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Should I Teach English Abroad After Graduation or Focus on My Career at Home?

Graduate

This past weekend, thousands of American college students tossed up their hats and celebrated the completion of four (or so) years of hard, academic work. Congratulations! To all of you, we hope you had an inspiring commencement speech and a fantastic weekend toasting to the good times with your friends.

But now that you've likely recovered from any weekend debauchery and are looking at the world though the new, clear-headed view of a college graduate, lets talk a bit about your future (again). Graduating from college and entering the real world is a scary, intimidating process –- you’re suddenly making all kinds of decisions about the Rest of Your Life and it’s easy to feel like one wrong turn can ruin everything forever. While that’s a bit of an exaggeration (just what the Office-Industrial Complex wants you to think), this is a time when you’ll need to start taking charge of the direction you’d like to go. For some people, the path is already obvious: a marketing job, medical school, the Peace Corps, the military, an entry level job at Google.

There are plenty of compelling reasons to spend some time teaching abroad after college, but an equal amount of justification for forging your own career path closer to home.

For others, and maybe for you, it’s not quite so clear. You still want to explore and traveling before entering the "Real World" seems more attractive than ever: you’ll have an opportunity to immerse yourself in a whole new culture, acquire new language and professional skills, and take your time learning about the world beyond your borders without having to rush home for finals. Without a doubt, teaching English abroad is one of the most popular and structured ways for recent college grads to go abroad and check off most of those goal boxes, but it’s not for everyone. Just because your cousin had a life-changing experience as an elementary school teacher in Thailand doesn’t mean it’s automatically the right thing for you to do.

There are plenty of compelling reasons to spend some time teaching abroad after college, but an equal amount of justification for forging your own career path closer to home and saving the international trekking for later. Of course, the decision is ultimately up to you (despite what your parents, besties, or dog might say) but it can be overwhelming to have all that responsibility 100 percent on your shoulders. As with most big life decisions, there’s no right answer, but instead of making an impulse decision with huge implications, it might be helpful to rationally examine both options to see what might really make the most sense for you -- which is where we come in!

Here are four big questions to ask yourself before you decide between focusing on your career in the U.S. and committing to filling the next stage of your life with verb tenses and confusing hand gestures:

1. Do I actually like teaching?

Youth

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this question, and yet the answer still seems to elude many people looking to teach abroad -- or, more accurately, looking for a year-long vacation they can put on their resume. More than a few hopeful teachers seem to be under the impression that teaching English abroad is basically a cakewalk. If you already speak the language, it can’t possibly be hard to teach it, right? And you’ve spent the vast majority of your life sitting in classrooms, so teaching should come naturally to you, too.

Wrong. So wrong. Teaching is about so much more than standing in a room and explaining something – it’s lesson planning, grading, scaffolding lessons for different ability levels, managing a room full of 40 raucous children or bored teenagers and dealing with unexpected surprises every day. Showing up is an important first step (and we've got tips for newbie ESL teachers), but it takes much more than that and a textbook to be a successful teacher.

I’ve seen my fair share of enthusiastic and well-meaning first-time teachers abroad who come to the realization, some of them within the first month, that teaching is not for them after all. This is not something you want to figure out six weeks into a 10-month job – it’s bad for you and worse for your students. If you don’t have any prior teaching experience, try to do some tutoring, take on a TEFL Certification course with practice teaching, or get involved in volunteer teaching before signing up for a long-term teaching commitment.

If you’re looking to fill some gaps in your resume, teaching could be a great way to do so, but if you don’t think you’re the professorial type, you might be better off looking elsewhere.

And then there’s the material. Even though you may be a native English speaker, there’s still plenty you’ll have to learn for the job. Unless you’re a linguistics major, you’ll almost certainly have to brush up on verb tenses, adjective order and the dreaded phrasal verbs. Teaching abroad can be a wonderful, eye-opening and yes, life-changing, experience but only if you’re ready for both the teaching and the abroad aspects.

Of course, teaching abroad can help you gain a number of skills that are applicable in many fields and positions outside of the classroom: managing a room full of people, public speaking, planning (and improvising when your plans inevitably go awry), teamwork, adapting to unfamiliar situations, more patience than you ever knew you had, and the list goes on. These skills will do wonders for you no matter where you choose to go after the year ends, but teaching abroad isn’t the only way to improve this skill set, and it’s certainly far from the easiest. If you’re looking to fill some gaps in your resume, teaching could be a great way to do so, but if you don’t think you’re the professorial type, you might be better off looking elsewhere.

