When I lived in Kuwait, our school director frequently inferred that we were being hosed with money since our salaries were tax-free. My take-home pay jumped from around $2000 a month in Florida to almost double that in Kuwait, so at first, I totally agreed. It wasn’t stunning–didn’t even crack $50K–but it included NICEEEEEE housing, utilities and transportation. I liked to add up the numbers I’d be spending if in the United States, and it was satisfying. Essentially, though, even with benefits added, it equaled what I made as a drama, journalism and English teacher my last year in Las Vegas. (The difference? The entire move abroad was paid for by the school.)
As a result, I was surprised to hear a coworker mention what a pay cut she’d taken to leave her teaching job in New Jersey. I’d looked into opportunities there the year prior, but was looking at more “at-risk” communities and charter schools. Basically, her pay neared six figures, and her more affluent district even paid thousands a year in tutoring and professional development grants.
I’m aware that teachers in the northeastern U.S. make significantly more than the South, but hearing the number from an affluent district just stunned me. It gave me the courage to aim higher and really see what was out there, instead of staying put another year in Kuwait out of fear.
It turns out, my proud director was a little off. While housing is handled differently in parts of China, I negotiated a bit and was able to ensure a take-home pay comparable to Kuwait that accounted for having to pay taxes.
Surprisingly, the offer in my less desirable city was the same or better than those in larger cities, which made the lower cost of living even more profitable. But there was more.
The benefits I’ll outline here are similar to what’s offered to most U.S. licensed teachers who work abroad–at least, they should be the baseline. If you build up contacts, you can work up to much more lucrative gigs at international schools, but that’s not my preference. It’s important to me to teach the students of the actual country where I’m living in order to fully embrace the culture of my new home. If you don’t want that, you can earn significantly more at schools that cater to foreign students.
If you’re an American teacher, feel free to email me for more information–and, of course, I’ll cover more on how to teach abroad in the future. In the meantime, check out an excellent post by my friend Expat Panda on how to get started.
Here goes! What makes teaching here so great.
FYI: RMB, for renminbi; yuan (not to be confused with Japanese yen); and kuai are all terms that indicate Chinese currency, currently valued at 1 USD to 6.9元。
Housing for the year:
I showed up, toured a few properties, and picked. The school paid the landlord for the entire year, as well as the realtor fee.
The allowance is 3500 yuan, or about $500 as of Dec. 2018, but we don’t have to spend that much. My place costs 2100 RMB, which means I get to pocket the $200 difference every month. It goes straight in my check. (It’s a third of the average cost of a place in Shanghai, by the way.)
This is especially remarkable in China, where expats’ transience makes landlords charge three months of rent up front. While this would be easier in Fuyang, it means you fork over $3K in some of the big cities, plus a realtor fee and deposit. (Housing allowances in Shanghai are around 6,000 yuan, though it varies.)
Here, I only had to pay a small deposit, which I’ll get back when I leave. Choosing a small city made this unexpected expense much less stressful (the school didn’t make it clear on the front end that I’d be paying it, but it worked out).
We got to choose where we’d live, and then the bus driver picks us up according to that. Some people prefer to have housing set up on arrival and/or live close to or on their school campuses–excellent options, each with their own pluses and drawbacks–but since my goal was less “ease” and more “save as much cash as I can,” I really appreciate the ability to choose a cheaper place and pocket the difference.
Flight reimbursement on arrival.
While it’s ideal to have your employer pay up front for your ticket, they did reimburse me for a “Premium Economy” seat (it was on sale and before my “wakeup call”), and I had already planned a trip to China with my BFF from Kuwait. In essence, I got paid to make a trip I would have already.
“Settling in” allowance.
While my apartment was furnished, I still had to buy some appliances like a microwave and a rice cooker. I also purchased basics like pots, pans and utensils. The allowance, at about $140, covered a good chunk of this cost.
