How Old is 'Too Old' to Teach English Abroad?

Jason Rodgers
Jason is a hockey player from Virginia, and his passport is a quilt of stamps and visas. He studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris, worked in...
Teaching abroad

There are more English teaching jobs open across the world than there are teachers to fill them. Yes, plenty of newly graduated optimistic youngsters hop on planes and have amazing experiences, but plenty of qualified older teachers who could also have a life-changing experience are passing altogether.

Older teachers have this huge advantage over younger teachers: experience.

We're going to take a look at the statement, “Teaching English abroad is a young person's game.” What are the reasons for this perception, why should older teachers considering teaching abroad absolutely go for it, and why are they usually the perfect candidates for the job? Let's talk, Go Overseas'ers.

What are the Perceptions of Teaching Abroad? Why Do They Exist?

The question before us today is, “is teaching English abroad only a young person’s game?” That means there must exist this perception. But why do we imagine young, college-aged, fresh-from-school millennials and not older, more experienced, more qualified teachers? There are a few reasons:

How Teaching Abroad is Marketed

This is a small detail, but it's understandable that older folks might think they're not qualified to teach abroad, or that teaching abroad isn't an option for them, because of the marketing messages surrounding the TEFL / ESL / teach abroad industry.

Photos for teach abroad programs and TEFL courses are largely of younger 20-somethings [Editor's note: I even struggled and failed to find photos of older teachers for this article.] It's marketed as an adventure, a way to travel the world and make money, and not really as a life-long career or professional development opportunity.

This resonates with younger folks -- who truly do show the most interest in teaching abroad -- but leaves little room for the value older teachers bring to the table or the fact that some schools might want teachers mostly interested in a rewarding and engaging job and also interested in an adventure, not the reverse.

A lot of it has to do with marketing within the ESL industry, but most of it is based on commonly believed myths about teaching abroad. We recently debunked a bunch of these teach abroad myths, but there are a few age-specific ones we left out.

You Need Energy to Teach

Myths about teaching abroad

The first thing that comes to mind is that old nemesis: energy. Many people, accurately or not, picture a screaming rabble of babbling youngsters when they picture teaching abroad, and one disheveled, exhausted, at-wits-end teacher pulling his or her hair out by the exhausted root. This is the image I think a lot of us reference when we say, “Oh I could never teach.”

Firstly, this is not at all an accurate image. Most (okay, many) foreign classrooms are far more controlled, disciplined, and orderly than American classrooms. Many foreign countries have more rigid educational systems, and it does not behoove naughty children to make a nuisance of themselves.

In fact, about half the jobs out there are for teaching English to adults -- adults who prefer someone older (or at least, older than themselves!) in front of the classroom.

Secondly, for reasons I explain in much more depth below, these are exactly the kinds of situations that older, more experienced teachers are perfectly suited for.

You're Tethered to Your Life at Home

Older teachers, generally speaking, tend to have more “tethers” that make it harder for them to pick up and go abroad than do younger teachers. Many have families, children, careers, mortgages that all conspire to pressure older teachers into feeling so darn stuck.

Fair point, but the current increase in people over 30 taking gap years is proof enough that it's possible.

There are plenty of resources out there for teaching abroad as a family or short-term teaching gigs if leaving home for 2-3 months is more of a realistic possibility. Get creative!

It's Too Late For Something Great

When it comes to older potential teachers themselves, many of them wonder if they haven't already missed their chance to teach abroad. They wonder if that ship has sailed, without them on it.

The question before us today is, “is teaching English abroad only a young person’s game?” That means there must exist this perception.

Lisa Saks, medical receptionist and mother of a college graduate, gives voice to many of the concerns that others her age share. “I graduated high school in 1970, for crying out loud. I've already attempted and changed careers three times. I can't just pick up and go teach English like some kind of Hemingway character.”

This is a sentiment echoed by many would-be teachers. “It's just too late.” But, as we'll see below, when you start to poke away at that excuse, you'll see that it falls apart, and there isn't anything more to it than just that – an excuse.

Why Is Teaching Abroad Great For Older Teachers?

We've alluded to this a bit so far, but as promised, we want to dive into more detail on why teaching abroad is actually a fantastic opportunity for mid-career professionals, retirees, and just generally anyone who has been out of college for awhile.

You Can Make an Impact

Older teacher

English is a valuable skill in today’s world, with international businesses opening offices all over the world, and with so many powerful economies operating in the language. That means that to teach someone English is to empower them.

Teach them English and you give them one more weapon in their arsenal to succeed, one more advantage in a world where every one they can get might make the difference.

