Teaching English in Guangzhou: Interview With an ESL Teacher

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In this interview, we’re speaking with Ted who is a full-time contributor here at Goats On The Road. He’s been a professional ESL teacher for almost 20 years now and is currently teaching English in Guangzhou, China

In this article, you’ll learn first-hand what it’s like to teach English in Guangzhou, how to find jobs, the pros and cons, the salary, and much more.

Here we go!

Thanks for chatting with us, Ted! Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I’ve been an English teacher for almost 20 years. I’m originally from the United States, and I haven’t lived there in all that time. I’ve been able to travel to many places in the world, sometimes for extended periods of time.

teach english in guangzhou

I’m also a writer, and along with here at Goats on the Road and other places online, you can read my stories on my blog No Hay Bronca. Much of my writing is about Mexico, where I lived for 10 years.

What made you decide to become an English teacher? Did you have any prior experience?

I became an English teacher for two basic reasons: I didn’t know what I wanted to do after university, and I wanted to explore the world. At the time, I never imagined that it would end up becoming my career.

A long time ago, about six months before I graduated from university, I answered a classified ad for an English teaching job in South Korea.

I had no previous experience as a teacher. I learned on the job, and I got a great deal of help and good advice from a more experienced teacher who was brought on as headteacher a few months after I arrived.

Until he came, I had no idea what I was doing. After that, I continued teaching in different kinds of schools, eventually working my way up to teaching in universities.

You’re currently teaching English in Guangzhou, China. What’s it like living there? 

Guangzhou is a fantastic place to live.

It’s extremely modern and also has a lot of history. It has a unique culture within China – Cantonese culture, which includes the food and language – and also has an international vibe with neighborhoods like Xiaobei, where a large community of African immigrants live.

teaching English in Guangzhou

Guangzhou is also known as Canton, or more precisely Canton City. 

Guangzhou has been an important city for thousands of years. Right in the center of the city is the Nanyue Kingdom Palace museum, which contains an excavation of the old city palace from 1800 years ago.

You can see remnants of the various ancient city walls from different periods under glass below the pedestrian street Beijing Road, which runs in front of the museum. Guangzhou is one of the top cities in China for English teachers, and for good reason.

What types of jobs are available for teaching English in Guangzhou? 

A common type of teaching job is at a small English academy where people study English in their spare time. In China, they’re called training schools or training centers. Some are only for kids, and some are geared toward adults or teenagers.

This is the type of school I worked at in South Korea. They’re the best option for people with no experience. The hours are long, up to 40 hours a week, either teaching or office hours, but the pay is good.

The highest-paying jobs are at international grade schools, which are often boarding schools that go from elementary through high school. Like university jobs, these require experience, usually at least two years.

I prefer to work at a university because the low hours give me plenty of time for writing, translating, and copyediting work on the side. Also, the students are more mature and more interested in learning English than young children.

How did you find a job teaching English in Guangzhou? 

I found the job online. I can’t recall the specific website—there are many good resources for teaching jobs in Guangzhou, and sometimes you can find hiring information directly on university websites.

I believe that I searched for “teaching English in Guangzhou,” “university jobs in Guangzhou,” and so forth, and then I compiled a list of email addresses and sent each a short message and my CV. I didn’t get a response most of the time.

freelance writing jobs salary

For the ones that did write back, I asked the person for details about the job, such as the working hours and pay. Then I had a few online interviews, using Chinese video communication apps like Tencent Meeting or DingTalk.

It’s also common for people to use recruiters to get English teaching jobs in China. This is a good option if you don’t have teaching experience and want to work at a training center.

As always, check your contract carefully. In some cases, you’ll be employed by the recruiting agency, not the school you’ll be working at, and you’ll therefore be subject to their conditions.

One of the first jobs I found in China was like that. Among other shady clauses, the contract stated that if things didn’t work out at the school where I’d be teaching, I could be moved to any other school that the recruiting agency worked with.

This effectively meant that I could be taken out of the university and put into a kindergarten or grade school, something I definitely didn’t want to happen.

Two good places to check out for finding teaching jobs in Guangzhou are HiredChina.com and eChinaCities.com.

Can you tell us a bit about the company that you work for?

As I mentioned, it’s a large public university. I work in the Foreign Studies Department, and the students major in English, French, or Japanese. They choose an emphasis later, which can be teaching, translation, or business.

The Classes

The classes are measured in “teaching hours,” which at universities everywhere in China are typically 40 or 45 minutes. Two of these “hours” make up one class, so a two-hour class is actually only an hour and a half.

My contract is for 16 teaching hours a week, which means eight different classes. Each group meets only once a week. Between 12 and 16 teaching hours seems to be the standard for Chinese universities.

Housing in Guangzhou

Many universities have on-campus housing for teachers, and a furnished apartment is included in my contract.