I didn’t use it until I found a service in the U.S. that would combine packages for me and send them to me after I arrived, but my job paid it when I turned it in months after arrival. Score!
Yearly flight stipend.
The amount granted works out to around $1700 for a round trip to your home country, and it’s paid whether you take the trip home or not. The only downside is that you must pay taxes on it if you don’t buy the flight first and ask for the reimbursement afterward. If I return to the U.S. this summer to see family, I’ll do it with SkyMiles, but there are ways to lessen the tax levied.
Transportation to and from work.
We ride a bus that we affectionately call the Loaf for its bread-like color and shape, but this is a HUGE benefit and a requirement for me after a difficult commute in Beijing. I grade, practice my Chinese with DuoLingo, listen to podcasts, read, or catch up with coworkers on the commute, which lasts 30-40 minutes each way. It’s a great way to decompress, and we have a short five-minute walk after we reach our apartment block that lets us stretch our legs. In the morning, since I often wake up 15-20 minutes before the bus arrives, I also finish getting ready.
Free breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I usually just eat lunch and we leave before dinner most days, but this is an enormous perk. I can often take snacks to eat at home or even just later in the day at work. As part of this…
Separate cafeteria for foreign teachers.
This is kind of weird, but we can go into the Chinese cafeteria, too, and they can enjoy the expat dining room. The purpose behind this is to serve Western food for the foreign teachers, and since our group is so comparatively small, the area we eat in is too. As a result, it’s less industrial chic, and more warm log-cabin+banquet feel. That said, we can eat the delicious and fascinating food on the Chinese side, sit with colleagues over there, and vice versa.
Mixed feelings on this one, since I liked eating with colleagues in Beijing. It is nice to speak in English with my colleagues, though, and to get to know them better. We have teachers from England, Poland, South Africa, the U.S., New Zealand, Pakistan and Nicaragua, and we don’t see the ones who work in the elementary or middle schools except at lunch.
I will be talking a LOT more about the food in future posts. It’s just a huge benefit that I am daily grateful for, and hope never to take for granted!
Nice automated espresso/coffee machine.
A random bonus introduced after the Western teachers requested a way to make coffee by the cup. Instead of Keurig machines, which I hate (Hi, my name is Abby; I am a coffee snob), it actually grinds whole beans and makes the fresh cup according to your specifications. Pretty sweet, and not something I’ve ever had, anywhere else I’ve worked in my life, except (kind of) at Starbucks and Seattle’s Best Coffee shops–and obviously, the purpose was to serve it to others–not ourselves!
Almost $3,000 will be awarded at the end of two years. If I stay a third, I get an additional flight stipend, bonus and raise. Notice I said third, not two more–unlike my old school, you can sign on for just one more year, instead of two, and still get perks. That’s rare. (I’ll do a post comparing offers and benefits I had in Kuwait as well as positions I turned down in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia at a later date.)
My school shows a continual dedication to actually listening to teachers and changing the situation based on that feedback (hence the year 3 option and the coffee maker)–a valuable trait.
Cheap, cheap, cheaaaaaappppp healthcare.
Because, China. Communism. You get the picture, but it’s nice that benefits are offered to us laowaimen (foreigners), too. The experience is a lot like a very efficient, crowded DMV, but we also have three doctors on campus. They’re primarily for the students who live in the dorms on campus–many Chinese schools are boarding schools–but they examined and treated me for free after a traffic accident last month.
When I got sick in Beijing in 2015 and went the official public hospital route, the examination, bloodwork and medicine cost something like 120 kuai, or less than $20. This all requires being appropriately registered with the government, by the way, so if any company ever tells you to just come to China on a tourist visa–run!
In addition to the free daily meals, we had a big celebration at a Greek restaurant to kick off the school year. When the owner himself pulled out an extra bottle of Johnnie Walker and left it for us to enjoy in addition to unlimited wine and soda, I knew I was no longer in Kuwait! (Alcohol is illegal there.)
