Teaching English in Guangzhou - private school vs. public (state) school.

Compare the life of the teacher in the private and state school and take a look at the diffferences between living in the big city and small town in China. Decide which is for you.

People decide to go away and teach for many different reasons; to take a new career path, to travel more, to gain a new experience of a different culture or to start a new life. My move to China was based on a spontaneous ‘eyes-closed’ point at a map and a desire to develop not only my teaching skills but also to broaden my horizons.

The application process

I began as many do, by trawling through online job boards and comparing the benefits and trustworthiness of each recruiter or agency. One in particular caught my eye, which offered flight reimbursement, Chinese language lessons, accommodation and bills paid for, and a negotiable salary. It was an agency based in Guilin, and, after many online searches, I realised this might be an easier transition than most places, to start my journey into the ‘unknown’. I began by:

  • Filling out an application form – including details of teaching experience, education, other work experience and my preferences (dates, duration of stay, location, teaching ages and levels)
  • Sending over copies of my passport, a photo, my CV and any relevant certificates

Once this had been received, I was notified within three days as to whether I was successful and moving onto the next stage or not… Luckily, I was!

I proceeded to have a ‘telephone interview’, which was very informal and more about preferences and the realities of what to expect upon my arrival. We discussed starting dates and orientation periods, then a draft copy of the initial contract was sent through. After reviewing this and a slight negotiation on salary, everything was confirmed.

Next was the visa process.

After collating my documents, I sent them to the agency who then submitted them to an intermediary, who checked everything before sending it to the embassy. It took just over two weeks to receive this back, when I could finally book my flight to Guilin.

Arriving in China 🐼

When I arrived, I was met at the airport by a representative of the company, and we waited for a few other teachers who were coming at a similar time. This eased any worries or stresses I had, as it was good to know I would be with other Westerners in the same position.

We were taken by minibus to our accommodation for the next 7 days – a hotel in Yangshuo. This was followed by a number of next steps:

  • A week-long orientation period, providing information on adjusting to Chinese life, what to teach vs. what not to teach, and what to expect from our schools
  • Basic Mandarin lessons – around 12 hours during the week
  • A medical examination, which you can learn more about here.
  • Training – how to deal with large class sizes and adapting lesson activities and plans
  • Sightseeing – group dinners, exploration and nights out 😊

On the final day of orientation, we were asked to provide details of where we might like to be placed and if we would like to be placed with another teacher. I realised that I had come to China spontaneously, so I left it up to fate to place me.

Life at private school

I had two different experiences during my stay in China – one at a private school on the outskirts of a large city, and one at a state school in a remote village.

My first 6 months, and initially my only 6 months, was at the Private school in a suburb of Guangzhou – the third-largest city in China.

So, what were the benefits of working at a school such as this?

🏘️ Accommodation

I was given a one-bedroom apartment, with all the basic facilities I needed, and bills paid for. It was around a 10-minute bike ride from the school, and with 3 other Western teachers as neighbours.

🚇 Transport

As I lived so close to school, I rarely needed to use public transport. I was, however, provided a bicycle from the school.

🍚 Food

We were given a ‘swipe’ card, which could be used to access 3 meals per day in the school canteen, as well as in the school shop to buy any stationery or equipment we might need for our classes. The shop also sold sweets and chocolate, so you could swap out stationery for this… if you preferred! 😊

👍 Support

We had a teacher in the school who was our port of call, should we need anything. They are called your FAO, or foreign affairs officer. She helped with translations, getting into the city, and was available to answer any general questions or deal with any concerns we had.

💻 School facilities

In the school itself, we weren’t provided a designated office or space. However, the facilities in the classrooms themselves were very modern and often without fault – from internet access to projectors to audio and video facilities.

Life at state school

After the first 6 months of living in China, I decided I wanted to extend my contract but to try something new. I decided to ask my agency to see if there was any space within the same province (I’d got used to the warm weather!) but in a different type of school. I was moved around 2 and a half hours away, to a small village in Guangdong Province called Gaoyao, near to the ‘town’ of Zhaoqing.

