Can I plan around teaching English abroad?
July 16, 2010 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Is teaching English abroad a feasible and realistic career plan?

Ever since I started seriously considering my potential career paths, I've wanted to do something travel-intensive. I mulled over the idea of taking the FSO exam (Foreign Service), but I didn't like the lack of control I would have in the placement process, nor did it seem like "joining the Foreign Service" is a safe plan, given the slim percentage of applicants who make the cut.

Next idea was to get into freelance writing - I fell out of love with that idea after realizing how much pressure is put on the writing process once you're using it to make a living.

Following that, I thought about doing Web design and development work, but after thinking more about it, I don't want to spend so much time in isolation during work.

My latest and greatest plan is to finish up college with a degree in English and a rudimentary understanding of Language X (I studied Latin and Greek in high school), take an ESL teaching certification course, and then find a job teaching English in a country that speaks X. Once I'm fluent in Language X or want a change of scenery, I can find another country that speaks Language X or learn Language Y and wash, rinse, repeat.

I have about one year of tutoring experience, and while I don't love the work, it's more fun than the other jobs I've had. I was hoping to query Metafilter and find out if anyone has done something similar or has tips about how to approach this. Thanks.
posted by gacxllr9 to Work & Money (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm doing the same thing. The answer is yes.

A lot of people who end up teaching abroad only do it for a short period of time, without much dedication to the job. If you're a career ESL teacher, experienced and dedicated to the profession, it's always easy to find work.

You'll find that your desire to live in a variety of different places will also be a career asset, as you can go where the jobs are plentiful in a given year.

When you're an experienced teacher, there are many other opportunities that arise; you can get involved in educational publishing, English for special purposes (which goes into business training, very lucrative), language-learning software development (you can still do web design!), etc.

One thing about the lifestyle; when you're teaching English full-time it can be difficult to dedicate a lot of time and energy towards learning a new language. That said, you can apply the insights you get from teaching a language to your own language learning, which makes studying languages easier and easier.

Go for it!
posted by mammary16 at 12:01 PM on July 16, 2010

Do you need to teach English, or is it OK to be able to teach whatever in various places around the world? Because it's very common in many countries (predominantly in Asia, from what I've seen) to have, e.g., an "American-Chinese school" or "American-Japanese school" where people will send their kids to get an "American-style" education, ostensibly to better prepare them to apply to American colleges. As an American with some smattering of teaching credentials, you are well positioned to do this.

I have a friend who started doing this about 8 years ago, and she's still at it (in at least country #3, possibly #4), and she loves it. She is not exactly getting rich, or even saving much, but she lives OK and gets to travel a LOT. Ask your school's career services offices for recommendations about this type of job; possibly also follow up with your study abroad department (if you have one) or alumni who did study abroad. They may have connections in this area.

Good luck!
posted by rkent at 12:02 PM on July 16, 2010

I don't think it's a viable career path for the vast majority of people. It can be, if you love it and you're dedicated to the job, but it usually isn't. You're not going to get rich teaching English. You'll make enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle, and you'll save some money, and that's great as long as you're young and you don't have kids. Once you have kids, it becomes a job with little or no benefits, and you'll make enough to get by, but nothing more. International schools are expensive, and you won't be able to afford one for your children. That will create problems.

On top of that, living abroad for an extended period is hard, and it's not for everyone. I'd say about 70% of people who live abroad shouldn't do it for an extended period of time. 30% can do it while living a happy life. You don't know which group you fall into until you do it. Many people who live abroad for many years come to regret it. Some don't.

Learning the language will also be difficult. The more you teach, the more money you'll make, but the less you'll learn the language. If the language is Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, it'll be difficult, regardless of how much time you devote to it. You simply cannot learn these languages quickly while teaching English at a day job. It takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work.

I don't want to paint too bleak a picture for you. I think it's a great thing to do for a year, say. But I think you should think long and hard before you decide to make it a career. I've met way too many people who got stuck, and felt that they couldn't go back home because they lacked marketable skills.
posted by smorange at 12:26 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Translation work will be much more lucrative and will still offer you the opportunity to interact with people. Considering that most ESL teachers are students with not much need for a living wage, you are putting yourself at a financial disadvantage.
posted by JJ86 at 12:54 PM on July 16, 2010

I also did the same thing, and I've been teaching ESL for 14 years. (I can echo what mammary16 says above.) If you are planning on making it a long-term career, you'll need a Master's degree in the field or something related in order to get the kind of stable teaching job, with a good salary and benefits, that you'll find at a university or college. (This has not always been the case, but it is these days.) You'll find that there are at least two "tiers" of ESL schools: Joe's Language Club, where anyone with a teaching certificate can get a job, and where the pay is low and the turnover is high, and universities and colleges, where the pay and benefits are worth sticking around for. (This is true in English-speaking countries and abroad.)
posted by smilingtiger at 2:06 PM on July 16, 2010

Make sure that you secure your teaching contract and all the paperwork with the school before you travel to that country. You don't want to find yourself in the unpleasant situation of having spent $$$$ to move all the way to X country only to find out that you have no job.