We also just enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving buffet last night, replete with–again–wine and whiskey… yet there are teetotaling peeps, too, and no one seems to drink too much or embarrass themselves (so far, at least)!
We also have an appointed person who helps us deal with living as a foreigner in China, but that is pretty standard in most foreign schools for licensed teachers.
All benefits aside, what remains? What do I have to pay? Luckily, very little–which is why I chose this place. I am solely responsible for my utilities and dinner each night, enabling me to officially save 95% of my take-home pay.
You read that right. Ninety-five percent of what I earn every month goes to debt, and that’s being conservative. If I stick to my No-Spend December plan, in which I’ll be buying just groceries on the weekends on a more-frugal-than-normal budget, it will be even higher.
And we’re just getting started.
One Quick Thing.
My job is working as a licensed high school English teacher in a public/private hybrid school. My students are Chinese kids who plan to attend a Western university for college, and thus bypass the Gaokao. I have a master’s degree in education and eight years of experience teaching in U.S. public schools, plus two years teaching abroad.
Licensed teaching abroad is a world apart from teaching adults or kids ESL. The latter requires less education–generally, an ESL certificate that can be earned online–and/or any kind of bachelor’s degree. It pays less than half of what licensed teachers earn, and it entails working for a company not related to China’s public school system.
Such programs rarely provide housing, a set number of hours, or a healthy work/life balance if you’re trying to make a full-time salary. They do have a lot more flexibility, though. They’re fitting for an FI-er or very frugal person who values their freedom and doesn’t need to replace a full income or live a Western lifestyle in Asia.
This sounds obvious, but I’ve encountered a lot of native English speakers who have starry-eyed visions of buckets of money awaiting them in foreign countries, regardless of whether they have experience teaching. It’s not impossible, but it’s not that simple.
In addition, racism is alive and well in all parts of the world. A common occurrence here is that Chinese parents don’t want to see someone who looks Asian teaching in an expat teacher position. Even if they hear that the teacher grew up in the U.S., it can be a roadblock in their minds. Thankfully, that is not the case at my current school, but tensions like this abound.
On a positive note, depending on where you go, you get more handsomely rewarded for graduate degrees and years of experience. That matters a lot to me after a situation in Florida where Duval Schools routinely denied teachers their stipend for having a master’s degree in their subject area, due to invented technicalities (me included). Some teachers at the school where I worked finished their graduate degrees only to find that they wouldn’t get the raise owed for stupid reasons (meanwhile, in Vegas, I was given the salary increase as soon as I applied, and even got a month of back pay for the time it took them to process the application).
An additional plus is that in some places, you can really negotiate more for your salary, just as you would at a private company in the U.S. This was my first time countering, and it felt magical and amazing to be granted more money just for asking (though, of course, I did so in a professional, well-reasoned manner).
These are the benefits. They’re pretty standard, but huge to me, because I wanted a city with a low cost of living and my housing, transportation and flights covered, in addition to wanting to work specifically with Chinese students. Your needs may vary, and that’s great! If you’ve considered teaching abroad before, I definitely recommend that you do it… but stick around for my upcoming post on the downsides and difficulties of making the leap.
In the meantime, check out the links below for more info.
- I strongly recommend teachaway.com over paid services. (Another way to get hired fast is to attend international job fairs in person.) Feel free to click over and explore opportunities abroad–you can search by licensed and college-level teaching OR ESL positions, which is great. And it’s free! (I’m a neophyte here so NO affiliate links, BTW.)
- When you’re not from the U.S. or countries with privileged passports, traveling and teaching abroad presents a different experience. This insightful article by Expat Panda gave me some much-needed perspective as she breaks down the numbers on ease of access to countries with her South African passport: “So What Exactly Happens When You Don’t Have a ‘Passport of Privilege’?“
- For more information on where I used to live, check out this sassy look at life in Kuwait and travel in the Middle East and Europe by the talented blogger @ ErinLandandSea.