What it’s like to be… an English Teacher Abroad


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This week we have a very dear friend of mine who is living the dream – living abroad in a gorgeous country teaching English!

I’m sure it’s something loads of people want to do…but is it all it’s cracked up to be?

What is your job title?

I’m an English teacher abroad in East Asia. I’ve worked in both public schools and now in an after-hours cram school. They are quite different experiences so I’ll try to be clear when I’m referring to the conditions of one or the other.

What does that actually involve? What do you spend most of your workday doing?

I teach students English as a Foreign Language and Second Language. (EFL and ESL) I spend most of my days either in a class room in front of students (right now I teach ages 6-16) or at my desk marking and making lesson plans. Many schools have different duties expected of their teachers. Some places have all the lesson prep done for you (like at my current school) and you spend most of your time with students. Other schools give you maybe a textbook but tell you to add your own activities, like at my previous school. Generally you can expect at least two thirds of your time to be in front of students.

When I’m doing lesson planning and I need extra activities I usually go to my hard drives first and when that fails I turn to the Internet. There are so many great teacher resource websites out there. However I usually still have to tweak things.

Did you always want to do this as a job? If not, why did you come to do it?

Not really, I had never imagined myself as a teacher when I was young. I studied Drama, History and Japanese mostly in university. I had the vague idea, after I came to terms that I wasn’t a good enough actress, that I would go into maybe event planning or something in tourism. I knew I wanted to travel but had been stumped as to how get a job that would allow that.

In my last year of university my then boyfriend told me about this program to send people to teach English in Japan. He was applying and I should too! I wasn’t sure about being a teacher, but he had got me interested in Japanese anime and I had been studying a lot of Japanese and Chinese traditional theater…. I figured maybe this was a way to travel for a year while I figured out my next step.

The rest is history as they say…. I ended up staying 4 years in Japan (where I met Charlotte – Hi!) and then later moved to Korea for 3 years and now I’ve been in Malaysia for the last 7 months.

How did you get to do your job? For example, did you train? Do internships? Did you take exams? What did you have to study at school/uni to do your job?

For my first job in Japan I submitted a lengthy application for a government program. For public schools in East Asia there is typically some government backed program but these days more and more places are using recruiters that act as a kind of match-maker between you and schools. Most of the time you go to a school’s or recruiter’s website and upload a resume and cover letter along with a passport style photo. (Most applications in Asia require a photo for all job applications). You would also probably have to answer some additional questions in short essay format such as why you will adapt well to a different culture, how you handle stress and any knowledge you have of the country you are applying to.

Once you have submitted an application you might hear back and be asked for an interview. Some recruiters have offices in Canada or the US, but it’s likely your interview would be by Skype. You could expect more than one interview as well.

As for needing to study something in particular in order to be qualified – generally no. Again, I can only speak about the East Asian market, but most schools are happy for you to have a 4 year degree in anything and a clean criminal record. That being said, this is becoming an increasingly popular job choice and the best places are demanding higher and higher qualifications like certificates in CELTA or TESOL at the minimum and MAs in Education or a teaching licenses for the very best paying jobs. Because of this I plan to return to school in the next 5 years to upgrade my qualifications.

If you wanted to, where could you move to from this job? What could you progress to?

The lack of upward mobility is a major downside to this job. This is for a number of reasons like trouble with visas, or lack of sufficient skills in the local language or just plain old school policy to not give upper positions to non-natives. Different countries have different policies and things might be different in European and South American countries however. I can only speak for East Asia.

In public schools or universities the best you could hope for is maybe a department head job. And even then it’s unlikely you’d see a contract that is longer than 2 years. Most people are hired on a year by year basis. For after hours cram schools you might be able to progress to a management position if you had enough local language skills, but I don’t know many who have done so.

Typically what happens to I and my friends is we stay a while in one country then uproot and move on when we are bored. We are constantly moving sideways.

However I know lots of people that have used their experience abroad to help them move on to other things like translation and working with a textbook publisher.

Being honest, what’s the worst part of your job? What’s the best?

Lack of upward mobility is a big downside for many, but I’m not too phased by it at this moment.

A major downside for me personally is it’s hard for me to leave work at work. I’m often taking marking home or idly surfing articles and songs to use for lessons in my leisure time to supplement the prepared lessons when they are not to my liking. I’m definitely spending more than 40 hours on work a week and I’m trying to solve that.

Another downside, is that because you are in a different country, with different customs and language, problems that would typically take 15 minutes to solve at home can stretch out for days here: How to figure out the error message your washing machine is flashing in Japanese? How to communicate with a repair man the copier is jamming in Korean? Why must I use a fax machine to send this document and why does no one in this building have one? It can add up…

That being said I love the life I have. I get a lot of personal satisfaction being a teacher and helping kids learn languages. And if you love traveling then this is a great way to do it! Want to go to Kyoto for the weekend? Or take a palace tour? Or do a temple stay? Literally every weekend is an adventure if you want it to be and you get to meet some amazing people along the way.

How is the work/life balance? Do you often have to do overtime?

As I said before I have a hard time leaving work at work. In public schools things really go in cycles of being crazy busy preparing for exams etc and then relaxing for a day or two and then back to normal, lather rinse, repeat. This wouldn’t be a good job for people that like a steady routine and hours. At an after-hours school things are generally more consistent. We generally only do overtime when we are pinch replacing for a sick colleague or preparing for the start or end of the school year.

How would you describe the kind of people who are in the same field as you? Are they a good bunch to work alongside?

I really like my co-workers, and so far I’ve been really lucky in general to not have had anyone really incompetent or difficult to work with at any of my schools. That being said, when you are an ex-pat you do meet other ex-pats socialising in bars or restaurants and sometimes you see some people and wish that they were not representing your country abroad. A lot of people take these jobs as an excuse to party all year and make fools of themselves. I suppose that makes me sound sanctimonious, and maybe I am?

On a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate the salary and benefits that come from your job? (1 being the worst and 10 being amazing)

I would say a solid 8. I have a good salary for living in my region (even though the Malaysian ringgit is falling) and I have 8 weeks of vacation in a year to spend it all on. Vacation is very important for me since I love traveling and exploring. One or two people could live comfortably on this salary, but this is not a salary for those that have families to support or have other large financial commitments. Salaries and benefits vary wildly across schools and countries though.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

I really recommend getting a degree in either education or English. The minimum qualifications for applications are creeping upwards and you want to put yourself in a competitive position. If your degree is already in something else, then a CELTA certificate can be taken at any time and it is a great program that will really help you develop teaching techniques.

When applying be aware that there are a LOT of scams out there. You should NEVER have to pay money for someone to send out your resume etc. When applying for a school, don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions about duties and how long teachers stay at the school etc. Do a lot of googling; you can find lots of groups online that either work at the school or in the region and they can give you more candid advice than syrupy school websites. Cram schools especially should be heavily researched as they are notorious for abusing staff and teachers and (rightly) assume that people will just quit and go home rather than try to fight them. There are plenty of good schools out there, but also plenty of bad ones.


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