It’s not a requirement to live in it, and if I lived somewhere off-campus, I’d receive a little more money in each paycheck to make up for it. But that money isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of an apartment in a major city like Guangzhou.

My on-campus apartment is nice, although I’ve heard some horror stories about extremely small places, run-down places, or places without a Western-style toilet. (Squat toilets are the norm in China.)

Anyone planning to live in an on-campus apartment should ask to see photos first — or better yet, view it in person.

School Events and Community

Before I decided to teach English in Guangzhou, I taught at a university in a different part of China.

That university was really interested in fostering a community, with many events that my wife and I were encouraged to participate in, such as a sports day, a huge performance for the new year, and a party at the end of the semester.

There’s none of that where I am now. I’ve been completely left alone, which in many ways is a good thing, although there are certain benefits to feeling like you’re part of a community.

Did you need to have any qualifications to get a job teaching English in Guangzhou?  

These are the requirements for getting a teaching job in China.


Each school has its own requirements, which may include prior experience, Bachelor’s degree and a TEFL/TESL certificate.

University jobs require at least two years of experience, and some of them require a master’s degree, a PHD, or even a portfolio of published peer-reviewed journal articles.

Requirements for a residence visa in China

Then, there are the requirements for the Chinese residence visa and work permit. Getting these involves a complicated process.

Below I’ll describe the requirements for university teachers. I believe that they’re the same for teachers in other types of schools, and I suspect that they’re the same or similar to the requirements for other types of jobs in China.

Anyone looking to work in China will need help in this process from the company that wants to hire them.

Before you sign a contract, a person from the company’s human resources department should send a list of requirements and offer to help with things like finding translators. If they don’t, or if communication with the company is difficult, expect some serious headaches.

Some companies will reimburse you for the significant expenses of this process, and others won’t. If the company will pay, it should be clearly stated in the contract.

Documents for a Residence Visa in China

You’ll need originals of your highest degree (at least a bachelor’s degree for teaching, and many universities require a master’s degree) and a criminal background check.

These two documents must then be certified three times. The first two times are by government agencies in your home country, and the final certification is by a Chinese embassy. Next, they’ll need to be translated into Chinese.

You’ll also need a medical checkup, which includes x-rays and blood tests, and the doctor must fill out a specific form that’s in English and Chinese.

Once you arrive in China, you’ll probably have to get another at a specific hospital for these types of checkups.

If your job requires previous experience, such as university jobs like mine, then you’ll need an official-looking letter from your previous boss.

It’s like a recommendation letter, but with the exact dates of your employment, an official letterhead (in color if possible), and clear contact information.

This must also be translated, so keep it short.

Translations to Chinese are expensive, and some translators charge by the word. Also, make sure your boss signs it with a blue pen. My original one was rejected because the whole letter was in black and white.

If you want to move to China with your spouse or children, you’ll need your marriage certificate and the child’s birth certificate translated, and they’ll need to get a medical checkup too.

It’s a confusing, frustrating, and expensive process. That’s why it’s crucial to have someone helping you from the company you work for.

What does a day in the life of an English teacher in Guangzhou look like? 

Between teaching, exploring Guangzhou and completing my other online work, here’s what a day/week might look like.

Teaching at University

As a university teacher, I only teach classes three days a week, but I end up working basically every day. Besides teaching, I spend a lot of time planning lessons. The university gave me a book to use, but nothing else.

This is typical for universities in China—you can teach whatever you want, more or less. Classrooms have a projector, and every teacher I know uses a PowerPoint presentation every day.

At nearly all training schools, on the other hand, teachers must follow set lesson plans that are prepared in advance. Deviating from this plan can mean big trouble for the teacher.

I prefer making my own lesson plans. It may take quite a bit of time, but you can reuse (and improve) them if you teach the same classes in a later semester.

I teach reading and writing classes, so I also spend a lot of time checking homework. A tip for potential English teachers—keep those writing assignments short, only a page or two, or the time you spend checking papers adds up fast.

My Other Online Work

Aside from teaching, I also do freelance writing, copywriting, and translating work. The writing and copywriting is pretty steady, so I usually know how many hours a week I need to dedicate to those.

I also know myself and how I work—always in the morning, and the earlier, the better. I won’t get any quality writing done in the evening after a long day of walking around in the sun, teaching classes, or squeezing into crowded buses.

Translating, however, can be totally random.

For instance, a few weeks ago I was contacted to translate a long journal article by an academic in Mexico who writes to me a few times a year. When that happens, it’s like, well there goes my weekend. I prefer to do my freelance work on Saturdays and Sundays.

Exploring Guangzhou on Days Off

I don’t have classes on Mondays and Fridays, so my wife and I do our exploring on those days, when interesting places in Guangzhou are less crowded.

