I sat at the front of the classroom with my half-eaten lunch as 28 Japanese 7-year-olds hovered around me peppering me with questions: “How tall are you? Why are your eyes brown? What’s the best place in America?”
Their eyes wide with genuine curiosity and interest, I answered questions in my broken Japanese and signed autographs as they shoved pieces of paper, textbooks, and even hands in front of me to sign. Moments like these are why I came to Japan to teach English.
For the fresh-out-of-college, the unemployed, underemployed, and inexperienced demographic, jobs can be hard to come by. But many people under the age of 25 have one major attribute in their favor: flexibility.
One way to use this flexibility and gain unique work experience is by teaching English abroad. Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) abroad has become a popular post-college choice for many twenty-somethings due to its exciting mixture of employment and adventure.
The Basics of ESL
What Is ESL?
ESL is a broad term that defines any English language learning experience for those whose native language is not English. It is estimated that there are between 500 million and 2 billion people either primarily speaking or studying English. Those numbers are growing rapidly, as many countries are educating their youth to learn English as a means to find jobs and prepare for the future. This has resulted in a boom in worldwide ESL teaching jobs.
Which Countries Can I Work In?
From tiny, private ESL schools in Brazil, to huge government programs with 5,000-plus teachers in Japan, there is a wide variety of employment locations available.
ESL jobs are available in Costa Rica, Brazil, Russia, Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan, as well as other countries. The majority of ESL positions are with private companies, which often employ fewer than 10 people.
Do I Need a Visa? If So, How Do I Get One?
The short answer is yes, you do need a visa.
The long answer, however, is that every situation is different, and depending on your native country and the country in which you’ll be working, you should learn what you need early in the application process. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any company or school that does not offer you guidance in regards to the visa process.
What Is an Average Work Day Like?
You could find yourself teaching multiple classes a day, making lesson plans, organizing activities and games, grading homework and tests, doing interview tests, organizing an English club, helping the company or school with administrative duties, or performing other tasks. You could work mornings or you could work nights. You could be a part-time teacher who works 15 hours a week, or a full-time employee who logs in 45 hours a week and has to bring papers home to grade.
This may seem intimidating to someone who’s not a teacher by trade, but the amount of free resources available online is a huge help. Sites such as ESL Teacher’s Board and Dave’s ESL Cafe will get you started by providing tons of quality worksheets, games, and ideas for teaching ESL abroad.
What Qualifications Are Required?
Most jobs require you to be a native speaker of English and a college graduate with a degree in any field, and have some sort of interest in the country in which you’ll be teaching. There usually aren’t any age requirements, even though the majority of people who teach ESL abroad are younger than 30.
Certain private companies may require a little more from their employees, such as prior experience working with children (such as at a summer camp), in-classroom teaching experience, or a passing score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The TOEFL can be taken online, and gauges how proficient you are in English and if you’re skilled enough to teach it.
How Much Can I Earn in a Year?
Expect anywhere from $10,000 a year in places like Southeast Asia to $40,000 a year in Japan. Remember, the standard of living varies greatly from country to country; $10,000 in Thailand, for example, could have the spending power of $45,000 in South Korea.
Since amounts fluctuate daily based on currency rates, a good time to earn a living abroad is when the dollar is weak. For example, when I came to Japan in 2009, my program’s salary equaled about $38,000 a year, but today it is the equivalent of approximately $46,000.
Also account for airfare, accommodations, insurance, and taxes. These will vary according to your location and can greatly affect your initial salary depending on how much financial assistance your employer offers.
Pros & Cons of Teaching English Abroad
1. You Live Abroad and Get Paid For It
This is every traveler’s dream. The chance to live abroad is something a lot of people would do for free, but getting a monthly paycheck makes it that much better.
2. You Learn How to Interact With Different People
I’m the only foreigner in my school. I interact with my Japanese teachers and students every day, and I’ve been forced to adjust the way I communicate and try to learn a new language because our respective primary languages are different and we each come from different cultures.
One of my favorite parts of the job is meeting English teachers from other countries. I regularly talk with people from New Zealand, England, Australia, Ireland, and other countries. I’m constantly learning new things about these places while making friends and learning how to better communicate with others.
3. Your Public Speaking Abilities Improve
When you teach abroad, you speak in front of a crowd on a daily basis. You must quickly become comfortable with it or you will not be an effective teacher. Classes can range from 5 to 45 people, and you learn to craft your message for your intended audience. This can mean speaking slower, only using certain, easy-to-understand vocabulary, or speaking with extra enthusiasm. Becoming a proficient public speaker will transfer well to a range of future career fields.
4. You Gain Confidence
When you’re traveling across Thailand by bus and train, you gain confidence. Every situation, such as figuring out why a train was late, communicating with a shy student, or successfully translating a menu, will give you a sense of accomplishment and an appreciation for your abilities.
