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Teaching Abroad: It's a Job, Not a Vacation

Students in Ecuador

For many recent college grads, teaching English abroad sounds like a pretty sweet setup. You want to travel and aren’t ready to settle into the 9-5 life yet -- but you don’t have a ton of money. By teaching English abroad, you can combine the best of both worlds, right? Errr, kind of...

Work hard and keep your priorities straight, and you’ll be amazed at how swiftly everything else falls into place!

Don’t get me wrong, teaching ESL abroad is an incredible travel opportunity, and the adventure of living in a new region is a big part of the draw for everybody. Just don’t expect it to be a year long vacation or like any other past travels of yours. Teaching abroad isn't easy.

You’re a teacher, not a backpacker, and fulfilling your commitments to your employer and your students is more important than drinking mojitos on the beach. That’s not to say that there won’t be any time for exploring new places, because there will be plenty of that too, but having realistic expectations going into your new life as an ESL teacher abroad will help you get the most out of your experience.

You'll Need Training

Teacher in Tanzania

Like any other job, you'll need training on how to do it.

Even though you've been a student yourself the majority of your life, you likely have no idea what it's like to be on the other end.

You'll need to either sign up with a program that provides training, or take matters into your own hands and take a TEFL / TESOL / CELTA certification course (and, er, figure out what the difference between TEFL and CELTA is, anyway...)

If for no other reason, training will give you a sample of what it's like to teach abroad -- and it's a better point to bail than when you're one month in to a teaching contract; a point we'll discuss later.

TEFL Courses are Challenging

Some TEFL course participants I talk to are surprised by how demanding the TEFL certification process is. Every program is different of course, but if you’re planning on taking an on site, 120-140 hour certification course, you can plan on it being a pretty demanding experience.

Some people expect training to be a breeze, and think that just showing up is going to be good enough, but the reality is that learning how to be an effective ESL teacher will require your full attention for a month or more. I know that I was a little shocked when I showed up to my first week of class in Cambodia and had to do homework for the first time in two years, and a lot of people I talk to have a similar experience. It takes some getting used to!

To get through training, show up ready to work. Expect the course to be demanding, and the worst that will happen is it’s easier than you expect, and you have more free time than you anticipated. If you walk into TEFL training expecting to skate by, you’ll probably wind up pretty stressed out for a couple weeks.

You’ll Have Part Time Hours and a Full Time Job

For better or worse, teaching abroad doesn’t really become any easier after certification. Turns out actual teaching can be really hard too!

There's a lot of turnover in most ESL job markets throughout the world.

Again, managing your expectations will go a long way. At least in the beginning, plan on teaching being a full-time commitment, even if your hours are part time. You’ll have to carve out time for creating lesson plans and grading tests, and you might be surprised at how tired you are after a full day in the classroom.

Try to keep traveling to a minimum for your first month or so as a teacher, and use that time to get adjusted to your new schedule. Excursions and adventures will be more rewarding if you have your work in control, and there will be plenty of time to explore!

If You Prefer to Travel -- Just Travel

Hammocks on the beach in Colombia

Teaching abroad often gets marketed as "an easy way to make money while traveling" or "a thrifty way to travel abroad". It shouldn't. It's a real job, and real people are counting on you to help with their real education and real future.

If you choose to teach abroad with the sole intention of using it as a way to travel, you'll end up viewing it as more of an inconvenience than a job. In my experience, these types of people just shouldn't teach abroad -- just travel or take a gap year instead.

If you expect teaching to be easy and aren’t willing to put forth an honest effort, you’re going to feel stressed and end up doing your students a disservice.

Watching your students development new skills and build confidence in the English language is truly a beautiful experience, but it doesn’t come easily, and you should plan on giving the job your full attention.

You Need to Honor Your Commitment

There’s a lot of turnover in most ESL job markets throughout the world, and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. Most people aren’t looking to remain abroad for the rest of their lives, so every semester there are usually a number of teachers coming and going -- which is a positive and a negative.

High turnover means a lot of opportunity for new teachers, but it can also make it difficult for schools to maintain any sort of continuity. So while I’m not saying that everyone planning to teach English abroad needs to be prepared to make a multi-year commitment, honoring a contract that you commit to is important for several reasons:

  • Your students are counting on you -- Ditching your job in the middle of a semester or before your contract ends leaves your classroom high and dry, and you might be causing more harm than you realize. Learning English is one of the most effective ways a young person in a developing country can break the cycle of poverty, and when a school has to replace a teacher with little or no notice, there is obviously going to be quite a bit of lag time.

  • Unreliable employees make things more difficult for future teachers. -- and for the industry at large. When a person commits to a 6 month teaching contract and bails after 3 months, the hiring school is going to be less likely to take a chance on an unproven teacher in the future.

  • It makes you more hireable -- If you cut your contract short, you automatically lose that reference (for future teaching jobs abroad and others) and the opportunity to put that experience on your resume.

  • It's the responsible thing to do -- If those aren't enough to convince you, it's just the responsible thing to do. Hopefully, you got TEFL certified and have already tested the waters. An actual teaching job shouldn't throw too much new at you.

At Go Overseas, we always try to stress the importance of fulfilling your commitments. However, if you end up in a terrible teaching position or scam, then throw this advice out the window. We don't want you wasting your time on a school that won't pay you or follow through with their promises.

Vacation Time is Fickle

Many teachers complain about not having enough advance notice of school vacations to plan a trip, get cheap airfare, or book rooms during a busy holiday season. Unfortunately, that's just the way things go.

If you choose to teach abroad with the sole intention of using it as a way to travel, you'll end up viewing it as more of an inconvenience than a job.

Again, your teaching job is now your priority, not traveling. Obviously, we do want you to take advantage of your time off to explore your host country and the surrounding areas, but only if it doesn't interfere with your work.

Is one week not enough time to take that dream trip of yours? Then plan on traveling during the summers (teachers get summer breaks -- woohoo!) or for an extended period of time after your contract ends (and you have all that extra money from teaching saved up in the bank -- double woohoo!)

Practice Good Work Life Balance

Like with any job, achieving a work-life balance while teaching English abroad can be tricky, but it’s certainly not impossible. As we went over earlier, you should plan on taking it slow in the beginning, but as you become more and more comfortable in the classroom, you’ll have more time for enriching activities outside of the classroom. And that’s when teaching abroad becomes really fun!

So don’t be alarmed if your first month or two abroad are dominated by work. Teaching is a job, and you should take it seriously. Once you feel confident leading a class full of aspiring English speakers, you’ll be able to fully take advantage of the amazing cultural immersion experience that you are embarking on. Work hard and keep your priorities straight, and you’ll be amazed at how swiftly everything else falls into place!

Photo Credits: Gabi Schiller, Lydia Voss, and Natasha Krol.

Steve Patton

Steve calls Boston home, though he spends as much time on the road as he does in any one place these days. He's part of the marketing team at LanguageCorps and a freelance writer, in between playing drums in various touring bands and trying to be a better photographer. Follow him on Google+.