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Teaching in China: Public Vs Private Schools


For the purpose of this blog, ‘Private Schools’ are schools for are students in grades 1-12 that are not public schools. 

If you’re interested in working as a TEFL teacher in China, knowing the differences between public and private schools will certainly help you determine the best teaching environment for you. Even if you have prior teaching experience in both private and public schools in your home country or other countries, you’ll want to know how they differ in China, specifically.

China is a very unique teaching destination and given you’ll need to commit to a teaching contract in order to work here, you’ll want to ensure you are committing to the right school and the right type of ESL teaching job, for you.

Here’s a quick lowdown of how public and private schools differ in China. Once you get the gist of how the education system works here, you’ll have a better understanding of the teaching differences as well.

What are the differences between public & private schools in China?

The most obvious difference is related to funding: public schools are funded by the Chinese government and private schools are funded by the student fees and owned by an individual/company.

Public – In a country of one billion people, like China, education funding is obviously spread thin, which means public schools lack the glitz of private schools. Classes are larger (25-40 students, in some cases), teaching equipment is basic and the curriculum is standardised.

Private – Some of China’s most prestigious private schools charge exorbitant amounts and it shows in the kind of facilities and amenities they offer. We’re talking state of the art high-tech equipment, loads of space, sport fields and much smaller classes (usually about 15-25 students). The curriculum can also differ and can be unique to a specific school.  Due to the green field sites required to build these schools, expect your high-end private school to be on the periphery of your chosen city,

Private or Public Schools_Teaching in China

What kind of public schools are there in China?

When looking at public school teaching positions, you’ll see jobs advertised in three categories: If you are from North America, these school types will be all too familiar.

  • Elementary school (grades 1-6)
  • Middle school (grades 7 – 9)
  • High School (grades 10 – 12)

If you are from the UK and Ireland, you may be more familiar with Primary and secondary schools which as used interchangeably with their North American counterparts.

  • Primary school (grades 1-7)
  • Secondary school (grades 8 – 12)

What kind of private schools are there in China?

There’s a lot more to choose from in the private education sector. In essence, any teaching institution that isn’t funded by the State is private. This includes a wide range of schools where classes are either held in English or where English is taught as a foreign language (from kindergartens to primary and middle schools, specialized academies, bilingual schools, etc).

What’s it like teaching in a public school?

Teaching in China can be overwhelming to the first-time TEFL teacher, however a Public School  with a standardized curriculum can make for a somewhat easy life. Additionally the set up can make for a more manageable job. For instance, when teaching several classes of the same grade, you can often hold the same identical class over and over again. Many first-time TEFL teachers find this comforting and public schools are certainly a great way to gain teaching experience. Following a set curriculum is a lot easier and much less stressful than having to come up with 101 different class plans every week.

Yet don’t think for a moment that ‘easy’ means ‘slack’. Public schools in China can be as competitive as private ones. The Chinese, by their very nature, take a lot of pride in what they do. Every public school no matter where you are will strive to be the best in the area. Sure, the expectations placed on you won’t be quite as soul-crushingly high as they may be in private schools, yet you’ll still be expected to do the best teaching job you can.

In public schools, students learn English grammar from their Chinese teacher and foreign teachers are employed to improve the students’ oral skills. As a teacher in a public school, you will be working closely with a local teacher, effectively complementing their classes with conversational lessons.

Public schools in China offer among the lowest teaching salaries of all but, on the other hand, you will have one of the most secure teaching jobs and your rights will be protected by the government.

Here are the main benefits of teaching in public schools in China:

  • Your teaching schedule will resemble a 9-to-5 a lot more than if you worked in a private school – usually, you’ll work 8.30am – 4pm, Monday to Friday. You will have weekends and public holidays off and almost 12 weeks of school holidays a year (although not every public school will pay you on school holidays).
  • Accommodation is oftentimes provided for foreign teachers
  • You’ll have less freedom to guide your curriculum but this means less prep work and a more relaxing teaching life, overall.
  • You’ll be in contact with students from a wider social class and this can be a wonderful, all-encompassing experience
  • Less paperwork/office work required than in private schools and you will also not be required to work on recruitment days. Public schools don’t need to drum up business the way private schools do
  • Public schools typically offer a much more immersive Chinese experience. Most School can only afford to hire a few foreign teachers at any given time