2. Why am I choosing to teach abroad, and in a specific country?

There are millions of ESL (English as a Second Language) learners right here in the US, probably right in the town where you currently live. If you’re really passionate about helping people learn English to improve educational or job opportunities, there is plenty of need right down the road from you or on the other end of a Skype call. Yes, it certainly looks more glamorous to jet off to another country, but it’s important to have reasons for relocation that go beyond adding some excitement to your Instagram feed. Maybe you seriously want to learn another language, or you’ve never been outside the country before, or want to understand the ins and outs of an educational system different from your own.

Though simply wanting the experience of living in a different culture is certainly reason enough, choosing a location that aligns with your interests and goals will make your time abroad more valuable.

Whatever your personal motivations are for relocating, think seriously about how they might play into your interests, skills and what you may want to do after you finish teaching. If you’re interested in working on health initiatives in West Africa, say, then spending a year volunteer teaching in Senegal could help you gain an invaluable understanding of the current state of the health system there and the areas where you might be able to contribute in the future. If Central American immigration policy is your thing, then immersing yourself in a teacher in a Nicaraguan community losing members across the border could help you broaden your view of the issue and underlying forces at work. Or if you see yourself pursuing a career path that includes frequent business trips to Beijing, some time there teaching and studying Chinese could be just what you need to feel more comfortable holding meetings in Mandarin.

Though simply wanting the experience of living in a different culture is certainly reason enough for moving abroad, choosing a location that aligns with your interests and goals will make your time abroad that much more valuable and meaningful, both at the moment and into the future. Just make sure you ask the right questions first.

3. What are my (short-term) career or personal goals?

Classroom in Japan

I know, I know. At this point, just the phrase “career goals” probably makes you want to sprint toward the closest exit. It’s not a fun exercise, but you’re at the point where you should probably start making choices that will help you move forward, rather than just get by. You don’t need to have a 20-year plan in place, but having some awareness of how your choices now may play into where you go down the road will help you figure out if it’s actually the right thing for you career-wise or as just a placeholder while you figure everything out (which is fine! As long as you do a good job placeholding!).

If you’re looking to go into a field like teaching, global education, or international work, teaching abroad may be just the thing to help you get a foothold in the field and start making connections that will advance your career. At the same time, maybe you already know you’ll be entering law school in another year, and want to do something meaningful with your time, rather than just sitting around killing hours in a short-term job. If teaching English abroad can help you move forward personally or professionally, then by all means, go for it.

Here’s a good exercise to help clarify this: pretend you’re in a job interview a few years down the road. How would you explain your choice to teach abroad to your interviewer, and how would it connect to the other work you’ve done or hope to do? If you’re struggling to create a strong connection and answer this question, you may want to seriously think about whether teaching abroad is the best choice for you right now.

4. What are my options for entry-level jobs at home?

Although teaching abroad is becoming more competitive and schools are upping the requirements for English teachers (a college degree and fluency in English has always been the bare minimum but most schools now prefer candidates with a TEFL certification and some experience as well), it's still a relatively easy gig for a recent college grad to get. I can't say the same for all "entry-level" jobs in the U.S. which frequently require 2-5 years experience "in a relevant field". Nor are all those jobs as rewarding as teaching!

Maybe you've planned it out smartly, developed some great connections in your internship or graduated with an in demand degree, and have great job prospects at home. In that case, teaching abroad right now may not be the smartest move for you. On the other hand, you may have studied liberal arts and are now faced with some pretty blah job options. Although we really, really, really, urge you to only teach abroad if you know you enjoy teaching and are in it for the right reasons, we also have to admit: it sure beats the pants off that admin assistant job in finance. Not only that, but it absolutely counts as professional experience and, depending on your goals, may help you boost your resume and steer your professional career in the right direction.

Though teaching English abroad is an increasingly popular option for recent college grads, it doesn’t necessarily have to be for you. There are also plenty of other employment options abroad, so don’t feel like your chance to travel or live as an expat is tied exclusively to working as an English teacher. Regardless of where you choose to explore your new career path, the important thing is that you find something that uses your skills, challenges your abilities and appeals to your passion, whether it’s on the other side of the world or the other end of the block.

Photo Credits: Nazareth College, students, and 7th Graders in Japan.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.