What is the day of an English teacher in China like?

Since Feb 2006, I have been working as an English as Second Language (ESL)  in China. The first 3 years at private schools, middle schools and high schools, then the later years at university.

My day starts at 6 am. I don’t really need to get up this early but it gives me the chance to check emails and not rush on the way out the door. I usually leave the house at 7:20 and walk to the university. If it’s raining I’ll drive. The walk takes about 25 minutes so I get to my office 15 minutes before time. This lets me sit, look over my lesson plan, glance at a newspaper and have a coke (no coffee available). The school has no bell so at 7:55 I make my way to the classroom. I set up my notes and check the room has chalk and duster. If not I’ll send a student to find some.

At 8 am sharp, I start my class. Usually, I’ll take a quick attendance. I teach double periods of 45 minutes with a 5-minute break between so each class gets 95 minutes with me. There’s a 10 minutes break between each double block. I usually teach nine double blocks per week. That’s two per day most days but one day with three. That means I work four days a week and I usually go home at 11:20 except for one day where I have an afternoon class.

I teach the same grade of students each year for the last three years. So I have all the lesson plans ready-made. On Monday I start the new week’s lesson and I repeat this exact same lesson nine times over the week. This makes life relatively easy. I don’t sweat over the next day’s lesson plans every night. However, it can get rather boring having done the exact same lesson twenty-seven times before and knowing that you have to do it again nine more times before the week is out. For the students, of course, it’s all new. So they love the lessons as they have been rehearsed so perfectly over the years.

I don’t have to set homework, so usually, don’t so I have no grading or marking to do. Nor do I have to deal with student problems or guidance issues. When I finish my classes, I go home. This means I’m home before noon most days and by 4 pm on the day with an afternoon class. However, my work has not yet finished.

Around 5 pm every day I will have a private class at home for a student. Usually not a university student. Chinese students have a lot of pressure to achieve and parents will pay for them to have extra classes after school every day. These home students can be from as young as eight years old. I have a special set of lesson plans made up for each age group from 8 through to 13. Students older than 13 will get the same lesson as my university students. I also have some specialist lesson plans for students who wish to apply to universities abroad and want to do tests such as IELTSTOEFL, SAT or GRE. As before, since I’ve been doing this for many years, the lesson plans and already prepared. I need just 5 to 10 minutes to look over the plan before class and away I go.

My free day and weekends are also taken up with 5 or 6 home classes each day. This means that I will do about 33 to 35 teaching hours per week. This is quite a heavy teaching load and wouldn’t be possible but for that, I have the lessons already prepared and rehearsed. For this, I have a take-home pay of about $35,000 USD per year.

I do have the whole afternoon and evenings to myself. Most of my friends don’t work at the university. They work at private schools with a radically different timetable so usually, I see them in the afternoons on weekdays.

Three years ago I was an ESL teacher at private schools. This is a totally different lifestyle from the university. Private schools in China are where students go after school to do extra classes as I mentioned already above. Now I just tutor one to one but in private schools, you have a class of children. This saves the parents some money as they can pay just 20 to 30 yuan per class rather than the 150 to 300 yuan for a private class.

The day starts late. You only ever have morning classes on weekends and during summer/winter holidays so you don’t get up early. You might go see a friend for lunch or take a walk in the afternoon. Work starts at about 4 pm. Usually, you will have 2 to 4 classes, each one hour-long. There will be no gap between classes. Just out of one and into the other. You will finish work at about 7 or 8 pm. Because it’s late you won’t feel like cooking dinner so you’ll get some fast food – maybe noodles, rice or sometimes a burger.

Weekends are usually spent working too. The school will usually pay you double rate after the first 20 hours of the week so there is a strong incentive, and pressure from management, to work more than your contracted hours. Many teachers do another 12 to 16 hours of teaching each on weekends. This can be an 8 hour teaching day with only one short break for lunch. I’ve known some schools do not even schedule lunch breaks, expecting you to do 8 hours solid teaching on Saturday and again on Sunday.

Sometimes the school will give you a book to teach from. This makes planning lessons easier. However, many schools just leave you to make your own lesson plans. Every class is a different age of students or at a different stage of learning so a 20 hour week requires 20 hours of lesson plans. Some schools have very flexible timetables and you might not know what classes you have as little as 30 minutes beforehand. The result of this is that you generally don’t do much preparation before class. You get into the habit of teaching off the cuff.

After the first year of teaching at private schools, you get wise to how your school is working you. Other unlicensed schools will offer you classes at triple the rate of your contracted school. You will give up the overtime classes at your contracted school take up some work elsewhere. This is, of course, illegal but everyone does it and the police rarely check.

Working at other schools does give you much more pay, but with it comes pressure and stress. The unlicensed schools are usually badly organised. You might have no idea what age or level or the number of students you are to teach until you walk into the classroom. However, the experience will mean that you are able to just pull a lesson out of your bag and do something reasonable. You will now be doing 20 hours a week for your main employer and fitting in another 5 to 10 hours at other schools. Between classes, you are jumping in and out of taxis to get across town to the next lesson at the next school.

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