It was mid-summer, when tiny, white butterflies flutter around blossoming carnations, in soft pinks or delicate cream shades. The sun plunges late in the day and every soul prefers to be outdoors rather than watching the world through smudged glass. It’s the season that induces drowsiness, the lure of drifting off. Yet, this time I was wide awake.

It was a standard lunch hour with my colleagues and they were discussing the teachers who taught their children. We usually sat in the fresh air, by a fountain implanted near a set of office towers. With the noonday sun blazing upon our heads, what kept me alert was the vitriol. How they described their children’s educators as lazy, incompetent and useless. That level of hate surprised me, made me wonder how they could form such an opinion and why teachers should deserve this tide of red.

If that wasn’t enough, a friend of mine who taught high school once described the majority of teachers as that awful label – ‘square’. In my ignorance, I personally backed that statement up when I was set up on a blind date with a teacher.

This was no ordinary teacher, he was part of a dynasty of teachers. His father is a principal, his twin brother a teacher and he, too, was in charge of shaping young minds.

Lord – he hurt my head. On the phone he described himself as tall, would be wearing a leather jacket. Sure enough, a tall, dark, hot stranger walked in wearing a beaten leather jacket. My loins thumped wildly until I realized that wasn’t him. Instead, what walked in was a science experiment gone wrong, a lumbering man in a Roots varsity jacket that may have been happening in some outdated collegiate atmosphere, and well, his hot factor? I recall him being the secret love child of Chris Farley and Jay Leno.

Guy on the right!

During a tortuous hour over coffee, he effectively destroyed any inkling of me becoming a teacher’s wife by announcing quite proudly that he didn’t understand music or liked any of it.

I was baffled – not any? All music? Every single piece of music ever recorded? I use to dabble as a music reviewer, played at being a radio DJ for a time, so this kind of declaration was the stake through his chances. Through my heart. That’s when I dialed my best friend in the lavatory and begged her to save me. He asked about my dinner plans, I told him I had something to get to, yet left out I just made them five minutes ago as I teetered on the edge of grimy toilet seat, gripping my cellphone in white-knuckle desperation.

Sadly, my impressions about teachers were mixed, so the idea of being one never occurred to me. I also thought I’d perform terribly at it. Let me qualify, what teachers sacrifice for low pay and intense criticism should be respected. I remember a few who effected me, likely shaped who I am, as I’m certain you do.

However, to then find myself teaching university level students is laughable, yet here I am. And though I could never claim expertise on the subject, I’m more than happy to share my experience with you.


These are the general qualifications that can assist you in securing a teaching position:

  • A bachelor’s degree.
  • A TEFL certificate.
  • A Masters of Education (this expands your options to teach beyond Asia, in Europe, for instance).
  • A teaching certificate from your own country — useful for teaching at middle schools and high schools. These jobs tend to pay more, but you are required to work at least 40 hours a week.
  • Some kind of related and lengthy experience from home or otherwise.

The Chinese government now requires at least two years of some direct or related experience.

You can do TEFL certification online, but those are not recognized by every country. The general consensus is obtaining a CELTA or TESOL is more widely accepted. Research where you want to teach in China and which designations hold weight. This philosophy is wise for any country where you hope to teach.

In China, a bachelor’s degree with some related experience is enough to help you land a job, it may not be full-time or pay high, but the standard of living balances the scales.

Resources to get you started:

Dave’s ESL Cafe

Online TEFL (find courses and search for jobs).

Tesall (courses and jobs).

Which Course? (does a comparison of the best TEFL courses).

Transitions Abroad (exhaustive list).

Finding a Teaching Job

Teaching in China can encompass a melange of postings, some rural, others urban. Teaching middle school, to universities, and all the way to business professionals.

Hours can be anything from 14 to 20 teaching hours a week, during daytime hours or spilling into the evening. Or full-on, Monday to Friday, several hours a day.

It really depends on the institution, posting and location. Some institutions are publicly owned, while others are privately run.

A typical contract is one year, but not always.

Under the initiative ‘Project 211’, the Ministry of Education had a mission to build 100 universities in a push to elevate research standards and boost development in China.

Now, of course this doesn’t cover middle schools or centers that assist students after regular school with their studies.

