Possibly the worst thing that can happen is the company tells you one thing about the work you will do and conditions you will have, but when you arrive the situation is not what they claimed. ALWAYS insist on being sent the email addresses of teachers who have worked at the school in the past and, if possible, some who are working there at present.
If the company refuses to send you any or umms and ahhs about sending you them, it is possible their teachers were unsatisfied with the working conditions and left disgruntled. They may even send you email addresses of people they know will not reply or false email addresses of Chinese people who work at the school who will tell you how great everything is.
Below are some of the work subjects you should ask about and the worst situations that can occur.
a) How many students in a class?
Most schools will have between 10 and 40 in a class. Some terrible schools may lump together as many as 200-300 at a time and you just stand there and shout (Not a joke and happens more than you think especially in remoter areas and has happened to me).
b) How many working hours a week?
Working hours are not the same as teaching hours. Most schools will have working hours for class preparation, extracurricular activities, time to meet students and parents, time between classes etc. At these times you will be at the school or travelling but not at home relaxing. Your time at school or travelling should be no more than 4 or 5 hours per week more than your teaching hours, i.e. if you have 16 teaching hours you should have no more than 20 or 21 working hours but it is very common for 16 teaching hours to turn into a full time 8am to 4/5 pm job.
In the worst cases schools will give you just two one hour classes per day one being in the early morning and one in the evening and the remaining time you must spend at the school so you may be actually working 40 to 50 hours per week but only paid for 15 or 16 teaching hours.
c) How many days per week, what days and what times?
You may only want to work Monday to Friday, during the mornings, afternoons or evenings or you may simply have religious objections to working on some days. Make sure you know what days of the week you will be working on and at what time of the day. However, at least be a bit lenient when the school feels it necessary to change the hours a little, it is hard to run a successful school if your teachers will not at least bend a little.
) How much travelling will I do and will I be paid for it?
The majority of schools will not need you to travel anywhere and a minority will possibly ask you to hop between 2 or 3 schools (actually illegal if they are not owned by the same company). However, some schools are travelling schools which will take you around remote towns once per 2 months; you spend Monday to Friday on the road performing and only come home at weekends. Of course, most of these travelling jobs will not pay you for travelling time.
e) Where EXACTLY is the school I am working at?
Most schools will say they are in a big city such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chengdu etc. However, big cities are often municipal, which means they include many little satellite townships within the city borough limits. The long and the short of this means that a school that says it is in Beijing may be as much as 70 or 80 kilometers from the city center in a satellite county township.
Always ask to know exactly where the school is in relation to the city center and what the transport is like to get there. Note: in most big cities, outside the fourth ring road is usually already a long way from the city center.
f) What are the conditions like in this area of the city?
Like in the West, conditions in a city can vary a lot from one district to another. Some districts may be very poor and relatively isolated and some reasonably prosperous. Schools often like to place themselves in cheaper areas to reduce costs, especially if they are boarding schools. Find out what part of the city they are in and what the surrounding area has to offer.
g) Is the school I am going to a satellite campus?
Some of the more well-known universities and schools have satellite campuses in remote areas or even in different provinces. You may see an advert for a famous school or a school that has the name of a city or province you want to go to, but actually end up somewhere completely different.
h) How often do I teach the same classes?
Most schools will vary between once a day and once a week teaching the same classes. In some places you may only see a class once a month and the very worst situation you may only ever see a class once (especially traveling teachers in remoter areas).
i) What extracurricular activities are there?
Most schools will have some unpaid extracurricular activities, such as Xmas, Halloween or even promotional activities; however, these will usually take no more than a few hours a month. Beware that some schools may pile on hours of extracurricular activities such as obligatory lunches with local officials or even singing in McDonalds or KFC for which you do not get paid.
j) What is the accommodation like, where is it and what does it include?
Most schools cannot afford to give fantastic accommodation, but will at least guarantee it is clean and give the essential items such as bedding, TV, washing machine etc. We have heard of worst case scenarios of people being put up in ‘literally’ rat infested hotels or dingy apartments next to noisy all-night Mah Jong parlors or whorehouses, sometimes miles away from work. Always make sure you know exactly where you will live and in what conditions.
k) Do you offer Training?
Only a small minority of schools offer any sort of training, mostly because they are not experienced enough to do so. If you are inexperienced, that includes having just completed a TEFL or TESOL course, try to go to a school that offers further training.
l) What is the curriculum/course?
You would be surprised just how many schools do not use a course book or even set a curriculum and you end up having to write it yourself or just go into class blind. We have even heard of teachers who were blamed because the curriculum they wrote was very poor quality, even though they had no experience writing it and were not offered any help.
All the above things can and do happen, make sure the conditions being offered are clear and concise.
Keep your emails and copies of the advertisement stating the conditions just in case you need to terminate the contract you have with the school for not giving you what they said.