Learn more about Public School Jobs in China

What to look for when applying for public school teaching jobs

When contemplating applying for a teaching job with a public school in China, there are some things you ought to pay attention to:

  • How many classes/hours are you expected to teach? Make sure you know what you’re committing to
  • How long is your teaching contract? Some public schools will offer contracts of only 10 months in order not to pay you for school vacations
  • What kind of holiday pay can you expect? Don’t take estimates, ask for specifics

SUMMARY – Teaching in public schools in China is arguably the least lucrative option you could find BUT it can be a wonderful way to get a foot in the teaching-abroad-door. If you don’t have the kind of experience and qualifications demanded by private schools, it can be a great way to gain direct classroom experience. Moreover, the environment and workload suit those who want a less stressful teaching life.

Private or Public Schools_Teaching in China5

What’s it like teaching in a private school in China?

China decided to privatize schooling in order to increase literacy and, as is the case all over the world, there are high expectations placed on private schools. In return for steep fees, private schools are expected to provide a high level of teaching and much better facilities than those offered by public schools.

Overall, teachers have less time off working in private schools. On the flip side, however, you will have a lot more teaching freedom in private schools and will receive  some of the highest teaching salaries in China.

Private schooling is highly-regarded in China and many parents will pay (and do pay) exorbitant amounts to have their children attend. As a teacher in a private school, you will likewise be highly-regarded in your community and, although you’ll have high expectations placed on your performance, you’ll also reap a lot more rewards.

The benefits of private school teaching are seriously impressive:

  • The highest teaching salaries offered in China
  • Fantastic teaching environment, including brand new classrooms, high-tech equipment, outdoor sporting fields and a lot more space
  • More teaching freedom
  • There’s a lot of teaching choice in the private school sector: from world-class international schools where you may need to have a teaching license. To bilingual schools and academies that will still require experience and talented teachers, but without the teaching license and qualifications.
  • Usually, you’ll have weekends off, all public holidays, Christmas holidays, longer holidays for Chinese New Year and an even a Christmas Break

SUMMARY – Teaching in private schools in China is certainly appealing and something most foreign teachers aim to do. However, not all that glitters is gold. Yes, private schools do offer the highest salaries but the financial rewards do come with a price. Parents pay a premium to send their kids to private schools and their demands on teachers can be high. Sometimes, they’ll drive you bonkers and some have known to be pushy. Throw in the long hours, excessive planning, marking, meetings etc and you may just find yourself overworked at times.

However saying that, get it right and you will never meet the kindest and most grateful parents.

The potential is what attracts many teachers to private schools. A stint in a private schools often lead many to a career in teaching and a go on the international teaching circuit which turns a short stint in China to a lucrative career change.

What to look for when applying for private teaching jobs in China

Some private schools offer  teachers the chance to do their Post-Graduate Certificate of Education courses (PGCE/teaching licence) while working at the school. This can be an attractive proposition for many teachers who want to become fully fledged teachers. It’s a win-win on both sides: schools get to train their future teachers (thus ensuring they have plenty) and prospective teachers will have a better chance of making the transition to top tier international schools in China and beyond.

When applying for a private school teaching position, make sure you know:

  • How many hours/classes you’ll be expected to teach
  • How much office work you’ll be expected to do and is there enough planning time
  • How much extra-curricular work you’ll be expected to do (camps, social events, etc)
  • Are your holidays paid? All schools offer pay for public holidays, but are you being paid for other holidays? Do your research and ask the question and ensure it’s very clear in your contract. Make sure you are happy with the arrangement.

When it comes to deciding between public VS private school teaching in China, it’s worth looking at the picture as a whole, rather than a sum of all its detailed parts. Yes, you will generally be paid more to teach in a private school yet public schooling can be an incredible door into the more traditional side of Chinese culture.

Rather than simply hone in on a certain type of school, we recommend you concentrate your job search efforts on finding an employer who values your contribution and a working environment that adds value to your life in China.

We can help you get there, submit your CV and we will help you along the way

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David O Connor

David O Connor

David is China by Teaching’s chief contributor. When not offering sage advice about teaching in China, David is a headmaster of a Bilingual kindergarten in Beijing. David is a lover of craft beers, book clubs and super long road trips.

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