Teaching English abroad is a great way to experience life in a different corner of the world, have your expenses covered, earn an income, and even save money to travel for months between contracts.
But it’s also a job, and one you need to be prepared for. To answer this month’s reader question, I’ve interviewed a few travellers of very different backgrounds who have taught English in various countries around the world to get their tips, anecdotes, and resources.
“Dear Nora: I want to travel and live around the world, but I don’t have any money saved and I need to earn income along the way. What about Teaching English abroad? How do I get into that?” – Adam
Teaching English is a very common way to earn an income abroad. The types of jobs, students, schools, contracts, and amenities vary as widely as the countries you can teach English in.
English Teachers Vary as Much as the Gigs Do
There is no such thing as a “typical” English teacher. You could be single, a couple, young, old, and everything in between.
Jeannie Mark (Nomadic Chick) recently taught English in China on a variety of contracts for a couple of years, largely in University environs.
Samuel Jeffrey (Nomadic Samuel) and his girlfriend taught English in South Korea, accepting contracts at a variety of schools both public and private, between 2005-2012.
And Dyanne Kruger (TravelnLass) is a solo lass “of a certain age” (she’ll admit to six or so decades) who took her small pension to Vietnam and taught English both in schools and privately, in rural and urban areas. From there she moved to Thailand to explore more teaching opportunities.
I’ve asked this trio with different backgrounds and experiences to help outline the benefits and specifics of teaching English around the world.
Why Teach English Abroad?
Jeannie Mark: “It’s a great way to immerse yourself in a culture, become more intimate with the language and have lengthy everyday interactions that are only glimpsed at through shorter term travel. It’s also a great way to boost your travel fund if you’re on a long trip. I’ve learned a lot about China simply through my own students that I would never read in a book. It’s worth doing!”
Samuel Jeffrey: “Teaching English overseas was a fantastic opportunity for me to experience living abroad in a foreign country while having the opportunity to save money. My dream was to to teach for one year and then backpack for another year. Teaching in Korea allowed me to save money to pursue my dreams of travel given the generous salary, low taxes, and perks (free housing, return airfare, severance pay, etc).”
Dyanne Kruger: “I prefer slow travel and especially expat life, and teaching is a way to plug in to the community, and not be just a “tourist”. It’s the perfect way to see the world – basing yourself in a region like Asia, and using EFL teaching to cover (much cheaper) living expenses, plus finance short forays within a country, as well as longer explorations to neighbouring countries between contracts.”
Lifestyle, Working Hours, Pay
Teaching gigs vary greatly from country to country, and even from school to school. Salaries are generally commensurate with living expenses in that country, and sometimes accommodation and a return ticket is included. Many travelling English teachers are able to save money (for future travels) while teaching, with a dose of savvy budgeting and spending.
Working hours also vary, depending on the country and the school. Samuel says within South Korea, the public schools adhere to government hours (8:30am-4pm) with 3-5 weeks of paid vacation per year, whereas private academies involve working split shifts and only one week of paid vacation. Dyanne initially chose to work part-time and got an enviable schedule that gave her five days in a row off each week. But she says most of the time, the hours are more erratic, with inevitable evening and weekend shifts.
Class sizes aren’t predictable either; Dyanne mentions an average class size of 19, but also cites a stint at a rural school that involved teaching 30+ four-year-olds in non-stop 30-minute sessions between 8am-4pm, in a 35-degree classroom. (Despite these occasional challenges, she still loves teaching English abroad).
Jeannie suggests there are a few challenges to teaching English abroad that can lead to unrealistic expectations and mis-communications, such as cultural differences: “Students in a foreign country learn differently and socialize in different ways than their North American counterparts. The second challenge is navigating management in a foreign country, which can lead to misinterpretations.”
Samuel’s challenges revolved around his experience in South Korea. He says the private academies are a business first and a school second. “In other words, your performance is typically judged based on your enrolment levels,” – a challenge when many Koreans don’t like studying English in addition to their heavy work-loads. Principals and head teachers also pressured him to work extra hours and participate in extra-curricular activities (without pay) to keep up enrolment.
Dyanne has a word of caution for new teachers: “As an EFL teacher you’ll only be paid for your ‘contact’ hours (i.e. the hours you’re actually in the classroom teaching) – not for any of your lesson planning. The latter can be quite time-consuming as a newbie EFL teacher, and you may wonder if the overall net pay per hour of work is worth it. Trust that in a few weeks you’ll slowly build up your own little ‘tool box’ of teaching activities and games – and soon you’ll be able to scribble out a fine two hour lesson plan in little more than 20 minutes.”
Tips to Get Started in a Career Teaching English Abroad
Samuel’s first recommendation is to take the TESOL/TEFL course, which gives you not only the certification that many schools require, but also the skills and knowledge for the job. “Moreover, you’ll have a competitive advantage for jobs and typically you’ll receive a higher salary.”
Jeannie also suggests taking a TESOL/TEFL course (recommending the in-person course as opposed to a distance learning program), but also admits that in China (as with some other countries), it’s not a required certification.
Dyanne is a fan of CELTA: “The CELTA is the gold-standard in the EFL industry and is recognized worldwide. With it in your pocket (but a month out of your life), you can verily write your own EFL ticket.” She also strongly disapproves of online certifications, saying the in-person courses better prepare you to actually teach.
Dyanne also cautions against signing contracts before you arrive in the country to see the school, teaching facilities, class size, and speak with your potential employer and colleagues. “Teaching gigs vary drastically, and with some, a six month contract might seem like a prison sentence. And while hopping on a plane to some foreign land without a contract might seem scary, suffice – presuming that you’re half-way qualified, have even a small safety-net of funds (at least the price of an air ticket home plus a month or two of living expenses while you search for work), and you put forth a modicum of effort seeking out schools after you land – you’re bound to get at least a small gig or two within a week or three.”
Getting Teaching Gigs as a Couple
Samuel says it’s actually easier to land gigs teaching English abroad as a couple. “Academies typically view you as being a more stable candidate if you’re coming together as a couple. Additionally, the school can shave costs (such as providing one apartment as opposed to two) by hiring a couple.”
Resources for Teaching English Abroad
How to Teach English Online (a course that gives you all the tools you need to get started right away)
Teaching in China, by Jeannie Mark
Interview About Teaching English Overseas, by Samuel Jeffrey
Interested in Working Abroad?
Teaching English is just one of many ways to make a living while traveling the world. The newly released Working on the Road: The Unconventional Guide to Full-Time Freedom profiles all kinds of careers (both online and “on-the-ground”), and interviews dozens of people who have found a way to travel and live around the world while making a living. You’ll get all the tools you need to embark on the lifestyle yourself, along with realistic experiential advice.
Check it out; for a limited time, you can get a special introductory price and save up to $50.