Whether you’re considering Shanghai for your first teaching experience or you’ve worked in more countries than a universal socket adapter, this city offers a unique experience. There are countless opportunities here for teachers, but there are also some key things to consider before you book your flight to Pudong. Here’s SmartShanghai’s guide to teaching in China’s busiest city.
Finding a Job
For the widest range of possible job options, check out job listings sites and agencies. In the former category, Dave’s ESL Cafe has a broad range of listings for TEFL/ESOL/other-acronym-of-choice jobs. It also hosts a lot of useful resources and chat boards, and the most naughties design you’ll have seen in at least a decade. And, obviously, the SmartShanghai Jobs board is a great resource for finding these positions, with tons of new job listings every week, ahem.
The ubiquitous international English teaching organizations also have branches and opportunities in Shanghai. Wall Street English have 17 centers across the city and more than 70 in China. Education First’s Asian Regional Hub is in Shanghai, too, so a range of English teaching roles and progression opportunities are available. They say they have more than 2,000 foreign teachers across China.
There’s also the TES, which is more for qualified teachers aiming for international school roles. Agencies such as Search Associates not only offer online application services, but also organize job fairs in cities around the world, attended by many Shanghai schools.
You can also contact schools directly, especially if you’ve found somewhere that looks like a good match for you. SUIS, SCIS, YCIS and SAS all have multiple campuses across the city, teaching in English. Check out the LFSor DSS for French- and German-language schools respectively. And don't forget about the SmartShanghai Education Directory for a database of schools in Shanghai.
On a smaller scale, there are myriad schools with a single campus: from international educational groups like Harrow to Shanghai-specific organizations such as WISS. It’s definitely worth checking the curricula before applying: British, American and IB programs are the most common.
Getting a Job
Shanghai offers myriad teaching options; your possibilities will depend on your experience and qualifications.
Teaching English as a Foreign/Second Language (TEFL/ESL) or kindergarten jobs don’t generally require you to hold a postgraduate teaching qualification or license, but you’ll need a TEFL certificate at least. Most decent places are savvy to the less-intensive 120-hour online course-style qualifications now, and expect some classroom experience.
Pay scales vary wildly: you could be offered anything from 12,000 to 28,000rmb/month (the higher end is especially likely with a CELTA/DELTA cert), depending on your experience and qualifications. Around 18,000/month would be fairly typical, though.
Taxes in China are calculated on a sliding scale, but you’ll generally pay 10-15% of your monthly salary (use a tax calculator, like this very accurate one, to check exactly how much), so net salaries can compare favorably to similar roles elsewhere. Many of these roles won’t pay you over the summer holiday, though.
What the Bigger Players Pay
Bigger organizations (especially the international ones) tend to offer higher rates. Although the teaching can be a little repetitive, there are good progression opportunities. The packages are generally fairly comprehensive (including Mandarin lessons for staff and other perks), and teaching contracts start from one year in length.
At places like EF or Wall Street, expect an average gross salary of 15-16,000rmb/month, including benefits, with the possibility for up to another 1,000rmb per month in bonuses.
International and Bilingual Schools
If you have a formal teaching qualification and an undergraduate degree, Shanghai’s international and bilingual schools often offer even better packages and a wider range of subjects. These cater both to local and expat children (although largely the former). Your pay offer should increase if you hold any further qualifications – possibly the only time you’ll be able to cash in on that sociology MA.
Starting salaries at this level should be at least 20,000rmb per month plus allowances; most schools provide at least medical insurance (check the level of cover; bills can be horrific), housing (normally around 8,000rmb), shipping and flights, plus school lunches of varying quality. Check your contract for other perks, too: contract completion or attendance bonuses, for example. A standard contract at an international school lasts two years, but can often be extended for further bonuses and raises.
There are also tutoring centers around the city, as well as private tutoring opportunities. For native English speakers, rates vary from 200 to 800rmb+ per hour, depending on class size and center fees. A standard rate for qualified teachers is 500rmb; don’t be afraid to haggle if you’re offered less, but also don’t be surprised if they won’t budge above 300.
If you’re considering tutoring as a sideline, just be aware that most visas and international schools don’t officially allow it (see below).
Assuming you live outside Shanghai, interviews will normally take place via Skype or over the phone. These can involve anything from traditional question-and-answer formats to teaching sample lessons or delivering presentations. As with any interview, take time to research the company/school thoroughly, and to think of questions. Be discriminating, too: if the interview lasts less than half an hour, or if you hear anything that sets off alarm bells, it might be best to look elsewhere.
