How to Navigate One of the Most Rewarding Human Experiences: Teaching English Abroad 

Introduction to Teaching English Abroad 

It’s no secret that I have a penchant for traveling. 

I have traveled to 12 countries across 4 continents: Luxembourg, Germany, France, and England, located in Europe; Jamaica and Grenada, located in The Caribbean (North America); United Arab Emirates (Dubai) and South Korea, located in Asia; and Egypt, South Africa, Namibia and Sierra Leone, located in Africa.

It’s also no secret that I have a penchant for teaching, pedagogy, education, literature (books), and writing. Out of the 12 countries I have visited, I have lived and taught in three: Namibia (Southern Africa), South Korea (East Asia), and Sierra Leone (West Africa) vis a vis the United States Peace Corps. I found a way to blend my passion for teaching and traveling.

Many people erroneously believe that you must empty your bank account to travel and live abroad. I have done this three times, and my coins remained protected and untouched (okay, if I’m being honest I touched my coins sporadically–haha!). What I’m trying to say is that traveling abroad is more accessible than people think! If you’re interested in traveling without breaking the bank, and the prospect of pouring into others motivates or excites you, consider teaching English abroad. 

PSA: Though I discuss teaching English abroad, these tips/strategies are applicable for anyone who wishes to teach abroad. 

Why Teach English Abroad 

Teaching English abroad—though not without its challenges–is a rewarding experience that comes with several benefits. 

  1. Everyone is an educator. I don’t mean to get all philosophical on you, but everyone has something to share with the world, whether it’s something you learned amid catastrophe or something you acquired while earning a graduate degree. Experiences are the best teachers, and we’ve all had life teach us a lesson or two…or three…or seven hundred.  I’m also a firm believer that everyone should live in another country at least once in their lives. 
  2. The prospect of developing cross cultural relationships and learning about another country in depth. Teaching English abroad provides you with an opportunity to build a relationship with a country other than the one from which you emanate. You’ll have opportunities to travel throughout the country, learning about elements of the history and culture that would be inaccessible if  you stayed in your own country. Finally, if you’re willing to be vulnerable, to open up your heart, you’ll establish relationships and connections that last a lifetime. I am still in contact with people I have met during my time abroad in Namibia (2016) and Sierra Leone (2018).
  1. The ability to save money. I really can’t stand when articles that discuss teaching  English abroad assert how much money you’ll save. The truth is it depends on your spending habits (and the bills you need to pay back home), the country in which you live, and where in the country you live (rural/large town/city).  

For example, keeping up with my appearance is highly important to me, so it’s likely that I’ll have additional expenses such as hair and nail appointments and spend a good portion of my salary on cosmetics and toiletries. South Korea’s beauty industry is BOOMING; therefore, beauty products tend to be expensive.  There are also expenses associated with living in a large city such as rent, the cost of transportation, food/groceries, and entertainment (partying/clubbing, tourist activities, etc.).  Lastly, I have bills from the USA that have followed me to South Korea such as life insurance payments, student loans, and essential subscriptions (Spotify, Audible, etc.). As you can probably infer, I am not saving $1,000 USD a month based on the lifestyle I desire and my financial obligations.  However, I am able to save an amount that I am comfortable with.  

  1. The opportunity to learn a new language. They say immersion is the best way to learn a new language (though I favor direct instruction). Going to a country where English is not the dominant language will require you to dive into that country’s official/national language. Some employers might even offer resources for language acquisition. I highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity if it’s available.
  1. It makes you look more interesting. In my opinion, those who have lived or traveled abroad are usually the most interesting people in the room. I have SO many stories that I can share with others about my experiences abroad, stories that can undoubtedly entertain a room full of people for hours. My interpretive framework—the set of experiences, identities, beliefs, and values that inform how I understand the world—has expanded as a result of the time I’ve spent abroad. I approach the world much more responsibly. Therefore, I can assert that traveling abroad is an act of personal development. 

