Volunteering to Teach in China

21 May 2006

Do you know anyone who has “volunteered” in China? Volunteers are often good, selfless people, but I can’t help but see most volunteers in China as suckers. I’ve just seen a little too much about the way it usually works here.

There are tons of “programs” that, for a fee, help you find work teaching English in China. These programs make deals with schools–either directly or through intermediaries–to provide English teachers. They charge both the teachers and the schools as much as they can get away with, pay the teachers an extremely modest salary, and end up making a very nice little profit on the deal. If their teachers are volunteers, it’s just all the more profit for them.

Too often, the teachers are new to China and very naive. They realize their pay is very low, but they explain it with, “China is very poor.” After living in China for about a year, they often learn that the local director for their program drives a BMW, that other English teachers make about three times what they do for the same work, and that their students are no more disadvantaged than most kids in China.

Now obviously, the respectability of different programs will vary. I’m sure some of them have admirable goals. But if the organization uses any kind of local “middle man” to find its schools, some kind of funny business is almost a sure thing. The English teaching business attracts quite a few unscrupulous individuals.

I shouldn’t pretend to know too much about how these organizations work, but I do know enough to recommend this: if you’re looking into any kind of volunteering program in China, be very, very wary. The primary beneficiaries of your good heart and hard work might not be who you think.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Guess I won’t be volunteering then.

  2. Due to the popularity of this site, I think you probably just saved at least five people from falling into this trap. Cheers. Also, being paid 3 – 4,000rmb/m to teach in China is virtually volunteering. Take some money at least, don’t do it for free.

    • Spot on. Anything below 8000 for 30 hrs a week (i’d say) is a rip off. but you see, Chinese think we foreigners should be grateful just to be able to enter their “fantastic country” and live in an apartment suitable for young students in the 80’s maybe (certainly not for adult teachers). what can u do with 5000 a month? eat out once or twice maybe, that’s it. even on 8000 you cant really save more than a couple of hundred usd a month. better off washing dishes at your local restaurant.

  3. Carl, anywhere outside of the major cities 3-4000 RMB per month to teach 10-15 hours per week at a university it pretty good. Even in Hangzhou–for the amount of actual work we did in that first year we were hear, what we got paid wasn’t too bad at all. 🙂

    Hopefully most of these sorts of programs will dry up as people become more aware of what modern China, particularly in the cities in which expats are most likely to live, is like. I don’t think you could spit in Shanghai and not hit someone trying to give a foreigner a paid teaching job.

  4. Thanks for posting this, John.

    I’ve seen tons of pages dedicated to recruiting volunteers in China. One can naively accept their shitty deals, or look a bit further and learn that you could easily get a similar position under much better conditions.

  5. When I was in China last year, some staff at a language school asked me to teach English there. I thought I might be a volunteer because I taught for free; however, later I noticed that I became a “cheap laborer” there because all white teachers were paid every month. I asked them for the reason. They said: You are not Caucasian and we think English teachers should be white. Those suckers may think all English-speakers are white. There’re many Chinese faces, African faces and even Mexican faces in English-speaking countries. I would say Chinese students prefer the teacher’s color to his/her ability. My friend,a black man from New York, also met this problem when he was in China. Some students in Shanghai refused to shake hands with him and their reason was his hands looked dirty.

    Sometimes I’m really confused by those Chinese. They treat white Americans like Gods, while they give a name “fake foreigners(假洋鬼子)” to Asian Americans.

    Anyway you can go to Nanjing if you want to be a volunteer. I know a cafe called Coffee Corner and now it’s recruiting volunteers.

    I agree with Carl. Being paid 3-4,000RMB per month to teach in Shanghai is volunteering. Don’t try to teach English without any salary. My experience indicates teaching for free is very silly.

  6. Theo Vermeulen Says: May 21, 2006 at 6:41 pm

    Good warning! 🙂 Most of these programs are really nothing more than scams, especially the ones that charge BOTH the school AND the teacher.

    Effectively these companiesare just recruitment agents exploiting the goodwill of others. I should point out also that in Australia its actually ILLEGAL to charge the person seeking the working (ie the employee). Recruitment agencies (of any sort) can ONLY charge the employer a placement fee,somaybe its about time to start reporting these types of agencies to the appropriate authorities….

