Teach Abroad

3 Tips for Negotiating Your Teaching Abroad Salary

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.

3 Tips for Negotiating Your Teaching Abroad Salary
Photo by Rachel, Tanzania Volunteer Alum

"Salary Negotiation." One of the many phrases that bring stress, panic, and a slight wave of nausea -- no matter who you are, or what job you're applying for.

I've read article after article on how to be a "strong independent woman" and negotiate my salary, but the idea of fighting for better compensation is hard. This is especially true when you're dealing with another country and culture, as in the case of negotiating your salary for teaching abroad.

The idea of negotiating a teach abroad salary is so scary that most first-year teachers don't do it at all. If you're teaching with a big company or a teach abroad program, many of us assume that the contracts aren't negotiable. Everyone get's the same deal... right? Right?!

It turns out this isn't true. Your salary is always negotiable unless your hiring contact explicitly says it isn't. Rather than shying away from salary negotiation for your teaching job abroad because you aren't sure whether to negotiate, let's dive into exactly what you can do to take control of salary negotiation -- and how to get fair compensation for your teaching work.

Why You Need to Pay Attention To Your Teach Abroad Contract

Before we talk about how to negotiate your salary, let's discuss why you need to thoroughly understand your contract. I learned this lesson the hard way after accepting a contract through a teach abroad program that went back on its verbal promises more than once.

I failed to notice a section of my contract that stated I could owe my school up to $8,000 if I left early. EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS! That was my salary for the entire year!

How did I manage to miss this? Well, it was a tiny side note, and the amount was in RMB, not USD. I figured I wouldn't want to leave early, and that number wouldn't be a problem. However, when the program placed me at a school in the middle of nowhere by myself (which they promised wouldn't happen), I was out of options and stuck in a situation I wasn't happy about.

Not only was I stuck in a job I couldn't leave, I also learned pretty quickly that 5,000 RMB per month ($800), is very low for a job teaching abroad in China. While I might not have been able to negotiate that salary with this placement company, I definitely could've looked elsewhere for jobs that were willing to negotiate on pay.

All this to say: pay attention to your teach abroad contract. Learn from my mistake; read every line and make sure you understand the dollar-value of every benefit -- and every fee.

My First Time Negotiating My Teach Abroad Salary

3 Tips for Negotiating Your Teaching Abroad Salary: First Time Negotiating
Photo by Teach English with BFITS Thailand

My very first time negotiating a teach abroad salary was actually a part-time position teaching English while I studied for my Master's in China. This is technically illegal but... I won't tell if you won't.

I already had two part-time jobs teaching English, paying 200 RMB per hour (about $32), and when I was offered a third job teaching English to a few businessmen, I almost turned down the job without even considering the salary. I was a busy Master's student and didn't feel like taking on another position.

So when the company asked me what my going rate was, I decided to give them a number I thought would scare them off. 300 RMB per hour. We settled on 400 RMB for 1.5 hours, making my hourly rate 266 RMB (about $42). That's an extra $10 an hour!

This, my friends, is the power of negotiation.

I ended up quitting both of my other part-time jobs teaching English to kids and biked to this company for 90-minute lessons twice a week. I ended up loving teaching to adults, I made way more money, and the commute was painless (and great exercise!).

Negotiating a Full-Time Salary With Benefits

That next year, I took a full-time job in Beijing working as a college counselor to Chinese students. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you the contract intimidated me: a salary of 16,000 RMB per month ($2,500) with full benefits, a 6,000 RMB ($900) housing stipend, 20 vacation days, and a two-year contract.

However, right before I received the contract I met a guy in Ningbo who was also working as a college counselor. He said he was paid 20,000 RMB straight out of college with no teaching or admissions experience. I had both -- and a master's degree!

How is it possible for him to be paid that much more than me, a woman with way more valuable experience?! I used this anger to fuel a polite email with a salary negotiation. I received a salary of 18,000 RMB ($2,900) per month and a promotion to 20,000 RMB ($3,200) after the first two months.

I ran into the college counselor guy a few weeks later and told him about my successful negotiation. He laughed and admitted to inflating his salary to make it sound more impressive. Apparently his salary was only 15,000 RMB.

While I was a bit embarrassed at my anger and misplaced allegations of sexism within the education industry (whoops), I am super grateful to this guy for his white lie. Without it, I wouldn't have had the confidence to negotiate, and I might've missed out on over $7,500 in extra income!

I used this strategy more than once with my job. I negotiated a higher salary after my first year, and a bonus to make up for insufficient staff. I almost couldn't believe myself. I made moves like a real corporate woman!

...Just don't tell anyone I had to mentally prepare for multiple hours before I met with my boss.

How to Negotiate Your Teach Abroad Salary

3 Tips for Negotiating Your Teaching Abroad Salary: How to Negotiate
Photo by Aaron, Affordable Volunteer Programs in Tanzania Alum

That's right, be in demand! Apply for a few different jobs and compare contracts. This will give you a good idea of what different companies and schools are offering. It will also prevent you from signing on with a school because you're worried about missing out on the job.

Once you have a few different offers, you can leverage them to your advantage. Let's say one school you absolutely love is offering you $1,500 per month, while another school you love a little less is offering you $2,000 per month. Let the school you love know about your other offer in a polite way. Tell them that you would love to take their job and it's your #1 choice, but you're having trouble saying no to another position with a higher salary. Ask them if there's any way they can come up a bit in their offer.

The worst case scenario is that the school tells you they don't have the budget. But if you've been polite, they'll still want you and will possibly appreciate you more, knowing you turned down another school with a better salary to work for them.

2. Negotiate Your Benefits

While I decided to negotiate my salary, I have a few friends who decided to negotiate their benefits instead. I've had friends negotiate for more vacation days, guaranteed Christmas holiday, or a better apartment. You can negotiate which city or center you're placed at if a school has multiple placement options.

I also considered trying to negotiate from a 2-year to a 1-year contract because I'd never had a job for more than a year and the idea of that much commitment scared me.

Don't be afraid to forfeit a raise in exchange for more vacation time, or add stipulations to your contract. Sometimes these things are much more important than a higher salary, especially if you need time off to see family or attend a wedding.

3. Be Polite & Have Confidence

Confidence and courteousness are the two most important things when it comes to contract negotiation. I know most of us are afraid to ask for more without seeming greedy or ungrateful, but employers are used to negotiation.

It made me feel better to have an excuse for a higher salary (I needed to pay off my student loans), but you shouldn't have to have one. You can easily, politely ask for a slightly higher salary. For example, if you're set to make $2,000 a month, ask for $2,300. The worst they can say is no!

No one is going to withdraw your contract because you politely asked for more vacation time or a slightly higher salary. Just be sure to be super courteous in your email.

Thank the HR representative for the job offer, let them know you're extremely interested in the position, but that you were hoping the salary would be "X". Ask if there's any room for negotiation within the contract. Feel free to ask any questions you have about the contract at this time as well.

Remember, contract negotiations are completely expected, and you definitely can (and should) negotiate. Just be confident, be polite, and remember the worst they can say is no. Hey... It could just make you an extra $7,000!

This article was originally published in March 2013, and was updated in May 2018.