When we hear about China in the news, the stories are about their responses to Covid, their human rights record, the fraught relations between China and the West, and of course the two Ps – Population and Pollution. It’s no wonder that for many international educators China is, quite literally, a red flag.
However, (and this is a big however) what you don’t hear are the stories of internationalists who continue to live and work in China far past their initial contracts, having fantastic experiences. You don’t hear about the world-leading international schools, nor the incredible mixture of travel available throughout, and from, China, or the diverse lifestyles available in China’s ever-expanding international cities. Like many places in the world, living and working in China has its pros and cons, but unlike many other countries chosen by international teachers, China is often the only one that people say a firm ‘no’ to. This is a shame; a missed opportunity. And this is often due to common misconceptions. So let us tell you why now really is the time to work in international schools in China.
Teacher Horizons Adviser Kate McTigue worked in Shanghai for three years and shares her insights into why she believes living and working in China presents such a great opportunity for teachers.
I won’t lie – settling in was the hardest part of moving to China. And this was with the support of an incredible HR team at my school. Whilst technology and development have made living in China incredibly efficient, with apps such as WeChat and Alipay making life easy, the reality when you first arrive is that these (or lack of these) can actually seem to hold you back. My experience differs from friends in other international schools, however, my bank account took over a month to set up, meaning that I could not access these apps and the delights that they give for your life in China. Alipay and WeChat provide you with payment options, and whilst you can pay cash in some places, the ease of QR code payments have transformed life! They also enable you to use maps, translation, splitting bills, QR readers, taxis, sharing bikes, ordering food… the list goes on. But in my first month, without a bank account, I couldn’t access much of Shanghai life, and whilst school did help, it was a long first month which I wish I had been prepared for. Once I had access to these life-changing apps, life became fast, efficient and fun!
Shanghai is a busy and cosmopolitan city, with distinct neighborhoods offering different lifestyles and choices. The city is divided into Puxi (Xi = West) which has downtown areas such as The Former French Concession, Jing’an, Tianzifang and Xintiandi. The other side of the city is called Pudong (Dong = East) and this is where many of the big international schools and companies are (and Disneyland). Whether you are joining a local cycling group (the Pudong Peddlers was particularly popular) or cycling the share bikes in the city; heading to the international restaurants on the Bund, or a local noodle house downtown; sipping a cocktail in the coolest new bar in the French Concession, or checking out the latest international art exhibition at Modern Art Pudong gallery, there really is something for everyone.
And it’s not all fast-paced ‘classic’ city life. For those with young families, there are loads of sports clubs, family-friendly markets and events, and wide boulevards which are great for family cycles. In my final year in Shanghai, I was heavily pregnant and found much delight in a slower-paced Shanghai lifestyle, wandering the beautiful tree-lined streets of the Former French Concession or in city parks, before my superb experience of Shanghai’s international hospitals.
China and the international school network is an expanding sector, meaning that the opportunities here are endless. The big school groups are here, boasting some of the best schools in the region, if not the world: Dulwich College, United World College, Nord Anglia, Wellington College and Shanghai American School. And whilst these schools have maintained their high standards and retained their high student numbers, it is no secret that Covid has left a talent shortage in some areas for these schools in China. This means there are some excellent opportunities for career development if you are the right candidate for these schools.
Even with restrictions during the Covid years, travel in China was still a reality, and now that these restrictions have now ended, the travel options are impressive. For a white winter fix, you can head North from Shanghai, via the Great Wall, and head to the snowy mountains outside Beijing for skiing. Keep going north and you get to Harbin and their famous Ice Festival on the Chinese/Russian border – the final outpost of the old Russian empire. For summer sights and beach time, you could head to Sanya or Xishuangbana (wild elephant valley) on the Vietnamese border. Or head inland to Guilin, a firm favourite, with its beautiful mountains and lakes, and incredible food. Or fly up to Xinjiang or Gansu for a truly unique experience of spices, Buddhist monasteries and Chinese Islamic culture. We never made it to Hong Kong, Yunan or Changshu (pandas!) but we were thrilled to have the experience of walking on the Great Wall of China, seeing the absolute wonder of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an and traveling to a slice of heaven in Gansu.
And finally, let’s talk money. Whilst there are so many reasons to become an international educator, the reality is we expect to have a good lifestyle, have money to travel, and increase our savings. In short, China is the place to do this. Yes, you pay taxes as you would in many countries, but the remuneration in top international schools is hefty. You are paid well, you are deliberately compensated for your expertise, and the rent and healthcare benefits are substantial. And with the mix of more expensive, international living, and cheaper local living, saving well is a reality in China. Don’t forget schools will also have some form of gratuity or bonus at the end of your service too!
Years ago, I was given the advice that there are three things to consider as an international educator: professional development, personal circumstances, and money, and if two of the three are there, then you are on to a good thing. The top schools in China will aid you to grow professionally and rapidly, living in these international cities will enable you to have choices in your lifestyle, and the high salaries that reflect demand and your expertise will enable you to save well.
There really is no better time to move to China and make your mark in a school community there.