  7. It might be helpful if those in CHina could give some idea of what a reasonable (liveable) salary would be in various areas. It would give “volunteers” something to use to evaluate their offers/arrangements.

  8. Vincent Says: May 21, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    What Tim P. said. I think it would be a good idea to follow up this kind of post with a post or a few links that can help prospective English teachers identify good English teaching programs (as opposed to helping people identify bad ones), since they obviously exist. People who have been warned by this post to be wary need the extra step of determining which programs are good if they don’t want to make the decision not to teach English altogether.

  9. I agree with John B.

    Tim P and Vincent,

    I don’t want to provide specific figures, because salaries change fairly quickly and I haven’t been teaching much myself in the past two years.

    I have met teachers in Hangzhou working for 1000-2000 rmb per month, though, and I’d say a salary like that is too low for all but the poorest corners of China. (Todd actually did work in an NGO in one of the poorest corners of China, but he is in the extreme minority.)

    What it comes down to is this: do your research. You have been warned, and if you’re too lazy to do your own research, you can expect to get scammed.

  10. I know the program I’m about to introduce isn’t the type that you describe in your post, but I want your readers (especially those who’ve never been to China) to know that in addition to all the scams, there are also meaningful volunteer teaching opportunities in China.

    I run the China program for an organization called Learning Enterprises (LE). Their website is temporarily down, but feel free to visit the volunteer blog in the mean time. LE is a student-led organization that sends mostly college students to teach English in rural communities around the world. Although our volunteers are expected to cover their own transportation costs, there are no program fees and our classes are free and open to all interested students. We currently work in four villages in southern Anhui province, but our China program is expanding every year. Even though our program is short (5-weeks of classes during our students’ summer vacation), it has made a lasting and significant impact on the communities where we teach.

    I’ve also spent some time volunteer teaching at a center for children whose parents are in prison outside of Beijing (太阳儿童村). The staff at Sun Village is happy to receive any help they can get, especially in translating/teaching English. They offer free room and board in return. The village is great mostly because all of the kids are a lot of fun, polite to volunteers, and eager to learn.

    I would also warn those interested in volunteering to be careful about what they get themselves into. Other than some jobs volunteering at schools for migrant workers’ children, I don’t see why anyone would volunteer to teach kids in cities/at schools were someone has the money to pay the teacher. The skeptic who asks what use English is to a kid in rural Anhui should be reminded that English is one of the required sections on the college entrance exam. I also have a former student who is now studying to be an English-language tour guide at Huangshan.

  11. What I don’t understand is why anybody would teach English in mainland China for the money. Here in Taiwan, full time ESL jobs generally net over 60,000NT/month (about 15,000RMB), and longer term full-time positions are frequently over 100,000NT/month (about 25,000RMB). I can definitely understand teaching in order to get a glimpse into Chinese culture or in order to gain teaching experience. If the goal is to become a career English teacher, then I suppose it would make sense. If the issue is money, though, why not just work in your home country or someplace like Taiwan or HK, save money, and then go to mainland China for study, tourism, or whatever?

  12. Bare minimum liveable salary (from my own experience):

    Hangzhou – 3,000rmb (I was paid 3,500 and given free housing, but if I had to find a place myself and live frugally I could have made it on 3k)

    Shanghai – 5 – 6,000rmb (I expect other expats and definitely locals to claim this is too high, but I wouldn’t want to live here on anything less)

    Enjoyable living salary (again from my own experience):

    Hangzhou – 8,000rmb

    Shanghai – 12,000rmb

    One last thing, teaching English sucks. Use the position to get your foot in the door in China and quickly find something else to move on to.

  13. Just to add. It is my experience from keeping my eye on other teaching places, that generally speaking you do get paid isolation compensation and fees can be a bit higher in the more remote areas. Aston is a good example of this – their pay structure in the big cities (Jinan and Dalian) are slightly less than in the way out there cities because it’s harder to get people to go there.

    I agree with the above advice – do your research. It’s not hard, just go to Dave’s ESL cafe or some relatively similar service and click on every link that says “Work in China” – it wont take long to figure out what the average requirements are, and what the average compensation is.

    It should also be said that working through recruiters is not always a bad thing. Though they are most definitely taking a cut, they can provide you access (sometimes) to jobs you wouldn’t get normally. I’m currently teaching at a primary school and getting paid what I was getting only for over-time work at my old, private language school – and I couldn’t have gotten into the public school system without a recruiter.