5. It Builds Patience
Doing everyday tasks like paying bills or asking where the rice is at the grocery store is much harder abroad than in America because of the language and cultural barrier. If you lack language skills, you can’t just call up your phone company and debate a charge, or ask your garbage man which day recycling is picked up. Even though these things can be difficult, you learn to rely on the help of others and realize how important it is to be patient.
6. Every Day Is Interesting
I’ve been in Japan at the same school for about 28 months, and every day something interesting, odd, or exciting happens. Cultures are incredibly complex, and it can take a lifetime of firsthand experience before one blends in.
If you teach abroad, the country you teach in will wrap itself around you and you’ll be tossed into the deep end of the pool. It can be draining, but it will always be interesting and challenging. What more could you want from an experience like this?
7. It Is Easy to Travel to Other Countries
Because most ESL-studying countries (such as those in Southeast Asia, Europe, or South America) are small and in close proximity to others, travel is cheap and easy. I have friends that have been to five different countries in Asia within two years of teaching in Japan, and they didn’t break the bank doing it.
1. The Cost of Getting There
Geographically, several of the largest English-speaking countries (i.e. USA, Canada, and Australia) are far away from most other countries. In other words, though there are some cheap international destinations, reaching your new country of employment can cost a pretty penny.
You also have to consider start-up costs for when you arrive. You may have to furnish an apartment or buy a car, so don’t leave home with $0 in your bank account and expect to make it to your first payday.
2. Low Income
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but you can’t retire off your earnings from teaching English abroad. With income ranging from $10,000 to $45,000 a year, you’ll make a decent living and be able to live comfortably. Your cost of living will essentially be equal based on your country, but the difference will arise when you send savings home.
3. It Is Hard to Save Money
From dining at restaurants, to weekend excursions and shopping, it can be difficult to save anything as a teacher abroad. But by setting and sticking to a budget, you can come home without empty pockets.
4. You May Be Lonely
The term “culture shock” is overused, but the term “cultural fatigue” is one I think needs to be discussed more. Living in a foreign country and solely working with people from that respective country can be a grind on you mentally. It’s interesting and new, but some days you just want to discuss Sunday’s NFL games. Teachers abroad tend to get in mental funks after a certain amount of time. This can especially be true for someone who teaches in a town or area with no other foreigners from their home region.
5. The Work Is Strenuous
The work load for ESL teachers varies, but you could wind up in a situation where you have a heavy class load, difficult students, a demanding boss, or overprotective parents. It’s not a pie in the sky job where you show up and give high fives and then go on living your blissful life in a foreign country. Many students (especially for private schools) are taking English to get a job or to get into a better school. If your teaching doesn’t help them acquire those results, it could be difficult on you.
Resources to Find an ESL Job
1. Online Resources & Websites
There are some helpful forums on the web where companies post available ESL jobs. Check out Transitions Abroad, Dave’s ESL Cafe Jobs List, ESL Jobs World, and ESL Herald. You can also go through recruiting agencies found on the web for a more specialized job search.
2. Internet Search
If you’re interested in a specific country, but can’t find an appropriate job on the websites listed above, go to a search engine like Google or Bing and search “ESL jobs in (the country you want to teach in).” There are thousands of companies and schools around the world, and there may be new ones popping up online that aren’t listed elsewhere.
3. Your College’s Office of International Programs
This is the department at your college or university that’s in charge of international programs, such as college study abroad programs or cultural festivals. They are frequently contacted by recruiting agencies, companies, and ESL schools.
Set up a meeting with someone in this department and tell them your teaching goal (where and when you want to teach). If they don’t know of a specific company or school, they will at least be able to call or recommend you to some people who can help.
4. College Professors
Many college professors lead interesting lives. Maybe they taught abroad when they graduated college or know of someone who has. Tell your professors about your intentions and ask if they or anyone they know could help you find a job. Professors love when students take initiative like this, and they’ll generally be willing to offer assistance.
5. Your Own Network
Do you know of anyone who’s teaching abroad? Post on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn that you’re looking to teach in South Korea next summer, and ask if anyone can offer assistance. Your network on social media sites may only constitute 200 or 300 people, but those people also know 200 or 300 other people. Post your intentions in a very compact way with a defined call to action and you should get some responses.
6. The Country in Which You Wish to Teach
Depending on which country you’re from and the length of your tourist visa, you could travel to the country you want to teach in and start networking and directly soliciting your services. Ask around, seek out available jobs, and see if any companies or schools are in desperate need of a teacher. The worst-case result is that you don’t get a job, but still travel around a country you’ve always wanted to visit.
I’ve met other ESL instructors in Japan who struggled with the change of culture and left after only one year. Then there are people I’ve met who fell in love with living abroad and stayed five years longer than they had originally intended. In the end, almost every single person I’ve talked to who has taught abroad has enjoyed their experience and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
With the abundance of available resources, there is no reason not to consider becoming an ESL teacher if you like traveling and feel like you need something new in your life. Who knows, maybe you’ll be teaching a classroom full of Japanese elementary students this time next year.
Have you or someone you know taught English abroad? What was the experience like?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)