For the past four years, I have been making ends meet as an ESL teacher. The creative freedom, flexibility, personal fulfillment and influence I have as a teacher are what keep me in the ESL bubble – and it’s also a good industry to consider if you’re looking to save a good chunk of cash and travel.
But I never planned to become a teacher. Teaching found me.
“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” – Malala Yousafzai
After completing my Master of Arts degree in International Affairs a few years ago, I experienced a quarter-life crisis, quit my job in the public service and moved to Montreal to become an actress. I really had no idea what I could do to supplement my income as I became a struggling artist with a taste for the finer things in life. But I had faith.
One day, sitting in my new acting class, my classmate Leanna and I were talking about paying the bills to support our craft. She was working as a part-time teacher in ESL, and suggested that I apply to her school to teach as well.
“I can’t do that,” I replied dismissingly. “I don’t have an education degree or an ESL teaching certification.”
“Ya, but you have a Master’s degree!”, she urged. “Plus, you have great speaking skills and I think you’d make an amazing teacher. Just send me your CV.”
With nothing to lose and no previous teaching skills, I sent along my CV and cover letter.
A week later, I became Lingo Canada’s newest English teacher. One month later, I was promoted to Program Director for the English Department.
Fast forward four years to 2015, and I decided to finally take my teaching skills to the international stage. Within a week of applying for jobs online, I received three job offers and had several more interviews lined up. A few months later, I was on my way to South Korea.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Sound interesting? Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know if you’re considering the wonderful, crazy and uber rewarding experience of teaching ESL, either at home or abroad.
Where to find work
With English being the most widely spoken language in the world (by both non-native and native speakers), there is no shortage of demand for English teachers in virtually every country in the world. Having said that, there are a higher concentration of more lucrative contracts in select countries, mostly located in the Middle East and Asia. These are the most popular options.
- Average Salary Range: about 900$ USD – 2500$ USD a month (could go as high as 4500$ USD if you score a position at a university or international school)
- Typical Benefits: flight reimbursement, subsidized housing, free Mandarin lessons, flight vouchers, paid training opportunities
- Credentials Required: Usually a TEFL or TESOL certificate or bachelor’s degree
- Average Salary Range: 20$ – 40$ USD/ hr (lower end with big-chain schools, higher end for “bushibans” ( cram schools) and public schools)
- Typical Benefits: universal health coverage is usually provided
- Credentials Required: Usually a bachelor’s degree (in any subject)
- Average Salary Range: Approximately 3000$ USD a month
- Typical Benefits: health insurance provided ( at times), Japanese lessons (at times), contract completion bonuses provided by private schools
- Credentials Required: Minimum bachelor’s degree, with Japanese skills and TESOL/ TEFL certificates preferred
- Average Salary Range: 2000$ USD – 2500$ USD a month (higher at universities and international schools)
- Typical Benefits: universal health coverage, flight reimbursement, subsidized housing, contract completion bonuses
- Credentials Required: Bachelor’s degree
**Special note about teaching in South Korea: I would recommend against teaching at a hagwon (private academy). Yes, I teach at a hagwon at the moment and I happen to like my co-workers and my 3-10 pm work schedule. That said, after speaking to some other teachers, my situation is more of an exceptional circumstance (slightly less hours, foreign directors who are helpful, laidback and reasonably flexible, more vacation time, etc.). Generally speaking, you will work longer and harder hours at hagwons, with less incentives and vacation time (often just one week a year), so you’d do best to opt for a public school or university posting instead. International schools offer much better benefits and salaries as well, but you will work your ass off for it. If you’re looking for a work-life balance with decent benefits – just based on what I have learnt living here the past few months – you might wanna check out the public school system.
- Average Salary Range: 2,500 $ USD – 5,500$ USD/ month, tax-free
- Typical Benefits: health insurance, return flights, ridiculous amount of days off, paid accommodation, annual bonuses
- Credentials Required: Bachelor’s degree, TEFL/TESOL certification and previous teaching experience
- Average Salary Range: 3000$ USD – 4000$ USD/ month, tax-free
- Typical Benefits: health insurance, return flights, paid accommodation
- Credentials Required: Bachelor’s degree, TEFL certification, native fluency and minimum 2 years previous teaching experience
As stated, you can find an ESL teaching job anywhere in the world – but if you’re looking to save some cash or make bank, you’ll simply have a tougher time doing so in regions that aren’t listed above (Europe, South America, Thailand, etc.).