Additionally, in an increasingly multicultural and diverse world, employers value extensive travel experience. No matter what industry you want to work in, being able to work with diverse groups of people is attractive. 

Tips for Preparing to Teach English Abroad

Please peruse in order to learn from my errors. 

  1. Assess your personal context and proceed accordingly. Are you married? If so, how does your partner feel about living in another country either temporarily or indefinitely? Is your partner also interested in teaching English abroad?  Do you have children? If so, how many? What is the culture of education like in your desired location? Would you feel comfortable with your children being educated in that location? While teaching abroad with a partner or family is admittedly more difficult, it can be done! Some job opportunities ask if you have a spouse and/or dependents as a part of their application process, and some placements will have benefits for your family. It really depends on the placement (I usually find that countries in the Middle East offer the best support for families). Throughout my experiences, I’ve met a few married couples who have been living their best lives! However, both were educators, so that made the transition abroad much easier. You might also consider your financial investments. Do you have a house? A car? Investment properties? If so, how will you manage those things while you’re away? Meticulous planning is KING. 

For the purposes of transparency and optimal clarity, I’ll gladly disclose my personal situation. I am in my late 20s. I am unmarried (recently divorced) with no children. I have supportive parents who agreed to take care of my car and other business while I was away (routine maintenance, taxes, etc.). I do not own a home yet, so I don’t need to worry about mortgage payments or the like. 

I also have a master’s degree in teaching and about 5 years of teaching experience in varying contexts, but I don’t have a TEFL certification. You don’t need to have these credentials to begin your journey teaching English abroad, though. There are plenty of opportunities for first year teachers. It is, however, easier to negotiate a higher pay when you have relevant degrees and experiences.

Now, let’s shift into the intangible considerations. What are your short term goals? Long term goals? How does teaching English abroad work in service of these goals? What might this experience mean to you? How will this experience shape your approach to life? How will it make you a better human?  How will your time abroad benefit others? I recommend having clear answers to these questions prior to beginning the application process and venturing into another country. Journal if you need to! In my opinion, it is best to avoid using these opportunities as a self-discovery mechanism, a chance to “find yourself.” It’s not fair to do that at the expense of others. Also, when you don’t approach experiences with a clear sense of purpose, it becomes easier for others to define, manipulate, and/or hijack your journey. 

  1. Reflect on your educational and professional background.  While I noted that you do not need the same credentials as me to begin your journey teaching English abroad, you do need to think about what you can offer an institution and be able to articulate that. To teach English abroad, you typically need a bachelor’s degree and citizenship from an English-speaking country (read: South Africa, USA, Canada, Australia, UK, Ireland, and New Zealand). Some placements will require your degree to be in the subject area you wish to teach; other placements just require the degree itself. If you have a master’s degree, you open yourself up to more opportunities and better benefits such as collegiate level teaching or higher pay. There are some positions that don’t require a 4-year degree, but I would be wary of these positions since the pay is likely undesirable.

You should also consider your work experiences. Even if your experiences are seemingly unrelated to the job to which you’re applying, apply anyway. You should be prepared to explain the link between your past experience as an actuary (for example) and the experience you’re hoping to have as an educator (and why the shift). Many positions will gladly take newcomers, but I think you can negotiate a higher pay if you can sell your experiences well. 

Finally, it doesn’t hurt to learn some strategies for teaching English abroad prior to your departure. Udemy offers a nice range of courses for a good price. I purchased this Udemy course before moving to Korea, and I have found it helpful. Once you complete the course, you will receive a certificate, which you can then add to your resume. If you’re planning to teach English abroad for an extended period of time, I would look into a TEFL certification program. Keep in mind that this will be an additional cost.

