So, you’ve decided to travel. Great choice! And you’ve probably heard along the grapevine that teaching abroad can actually help fund your travels. Well, you heard right, it really can. But, is it really for you? Teaching abroad certainly sounds glamorous, but in reality there are some serious questions you need to ask yourself before you commit to teaching abroad or sign any contracts.
This article is not designed to put you off - far from it! Instead, it will help you prepare; if you are aware of the realities that you could be facing, you’ll have a much easier time settling in to your new life abroad as an ESL teacher.
1. Have you chosen your destination?
Teaching English in a foreign land does not really limit you in regards to your destination - you can pretty much teach it just about anywhere in the world. However, there are some details you might want to consider in order to help you choose the best place for you. Let's look a little deeper at some of the most popular regions around the world for teaching English abroad.
If you’re looking to earn a fair amount of money whilst you teach, then Asia could be the place for you. Countries like China and South Korea offer excellent benefit packages: free flights; severance pay; free accommodation and medical insurance are generally always included in your package. You could be earning nearly $2000USD a month. With the cost of living being so low (if you’re willing to live like a local), you will have the potential to save lots!
The downside? You do have to sign a contract that will keep you in one school for a whole year. Shorter teaching contracts are extremely rare in Asia and if you do find one, it won’t hold the same benefits as above. If Japan or Thailand is what you’re after, you probably won’t get quite the same benefits as above so make sure you have some cash in your bank account before you jet off.
Maybe you want to learn Spanish whilst you teach and live like the locals in Mexico or Argentina. South America is a popular choice for TEFL’ers but don’t expect much in your wage packet at the end of the month. South America pays very little; you will live comfortably given the low cost of living but the options for saving are not as great as those in Asia. That said, there are awesome options for teaching in South America; it will be an experience beyond any other and what you learn along the way will be worth more than any wage.
Europe is an extremely popular choice for TEFL teachers, old and new, so be sure to get a TEFL certificate to make your CV stand out from the crowd. Europe is great for those who would prefer a shorter contract rather than committing to a whole year. Three month contracts are easy to come by especially if you are TEFL qualified.
If you’re feeling brave, or are an experienced traveller, consider first flying to the country before looking for work. As a freelance tutor, you can charge what you like per hour (and there are plenty of people willing to pay good money to speak your native language!).
Try Italy or Spain for a relaxed lifestyle where you can sip cocktails in the sun during your time off. As a private tutor, the opportunity to earn mega bucks is easy to come by. If you fancy something different but not too far away from home, try out Prague or Slovakia for a taste of Eastern Europe. The pay might not be as appealing but the low cost of living means that a high wage is not necessary.
This region is reserved for the most adventurous - the lack of a great pool of English teachers means it’ll be a lot easier to find work! You have to be an open-minded person to come and work in the Middle East – the culture must be respected (like anywhere) but this is perhaps the most difficult place of all, especially in some of the stricter countries. Ladies, be prepared to cover up even when you’re not at work.
Teaching jobs in the Middle East generally include housing as part of the salary package and the wages offered are fair. Saudi Arabia offers the highest salaries, but also requires high qualifications such as a Masters degree. On the flipside, places like Egypt offer the lower end but only need a BA and/or TEFL certificate. In the end, there are plenty of cool countries to choose from!
2. Are you prepared to commit for a whole year?
A year - It’s a long time if you’re doing something you don’t enjoy. Many schools in Asia and South America will hire you even if you have no experience, but how do you know you’re going to enjoy teaching?
A good idea is to test the waters before you go. For example, I currently live in South Korea but before committing to a whole year I spent a month teaching in Finland to see if I liked the actual job of teaching English. English learning summer camps are held all over Europe and in the US; these positions are an excellent way to explore the TEFL lifestyle on a short term basis. (Be sure to apply early though, these vacancies fill up fast!)
If you’re still unsure about the “abroad” part of “teach abroad,” why not visit your local library and volunteer. Before I started working with children I had no idea whether or not I actually liked them! Libraries generally need individuals to help in encouraging children to read books, reading stories aloud at activity times, or handing out treats when students completed their book challenges. When I volunteered in my local library I discovered I had a knack for working with kids – no one was more surprised than me!
The key takeaway: you don’t have to jet off to far flung lands to begin getting experience and thinking critically about whether you’re cut out for the gig or not.
Get more bang for your buck: tips for making more money abroad.
3. Are you serious about teaching?
This is an important one. More and more often TEFL companies everywhere are talking about schools making complaints about foreign teachers. Partying too hard, not preparing class outlines, turning up late, the list is endless. You must remember that this is a job - while traveling, adventure, and new friends do come hand-in-hand with your new environment, it is important to behave as you would back home. No one is saying you can’t have fun, but leave it for outside of work hours (that includes not letting it affect you the next day!).
Bad behavior isn’t fair to the native speakers and teachers who take their work seriously; most of all, it isn’t fair on your students. In many cases, the students’ families are paying a lot of money for them to be there!
4. Are you ready for a complete change of lifestyle?
This is a biggie too. You need to prepare yourself mentally for a complete 180 of your current lifestyle; by doing so, you’ll be better equipped to accept things when they go wrong (which they will) and you’ll be able to bounce back!
If you’re heading to Europe the culture shock might not be so hard hitting, but for those heading to Asia, here’s a heads up – it is mad! Everything is different: the food, the lifestyle, the language, the people. It’s the little things you don’t think about that can really get to you – arriving to your new apartment with no idea how to use the washing machine, where to take the garbage out, how to turn on the hot water, where to buy food. Despite the occasional setback, these hiccups don’t have to be a bad thing! They can be pretty fun and in the end, are all part of the story.
Know that you might be wandering around like a five year old, trying to learn everything all over again for the first few weeks. This, on top of making new friends, and settling in to a new job can quickly take its toll in the beginning - but it WILL get better!
5. Do you realize the risk you’re taking?
Yes. It is a risk, a huge one in fact. But that’s why it’s so exciting! You’re leaving your family and friends and going to start a whole new life in a country you may never have been to where they speak a language you may never have heard. In most cases, you fly to your chosen destination without a clue as to what to expect: What will the school be like? What will your new home be like? Will you find friends?
There are plenty of horror stories online about people arriving to moldy apartments or schools that treat their foreign teachers horrendously. Now, whilst this does happen it isn’t quite as common as it may seem. The key is to do research prior to embarking on your big trip and find programs that have the most trusted reviews on the web.
Before you go prepare yourself for the culture shock and the experience you are about to have. Most importantly, remember that this is meant to be fun, accept that things will go wrong and then, when they do, you’ll be ready!
While teaching abroad, more than ever, this idea rings true: "life begins at the end of your comfort zone."