Today, the English-speaking traveler has a freestanding ticket to almost any exotic destination in the form of a TEFL job. Pasted all over the internet, advertised on countless flyers and pamphlets, accompanied by pictures of elephants, white sand beaches and ornate ancient temples, a job as an English teacher seems too good to be true.
In many cases, it is. While a teaching position can be an excellent year-long break, or a means to end in terms of funding a few months of exploration, there are a few realities that are often overlooked by agencies touting careers abroad.
1. It is a job.
Though it is made to look like a permanent vacation (and you will get Christmas and summers off, like your students) the majority of the time, you are fully employed. You are expected to be up at 7 to wrangle delightful, but incredibly energetic children, have lesson plans prepared and be on task. At the end of a full workweek with children, the last thing you feel like doing is catching a budget flight to the Full Moon Party, not to mention the hangover you’ll have to endure at 8 AM on Monday…
2. You are highly expendable.
English teaching jobs are unbelievably easy to get. Often with minimal requirements and background checks, half the appeal for many is that it takes only a few months to become qualified. What this means, however, is that it is just as easy to replace you as it was to find you. Considering it is a job that appeals to transient workers, or students on a gap year, schools do not often invest heavily in your professional development, and it can be tricky to bond with a staff that knows you’ll be gone sooner rather than later.
3. You will be exhausted.
Children are amazing, funny, adorable, unexpectedly intelligent and observant and absolutely exhausting. Aside from the many hours you spend on your feet, you will have to be very sociable and highly patient to be good at your job. Also, though this should go without saying, many travelers do not realize that you should probably like children before dedicating a year to teaching them.
4. You will not be paid much.
You’ll earn enough to eat, drink and live. With the miraculous invention of budget airlines, you should also be able to rough it through a few countries, if you’re not too fussy about accommodation. However, don’t expect to be living as you were at home. Don’t expect savings and don’t expect a promotion. Teaching English is, in more cases than not, a working holiday rather than a foothold into a career.
5. It is easy to get scammed.
In many schools and countries abroad, the checks and balances that exist in the West simply aren’t there or aren’t the same. Triple and quadruple-check your contract, be sure of what you will be paid and when, and how long you’re expected to work before you get there. You may find yourself an unwitting mule in a country that doesn’t speak your language, an unenviable position.
6. It is a good idea to know more than just English.
While you are indeed there to teach English, and will be spending the majority of the time chatting away in your native tongue, it’s a good idea to learn the basics of the language you’ll be living in. While many countries are now investing in adding English to their education, the majority of the world still does not speak it, and those that do speak it with varying ability. Not to mention, living in a country without speaking the language is like visiting an art gallery colour-blind. It is still worthwhile, but you miss entire aspects of the culture which serve to enrich your time there immeasurably.
Having experienced first-hand teaching English in China, I can both attest to the amazing opportunities its offers while at the same time cautioning against diving in without researching it thoroughly first. While it can be tempting to accept any offer and pack your bags for adventure, be sure to check where the schools are, the history of the employer and read any contract thoroughly. While I wouldn’t discount the tremendous experience it can be, teaching English gives you as much back as you put in.
Good points! I can really resonate with #1 and #3. Before teaching in Korea, the benefits sounded too good to be true. They were great, but you definitely have to treat the job like a job. A lot of fellow teachers partied a lot and came in to teach hungover.
And, being on my feet all day with little kids was definitely exhausting. It was a struggle to haul myself to the gym after work!
Regarding the pay, teachers get paid well in Korea.
I’ve never taught abroad before (only at home), but I’m living right now with my boyfriend who’s teaching English in Istanbul. It *certainly* is quite a job, and he has had a rewarding experience here but it has not been a piece of cake! It’s important to be realistic about expectations for an experience–great article!
I taught on JET for a few years and my little brother is just about to set off to Korea to teach. I’d send him this link but I don’t think he’d read it – he sees it as an easy job with really high pay when at the end of the day, it’s a lot of work and very frustrating (especially if you don’t want to learn the local lingo) and you end up buying crap for yourself to justify why you are there.
I do think that teaching abroad makes you a better person, though. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
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