EF China

EF China: A Serious Warning

I applied to teach with English First China in August 2009. I’d actually been browsing jobs teaching English in Japan when I saw a sidebar ad that read “Teach English in China.” I clicked it and arrived at the EF home page.

Unlike the majority of ESL job postings online, language school English First’s website was organized, informative and beautifully-designed. It explained in crystal-clear detail what I could expect from the application process, upon my acceptance as a teacher, after my arrival in China and on the job.

I didn’t hear anything for the first several days after submitting my application, but within 48 hours of EF’s response, I had a job offer and placement in Shanghai. I hope this isn’t too good to be true, I thought as I clicked the “Send” button.

As you can probably guess, it was indeed too good to be true. Although English First Shanghai is far from the worst place I’ve ever worked, little about the company separates it from any of its multinational competitors.

Want to teach English overseas? We can help.

The Good

I like to start with the positive whenever I can, so I’ll begin by telling you what was good about my experience teaching English in China with EF. Overall, English First’s strong suit is that it has money, which it uses to make sure teachers’ bare necessities are covered.

English First was always on-time direct depositing my salary into the Bank of China account the school set up on my behalf. By contrast, many smaller English school pay teachers late, or not at all. These school sometimes even cease operations without prior notice.

As promised, EF promptly reimbursed me for expenses I incurred during the application process, such as obtaining my online TEFL certification and Chinese “Z” work visa.

English First also facilitated the conversion of my work visa into a residence permit. The school provided me with a work permit, medical examination and a chaperoned transfer to the office where I had to submit my paperwork. EF paid all associated costs.

Furthermore, EF’s “welcome package” was excellent. My liaison Apple met me at Pudong Airport and escorted me to the four-star Rayfont Nanpu Shanghai Hotel, where EF had prepaid a two-week stay for me.

Before Apple left, she provided me all the materials I’d need to start with the company the following Monday, including instructions as to where to meet her colleague, who’d be taking myself and my future colleagues to orientation.

The Bad

EF offered teachers a salary of 12,350 RMB (or about $1,850) per month as of November 2009. That’s enough to live well in Shanghai or other large Chinese cities, but it isn’t enough to both save and spend. Allow me to explain.

First of all, China taxes expat employees in this income bracket at a rate of 20%. In other words, my take-home pay was only 9,880 yuan per month.

EF does not provide you with an apartment or compensate you for yours. Instead, I paid about 3,000 yuan (~$450) per month in rent, and 700 yuan, or $100 in utilities. I spent 200 yuan ($30) per week on groceries, 50 (about $7) on lunch at work and 100 ($15) filling up my Metro card. My recurring expenses totaled 4,050 yuan (~$625) per month.

EF China also doesn’t reimburse you for your flight up-front. Rather, it pays you monthly installments of a set, 8,000 yuan ($1,200) employee transportation allowance that doesn’t come close to covering the actual cost of a round-trip ticket from anywhere in North America or Europe to China.

The Ugly

EF China Work Environment

You might notice that I haven’t mentioned much about my work environment yet. You know what that means: It sucked.

As a disclaimer, I will say that I loved my students more than you can ever imagine. I taught adults, so many of my students became friends. They showed me parts of Shanghai and China I’d never have been able to see otherwise. For this alone, I am forever indebted.

That being said, EF is surely not the only English school in China with good students.

EF China Management

Unfortunately, EF is one of the worst managed places I’ve ever worked. I’m speaking about my work location in particular: The EF “Megacenter,” the company’s national headquarters in Shanghai’s People’s Square district.

Friends who worked in other English First centers throughout the city and country, teaching both kids and adults, had varying reactions to their workplaces. The vast majority of them were as disappointed as I was.

This was particularly true for kids’ teachers, who were unwittingly forced into working two six-week sets of seven-day work weeks during EF’s seasonal “Summercourse” and “Wintercourse” modules, without overtime pay or time off in lieu of worked weekends.

EF Professional Development

Several job-related irregularities irked me. First and foremost was the issue of “Feedback.”

About half of a given SMART teacher’s schedule is composed of four-person “Face-to-Face” classes.  The primary benefit students reap from taking these classes is individualized instructor “Feedback” within 72 hours of class completion.

Being the overachiever and generally good worker than I am, I made a point of entering feedback immediately after each Face-to-Face class. I got zero recognition for my promptness. By comparison, all but a couple of the other teachers were chronically late.

To add insult to injury, I was also made to stay in the office during unpaid “office hours,” even though I was finished with my work. Because of this, I ended up being “at work” approximately 50 hours per week, while getting paid for just 25.

My supervisor used his quarterly conferences mostly to remind me that he didn’t personally like me very much. The subject matter of these conferences only tangentially related to teaching or learning, and usually focused on matters of office gossip.

He also frequently criticized my wardrobe. This was curious, since I was the only male teacher in the office to adhere to EF’s dress code, which requires a belt, tie, dress slacks and a shirt tucked into them.

Hate sales? I don’t, but it got really fucking old have to put the EF logo on every piece of content I produced for my students, as well as having to use official product and course names whenever I mentioned any linguistic concept even nominally related to them.

Technology at EF China

Technology-wise the Megacenter was also lacking, a problem I imagine is much worse at English First satellite centers. Computers both at teacher desks and in classrooms were sluggish, resulting in regular delays in class starting time for which teachers usually took the blame.

Alternatives to English First China

EF’s main competitor in China is Wall Street English, a decidedly more corporate-oriented language school that have at least as many centers as EF nationwide, if not more.