    Volunteering is a scam. A complete scam. I’ve met a couple people who’ve done this here, and it’s embarassing. If you’re at a private language school you’re not teaching ANYONE who can’t afford it. With the exception of teaching in very remote, backwater towns that are truely “3rd world”, all volunteering in China is a scam. Plain and simple.

  14. Carl,

    Wow, I totally agree with your numbers. (I would be saving a good chunk most months though.)

  15. Is 12k in Shanghai really a lot of money?? Can you rent an apt, live, and still save $$$ ? I would have thought 18-20k would have been more appropriate.

  16. Fine, so forget about the money. Do they offer in exchange that for every hour of teaching english you get a Mandarin tutor (that will actually teach you Mandarin and not just practice their English.) Fair enough? For sure this kind heartness of the foreign volunteers will be found in the heart of the local Chinese who will be most happy to teach foreigners their culture and language isntead of using a foreign’s country culture and language. For sure.
    (for those who are reading this site from beyond the great china sea — I’m being sarcastic.)

  17. Don’t go to China thinking you are being kind and helping out some poor developing country by being a volunteer English teacher. All but the poorest county towns out in the hinterlands can afford to pay a foreign teacher at least a couple thousand RMB. If it’s for-profit, which most any public and or private institution in China would seem to be, don’t volunteer. As we all know, China’s got money out the ying-yang!

  18. Hey Mike, I think you hit it there… any “for profit” agency… as I do think Tom’s post above does add some validity to the concept of “volunteering” in China. I mean, even Western countries that are generally much richer than China have volunteer program.

    My previous post was meant towards the “for profit” agencies… and not as Tom mentioned, for poor rural communities. I teach poor kids at a public school, and it’s much more rewarding than the private language school I used to teach at. I’m not quite willing to do it for free, but I’m a lot more willing to do extra-ciricular stuff than I was before – I like spending time with the kids, and I like feeling that maybe I’m giving them a chance that they didn’t have before (not just in speaking English, but getting some exposure to foreign culture that isn’t brought to them by Pixar/Disney or their parent’s random thoughts on us all).

  19. DongBei Says: May 22, 2006 at 11:41 pm

    4k/for under 15 hours of work + appt, airfare and a tiny bonus twice a year is what most universities offer in Harbin (+/- 500RMB). Not that much, but hey, nothing beats working at a university (good friends, good facilities, everything’s pretty much official so there’s no messing around with the pay, etc).

  20. scrappenthal Says: May 23, 2006 at 1:00 am

    Carl,

    In town this week. You are spinning at DKD (sp?) this Thursday, correct? What’s the cover?

  21. the solution to this is very simple… and this applies WORLDWIDE. if money is the issue, do not volunteer in any program/company if the people running it are not volunteers themselves. simple. whether it be some program in china, brazil, or the u.s.a. do you think those at the top of such “NPOs” like the red cross, cancer society, lion’s club, etc… aren’t living it up, then i suggest you take a closer look. if you buy into the argument that said people are paid to attract money and volunteers then i suggest you go ahead and give away your time. EVERYTHING in this world is run as a pyramid build on the backs of suckers/customers/workers… if you can live with your decision, then do as you please. i personally only volunteer my time to things i set up on my own. example, i had weekly meetings at my home with 12 people i met on my own to teach them english. why? because it was win-win… they learn english and i practiced chinese – all for free. cheers!

  22. Penfold Says: May 23, 2006 at 9:17 am

    Also for universities, there are long paid holidays. RMB8000/month without paid holidays, a RMB6000 bonus (for an airfare) and having to find one’s own accomodation worked out less than RMB4500/month at a university with paid holidays, with accomodation, and with an air ticket in the summer holiday season. Pay when teaching in China should come down to looking at the year’s total reimbursement rather than just the monthly headline rate.

  23. @scrappenthal

    50rmb

  24. But damn DongBei, you have to weather those winters. As a Canadian (for some reason we’ve got this ‘I can stand cold’ stigma attached to us) that visited in February… my pink spots could’ve cut glass… hell, they could have cut diamonds!

  25. I was a volunteer my first six months in China, and went back down to Hainan to volunteer again before I left.

    I am not sucker.