That said, if you’re hellbent on a specific location, there are a few trickier ways of finding teaching gigs besides the standard online recruitment programs, such as:
Sabrina Iovino, the kickass auteur behind the seminal travel blog Just One Way Ticket, posted an ad on Craigslist for German language classes as a means to pay for her accommodations in Turkey. I’ve also gotten gigs through Craigslist in Montreal, paying upwards of 25$ an hour.
Here in South Korea, there tend to be a lot of Koreans that use Tinder as a means of finding English tutors / teachers, though probably with a side order of pleasurable possibilities. As sketchy as that sounds, I’ve met one teacher that met a truly awesome student on Tinder. Use this at your own risk, of course – just listing all options!
Online Language Lesson Providers
There are several companies that facilitate online courses around the world – which means you don’t need to be location specific. I have a few Skype clients that help me pay my bills.
Showing Up and Giving in Your CV in Person
I’ve read about quite a few teachers getting their gigs by simply showing up in the city they wanted to live in, and dropping their CVs off in person. This is a much riskier approach than the standard online application process for many ESL jobs abroad, but many eventually find success due to the high demand for English teachers in non-English speaking countries.
What You Will Need to Find Work
Depending on your intended location of work, you will either need an ESL teaching certification (called a TESOL or TEFL certificate), a bachelor’s degree (in English, Education or otherwise), a teaching license, previous teaching experience, native fluency, and in some cases – simply the ability to speak English. I possess a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, a Master of Arts degree in International Affairs, four years of teaching experience and Canadian native fluency – but was rejected by an Indonesian recruiter, a high profile language school in China, and I didn’t bother applying to Dubai as I do not have an English degree or a TESOL/TEFL certificate. Research what is required, especially if you’re picky about your location.
If you’re in it for the big bucks (which many are), the highest paying jobs will require you to possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Native fluency is usually required as well, and of course, a TEFL/ TESOL certificate goes a long way to edge out your competition (and is mandatory in certain locations). It’s also worth noting that in many countries, Canadian and American native speakers are preferred due to an overwhelming preference for American English (though Aussies, Kiwis and Brits usually don’t trail far behind).
Working with Adults vs Working with Kids
When considering job opportunities, you should think about whether you prefer the idea of teaching children or adults. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and everyone has their own opinions. Here are some takeaways from my experiences.
Pros of Working with Kiddies
- They will literally brighten your day. Kids have a way of keeping things fun and uncomplicated. They find joy in the simple things. They are also more reactive and visibly excited when they learn something, which can be extremely gratifying for you as a teacher and human being in general.
- They are pretty fvckin funny. Kids say the darndest things, at all hours, every single day. I’m lucky that I get to laugh at work for the majority of the day.
- If you’re as maternal as I am, you will create close bonds with your students and delight in watching them grow and progress. There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing a formerly shy kid start to participate, learn about my students’ dreams, and witness them blossom into promising young adults.
- You get hugs, love letters and a bunch of “I love you’s” at work on a daily basis. Yep. You could definitely do worse, work-wise.
Cons of Working with Kiddies
- If you’re working with extremely young kiddies, you might start to feel your brain turning into mashed potato by the end of the day. It’s not too uncommon for me to start unconsciously singing the Months of the Year song and forget to use articles in my sentences. Then again, who cares. I love the Months of the Year song.
- When they misbehave, you will want to throw them out the damned window. Unlike adults who will “misbehave” by being standoffish or passive aggressive, kids will literally get up out of their chairs, throw shit, and run around screaming like mini hyenas. You’re then forced to put your mean teacher face on and go full Arnold to calm them the fvck down. Tears flow and grudges will be had. It sucks for all parties involved.
- You may disagree with the education system you’re working for. I am fortunate to work at a school where creativity and discussion are encouraged. I can plan my own lessons without adhering to the standard, Korean, rote system of education, and my bosses are kind enough to support the philosophy that kids oughtta have fun at our school, if nowhere else. That said, it irks me that kids in South Korea spend their entire days, evenings, and even weekends at school and/or studying, with very little time to actually be children. Earlier today, I fought back tears in class when one of my students got emotional for getting a “bad mark” on a test she was too tired to study harder for (and knowing her schedule, I believe her). Research the country you’re heading to beforehand to avoid any unpleasant conflicts with your personal code of ethics.
Pros of Working with Adults
- Networking opportunities. Since your students are likely professionals themselves, they can become great references and business contacts.
- They don’t run around the class / jump on tables / scribble all over the whiteboard any chance they get. Classroom management takes up a good chunk of time and patience with kids; fortunately, with adults, this is rarely an issue.
