Interested in teaching English Abroad? Kelly Sandor-Yang shares her experiences teaching English in a small city in China. Find out if teaching English in China is the right choice for you in this great interview.
How long have you been teaching English in China?
After I finished university in 2004, I came to China and taught for a year. I moved back to Canada after my contract was up and taught there for a few years, but returned in 2009 and have been teaching ever since. My total time here is just over 3 and a half years.
Please tell us about your job?
I work at a private oral English school in a small city, by Chinese standards. The students at the school range in age from 4 to about 15 (when they become too busy with other school lessons to attend) and are separated into different class levels according to their age and ability. Because this school is separate from the regular, state-run schools that the children attend during the weekdays, I work mainly evenings and weekends, but only about 25 to 30 hours a week in total. I get three week-long vacations per year – Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), National Day (October 1st) and one other week, usually during the summer.
Why did you choose to teach in a small town rather than a larger city?
There were several reasons for me ending up here in a smaller city. First, I grew up in a very small prairie town in Canada, and have never been totally comfortable in large cities. Second, when looking at jobs overseas back in 2004, this one stood out because the school is partly owned by a Canadian rather than having full Chinese administration. Finally, I returned to this school in 2009 because I was familiar with the school, the owners, and the city itself.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching in a smaller city?
Some of the advantages of living and working in a smaller city in China include the lower cost of living, greater immersion in Chinese culture, the (slightly!) lower population, and the visibility (pseudo-celebrity status) of being one of a small number of foreigners in the area. I also personally think that the Chinese people are more friendly and patient with us silly foreigners in smaller centers than they are in the big cities.
Some of the disadvantages are that there are fewer job options for foreigners, especially if you are looking for a change in location or occupation but don’t want to move to another city, a somewhat lower salary, smaller foreigner population and, along with this, fewer western luxuries, and the visibility of being one of a small number of foreigners (yes, this is both a blessing and a curse!).
How did you find your job?
I believe it was originally a job ad online somewhere (possibly Dave’s ESL Café), directly from the school itself.
How easy is it to find English teaching positions in China?
It’s very easy to find a teaching position in China. It can be more difficult to find a good teaching position in China. There is a huge demand for foreign teachers because English is required of all students and is one of the key areas of focus on the standardized exams here. Unfortunately, some schools are less reliable than others (for example, not providing the proper visa and residency permits, not paying salaries on time, or other issues).
Is it necessary to have teaching certificates or training to find employment?
China is less strict than other countries when it comes to requirements for foreign teachers, although I believe it is starting to improve. Most reputable places will require teachers to have some sort of ESL teacher-training and/or a bachelor’s degree.
What is China like?
China is wonderful, weird, fun, frustrating, interesting, and unpredictable! As much as it is progressing and becoming a world superpower, once a person travels outside of the major cities, there are many things that lag behind in development.
My quality of life is pretty good, the people are friendly, and there is so much to see. Because of China’s long cultural history, it seems as if every place one visits, from a big city to a small village, has some famous historical site or some ruins or has been the birthplace of something or other! I also love the food – trust me, it’s nothing like Chinese food in the west; it’s so much better!!
Can you recommend the best cities for teaching and quality of life?
This really depends on what a person is looking for. If you want a big, thriving city that is in China but has all the comforts of home, then Beijing, Shanghai or another of the tier 1 cities is where you should look. These places will offer higher salaries and there will be more foreigners, foreign restaurants, and supermarkets around, but the cost of living will also be higher.
On the other hand, if you are looking to truly immerse yourself in China and have an ‘authentic’ experience, a smaller, lower-tier city might be best. The cost of living will be lower, but you won’t have as many western luxuries or comforts. I personally love visiting Beijing now and then to stock up on foreign foods and buy pants that fit, but like living here in the smaller city.
How well do you speak Chinese now?
My Chinese is pretty dreadful, given how long I have lived here. I understand more than I can say, but my speech is pretty basic. Chinese is a difficult language to learn, because it is tonal and is so unrelated to English (unlike say, French), but many people have obviously done it. I’m just a very bad student!
If a person lived in a city like Beijing, he might be able to get away with only speaking English, but if you choose to live in a smaller city, you would be better off to at least try to learn some basic words, questions and phrases.
What is your cost of living?
My employers rent my house for me, so I don’t shoulder that cost. If I were to pay it, it would account for roughly 20-25% of my monthly salary. Food costs will vary, depending on whether a person eats at home all the time or eats out often, and which restaurants he dines at. A basic meal for two at a western restaurant can cost nearly 200 RMB ($31 US), while at a small streetside Chinese restaurant one might pay only about 30 RMB (less than $5 US). I don’t go out a lot, and the social scene is somewhat limited in this small city, so I can’t really comment on that aspect. I can say that there are a lot of free activities to enjoy – parks to wander, temples to see, tai chi and dancing in the squares, etc.
How much money can the average teacher expect to save?
I can easily save at least half of my salary each month. Although I’ll be the first to admit I don’t live a terribly exciting life, I don’t scrimp and save either (I take taxis when I want or need to, I eat out at least a few times per week, and if I see something I like in a shop, I can afford to buy it). However, if you are trying to save money to pay off debts in Canada or the US (or just to return there), it is important to note that because of the conversion rate, you won’t get rich. My salary allows me to live a very comfortable life here, but in dollars, it is quite low.
Are there many opportunities to earn income on the side?
I can only speak from my personal experience here. My teaching contract does not allow me to earn extra money from other sources of teaching, so I do not tutor nor do any other work on the side. Some teachers from other places in China that I have talked to make extra money by tutoring or conducting testing, and some have moved on to start their own schools or find jobs in other sectors.
Do you recommend China for other English teachers?
As far as teaching goes, China is much like anywhere else in the world, I think. There will always be some trying classes or students, but for the most part, the students I teach are very friendly and hard-working.
As a country, China can be very frustrating at times, so patience is a huge must for anyone thinking of coming. But there is plenty to learn and experience, so if you love a challenge and have an open mind, it can be very rewarding.
How long do you plan on living in China?
I met a wonderful Chinese man here and married him, so plan to make my home here!
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