100,000+  jobs in China
Teaching English in China: debunking the myths
Author: EnglishTeacher    2021-11-15


Do a Google search on “Teaching English in China” and you will find more than 54 million results listing websites mainly of Chinese job recruiters, TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification schools, English forums such as foreign language and “cultural exchange programs,” that is, glorified recruitment agencies, all of which can gain a lot by convincing Westerners that moving to China to teach spoken English is an opportunity and adventure of a lifetime. While it is generally true that an English as a Foreign Language teacher position can be a good way to subsidize travel expenses to exotic locations around the world, it is completely untrue for someone to suggest that doing so makes sense as a new career. and permanent mid-career. 

This article will debunk some of the more common myths you will read about teaching English in China and argue that doing so should only be considered by a very limited number of people who meet the criteria outlined below. It is written by an American psychoanalyst who has worked in China since 2003 as a mental health consultant and professor of psychology.


Myth # 1: All Chinese desperately want to learn English and will use it in their daily lives.

China’s educational system was completely reformed in 1979 to realize the goals of the 1978 Chinese Communist Party reform movement, adopted at the Third Plenum of the XI Central Committee, in what is commonly known as the Four Modernizations. These four modernizations were made in the fields of 1) agriculture, 2) industry, 3) technology, and 4) defense and were specifically intended to make China a self-sufficient economic great power in the early 21st century.

Nowhere in these four broad fields will you find English as a foreign language or any of the humanities for that matter. The truth is that English as a foreign language has a very low status as an academic discipline in China. Basically, it is assigned as a required course of study for first-year students who entered and scored too low on the national college admissions test (Gao Kao) to receive the requested specialization in a more lucrative field.

Unless students have definite plans, as well as considerable funding, to study abroad one day, wish to work for an international company, or intend to marry a foreigner, they will never use a word of English for the rest of their lives. In fact, in a land of 1.4 billion people, Chinese, not English, is the most widely spoken language in the world today. Many of us who have lived and worked in China for years have realized that what the Chinese really want is for the rest of the world to learn Chinese, and that wish could one day come true as the Middle Kingdom continues its rampant. emerge as a world economic power.

Foreign English teachers are hired as competitively as they are to meet a highly resented and hard-disputed national requirement promulgated by the Ministry of Education that requires exposure to a native speaker for all foreign language students. Aside from public schools and universities, the proliferation of private language schools, where the most abuse and exploitation of foreigners occurs, has created an insatiable demand for white faces in the classroom to attract new students and demand much higher tuition rates.

What you need to keep in mind is that because the teaching and learning of English in China is devalued by China’s academic leaders and administrators, the role of the foreign English teacher is de-professionalized: it is limited to facilitating speaking and listening. Whether a foreign professor has a Ph.D. in linguistics with a specialty in second language acquisition methodology or is a recent college graduate with little or no relevant work experience, in the vast majority of cases, each will be assigned to teach precisely the same classes.

Myth # 2: Teaching English in China is fun, easy, and personally rewarding.

The reality is that teaching English in China is an extremely exhausting and challenging job and, for the most part, it is a thankless job. While students who believe that they will one day use English will have already acquired reasonable speaking and listening skills, most of your students will not be able to understand it at all unless you speak very slowly and use simple vocabulary. Unfortunately, this is not only true for your students, but it will also be the case when you are trying to communicate with your colleagues, administrators, and just about anyone else you come in contact with in China, unless of course that other person is also foreign. .

It is highly unlikely that anyone other than a career EFL / ESL teacher will find the job personally or professionally rewarding, nor will anyone other than an educator with a master’s degree and state teaching certification be able to make a real living.

Myth # 3: Every native speaker can and should teach English in China

There are four groups of Westerners for whom teaching English in China may make sense: 1) recent college graduates who wish to study Chinese or gain travel experience before returning home to resume their real careers; 2) active older people in very good health looking for a short-term adventure (four to six months); 3) retired people looking to stretch their western pensions in an Asian country and, as mentioned above; 4) Professional teachers of English as a foreign language who will work as directors of schools and programs, or in locations only available to educators with full credentials and licenses.

For anyone else, especially middle-aged people without considerable means, moving to China to teach English is likely to make you an economic prisoner of the Asian system of English as a foreign language – you will be stuck spending the rest of your life teaching. English as a foreign language with no savings, moving from one position to another, perhaps from one country to another, hoping to find greener pastures and forever cursing the day he decided to teach English in China.


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