  26. DongBei Says: May 24, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    Man, I’m a Polish-born Canadian, and I was a participant at both the Harbin Ice and the Snow festival, and let me tell you, carving ice or snow for 10 hours in minus 30 with insane Siberian wind in your face is not that cool…but the weather’s great during the summer, and if you don’t like the cold you can go south for the two-month long spring festival vacation. Plus, we have Harbin Beer, and I can’t repeat enough times how much that beer kicks ass. I like it here more than in the south (granted, I never was in the south – the lowest I got was Henan, and that was laready hot enough).

  27. Ellaina Says: May 24, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    Dear all,

    I have seen your comments.

    I come from PEK,China.I’d like to find a native speaker to teach me English,and I can teach him/her Chinese instead.

    I spend a few of month to find somewhere through internet,but with disapointed i can not find except intermediary company. Of course membership fees should be paid.

    I think a lot of people who want to be a volunteers to teach foreigner Chinese like me can not find native speakers. And maybe most of you can not find us in different cities in China at all.

    If someone can be a volunteers and find the way to combine these people together must be a good thing.

    PS, I may try to explain the skin problem. We,Chinese, not see white colors as God.In my point, we are yellow skin people,white is close to our color.We are not getting used to black skin as we are not getting used to white color and blue eyes in early years.Try to give us time to understand you. If you are kind with good charactor, your friend will like you.

    China is hospitable country and Chinese is hospitable person!

    Do not give up!

  28. Hi, folks, volunteering has not been a part of culture and socila life in China as it is in the Western. Every Chinese has to make money for living, teaching English for free is ok if you don’t worry about living costs.

    It’s a kind of shamed that some Chinese girls show keen interest on Western guys.

  29. Da Xiangchang Says: May 27, 2006 at 6:56 am

    Maybe I’m just selfish, but I can’t imagine volunteering to teach English. I can’t imagine volunteering PERIOD. If I’m going to do something I don’t enjoy, I’d better be paid well for it. Altruism is for people far better than I am.

  30. Well, I once met a couple working for VSO teaching English in Guizhou, and I thought, “what a useless form of development work”. People in rural Guizhou don’t need to know English. True development work is building bridges, installing clean drinking water, and things like that. Tom above said that English is on the college entrance exam, but so what? Development work in backward parts of China should not focus on helping a select few to compete for university entrance. It is the people left behind in the mountain areas I am interested in, and I don’t see helping the odd villager get a degree and then a job in Shanghai as being “development work”. Let’s face it, many foreigners want to feel that they are helping, bless them, but poor parts of China simply do not need the English language. You could probably do more good in some rural areas by teaching putonghua. Similarly, kids of prisoners do not need the English language either. It is difficult to think what could really help such children who have poor or absent role models, and it may be attractive to some Westerners to kid themselves that they are “helping” by teaching these kids basic English. I sometimes think Westerners are so much more the prisoners of their own self-delusions than are the much more practical Chinese themselves.

  31. I make $2000us a month. After taxes, I clear 16,000rmb a month. I teach 6 hours a day, 5 days a week in Shanghai. I am also provided with an apt.. I cannot understand working for less than 10,000rmb a month, here.

  32. I agree with DJW.

  33. Following up what Vincent said about the need for “a few links that can help prospective English teachers identify good English teaching programs (as opposed to helping people identify bad ones), since they obviously exist. ” I can help out, formerly being a volunteer for 10 years myself.
    mail me @:ntv2000@yahoo.com

  34. DJW-

    I kind of think you’re selling short volunteers in general if you think we are so simpled minded and culturally imperialist to come over here, spend a few weeks with some kids teaching them basic English, and then go home and pat ourselves on the back and feel like we are great world citizens becaused we “helped China.”

    Seperate from trying to help the few kids who might have a chance of ever getting into a university, in my experience much more time is spent out of the classroom with members of the community who come from all walks of life. After spending a month or two in a rural village during the summer, all of the volunteers in the program I’ve been involved with know that the cultural exchange that takes place is more important than some simple vocabulary from class. Learning Enterprises seeks volunteers who speak Mandarin, who will have a much easier time building rapport with their host families and neighbors than someone who doesn’t speak the language, even if the villagers’ putonghua is heavily accented and grammatically irratic. It’s not about development or helping them make money, it’s about taking two groups of people from opposite sides of the world and entirely different socio-economic backgrounds, having them spend some time together, and then hopefully both of them coming out with a different perspective on each other.

