There are big differences between Chinese universities and English training centers.
Being someone that has worked in both a state-owned university and a private language center, I can provide a little perspective on how your experiences might differ depending on what you choose. My recommendation is working at a Chinese university, even if it pays less. I’ll explain why below.
English training centers typically pay much, much more, with salaries that can exceed 10,000 RMB a month, and can go as high as 24,000 a month. (Take note that these are just rough estimates, based on advertised salaries and feedback I’ve received from people in the field.) One thing that you want to note is whether or not the school provides any kinds of benefits or amenities. Most places will reimburse you for your flight and offer some kind of vacation pay. But not all will offer living accommodations, and that could come with some other costs you wouldn’t have worry about with arranged housing from a university, like electricity, water, maintenance, internet service.
Salaries at Chinese universities are typically pretty weak. I’ve heard of some people working for less than 4,500 RMB a month, and some making as much as 12,000. But they also usually provide a free apartment, an electricity allowance, flight reimbursement, and vacation money. The real perk about working at a university is the low working hours.
The information I got for this section is loosely based on the informal China salary survey posted on Reddit. Some of the numbers may be skewed upwards, as it seems that some like to inflate their salaries when exchanging with strangers online. The numbers also might be distorted depending on how much money they get for electricity or flight reimbursement and such. So know the numbers might not be completely accurate.
If you’re young, wanting to date and occasionally go out for drink, the hours you’re expected to work at an English training center are abysmal; all nights and weekends. Not only will it be challenge to manage a social life and a girlfriend, but it will also be very difficult for you to get your side-hustle on. That’s kinda what the whole “Based Bachelor” lifestyle is about: living below your means to get a side-business going.
Weekly hours at a training center can range from 22 to 30 a week, but usually they’ll have some kind of office hours thrown in for good measure, where you have to be there to support students or tutor people whenever they require it.
At a university, you’ll have so much down time you won’t know what to do with it. Don’t believe me? Check out this website where you’re reading this blog post. Check out this book! All of these things were created during my down time in China. If I can do it so can you.
The hourly demands for an English instructor at a university can range from as little as 8 hours to 16 hours a week. But planning classes, grading papers, and other administrative tasks can eat up a pretty sizable chunk of time if you’re not careful.
When I started working at the English training centers in China, I originally thought that the teaching skills I’d developed over time would come to be recognized as valuable. What I found instead was that most of the people there were only concerned with getting an “authentic” experience interacting with a Westerner. They didn’t care how good of a teacher I might be. They were more interested in how handsome, entertaining, and friendly I was than how well I could help them learn the language.
This occasionally caused me to have some awkward experiences. I was teaching a class and two of the female students were expressing their discontent because they said I was being too cold. I didn’t feel I was being cold, only professional, doing the job I was being paid to do. The problem was that they didn’t seem interested at all in the content of the lesson I’d been assigned to teach, so I don’t know what they were expecting. I guess what they really wanted was for us to do was just sit there and smile at each other and chit-chat.
Because English training centers usually are a relatively big business in China, you can expect to see lots of hierarchy and stupid policies souring the milk. Every once in a while a new set of restrictions or guidelines will be emailed to the teachers from upon high at the corporate office. But most of the time these rules won’t be enforced. The managers at training centers are much more receptive to complaints by fussy students though, which may often be handed down to teachers in form of vague, unconstructive feedback.
No matter how slow I spoken while teaching, I’ve still heard students complain that I talk too fast. I’m not sure I could talk any slower unless I had brain damage. It’s just another way for them to redirect the blame for not practicing their active listening exercises. I’ve had some success getting around this issue by writing everything I’m saying on the board, but that can get old. You’ll also have students routinely complain about being bored, but that’s mostly from youth that have no interest in studying English anyway.
Your mileage may vary, but I haven’t had any problems with office politics while teaching at my university at all. If the students don’t complain, you’re pretty much golden. I have heard of some experiences where teachers have had to interact with someone difficult in charge of their department, but I never have.
Probably the best part of working at a training center is that they’ll already have established, structured lesson plans for students. This means that you won’t have to spend nearly so much time planning lessons, though you’ll probably still want to prepare before you go in. Teaching smaller groups of students is more intimate and it gives you a chance to tweak little grammatical issues that might be impractical to stop drill into every time in a big class.
Having established lesson plans is a great feeling, as long as it lasts you for the entire 50 minutes. You really have to pace yourself, because sometimes with advanced students, they’ll burn right through all the content and then you’ll have nothing left to discuss. Though it doesn’t seem like that much time, some days it will drag. You have to have some ideas on how to practically pass the time when things slow down.
I have never been given direction or suggestions as to how I should instruct my classes. Though there is a monitor, a student that reports on how I run my classes, no one ever supervises what I do. When I first started I had to keep asking the head of my department for a book recommendation for my classes, and two weeks into the semester, he begrudgingly handed over a copy of a text. In the meantime, I learned to create lesson plans from resources online, brought in movies, or used other class plans I’d borrowed from my other job. No one ever complained. No one ever told me what I was required to teach. All I had to do was show up and be moderately prepared.
Most of the students I’ve interacted with at training centers actually wanted to be there. There were still young people placed in those classes that would rather be doing anything else (like playing with their phones), but you’ll find that training centers tend to have much more engaged pupils, which can make for a much more rewarding teaching experience.
Teaching at a university may make you question what the point is. Students tend to only show up when they like. They’ll invent any kind of excuses they can think of if they don’t feel like attending. And when they actually come to class, they’ll be deliberately inattentive. It’s as though some will go out of their way not to listen or engage in the class. Trying to get their eyes and ears is a constant battle, between you and their phones, whatever homework they’re trying to complete for other classes, or whatever other topic is on their minds at the time. Just showing up and making an effort should be enough to earn your keep. It’s much more than some other teachers do in state-funded universities.
Universities make the most sense if you want more free time to engage in your own enterprises and study. But if you’re someone that is planning on only staying for a couple of years, has a family to support or students debts to pay, training centers might be a better bet. There are still quite a few more options when it comes to teaching English. The comparisons here did not include other kinds of teaching arrangements such as kindergartens, boarding schools, or primary and secondary schools.