This was quite a different experience:

🛏️ Accommodation

The apartment was huge. It was a two-bedroom, newly refurbished flat with all the basic facilities I needed. It was located within a ‘teacher’s village’, so my FAO lived downstairs. This gave it a community feel and allowed me to become more socially involved with locals. All bills were paid for.

🏍️ Transport

As I lived so close to the school, I didn’t need any transport or to take public transport anywhere. I did, however, buy myself an electric motorbike, which was handy for doing any food shopping or heading into Zhaoqing.

🥟 Food

As the village was so small, there were only 4 ‘restaurants’ and a fried chicken shop! The school did provide us with a meal card for free lunches, but often I only taught in the morning so wasn’t at school at lunchtime.

🙌 Support

We had our own desk in the teacher’s office, and an FAO should we need any help. Although the level of English was significantly lower in this school among staff, I never came across any major problems. It was difficult, however, to make friends or get to know colleagues at a school as large as this – around 8000 students.

🖨️ School facilities

Each classroom was fitted with a blackboard and one fan on the platform where you teach. There were up to 75 students in each class, so it was impossible to manoeuvre around or actually really get to know who you were teaching. Only one half of the school had internet access, but it was good to get back to basics and test your teaching ability without relying on technology.

👩‍🏫 The teaching process

Each school provided very similar timetables for Western teachers, starting much later than the rest of the school and finishing significantly earlier. Usually, the day was:

  • Begin around 9.30/10am
  • Teach around three or four 40 – 45 minute lessons
  • Take a break from midday – 2pm (to eat and sleep)
  • On occasion, less classes in the morning and one or two in the afternoon
  • Often an evening meet-up, such as a conversation club with a barbecue or dinner at school

You usually don’t have to work weekends, but as the holiday periods are different in China to the UK, I sometimes had to work on national holidays (but luckily, not Christmas day!)

It’s important to know that your teaching methods are likely to be very different from those of a Chinese teacher, so you may get a few perplexed looks at first. Often, Chinese students listen and take notes; occasionally choral drilling or repeating any essential information the teacher has said. The teacher is the authoritative figure in the classroom, so you may be greeted by a chant of “good morning teacher”, with all the students standing up and/or bowing to you. Everyone is different, but in order to avoid any awkward moments:

  • Set your classroom ‘rules’ on day 1. Do you want students to stand and say good morning/afternoon? What do you want to be called? What is expected of them?
  • Let them know it’s going to be different. Prepare them to try and use their imaginations or express their opinions.
  • Introduce yourself. Talk about the things you like or don’t like, hobbies you have or your family. Show pictures if you can, to show you’re just like them!
  • Explain the purpose of your class. Is it to speak more English? To practise critical thinking? Is it to simply listen?
  • Explain they can come and talk to you at any time outside of class. This will build your rapport and show you are there to teach English because you actually care – and you’re not so scary after all!

Which school is for me?

After experiencing both school environments, there are positive things and negative things about each of them.

Private school – The Pros

  • Class sizes are small, so you get to know your students better and can understand their needs
  • There are more facilities you may be used to teaching with such as the Internet, or a projector
  • For me, this was closer to the city, so I was able to do more with my free time. However, this is not always the case.
  • The school was generally more up to date. There were tennis and basketball courts, a large field and they were building a swimming pool nearby.
  • My school was more flexible in celebrating Western holidays and gave us a budget to throw a party for days such as Halloween and Easter.
  • There may have been Westerners in your school before you, or they may even be there at the same time as you. This allows you to integrate more with your colleagues and like-minded individuals.

Private school – The Cons

  • Life was very much about the school. The students only went home once per month, so if you eat at school and live nearby, it can sometimes be overwhelming, and you may need to just go out of the grounds to refresh!
  • The apartment was in a small building of 4 – meaning it was away from any other Chinese teachers, making it more difficult to integrate with the locals.
  • You may be asked to cover a class that students learn in English, other than English. For example, history or geography. Often in private schools, students take other subjects in English so the school may assume you can also teach this!

