Teaching English in Shanghai

by ShanghaiTEFLer5 min read2nd Nov 201269 comments


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If your English is good enough to follow discussions on this site you can get a job teaching English in Shanghai. If you can participate meaningfully you are frankly overqualified. I am currently saving about 2,000 dollars a month working approximately 9-5 every day.

The minimum legal requirements to teach are that you be over 23 years of age, have a (relevant) degree and two years of relevant work experience as well as a TEFL qualification that took 120 hours to complete. In theory you should also be from a country where English is a native language to teach but this requirement is often honoured in the breach. In practice you must be over 23 and know someone who can fake up a degree certificate in Photoshop, and be willing to write yourself a fitting resume and sign a form stating that all the documents you are submitting are true. Some companies will do all of the faking and lying for you, some will at least want you to give them the appropriate fake documents so there’s some farcical plausible deniability.

If you are not on a work visa doing work of any kind for pay is illegal. This rule is ignored all the time, including by large Western multinational companies with legal departments because the rules change depending on who’s interpreting them and which website you’re looking at. But people get Business visas to come over here and do internships regularly and if you are from a First World country the worst that will happen to you for getting caught working on a tourist or student visa is a large fine (5500 yuan). If you overstay your visa by more than about three days you will be deported. This is one of the few things the government care about when it comes to foreigners. Drugs, gambling, prostitution, as long as there are no nationals involved it needs to get quite big for them to care. But you can get unlucky. It's rare but it happens.

Demand for English teachers in Shanghai is insatiable. If you are being paid by the hour the minimum acceptable rate for someone with no experience, who can’t spell, and can’t teach is 150 RMB per hour. Never accept less than this for any job. The local public primary schools are legally barred from hiring foreigners so they go through companies who hire them instead. You will not really be teaching at most of these companies, more providing a prop; you, the foreign teacher. There isn’t that much you can teach in 35 minutes a week when half of it should be games or the children will dislike you, meaning the parents will dislike you, meaning the school will complain about you to the company. But you can make English fun, and given sufficient planning and practice you can teach something even in such small classes. If you just want a job for a visa there are companies who will provide one for teaching one day a week. You can make 7,000 RMB a month easily doing this four days a week. I used to make 10,000 when I was doing a similar schedule. This is in a city where you can eat well for 50 RMB a day, very well, have a maid come to your apartment three times a week for less than 200 and you can get a nice apartment for 3,000 a month. Ten RMB is worth approximately 1 pound sterling, so at a guess 1.6 dollars. My single greatest living expense is going out. There are "dive bars" with relatively low prices but most places that cater to foreigners make you pay for it. One company that is of average incompetence (very) and unusual honesty (except during negotiations about hours, pay per hour and where they have available schools) is Corneil. They will often screw up the recording of your hours but rarely by a significant amount and will give it to you if it's pointed out to them. It's not malice, they're just incompetent. So is everyone else.

To illustrate how low the standards are here I have met someone who was teaching at a high school who was moved to another at the school’s request because he was swearing in class, smoking in school and sharing with the students. They also suspected he was sleeping with one of his students. After they moved him the school requested him back because he was very popular. He also can’t spell. He has been teaching for seven years.

Getting work at the weekend is very, very easy. Again, never accept less than 150 an hour. Some people think that's low.There are many, many companies serving this market and all of them are perfectly willing to pay people who do not and can not legally work for them. In theory most of them have standards and demand lesson planning, something resembling professionalism and turning up to work on time. In practice if you arrive on time all the time and ask the co-teacher what pages to teach for the next 45 minutes you will be fine. Then there’s a break and you play a game for the remainder of the class. If you are working legally for one of these companies they will usually try to get you to work three evenings a week as well. I wouldn’t but if you want to you can. If you’re willing to work in the evenings you can just post an ad on one of the local expat magazine websites and you will be able to do private lessons. It’s easier to go through an agency that charges introduction fees at first but after you’ve been here a while you can just do it all yourself.

Teaching business or other professional English can be much more lucrative but the standards are higher.

If you actually have a relevant degree and two years of teaching experience you can probably get a job at an international school. They pay better, have higher minimum standards and as far as I can tell from talking to friends who teach at them they are all quite political places. Being a good or very good teacher will not protect you from politics but being reasonably good at politics will save you from anything but being an abombinably bad teacher. Most of the international schools start hiring for the next school year about now but just before the beginning of the school year is also reasonably good because if they need somebody they need them now. It is possible to go transition from teaching English as a foreign language or teaching a subject you know through English in a Chinese school to working in an international school but it takes a while. You must actually become a reasonable teacher first. If you want to do it for the long term it’s a good idea to get a teaching degree at some point. Once you teach in one international school you can travel almost anywhere and teach in others. It has much to recommend it.

Many of the business people here have a very dismissive attitude to teachers, whether TEFLers or international school teachers. If it bugs you don’t hang out with people like that.

Most single foreigners who have been here a significant length of time end up in Jing’an or the Former French Concession. You pay a premium for the central location but the cultural and other amenities make it well worth it. People with families are more common near Hongqiao Road in the Minhang area but that’s not relevant to you unless you’re homeschooling because even the “international” schools like Shanghai United International School that accept Chinese children cost very large sums of money. Shanghai American School’s yearly tuition is comparable to Harvard’s.

The dating situation here is incredibly easy for men and  pretty terrible for women, at least for expats. If I was a single woman I wouldn’t move over here unless I was very attractive, very outgoing or both. Even TEFL teachers here can easily be in the 90th percentile of income working five days a week. International school teachers get paid better. This, together, with the fact there are lots of women with a thing for either English speaking guys or white or black guys makes it really, really easy to meet women here. If you want a love life here as a woman it will really help to initiate. Also, if you move over with a boyfriend or husband he will get hit on all the time, including by people who know that he’s not single. There are a lot of very, very mercenary girls here who will use you for your bank balance but they’re not really that hard to avoid if you have some sense. As a teacher the real gold diggers will not care about you at all.

You will not learn much Chinese here unless you make a serious effort to do so. I have met expats who have been here eight years who know five words of Chinese. Mine is better than average by virtue of having completed the Pimsleur Mandarin series. This does not mean my Mandarin is good, it means everyone else's is crap.If you want to learn Mandarin every single other city in China is better, Beijing included.

If you have questions ask. If you can think of suitable tags or links to be added feel free to PM me.


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