The Visa March
China’s visa and entry system is thorough. It’s workable, though, and most things are possible if you have a realistic time frame. Regardless of naysayers in expat Facebook groups, it’s absolutely feasible to bring your pet, significant other, child, beloved custom bicycle or even car to Shanghai. Normally, you’ll need to jump through the following hoops to get here (although this will depend on the type of visa you need, your nationality, and who you’re bringing):
1. Collect all necessary documents. Just for yourself, you’ll normally need: official proof of no criminal record (for example, from Disclosure Scotland if you’re British, or your state of residence in the US (or the FBI), degree/qualification certificate(s), a valid passport, and an employment certificate. This is just a letter from your last school/company stating how long you’ve worked there; if it hasn’t been two years, you’ll need one from your previous school as well. To bring family, you’ll also need certificates of birth, marriage or equivalent.
2. Get certain documents authenticated – Normally your degree certificate and proof of no criminal record. The authentication procedure has three steps: asking a notary to validate the document; sending the document to your country’s foreign office (e.g. the FCO in the UK, or the Office of Authentications in the US); and sending the document to the Chinese embassy.
3. Apply for a Z visa when prompted by your school/company (they’ll need to do some groundwork first). It’ll take at least a couple of weeks, and you’ll need to visit a Chinese embassy to give your fingerprints at some point. Check the regulations in your home country; there might be additional procedures. You’ll also need to undergo (or commit to, at least) a full health check. These mostly take place after you arrive; they consist of a mildly uncomfortable gauntlet of tests, but they’re nothing to worry about.
If you’re running out of time for a Z visa, it’s possible to enter the country initially on a tourist visa and then exchange it after you’ve arrived. You’ll still need all the same documentation, though, and it can be a difficult process. It certainly isn’t a long-term solution, and it might also be a red flag for your employers. Don’t be surprised if you’re denied another visa after you’ve trodden the Hong Kong visa trail a few times, either.
Your school might help with the cost of the process, although most won’t pay for things like notarizations or background checks. You’ll likely need to invest at least a few hundred dollars/pounds, whichever entry route you take.
You’ll also need to consider vaccinations. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what you’ve had and what you’ll need. These can get expensive quite quickly, but it’s better to grasp the financial bullet now than to co-pay your way out of hospital later (or worse). The WHO recommends a full arsenal of injections, from rabies to Japanese encephalitis.
English teaching organizations and tutoring centers tend to start lessons around midday or early afternoon, and classes often run into the evenings. You’ll often be expected to work at least one day at the weekend as well. Although planning is often minimized by the pre-set courses, classes can get a little repetitive. To add a dubious fun factor, some bigger organizations (especially EF) have bought into Google-style corporate well-being initiatives, such as pool and foosball tables. Team building events and dinners are also fairly common.
In international schools, you’ll likely be teaching to another country’s curriculum. All teachers need to be aware of key aspects of the Chinese system, though, from exams to administration.
Firstly, there’s the zhongkao (and its infamous older sibling, the gaokao). It’s now compulsory for any student with a Chinese ID card to sit this set of middle-school exams, which makes it relevant to almost every student under the age of 15. You should normally be informed if you’ll be teaching to the zhongkao, but it’s unlikely unless you speak fairly fluent Mandarin. It’s held in early June every year for ninth grade students. Each province in China has its own format for the exam, but the core subjects are generally Chinese, mathematics and English.
Chinese School Culture
There’s also a very different culture and schedule in Chinese schools. The days are comparatively long: most schoolteachers are expected to be on campus from at least 8am until 4pm, but some contracts will require you to stay much later. This means six or seven lessons per day at high school level.
Expect a daily, weekly or monthly flag-raising ceremony and rendition of the national anthem; many schools also incorporate a morning exercise session (accompanied by an impossibly catchy soundtrack and generally involving a synchronized dancing/stretching routine). It’s also very likely you’ll see a weekly extra-curricular activity (ECA) slot on your timetable. Teachers are expected to offer sessions for pupils each semester; they can be a great opportunity to spend an hour doing something you love, if you pitch yours right. Some schools also have an unwritten expectation that teachers coach sports teams at weekends – again, ask before you arrive.
On the subject of extra-curricular activities, you’ll also be expected to take part in the pageantry of Chinese school life. Whether it’s performing at a Teachers’ Day celebration or walking in the ubiquitous Chinese New Year Gala Fashion Show, your pupils, colleagues and bosses will all expect to see you taking the stage. Refusing these requests is possible, of course, but it won’t go down well. Professionally (and for your own enjoyment), it’s best to roll your sleeves up and get involved – especially if you want to get promoted.
