Teach Abroad

Ask a Teacher: Is it a Bad Idea to Take a Year Off to Teach Abroad?

Richelle Gamlam
Topic Expert

Richelle has been living, working, and teaching in China for the last four years, from high school English teacher to college admissions consultant.

Hi Go Overseas!

I've always wanted to travel and live overseas, so I thought teaching abroad would be a great idea. However, I'm worried about how this will affect my career and current lifestyle, especially when it comes to finding a job afterward. Is it stupid to take a year off to teach abroad?

- Worried about Leaving

So you want to travel and live abroad, but you're worried about taking time off from your career and life back home. We all have the same worries: Will this affect my career negatively? Will I be able to find a job when I come home? Can I pull the kids out of school? Will I be "behind" all my friends?

If you really want to teach abroad and you’re convinced you’ll be a good teacher, chances are it’s not a stupid choice for you.

Is it stupid to take a year off to teach abroad?

Well, sometimes.

I’ll be honest, there are definitely cases where it is stupid for you to take a year off to teach abroad. At the same time, there are absolutely good reasons to take a year off to teach. But these reasons might not be what you think:

When it's stupid When it's not stupid
You just want to travel You're worried about finding a job when you return
You lack patience You're worried about leaving your current job
You don't like the idea of teaching You have kids / You don't like kids
You just want to have a good time You don't want to teach in Asia

Need more detail on each of these points? Then scroll on for some further explanation on when it is and isn't a good idea to teach abroad.

When It’s Not Stupid to Teach Abroad

Making the decision to teach abroad can be tough. However, certain worries shouldn't dissuade you from considering this opportunity. It's not stupid to teach abroad if:

1. You’re worried about finding a job when you return

Many people think of teaching abroad as a fun gap year, but it’s so much more than that. Teaching abroad can give you so many valuable skills you can market to future employers.

Through teaching abroad in China, I became conversationally fluent in Chinese and I understand Chinese culture, making me a valuable asset to any business who works with China. Teaching abroad shows I’m adaptable, open-minded and patient. I can manage groups of up to 50 people, I have incredible public speaking skills, and I can think on my feet. Who wouldn’t want to hire someone who has taught abroad?

Teaching abroad will in many cases help your career instead of hurt it. People who live abroad are more interesting and well-rounded. They can adapt to new environments, they’re accepting of other people and cultures, and they are open to new ideas. While not everyone who teaches abroad has these qualities, you can definitely play them up in an interview. Just be sure to actually experience the culture while living abroad. If you spent all your time in expat bars, you’re not going to learn much!

2. You’re worried about leaving your current job

Many jobs will actually let you take a year-long sabbatical or be willing to re-hire you when you return. Have a talk with your employer and see if it’s a possibility. If not, you should be able to find a job when you return, especially if you market the new skills you’ve gained teaching abroad.

The fear of losing your current job shouldn’t hold you back from living your dreams. You only get one life, so live it without regrets!

3. You have kids

Many people think teaching abroad is something you have to do while you’re young before you settle down, but that’s just not true! Many schools are more than willing to accommodate families, and some countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE will even pay for your child’s tuition at an international school.

Teaching in China, I’ve met a few parents who have brought their entire families for the year. They all agree that living abroad for a year or more is a great experience for a child. Your kids will soak up the local language while becoming more accepting and open-minded. To be frank, teaching abroad is probably one of the best things you can do for your kids!

4. You don’t like kids

One of the biggest misconceptions about teaching abroad is that you’ll only be working with kids. Adults need ESL classes too! For example, last year I taught business English to three Chinese men at a German-owned company. Plenty of companies are willing to hire teachers to help their staff learn English and become more efficient communicators in the workplace.

In addition, many tutoring centers cater to older students. You can get a job teaching business English or helping college students study for the GRE. There's a great teaching job market for teachers who are more interested in working with adults.