State school – The Pros

  • You may be the first Westerner in the school or area, meaning you’ll be treated like royalty!
  • You may be asked to give a welcome speech to the school, or even receive a presentation of dragon dancing or a school performance on your first day to greet you.
  • You’ll often be asked out to dinner with other teachers by the principal.
  • Because you’re likely to be in a small town or village, you’ll become used to the area and its quirks, and you’ll find your favourite places to eat (as well as the places to avoid!)
  • There is no use of technology. However, over time, you may be given more flexibility with your class and may be able to take them outside to learn English whilst doing something more practical.

State school – The Cons

  • The classes are large – up to 75 students in each – making it almost impossible to get to know anyone.
  • The school day runs from 6am to 11.30pm, with the students sleeping in only fan-cooled dormitories. This means that students may sleep in your class as their study day is so long!
  • Your lessons need to be adapted to try and fit the extra-large class size.
  • Students and teachers may be shy in approaching you, leaving you feeling slightly lonely at times. However, you need to ask yourself - if the tables were turned, would you approach a Chinese teacher and speak Chinese to them?!

Whichever type of school you end up teaching in, the experience will be what you make it. The students will love having a native English teacher and will be curious and inquisitive about your own life and experiences. You’ll also open your own mind to new possibilities and ways of living, and you’ll make memories you’ll never forget.

Living in the city

Guangzhou is the third largest city in China, and the capital of the southern Guangdong Province. An increasingly affluent and cosmopolitan city, there are many Western things you might find to make you feel at home, such as KFC or pizza restaurants serving European or American imports. It is known as one of the best cities to teach in China, because of its warm, often humid climate and almost 300 language centres to choose from. Thinking about other cities as well - check the reviews of working in Shanghai and Suzhou.

My school was located around 30 minutes from the city itself – relatively close by Chinese standards! You can take a bus, the metro or even a taxi, which was reasonably priced. When you arrive, there are a variety of ways to spend your time:

  • Chimelong theme parks – with rollercoasters and safari parks, it is reasonably priced at around $15 - $50 USD, depending on the type of entry you want.
  • 🗼 Visit the Canton Tower – a 604-metre tall illuminated tower with a number of extremely scary rides at the top!
  • ⛰️ Take a walk at Baiyun Mountain – also known as the White Cloud Mountain, it stands at 427 metres. You can cable car to the top and, on a good day, see the view across the city
  • 🏛️ Stroll around near Guangdong Museum – the architecture around this area is something that has to be seen to be believed. The museum itself holds a variety of Cantonese art, nature, cultural and historical artefacts.
  • ⛩️ Take a walk around the manicured gardens of Nansha Wetland Park, Dafushan Forest, People’s park or Qing Hui Yuan with its traditional pagodas.

There are temples, cathedrals, shopping centres and skyscrapers galore to wonder at – which is why Guangzhou is an excellent place to begin your teaching journey in China.

Living in a village

Still based in Guangdong province, my second school was around 2 hours from the city. This meant a totally different experience.

For me, living in China is about experiencing traditional life and getting to meet locals, which is something you can’t do as well living in a large city such as Guangzhou. However, the downside to a small village is that everyone knows who you are, and people are more than likely going to take photos of you or follow you down the street wherever you go! You may even find your shopping trolley being photographed!

The nearest town to my small village of Gaoyao was Zhaoqing. With a population of just over 4 million people, it’s small in comparison to most cities or towns in China. So, what to do there?

  • 🗺️ Visit Star Lake. Most evenings there was a light and water show on the lake, which has stunning mountainous crags scattered throughout it.
  • ⛰️ Walk up Dinghu mountain – a protected around with pagodas, waterfalls, and lakes
  • 🥾 Wander around the Seven Star Crags – all scattered around Star Lake, they are separated into five sections and connected with walkways and narrow strips of land.

Although much smaller than the city, life in a village can really immerse you into Chinese culture, and you may build closer relationships by having a glimpse into a different side of China that you wouldn’t have seen if you were a tourist. Read a short review about teaching in Huzhou, a city of 3 million situated right next to Hangzhou.

Overall, wherever you teach in China will be an eye-opening experience. You’ll learn about one of the oldest civilisations in the world, try some of the most delicious food you’ll ever have come across, and meet people you’d never expect. Deciding what kind of experience you wish to have depends on your preference, but every kind of experience will leave memories to last you a lifetime.