Mike Cairnduff from Hello Teacher!

Updated September 28, 2020
By Mike Cairnduff

TEFL in China

In this blog, I talk to Jonathan Arthur, ex English teacher and marketer for English First (EF), about how TEFL in China can open up career doors.

Jonathan, can you tell us about your career journey so far?

I graduated from university in the UK in 2012 with the intention of working in marketing, and one day coming to China.

My first job straight out of uni was at a wine retail company. It was a pretty decent job for many reasons.

I earnt a diploma in wine and wine tasting, drank lots of free wine, and even won a trip to Spain!

In the end, I left because I wanted to break into marketing and I was overlooked for a position within the company.

My next step was in marketing in the renewables industry. I learnt a lot in this job; we were a small company and inexperienced. We learnt as we went and grew pretty big.

In my second year there, I decided that I would go to China for a holiday and meet some Chinese uni mates. I had a great two weeks and decided then and there that I wanted to go back.

On return from China, the company that I worked at went through a bad spell with government cuts.

As we were going through the liquidation process, I started looking into teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) certifications.

Once I was TEFL certified, I then went looking for the biggest and most trustworthy company I could find. Luckily, I got the job teaching English in China with EF, and the rest is history.

Apart from working in marketing, what other kinds of careers can you move into after a successful teaching stint in China?

I think the biggest advantage to working at EF is the career advancement opportunities.

I know that smaller companies can help you to climb up into some form of management, but at EF, I think there are way more possibilities.

All of EF’s teaching materials are made in-house. That means they need teams of course writers and product developers to create the teaching syllabus and materials.

After a year of teaching at the company, anyone can apply for a position where they can create lessons, write courseware and design products.

Brit Jonathan Arthur explains how TEFL in China can open up career doors.

Teaching in China can open up career doors (pictured: EF kids class in action).

In addition, teachers can move into recruitment, marketing, web development and much more.

As the company is global, there are opportunities to work in all areas of education and industry, as well as the standard teaching route such as senior teacher, director of studies and regional manager.

Teacher training is also a growing area.


What do you say to people who don’t regard teaching abroad as a good career move?

I hear this a lot.

On the whole, the TEFL industry has mixed reviews, but I think this is outdated.

As well as the job opportunities in the industry that I have just mentioned, I think the teaching side to TEFL has a lot of opportunity, and it is a rewarding job.

I think there’s a lot of pressure on people these days to get a great corporate job, become an entrepreneur or a start-up founder, earn lots of money, and flaunt it on social media.

In TEFL, this won’t happen, and I think that’s a good thing.

A career in China takes time to build, and people need to develop multiple skill sets in an increasingly international world.

As a TEFL teacher, you will get better at working with people, because you will be with them every day.

Your communication skills will improve, you will have to learn to adapt, and this is what employers are looking for.

Three male Chinese students sitting at desk

Your people skills will improve while teaching in China.

At EF’s HQ, the majority of international staff used to teach. The company wouldn’t hire former TEFL teachers if they thought they weren’t up to it.

So, I would say that everyone’s journey is different, there are plenty of opportunities, and TEFL can shape your career. But this will only happen to those who are motivated enough to take advantage of it.

On the teaching side, the more experience you get, the more places you can teach and the more money you can earn. It all comes with time and it is a career with legs if you want it to be.


What were some of the challenges working with students from a different cultural background?

Teaching in China has been pretty easy for me. I don’t think I have had too many challenges in class beyond helping people improve their English.

I think there are a lot of differences, but if you are open minded, it’s not too much of a problem.

For example, Chinese people can be direct.

They will tell you if they think you have gained weight, if you need a shave or if you look unwell. They will also make health recommendations, like drink warm water if you are unwell.

They are also very welcoming and accommodating so the plusses outweigh the negatives.

One big difference is the way they respect teachers. Teaching in China is seen as a pretty noble profession.

Chinese students seem to hang on your word, even adults. They can think that you know everything, which I didn’t like, because they would believe things other teachers said even if it wasn’t accurate.

An open mind will take you a long way. I find the differences are a small challenge that I enjoy rather than something big I need to overcome.


What skills that you learnt while teaching are you using in your current marketing role?

Quite a lot!

Before I began teaching, I wasn’t great at public speaking. However, after teaching five classes to around 20 students, the nerves soon passed and this was something I became more comfortable with.

In my current job, if I have a presentation, I am way better at presenting, organising information and setting up Q&As.

As well as public speaking, I am way better at working with new staff and helping with any training sessions.

I often ask concept checking questions (CCQs), elicit information rather than just talking, and I always like to have practical elements so people aren’t just sitting there.

Apart from that, my English has improved, I have learnt a lot about my own language which is useful.

Have you picked up any Mandarin?

Yes, I have picked up quite a lot.

I had a few lessons before I came, and in my first year of teaching, I progressed to between elementary and intermediate.

Unfortunately, since working in marketing, I have invested most of my time in marketing and further study, so I have stagnated.

But if anyone reading this is thinking about learning, or moving to China to teach and learn, I would say do it.

In the beginning, it is tough and progress feels slow. However, once you get into the swing of it, it’s really enjoyable and a lot of fun communicating with people.

Shanghai is a huge and exciting city, but have you discovered any little secret gems you can share with us?

When I have spare time to spend in Shanghai, I like to walk around and explore.

I am a big fan of ‘speakeasy’ bars. I know the concept isn’t new, but I love going to a bar that is hidden away behind a Coke machine or a bookshelf. It really adds to the experience.

Also, Thames Town is pretty cool. It’s a miniature version of England on the periphery of Shanghai.

Ex teacher Jonathan Arthur thinks Thames Town is a cool place to visit in Shanghai.

Thames Town in Shanghai is a nice place to visit.

For those teaching in Shanghai, I'd recommend a visit.

Where do you see yourself in the next five or so years?

This is a difficult question as I think the world is changing so fast these days. I am pretty certain I will be in China.

I would like to say I would have progressed into a senior position at EF so that I can help more people come to China, but I am not certain.

If I decide in a few years that I don’t want to stay in marketing, I would definitely consider teaching again.

Has TEFL in China opened up career doors for you? Share your story below.


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