We might go hiking at Baiyun Mountain on the north side of town, wander through old labyrinthine neighborhoods in the historic Xiguan area, or get some Mexican food and check out a museum in ultra-modern Zhujiang New Town, right across the river from the slender Canton Tower.

How much can an English teacher earn in Guangzhou? 

English teachers make good money in China, and if you decide to teach English in Guangzhou, you can expect to save money during that time.

Because there are fewer working hours and two long paid vacations a year, universities generally offer lower salaries than other teaching jobs.

You might make from 7000 RMB (about $1000 USD) a month on the low end to 12,000 RMB (about $1850 USD) at a major university in a large city like Guangzhou.

That said, most universities in Guangzhou (I interviewed with several of them) pay around 10,000 RMB (about $1500 USD) a month, plus housing and various bonuses.

Training schools pay more, some up to 20,000 RMB (about $3000 USD) a month, but without housing included, and of course there are many more working hours and only a week or two of vacation a year.

International middle schools and high schools pay even more, but this fluctuates wildly and depends on the school and on the candidate’s experience.

At grade schools and universities, you’ll get paid more if you have a master’s degree or a PhD.

What are the pros and cons of teaching English in Guangzhou? 

I’ll do the cons first, because there’s really only one major con and one minor one, and both apply to universities only. I’m certain that training school teachers could add many cons to this list.

Con: More Than One Campus

The big con to teaching English in Guangzhou is that nearly every university here has more than one campus. Teachers may have to teach at two different campuses, making a long commute between them.

About 10 years ago, the government designated a huge island outside of the city center as a place for the main universities in Guangzhou to build large new campuses.

In Chinese it’s simply called “University Town,” and in English, it’s the Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center.

Supposedly this happened all over China at about the same time.

The original campuses in crowded urban areas ran out of room to expand, so new campuses were built on the outskirts of cities. Some universities closed their original campuses, but not the ones in Guangzhou.

Despite repeated promises about where my classes would be, I ended up living at the new campus but teaching at the old one. The island is actually a nice place to live, with lots of parks and nature, but the commute is brutal.

On the university’s shuttle busses, it takes just over an hour to go from one campus to the other.

The shuttle bus doesn’t run all the time, however, and when it doesn’t, it takes me one hour and 40 minutes on public transportation—insanely crowded public transportation, by the way.

Con: Lack of Participation from Students

The second, minor con to teaching English in Guangzhou is that Chinese students aren’t accustomed to participating in class very much. It can take some time and effort to get them to open up.

Student participation is vital to learning a language, and the students know that, but they can be a little shy or afraid of making mistakes. It’s the teacher’s job to reassure them that mistakes are part of the learning process.

Now, to the pros! There are so many that I’m not sure where to begin.

Pro: Kind People

China is a fun, dynamic, fascinating place, and Guangzhou is one of my favorite places in China.

People here are generally kind and cheerful. This includes the students. Most of my students are respectful, hard-working, and eager to learn.

They’re also eager to teach a foreigner about China. I’ve learned a lot from my students, such as Chinese history, customs, and of course food.

Pro: The Food

Chinese food can take some getting used to, but once you know what you like, it’s easy to find really delicious food.

Chinese food in guangzhou

There’s a huge amount of diversity in Chinese food, and after trying many different Chinese dishes, I can say that Cantonese food is one of my favorites, if not my favorite.

Two common dishes are dim sum and barbecued pork, and you can find them everywhere here.

Pro: Time off for Travel

There are many more pros to teaching English in Guangzhou that I could list, so I’ll give a final one about teaching at a university. The long summer and winter vacations are a great opportunity for travel.

Last summer, my wife and I traveled around China for eight weeks.

The COVID-19 outbreak was under control, but most people were still staying home, so places in China that are normally crowded, particularly in summer, were practically empty.

Among other things, we saw the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, rode bicycles among the karst mountains in Yangshuo, and hiked through the mind-boggling scroll-painting scenery of Zhangjiajie.

Any final advice for an aspiring English teacher?

Contracts for English teaching jobs last one year. If you absolutely hate teaching English in Guangzhou, it’s only for one year. But you may end up loving it.

Either way, you’ll almost certainly save money, so you can start a new life afterward.

If you want to try it, I say go for it. But come prepared. Save money beforehand, enough to get settled in China and enough for a flight home if things really don’t work out.

And be prepared to work hard. Nobody is a good English teacher from day one, even people who took a TEFL/TESL course. Several weeks of misery, when you have no idea what you’re doing, might suddenly give way to a job you enjoy.

You may end up with a whole new career. That’s what happened to me.

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Written by

Ted Campbell

Ted is a writer and university professor who moved to China in 2020 after living in Mexico for 10 years. He has a Master’s Degree in English Education and has taught ESL/EFL in four countries and many different types of schools.

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