More generally, your new colleagues’ practices might be surprising. Textbooks (often government-published or –"edited") are almost ubiquitous in Chinese schools; risk assessments are not. Things often tend to happen at the last possible minute, and then run blissfully smoothly – from one-off trips to essentials like timetabling. Particularly with younger pupils, it’s common to share a class with at least one Chinese co-teacher. If you’re working at a kindergarten, you might have two or three co-teachers with different responsibilities.
Holidays will be another big difference. Again, these will vary between schools. If a particular holiday is important to you, check the calendar and your contract before you sign; not all schools have Christmas holidays, for example. Generally, you should expect a two or three week break over Chinese New Year, a week for the National Day/Mid-Autumn festivities in October and a good chunk of a summer holiday. There are other weekends and weeks throughout the year as well: Qingming Festival (early April), Labor Day (early May) and Dragon Boat Festival (June) should each give you at least a day or two off school.
Finally – the pupils. Preconceptions and stereotypes of Chinese students (and their parents) aren’t particularly helpful here. The city’s youth population is as diverse as its… well, everything. Revise a couple of key cultural reference points if you want to get ahead of the game, but wait until you meet your classes before planning too much. And good luck with learning how to swear in Mandarin.
Life in Shanghai can be as expensive or cheap as you want to make it, but there are certain unavoidable costs. Accommodation is the big one, especially if you haven’t been offered an accommodation allowance. Rooms in shared apartments can be rented from around 2,500rmb/month, and the most basic entire apartments start at around 5,500rmb/month. If you can’t live near your school, at least aim to be somewhere on the right metro line. SmartShanghai Housing is a great resource for finding apartments in Shanghai.
Shanghai is the City of the Hustle, though: it’s immeasurably (because a lot happens under the radar…) common for people to second and third jobs. For teachers who want to earn a little extra on top of their teaching salary, tutoring is a common sideline. Contractually, this is dodgy. Read the relevant clauses carefully. Schools will at least stipulate that you can neither tutor pupils from your own school, nor use resources you’ve made there. Many schools will also say that you can’t tutor at all, since this would likely invalidate the conditions of your work permit.
As noted above, though, a standard rate for qualified English tutoring is around 500rmb/hour.
You can tutor in other subjects, too, of course; online set-ups, where you deliver virtual lectures via slide-sharing platforms, are becoming far more common.
It’s also important to be aware of your school’s policies around gifts. A parent giving you some flowers is a nice gesture; a parent slipping you a chubby red packet could get you into trouble. If you’re not sure, always check with your manager. Better to forego a few extra rmb than be accused later of accepting bribes.
Although Shanghai is generally very safe, there are definitely some challenges to be aware of.
Firstly: recruiter scams. This may seem like common sense, but a job advert is not a contract and will often be misleading. Many teachers apply for a subject-specific role (especially teaching literature), but arrive to a full timetable of ESL classes (“but it’s all English!”).
It’s hard to know until you arrive, but speaking to current and former staff is a good starting point. Ask your head for a contact among the teaching staff, then ask said contact about the school’s demographics and teaching foci. Job adverts will often sugar-coat other things, too, such as the school’s location (“downtown Shanghai” means very little) or the possibility of promotion (“we’ll add it to your contract after you arrive” = “it’s a nice enticement that will never happen”).
It’s hard to counter these challenges, but the International Schools Review offers some independent opinions that you can check through.
Regarding visas, be wary of any company that specifically asks you to come out on a tourist visa (“we’ll change it later!”) without even trying to get you a Z visa before you arrive. Again, this is common; it’s bad for a number of reasons, not least because you won’t be working legally and it allows your contract to be terminated at any moment. Contracts are not as binding for employers as they are for employees.
The Moving Process
In terms of the moving process, your school should support you with the more difficult aspects: getting a bank account and a SIM card, for example. If not, don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for help (or look online. Getting accommodation can also be a huge challenge. If your school doesn’t provide you with an apartment, they’ll normally at least pay for a short-term hotel room so that you have time to organize your own place after you arrive.
The market in Shanghai moves quickly, and is very competitive – but that’s no reason to rush into paying a deposit and falling for a scam. If anything seems suspicious, walk away. It’s better to pay for another night in a cheap hotel than to lose thousands of rmb to a dodgy landlord.
Generally, though, this city is one of the safest places you can choose to live. Get (and carefully check) all the right documentation, and your experience here should be smoother than your morning soy milk. It’s also full of amazing things to do once you’ve navigated your way through the bureaucratic entry maze.
Welcome to Shanghai, laoshi.
Looking for more schools in Shanghai? Check out the SmartShanghai Education Directory, the city's best source for school information. Want more job opportunities? See the SmartShanghai Jobs board!