It’s A Chance For a Wild, New Fresh Start

Now, that’s all well and good about the young people, and the philanthropy, but what about you? What do you get out of teaching English abroad as an older teacher? You get the chance to try something new.

And by “something new,” I don’t mean taking the elevator instead of the stairs, or buying crunchy peanut butter at the grocery store instead of smooth. I mean packing up, picking up, and flying across the world to a foreign country to teach your native tongue to a classroom of clamoring language students. I mean ditching your first name for "mister” or "miss". I mean really, really shaking things up.

You Have an Expertise -- Share It

Okay, so we're mostly talking about teaching ESL abroad, but that's not the only subject in need of teachers abroad. Especially if you look into jobs in international schools or English speaking countries, you could find a job teaching a subject that you, as an older individual with a past career, have a wealth of knowledge on.

Many younger teachers find themselves having a hard time controlling classrooms that older teachers can walk right into and command respect.

For example, have you been a biologist for the past 20 years? Why not teach science in Kenya? Or perhaps you're a professional photographer who speaks decent Spanish -- you could run an art or photography class in Guatemala. There's so much your students can learn from you, an experienced expert, than some recent college grad still trying to figure things out for themselves.

Why Are Older Teachers Great At Teaching English Abroad?

You Have Experience

Again, older teachers have this one huge advantage over younger teachers: experience. You’ve been through school, established yourself in the workforce and learned how to navigate it. You've grown some lasting relationships.

Maybe you taught and know how to create a lesson plan and manage a classroom. Or maybe not -- even so, you know how to act professionally, communicate, be detail oriented, and problem solve on the fly.

You are exactly what English students abroad need. You know how to deal with people better than an inexperienced, younger teacher might. You are likely better equipped to engage in a productive dialogue with school administration when you reach a disagreement, and this benefits your students who get their teacher, and their resources, spoken for.

You probably have more experience with leadership roles, much more so than younger teachers would. This will better equip you to talk to your students on a level that connects with them, while also maintaining the authority you need to get things done. This is especially helpful with teaching adults, since -- lets be honest here -- it's weird as a younger teacher to tell a student your parents' age to "please be quiet".

Sometimes, There's a Minimum Age Requirement

Teach Adults as an adult

In fact, for some ESL teaching positions with certain organizations, professional experience is not just desired, but required -- along with a minimum age requirement sometimes has high as twenty-six years old.

It's like we mentioned before -- schools want teachers who have experience and maturity. They want someone who will finish their contract, be responsible, and doesn't need any hand holding. Generally, older teachers have these qualities.

You Know Yourself Better

But you get to benefit from your own wisdom of experience, as well. Because while younger teachers often spend their time abroad buzzing aimlessly in every direction, excited by everything all at once, older teachers often know themselves better, and have nurtured a few, select interests.

By culturing a handful of passions, older teachers often get more out of their time abroad than younger teachers. If you love to cook, spend your mornings produce shopping and your evenings cooking. If you love to cycle, spend your weekends exploring the bike trials.

But if you only like to do one of these things, you don’t have to waste your time unhappy doing the other. Younger teachers have to learn that by trial and error.

Sometimes the experiences of being abroad are more about quality than quantity, and there are plenty of quality experiences to be had if you know where to start. Good thing you do.

Respect for Older Teachers

There are some times when young people’s perceptions of older people work to the latter’s advantage. One of those is in the classroom.

All over the world, but especially abroad, some cultures are not as acclimated to the idea of young, college-aged teachers. They are viewed more as peers than as superiors, and as a result, they have to devote time and resources to toeing that line between friend and teacher properly.

They have to stop the lesson to remind students not to crack jokes with them. They have to chase down little soccer players at recess who don’t believe them when their goalkeeper suddenly turns back into their teacher and says, “Back to class.”

Yes, for better or worse, older teachers tend to get respect more easily. They are trusted more quickly, and their opinions are valued. Many foreign cultures heavily feature respect for elders as a fundamental tenant, and this plays right to the advantage of older teachers.

Schools want someone who will finish their contract, be responsible, and doesn't need any hand holding.

Many younger teachers find themselves having a hard time controlling classrooms that older teachers can walk right into and command respect. It is a benefit of experience, and you should definitely take advantage of it.

So, if you are a would-be teacher who is considering making the best decision of your life but is concerned that you may be “too old” for this scene, think again.

Teaching Abroad is an Every Person's Game

There are a functionally infinite number of open English teaching jobs out there, and with your experience, and patience, you might have the chance to not just completely rewrite the story of your own life, but to leave a lasting, positive legacy on the world, and just maybe leave it a better, happier, more successful place than you found it. We say, go for it.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Perez, Jessie Beck, and Lydia Voss.