The China Teacher Bubble

In January 2020, I had just surmounted a yellow boulder peak on a breezy Thailand island when I struck up a conversation with a few friendly British backpackers enjoying the view. They asked if I was afraid to go back to China after the recent COVID-19 news coming from Wuhan. I told them I’d cross my fingers and return to my teaching job, ducking back into China a week before the country went into lockdown.

Eight months later, I’m glad I came back. With the inflow of new teachers to the country cut off, I was able to leverage the higher demand for my skills to get a raise in salary. My job felt secure, which is definitely not to be understated. I talked to many other teachers, schools and recruiters to find out if they felt the same way about the teacher bubble. Border closures allowed the foreign teachers who remained in China the opportunity to roam the terrain of education jobs, but were there any unforeseen drawbacks?

The list of positive impacts for teachers included a five to 50 percent increase in salaries, added benefits like free housing and the opportunity to work in more prestigious schools, which normally have stricter requirements on teaching qualifications. This also meant a wider range of cities and desirable areas to choose from.

Some teachers without certifications found posts in international schools after leaving public schools or training centers. But as I spoke to teachers recently finishing their job hunt or still on the prowl, I was surprised that most weren’t very pleased with the job opportunities they found.

It seemed all these appealing new positions had strings attached. Since many schools and training centers were short staffed, the new positions paid an increase of 25 percent on average but demanded 50 percent more classroom hours. Most of the people I spoke to had chosen not to find new jobs during the last year. In addition, we may see some more changes to the education industry very soon.

The travel borders for some Chinese cities have recently opened to teachers receiving invitation letters from educational institutions, so it looks like the bubble is about to pop. Fresh recruits may be allowed back in larger numbers soon, meaning the inflated salaries will drop back to their pre-2020 levels. In fact, the average salary could drop even further than where they were previously, according to several recruiters I spoke to.

With around two million students graduating from universities in the U.S. each year and a current job market declining domestically, many recruiters are expecting a huge influx of people looking to become ESL teachers in China and elsewhere. This surge will flood the teacher pool in China with fresh recruits more willing to accept lower salaries, lowering the overall average.

If you’re a teacher and you didn’t cash in on the recent teacher bubble in China, the window is closing fast. If you miss it completely and you weren’t looking for more demanding responsibilities anyways, don’t fret. Teachers in China that can claim their job will be better than any of the fresh recruits.