Wall Street English has a reputation of working its employees even harder than English First (34 classroom hours per week vs. 25), but also pays significantly better, in addition to a rent-and-bills stipend each month. Like EF, Wall Street is a multinational company, so it’s conceivable you could take your job to another country if you make it long enough.

Once I’d finished with English First, however, I had no desire to work directly for someone again. By virtue of my friend Kyle, who worked for British Education Ltd. at the time, I was able to procure several high school-aged students as private clients, eventually making as much per month as I’d made with EF working only half the time.

Teaching private English lessons is ideal if you’re experienced enough that you don’t have a problem making lesson plans from scratch. It’s also important that you be OK with working under the table, since you might not have your residence permit any longer.

Canceling Your English First China Contract

If you’re unhappy working English First language schools, you’re probably worried about being “under contract.”  First thing’s first: The only thing you need to do to get out of your EF contract fair and square is to provide your supervisor written notice at least 30 days before your last planned day of work. End of story.

But what about my residence permit? What about it? Although company drones will tell you otherwise, you are under no obligation to allow EF to cancel your residence permit, regardless of whether or not they paid for it as they did mine.

Thanks to the China’s Stone Age information technology infrastructure, Chinese authorities are unable to cancel any entry document without physically having it in their possession. To be sure, Chinese immigration officers are usually too busy with other issues to bother tracking down teachers who quit their jobs a few monthly early.

Although your residence permit will eventually expire, you can remain in China if you so please. Simply obtain a Chinese tourist visa in Hong Kong.

After you’re out of EF’s grip, Shanghai (or wherever in China you’re based) is your oyster. Ample opportunities are available both within and outside the ESL industry. Or, if you’ve managed to save money, you can get on the next plane out and never come back.


About The Author

is the author of 673 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell.

Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!

  • Matthew Ong

    Do you mean the place I currently work at? Her name is Diane.

  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader

    Well, here’s the thing. I needed EF for the same purpose you did; it served that purpose well. But it was definitely a means to an end. If you are a certified, experienced teaching – and, particularly, if you also have a masters – I recommend searching for international schools and applying at one.

  • Katherine

    I am actually about to interview with this company, and this articles and the comments are making me a little comprehensive. Can you give me a contact person in the city of Changchun in the Jilin Province, so I can talk to them about the work conditions there? I want to be able to make an educated decision if I am given a job offer.

  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader

    You should ask the company for the contact person! They can help you.

  • http://www.thewondererblog.com/ Nikki

    Interesting to see all the comments here. I think the key take-away is that your experience will vary greatly depending on the actual centre you work in and the managers you have. Noticed a few negative comments about ‘language mills’ (EF, Wall Street etc) and just wanted to provide some perspective. I’ve only just started working at Wall Street in Guangzhou but I must say that my experience has been very positive thus far. I have met many students who have told me how much they have improved since coming to the centre, thanks to the emphasis on spoken English (in contrast to the traditional education system), the relaxed atmosphere and the opportunity to interact freely in English with many other students and foreign teachers.

    I have talked with several teachers in the public / private schooling sector and feel that my experience so far has been more rewarding. The common feedback from the primary / high school sector (public or private) is that students are less motivated to learn – they didn’t choose to attend English classes after all – and that discipline can be a real issue (especially in private schools where parents pay hefty fees, and the students feel a sense of entitlement). In contrast, i’ve found most of my students to be engaged and enthusiastic, because they are adults who have paid to advance their English skills with a specific goal in mind.

    If you are interested to know more about my experiences you can check out my blog:



  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader

    Thanks for the links and perspective, Nikki!

  • Joseph Otter

    No he’s right. Trust me. Working for Chinese people can be hell.

  • Joseph Otter

    Lol man. Sounds like you got the raw deal. Like you said, there are way worse places to work for though. I’ve heard some horror stories. Luckily, I’ve had pretty good jobs so far in China. You don’t understand Chinese business mentality. You’ll never get recognition for overachieving no matter who you work for in China. I don’t have a degree but I’ve never worked for less than 8000 RMB a month and I’ve always gotten payed on time. No taxes either. All of my employers have always payed for my Z visa, apartments, and round trip airfare. I was fortunate to find a head hunter in Beijing that has really good government connections so I’ve always managed to get a proper working visa without ever having to leave the country or take any kind of physical. My usual working hours are 15-25 hours a week. If I don’t have to teach I don’t have to be there. I’ve really lucked out this time though. I’ve been in Deyang for a month now and I’m waiting for my school to open on May the 1st. So I’ve been getting full pay for doing nothing while waiting for my school to open. My employers hooked me up with the nicest apartment I’ve ever lived in so far. I’ve got 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a huge living room, a separate dining room, a separate kitchen, a separate laundry room, a study, two balconies, and it’s incredibly well furnished. I don’t have to share it with anyone. The employers are even paying for my utilities and internet. In China it’s all about knowing people who know people and knowing when and how to throw your weight around. You have to be very firm with your employers. Boundaries. Never work too hard because it will never be rewarded and they’ll come to expect that from you all the time leaving you exhausted. I know a lot of suckers. Since I don’t have a degree I usually teach kids which can be good too. You learn a lot from teaching kids. This one guy I worked with at my last job was a real sucker. The bosses saw that they could push him around and before too long he was literally wiping kids asses and spoon feeding babies. Neither of which I will ever do. Whenever I start working at a job I always make it very clear during the first week that under no circumstances will I ever come in, discuss work, or lift a finger for them on either of my two consecutive off days. Nor will I do anything besides teach. Here’s a little secret that not too many people know about. In China unless you’ve signed something with your thumbprint in red ink, it’s useless. It goes both ways though.

  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader

    Interesting last point!

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