Public schools more popular with job hunters in China as off-campus schools no longer an option

High prestige, job security, good benefits, and more recently, the tutoring school crackdown, have made public schools more attractive than ever for job candidates.

Photo from Unsplash

Photo from Unsplash

By ZHA Qinjun


After three years at a tutoring school, Jing was laid off this summer. Scrolling through job bulletins, she decided to become a public school teacher. Although she has a Bachelor's degree in education and a teaching certificate, she couldn’t just send her resume to local schools. There is a public exam in March, in which hundreds of thousands of candidates compete for public school jobs. Those hired enjoy almost absolute job security, great employment benefits, and a high level of respect from parents and students. 

Next year’s exams will be more competitive than usual, with thousands of private tutors like Jing who lost their jobs during the recent off-campus school crackdown trying their luck in the public sector. Nationwide, 1.9 million people from 10 million applications, 28 percent more than last year, acquired teaching certificates this year.

Not all of them have degrees in education. By 2019, three-fourths of all candidates were not graduates.

“Public school jobs became very popular after 2016, so did the exams to get them,” CHU Zhaohui of the National Institute of Education Science, told Jiemian News. Economic growth had slowed, but the number of college graduates was still increasing. “Usually, the faster the economy grows, the less prestigious teaching jobs are, and vice versa,” he said, adding that job security and good benefits are more valued in times of slow growth.

Public school jobs are as appealing for fresh graduates as for those who have spent years in the private sector. Jane herself is one of them. She studied primary education in college, after which she easily landed a job at a public school in Ningbo, a city in east Zhejiang Province. “The local policies were friendly to graduates with special training,” she said.

But after three years there, she felt burned out. “There were a lot of administrative tasks on top of teaching. The pay was not amazing either,” she said. “I was constantly tired and felt a little disillusioned.”

She found another job at an international school in Jinan, the capital city of Shandong Province, which had its own problems. “The parents paid tens of thousands of dollars a year and felt they could treat teachers like nannies. My hourly pay was even lower than before since I was working longer,” she said. She quit again and decided to go back to public schools.

It took her months to prepare for the teacher-hiring exam in Nanjing, whose schools favor experienced teachers. When she learned that she had got in, she posted a short video on social media to celebrate. “Some people don’t approve of my choice, but I know what I want. Now I really see the appeal of the public sector,” she said in the video.

Like Jane, many candidates are out of school for years. Ada, who studied business in college and has worked in marketing since graduation, got her teaching certificate last year at the age of 36. “I was very inspired by my last marketing job at a tutoring school. I just want to be a teacher,” she said. Liu Ming, 31, said he was “very nervous and felt extremely awkward” during his trial class.

The increasing competitiveness of teacher hiring is backed by data. Over 5 million people nationwide participated in primary school hiring exams in 2020. Only 700,000 got in. The odds for an English teacher position at a highly-ranked Changsha public school was one in 169.

The government is committed to hiring and retaining qualified public school teachers. From 2016 to 2020, around 60 percent of China’s education spending was on teacher compensation. Over 2800 school districts nationwide passed salary guarantees for public school teachers in 2020. The quality of candidates is improving, as more students from top universities and graduate programs are open to opportunities in public schools, making the jobs more prestigious than before.

More teachers are getting hired every year, but the increase is still not enough to keep up with demand in quickly urbanizing areas. It doesn’t help those hundreds of thousands of old teachers are retiring each year, which further widens the gap between supply and demand.

The shortage is the most severe in rural areas, where teachers, already stretched in numbers, are quickly aging. By the end of 2020, 22 provinces had passed legislation to raise compensation for rural teachers. Policymakers have issued various measures this year to support teacher training programs in underdeveloped provinces. Many provinces have set up placement programs to attract workers to rural schools.

Public school teachers will continue to be in demand. “In Japan, there are eight certified candidates for every existing public school job. If a teacher quits, it’s not hard to find another qualified candidate. The number for China is lower than two,” Chu said.

He conceded that it takes more than a teaching certificate to make a good teacher. “There are plenty of people who can pass the exams but still give terrible lessons. Teaching is a career. It’s a decades-long journey,” he said.

(Jane, Ada, Liu Ming and Jing are pseudonyms)