You don't want to teach in Asia

Contrary to popular belief, China and South Korea aren’t the only places you can teach abroad. More experienced teachers can get a job teaching in the Middle East in countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

South America and Europe also have quite a few opportunities for teaching abroad. For example, Spain is a very popular country for those who are looking to teach in Europe -- especially with the government sponsored North American Language and Cultural Assistants Program.

In Latin America, there are a number of jobs out there, but not as often advertised online as those in Asia. For that, it's best to arrive in person and start applying. If you don't feel comfortable with that, Colombia and Chile both have government sponsored teaching programs that you can apply to in advance.

By this point, I’m sure most of you are wondering, when is it stupid to take a year off to teach abroad? What could possibly be left that I haven’t already addressed.

When It's Stupid to Teach Abroad

Believe it or not, there actually are times when it’s stupid to take a year off to teach abroad.

However, this has less to do with your career and more to do with your mindset. In order to teach abroad, you have to go for the right reasons. You have to head to your country with the mindset that this is a job.

Many people decide to teach abroad to make a quick buck while backpacking around Southeast Asia or spend the majority of their time drinking cheap soju in Korean bars. While teaching abroad is a great way to have fun, travel, and make money at the same time, you have to remember that teaching abroad is a job that comes with a lot of responsibility. For that reason, it is stupid to teach abroad if:

1. You just want to travel

Some people want to travel the world, but decide to teach abroad instead to make money rather than spend it. While I do believe living as an expat is a form of travel, it’s a very different type of travel than backpacking the globe. You'll get time off to travel but you have to work too.

Just like students sometimes forget the “study” portion of “study abroad”, some teachers forget that teaching abroad actually involves teaching. While living abroad is really fun, you will be expected to do your job and stay in one place for the majority of the year. If you’re really looking to travel, maybe teaching abroad isn’t the right fit for you, and that’s okay!

2. You lack patience

One skill you’ll need as a teacher is patience. Whether you’re teaching preschoolers or adults, patience is a necessary virtue for any teacher. You have to be able to repeat things in different ways, deal with repetitive mistakes, and manage students who think they have better things to do, whether it’s a work brief, studying for a math test, or sucking on their toes.

If you don’t think you’ll be able to be a patient and understanding teacher, taking a year off to teach abroad isn’t a good idea for you. If you’re not sure if you’d be a good teacher, try tutoring someone at home or get a job teaching abroad at a summer camp. You’ll know right away if you’re cut out for the position!

3. You don’t like the idea of teaching

Some people know they’re not cut out to be teachers. If this is you, don’t force yourself to do something you know you won’t be good at. Why not take another job abroad instead? Work on a cruise ship or in a hotel, become a dive or ski instructor, or get a working holiday visa in Australia. There are plenty of other jobs out there for expats aside from teaching.

If you’re interested in education but don’t like the idea of teaching classes, consider working in higher education prep. Work as a private SAT tutor, a college counselor, or get a job interviewing people for their college applications. There are plenty of education jobs that don’t fall under the label of “teacher”.

4. You just want to have a good time

I’ve met far too many expats abroad that don’t care about their students. They live for nights out, and often show up to work hungover. These teachers don’t spend time crafting games and lesson plans, and complete the bare minimum to keep from getting fired. These teachers use the high demand of native speakers in countries like South Korea and China to their advantage, and couldn’t care less how their actions affect the students.

While teaching abroad is fun and I’ll admit, I may have shown up to work hungover once or twice, it’s important to remember that teaching abroad is a real job, and your actions affect your students. If you’re not willing to put a little extra effort into crafting unique lesson plans, creating fun games, or showing up to class on time, teaching probably isn’t the best option for you.

If you love to party and want to live the nightlife, try working in a hostel, becoming a bar crawl leader, or a club promoter abroad! There are plenty of opportunities for those who love nightlife, and you’ll probably enjoy these jobs a lot more, and be better at them, than teaching.

So yes, there are some instances where teaching abroad for a year or more is a bad idea. But, if you really want to teach abroad and you’re convinced you’ll be a good teacher, chances are it’s not a stupid choice for you.