    And as for prisoners’ kids needing or not needing to know English, that’s also beside the point. I think the kids I met at the facility outside of Beijing enjoyed our snowball fights and kite flying a lot more than praticing saying hello instead of hair-ro.

    Anyway, just realize that not everybody who spends time teaching for free thinks they are saving the world. Sometimes we just want to get to know people and think that’s worthwhile in and of itself. I’m currently cycling through Xinjiang and Tibet, and after hearing a thousand HALLOs shouted by roadworkers all along the way I’d like to think that my former students have a different understanding of foreigners than those who regard us as something like animals in the zoo. And that’s what made my time in the villages worth it.

  35. Oh dear, I just signed up as a volunteer to teach for free.. Just wanted to dedicate a couple of hours during the weekend to help the under-priviledged.. Don’t intend to get paid or anything, but genuinely for charity. In this instance, shld I be approaching the orphanages / Childrens’ homes directly?

  36. I got recruited by an agency from the internet whilst having a very comfortable, well paid and respected life in Thailand. Thought China might be a nice change for a year….Upon arrival I got shipped up north, way up! Signed a contract with a guy (who drove an Audi) Got our passports taken for visa’s then were told that there was no fulltime work for another 3 months until the start of term. The accomodation was roach infested and freezing, very little warm! water. After doing some part time hours payday came around, only to be told that they were going to keep 95% of the money i’d earnt to garantee I fulfill my contract…You can probally imagine it didn’t get any better. I ended up phoning my embassy to get my passport back and eventually got out of the place. So never work for Star International in ChangChun Jilin. They’ll kidnap your passport and leave you homeless and hungry in a strange land. Otherwise China’s a great place to come and work…….Beware

  37. ChangChun sucks Says: July 3, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    A friendly warning to all those that are considering teaching in China:

    1. You do not want to come to ChangChun, any other city is better than this dump.
    2. Do not work for Star International for reasons that Dan is mentioning. (I worked one year for them)
    3. Do not sign contract with any agency. It’s better to sign a contract directly with government schools, and even better with language training schools or colleges.
    4. Read your contract 10 times and if you have some conditions do not hesitate. Be straight forward and you will get what you want.
    5. Always keep in mind that they need you more than you need them. There are plenty of schools and agencies that are desperate for teachers.
    6. Last but not least, do not trust Chinese people when doing business with them. I am not a racist, but after one year here I’ve learned that in 99 % they will try to cheat you one way or another. For them it’s normal, they are just trying to get a better deal for themselves. I don’t trust anybody here anymore.
  38. Further to Dan’s post, I too have worked for Star International, and have done so at various intervals since October 2006. Dan, sorry to hear that your experience with Star was’t the most successful, but I just want to say that it’s not always this way. You seem to have been unlucky with the accommodation allocated to you, which is a real shame since the apartment can make a real difference to your stay in a new city. I have been more fortunate with my apartment, as have most of my friends who work for the same company. I’m not saying that bad things don’t happen when you come to work in China, but my personal experience with the company has been ok.

    ‘Changchun sucks” comment about the contract is good. Read your contract carefully and bring to light any reservations you have. Being straightforward before signing is definitely the best way to go. To say that Changchun is a dump is pretty harsh though. Ok, it may not be Hang Zhou or Shang Hai but it’s a pretty reasonable city.

  39. Hmm…

    My Chinese prof here in the US knows the Dean of Admissions at Tianjin University of Technology, and has written me a recommendation that has essentially gotten me into a teaching position at their Spoken English program, there.

    All contact has been directly with the university, but they can only pay 3,000 yuan/mo (plus an apt. and at least 1-way flight included); I don’t think anyone’s trying to screw me over per-se, but perhaps the school is just relatively poor?

    Does anyone have any experience living in Tianjin?

  40. Chandhiran Says: December 4, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Hi all,

    I am a singaporean and 34yrs old. I was a police officer for 12 years and left to do another career which is Videography and photography. I am not highly qualified and only have a GCSE cert also know as GCE’O’ levels in Singapore.

    My wife is a qualified childcare teacher with a diploma. Her expereince is over 10 years.

    Both of us are interested in teaching abroad and initially it was about volunteerism, but after reading this posts on this page…we have taken a step backward.

    I would probably need more info from you out there to guide us thru this processes. I am also not sure whether my GCSE cert would suffice to teach in China or other parts of the world.

    Pls advice

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