I urgently suggest you decide what kind of posting suits you best. Do you want to work with younger kids? Have lots of hours, which amounts to higher pay? Less? Do you care about perks? Bonuses? Holiday pay included in the form of airfare tickets home, accommodation provided for? The reality is you can obtain those extras in China, because the goal is to lure and secure teachers.

For myself – I’m best suited to older students, ones who can engage with me on some adult level. Otherwise, I lose vigor for the whole process. I also wanted a manageable level of hours and workload, to concentrate on the other aspects of life that give me joy.

And since I haven’t permanently rented an apartment in two years nor care that much about objects, having accommodation provided was less stressful and most welcome.

I also longed for a mix of city life and solitude. The past four months has been spectacular, allowed me to unwind my mind and fully process the waves of change I’ve been through. In a bustling metropolis like Shanghai or Beijing, I wouldn’t of had that chance.

Resources to get you started:

EChinaCities (click on jobs and seek by location).

China Expat (click on jobs and seek by location).

China Job (good source to find different types of jobs, not just teaching).

Ixpat (classifieds for expatriates.  Good place to find employment or post on forums).

Serious Teachers (set up a profile and receive job alerts in your mailbox)

You’ve Been Hired!

Congratulations! The adventure is just beginning!

Your new employer will courier or mail original copies of two items:

Invitation letter – a document that informs the embassy/consulate that you have been hired and should be issued a Z visa.

A Working Permit – Governed by the State Administration of Foreign Experts (yes, you are now a foreign expert) this document should be presented along with your Invitation Letter.

Put these important documents in a safe place, these will be attached to your Z visa application form.

What comes next is the visa process. A generally nail-biting series of steps, but once it’s done, you’ll be granted a Z visa.

Medical Examination

Go to the Chinese consulate or embassy where you plan on applying for your Z visa and obtain a Physical Examination for Foreigner form. The embassy should be able to give you a list of doctors which are embassy approved.

Here’s what the Physical Exam Record for a Foreigner looks like

Take the Physical Examination form to an approved doctor and let the fun begin! You will be prodded by every conceivable test. You will be getting an EEG/ECG, x-rays, urine sample, blood (AIDS test), a pregnancy test (if you’re a woman) and even a psychology based exam.

Dodged the bullet this time

After your medical report is stamped off by the doctor, next download the Z visa application form and fill it out as required.

The application form is standard in that you must provide photos, but check with the embassy/consulate on the size requirements.

Visa application form

A medical examination is not necessarily required to obtain a Z visa, but many employers and embassies/consulates encourage it to ensure you’ll pass the medical exam for your residency permit (yes, you have to be prodded again).

Gather your Invitation Letter, Working Permit, medical exam, Z visa application, passport and photos and take them to the Chinese embassy/consulate or to a visa service, if you plan on using that avenue.

Dependent on where you get the visa processed, either directly through the embassy/consulate or a visa service, turn around can be as quick as three days, but you have to pay extra for this service.

Soon enough, you’ll have a Z visa in your passport. Book your flight and get excited about starting your teaching post!

Note: Z visas are always single entry, you’ll understand as you read further.

Residency Permit

As you adjust to your new home and all the nuances of Chinese culture, your school will register your arrival to a Public Security Bureau (PSB), basically the municipal police station.

The Z visa is only valid for three months, allowing you to enter the country, but now you need to apply for a residency permit.

Normally your school will pay for this and assist you with this final aspect of teaching and working in China.

A representative will take you to a medical clinic or hospital to complete yet another Physical Examination Record.

Enjoy the prodding again.

Afterwards, you will go to the local PSB with passport and your examination results and submit both to the police station.

Go about your daily life and in five days, you will receive two gifts:

A residence permit in your passport, which now supersedes the Z visa, allowing you to come and go from China.

The residence permit dates are based on your contract with the school – either one year or six months.

A separate little booklet called the Foreign Expert Certificate.

There you have it!  Hope this was helpful.  Now go and enjoy this fascinating country!

Additional resources on living and working in China:

Middle Kingdom Life (an award winning website for foreign teachers and expats).

Lost Loawai (community run blog by Chinese expats.  Full of humor and great stories!).

China Expat (Chinese cultural observations from a western perspective).

A Totally Impractical Guide to Living in Shanghai (Observations on Shanghai and beyond by MaryAnne Oxendale).

Unbrave Girl (Sally Thelen talks teaching – sometimes… mostly it’s about her couch).

Life on Nanchang Lu (Fiona highlights food and adventure in China).