- You can speak about more relatable subjects. It’s easy and fun to talk about sunflowers and toys, but sometimes I yearn to chat about geopolitics and women’s issues.
- They can become your friends and/or introduce you to their own community. My friend Lisa teaches ESL to adults, and counts her students among her friends.
Cons of Working with Adults
- Vulnerability stemming from childhood. In most cases, your grown-up students have had their egos trampled and warped with time, so they tend to be much more self-conscious about learning a language than the kids I teach. Get ready for a TON of psychology and motivational coaching (seriously).
- Much more selective about what they want to learn/ talk about. Because many of my previous adult students studied English for business reasons, most exercises, lessons and assignments were focused on business communication. The joy of learning about anything and everything is sometimes lost in the pursuit of business goals.
- Getting hit on by your students / sexually objectified. My friends and I who have taught adults have all been the target of sexualized remarks and come-ons from our male students. It’s annoying, demeaning, and makes you feel as though you should take responsibility for what you wear, what you say, and how often you smile just to avoid it (and guess what: none of that really makes one damned bit of fucking difference). Not that it’s any different in every other industry.
I’m Sold! Where Do I Sign Up?
If you still think teaching English abroad (or locally) sounds like the cat’s pyjamas, here are some job boards / sites with online postings.
….and about a a bazillion others. Just Google “esl jobs” and go nuts!
*Click here for a comprehensive guide on the pros and cons of online vs in-class TESOL/TEFL certification. Whatever you decide, make sure the course provides you with at least 120+ hours of instruction. Of course, if you’re looking to make ESL teaching a life-long career, do consider obtaining a university degree in the subject, a formal degree in education and/or a teaching license.
My Final Words of Caution
Here’s a hodgepodge of extra stuff to consider before you board the ESL crazy train.
- Sick days are a Western concept. You may be surprised to see that sick days are not really customary in many other countries. For example, in South Korea it’s generally frowned upon to ditch work unless you’re hooked to an IV (and I mean, if you can roll yourself to work…). Be aware of this if you’re the type that gets sick often.
- Taxes. Depending on your country of origin and whether or not you have assets in your home country, you may be double taxed (non-issue for Americans though, from what I understand – at least for the first two years). Consult an accountant who specializes in foreign income to get a better idea of how much money you’ll actually make after taxes.
- You may not get to pick your own vacation days. At the school I work for, vacation days are pre-ordained. That’s because everyone takes vacation at the same time, and the school closes. There are no substitute teachers. This may work differently in the public school system, but for many private contracts in select countries, vacay flexibility is limited.
- Culture shock. The struggle is real. Are you prepared to live in a country where you’re a minority? Where nary a person around you speaks English, except your co-workers? Where as a woman, you may not enjoy the same respect and rights you enjoyed back home? If so, great -you’re in for one of the most educational, enriching and eye-opening experiences of your life. If you’re not, better be honest about it than torture yourself for months.
- REVIEW YOUR CONTRACT WITH A FINE TOOTH COMB. ASK A SHIT TON OF QUESTIONS TO THE POINT OF ANNOYANCE. SPEAK TO PREVIOUS AND CURRENT EMPLOYEES AT THE SCHOOL YOU’RE CONSIDERING TEACHING AT. This is perhaps the SINGLE most important piece advice I can offer you. DO. NOT. ASSUME. A. THING. Got it? Good. Comb over every last detail of your contract. How much vacation will you have – specifically? Is return airfare included? What are the other expenses you’re expected to pay, if not rent (maintenance fees?) How much will your maintenance fees/ cell phone/ bus pass cost you? Are meals included? If you start teaching at 3 pm, what time are you expected to show up? How often will you be expected to work weekends? These are all EXTREMELY important questions, and guess what – many contracts won’t address them. Why? Because nobody has to honour anything that IS NOT WRITTEN DOWN. If you need help with this – e-mail me. Or better yet – e-mail or call a teacher that has previously worked with your prospective employer. Remember: any employer worth their salt will be happy to provide a reference – just like any employee worth their salt would be happy to do the same. A job is a two-way interview. Don’t get caught up in the glamour of an overseas opportunity only to get screwed by a crappy contract.
Now, if you’re still reading this article, you’re either my friend, parent, or someone more than a little intrigued by the prospect of an ESL adventure – so I’ll leave you with a final word of advice from John Keating, a teacher far superior than you or I:
Good luck, and don’t forget to holler at your girl if this article helps getcha to my neck of the Asian woods 🙂
Are you considering a career in ESL? Share your love or haterade below!