perverts, aggressive, or just plain oddballs), as a handful of which are professionally-trained certified teachers, or later go on to become so. For me, I got frustrated not being able to progress or advance: Once you work as a TEFL teacher, there’s not much of a professional ladder to climb unless you go back to train further (which is long and expensive), or are extremely lucky and get a job training or hiring fellow teachers.

When looking for TEFL jobs in China, you must be aware of the following things before you apply for jobs:

  • When the job ad says something like “only 20 teaching hours per week”, this DOES NOT mean you only work 20 hours per week. For the rest of the time, you will have to sit in the office and wait, plan lessons, check your e-mail, make small-talk with your colleagues, read, etc. Some places will NOT allow you to leave the office or go out during office time.
  • If the pay seems too good to be true: it probably is too good to be true! The general pay band is generally between 12,000-22,000 RMB per month in larger cities, or more if you are a fully-qualified subject teacher in an international school. Any more than that for an unqualified, inexperienced TEFL teacher is too good to be true!
  • If they tell you they cannot get you the correct working visa, and instead it’s “ok” to work on a tourist/student/business visa: RUN.
  • If they tell you not to worry if you are a non-native English speaker: This is not normally accepted.

If you find a job with all of the above, do NOT apply for it! I was also quite wary of jobs that offered a bonus upon completion of contract. I always felt as if it were the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick, and that there must be something wrong with the job if they feel the need to entice you with something at the end to make you stay. Here are some good sites that highlight the regular (and many) scams, fake jobs and a TEFL Blacklist such as:

https://chinascampatrol.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/329-china-foreign-teachers-arrested-for-using-fake-tefl-certificates-in-april-of-2017/

http://www.realscam.com/f51/fake-tefl-certificates-diplomas-get-269-china-foreign-teachers-arrested-deported-4820/

http://teflblacklist.blogspot.fr/search/label/China (Blacklisted means such schools may have employed foreigners illegally, not given the correct visa, not paid on time or properly, etc.).

China has recently also updated the visa requirements (as of early 2017), which is important to research as it is now a points based system.

*NB: I have decided not to include the names of my places of work.

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