There are a lot of jobs, or so I've heard, for teaching English in the Middle East, where everyone is obsessed with learning English. You don't necessarily need to know Arabic to teach in the Middle East, especially if you choose a country like the United Arab Emirates, where there are English supermarkets, TV channels, hospitals, etc. However, UAE is *expensive*.

Regardless, your teaching contract should include transportation and living allowance, even a tuition allowance if you bring your kids. My friend's dad worked for a company doing some computer work in UAE and she went to private Catholic school (= $$$) there for free. Their car and apartment was also paid for by the company. There are teachers (from America) who have gotten similar packages. So, don't be afraid to negotiate!

Living overseas can be fun or miserable. If you don't have money, it sucks. (It really does.) If you have money, it's a blast. (The more money, the merrier.)
posted by joyeuxamelie at 3:49 PM on July 16, 2010

I've taught one year in China, and am on my tenth year of teaching in Japan, and while I guess it is doable, honestly, I wouldn't recommend it. At the moment, at least in Japan, the job market sucks, and after the second very large language school chain (Geos) just closed, a couple years after the largest (Nova) failed, the market is flooded with teachers, all competing for the same fewer jobs. Salaries are also in a downward spiral at the moment, with intermediary contracting companies making direct hire more difficult. Finally, for university work, many, many universities have strict limits on the number of times you can renew a contract, which is their way of avoiding giving tenure to a foreign teacher.

On the other hand, if you are going to do it, be prepared. Get an actual teaching degree (as in secondary or elementary, whichever you'd be more comfortable with) from your university. It might take you some time, but more and more positions are requiring a teaching degree. Get a CELTA certificate. And, once you're in a job, once you've had some experience with it, and have decided you want to continue, get into a masters program as early on as you can. You can, without a MATEFL, have a 'career' in teaching English, but you'd be looking at the two most likely paths. One would be like having a career at McDonalds, the other would be starting your own school, which is sometimes an option, but always difficult. If you have any questions, feel free to memail me.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:52 PM on July 16, 2010

It is absolutely possible to make a ton of money and build a great career teaching abroad, for certain people, with certain abilities, backgrounds, and personalities. MeMail me if you want to talk about this. I've been teaching in Korea for eight years.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:41 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know many of the specifics, but I know three people doing exactly that. Incidentally, they all love it.
posted by cmoj at 9:28 AM on July 17, 2010

I teach English in South Korea, and have for 2+ years. The good news is that there are jobs to be had - although there are already plenty of expat teachers here in Korea. I'll presume Japan's ESL industry is suffering based on news from above, although China's market is supposedly booming.

The question becomes this: is this a 'fling' (a one-year thing to travel and see the world) or a 'career' (where the focus is on making money and teaching, not getting drunk or traveling)? Also, the biggest question becomes what do you want to do when / if you return to your home country? ESL jobs in the US / Canada are available - and having experience with the culture and native language are positive assets. Jobs that require 'international experience' also require other experience that teaching English in Asia may not provide.

If control is an issue, be aware that the longer you stick around a country, the harder it can be to leave. MeFi mail me if you like - I keep a blog about teaching and life in South Korea (if anyone's looking for it, just google 'chris in south korea' - not trying to plug it here)
posted by chrisinseoul at 12:04 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

One more option - years ago, my aunt used to be a civilian nurse at schools for military dependents whose parents served on bases in foreign countries. I don't have any idea how she got that sort of job, or if the teacher jobs would also be civilian posts, but that might be an option to look into.
posted by CathyG at 6:05 PM on July 20, 2010

I started teaching English abroad over ten years ago and I'm still in the profession, although I'm now much more on the management side. I earn pretty well, certainly enough to support a family, if I had one, especially since my employer pays school fees.

However, I agree with the other commenters that you need to distinguish yourself from the hordes of backpacker/ex-student types who get into TEFL because they can't do anything else and fancy an extended holiday. They keep the wages very low at one end of the profession and you need to find a way to distinguish yourself from them to avoid your salary being similarly depressed. Here are some suggestions:
  • Avoid teaching English. Teach something else at international schools or find another niche.
  • Specialise. Business English requires a higher level of professionalism, but the rewards are commensurate. Teacher training is another popular avenue for long-termers.
  • Get a job at a University. Often good salary and holidays, but mostly for those who are settling somewhere.
  • Get a job with a good international chain. Salaries are variable, but the opportunity to travel and know that the next job will be pretty decent is excellent.
  • Get into management. It offers good rewards and opportunities, but it might end up being the sort of job you left home to avoid.

posted by Busy Old Fool at 4:11 AM on August 5, 2010

I taught in Korea and it was great. Very do-able and good money. The best place to look for advice and jobs is Dave's ESL Cafe forums.
posted by particular at 7:04 AM on September 1, 2010

Teaching in Korea is indeed easy to get into and the money is decent enough. However, for someone like the OP, considering teaching English abroad as a long-term career, it is not necessarily the best option. There isn't much of a career path and gaining qualifications is not rewarded.

Also, Dave's has its moments, but in general it's for those who want to work for a year or two and don't take teaching or the countries they're living in very seriously.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:58 AM on September 4, 2010

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