  1. Identify reputable recruiting agencies or job boards. This is crucial. There are many job boards/recruiting agencies that are illegitimate, and you don’t want to get caught up in scams. To save you some trouble, here’s an article highlighting important information about job boards/recruiting agencies for teaching English abroad. Be sure to research reviews about the companies/schools as well. Reddit has plenty of threads about teaching English abroad (and some threads are country-specific).
  1. Determine where you want to go and research the hell out of that country! Is there a particular part of the world you are curious about? If so, you should figure out if there is a need for English teachers. It’s also a good idea to research the top ESL markets to see if any of those countries interest you (and if there’s any overlap with your interests). Once you’ve figured out where you want to go, conduct meaningful research. If you’re from the United States like me, the U.S. Department of State’s international travel page might be helpful as you can find pertinent information about the country to which you’re traveling. If you’re from another country, you likely have a site that functions similarly. Additionally, you can access teaching/traveling vlogs via YouTube or search for teaching blogs in your country of interest via Google. There is a lot of information available to us in the internet age. Should you choose a country where English isn’t widely spoken, I recommend trying to learn some of the language prior to your departure. It’ll make your life much easier. 

It’s also important to note that countries will have varying requirements. For example, I find that countries in the Middle East generally require a TEFL certification and 4-year degrees; however, their teaching packages tend to be generous.

  1. Prepare a mini-lesson that proves you have some familiarity with ESL strategies. I do not care if this is your first experience teaching abroad; you need to show that you can conduct yourself in a classroom filled with students who are not native English speakers. A simple Google search on high-quality ESL lessons/activities and a bit of  tweaking and individualization will do the trick. Here’s another resource you may find helpful.
  1. A. Assess the Job Description. Beware of job descriptions that either seem too good to be true or unreasonably intense. What are your contracted hours? Do your contracted hours include time to plan your lessons, or are you teaching the entire time and expected to prepare outside of work? Will you have a co-teacher? 

B. Analyze and Examine the Benefits. Compare offers.  I don’t care what ANYONE says; this is the most important aspect of teaching English abroad, especially since the goal is to minimize spending. Don’t feel as if you need to accept the first position you are offered because the ESL market is huge. You can afford to be choosy. 

At the minimum, your school should pay for/fully reimburse your roundtrip airfare (be careful about positions that say they’ll “reimburse you up to x amount” because you may lose out on money); offer housing (preferably furnished) or a housing stipend; have a representative pick you up from the airport (I’m still salty from having to lug 6 bags from the airport by my fucking self; my boujiee ass is NOT built for that shit); offer assistance with visa documents (completing documents and paying for/reimbursing visa-related costs); provide health insurance (because who the hell wants to get sick abroad and not be able to go to the doctor’s office); and provide paid vacation/sick days that are in alignment with the country’s labor laws (make sure you’re familiar with the country’s labor laws). Eliminating start-up costs is impossible, but you can minimize costs by accepting jobs from employers who really take care of you. 

Honestly, I prefer employers who pay for everything upfront rather than reimburse. My employer reimbursed my airfare/air bnb stay, and I didn’t receive that money until about a month later. Reimbursement also reinforces economic inequities because the assumption is that a candidate can afford to purchase their own plane ticket, which can be quite expensive depending on the country to which you’re traveling. This limits who can teach English abroad to the people who have money to pay for the start-up costs.

Lastly, it’s important to note that you’ll need money to take care of yourself prior to receiving your first check. With careful planning and information about your new country’s standard of living, this is 100% feasible. For example, I worked right up until I left and was able to use the money from my job to finance my life for the first 4 weeks.

  1. Negotiate Your Salary. I briefly mentioned this above, but I am devoting an entire section to salary because employers WILL try to lowball you. And they will succeed if  you let them. First and foremost, you need to consider your educational background and professional experiences. Then, you need to conduct research on salaries in the country you’ll be working. For example, if a hagwon in South Korea offers 2.2 million won (with housing) and this is your first year teaching, you need to figure out whether the salary offered is normal for people with your background. Avoid relying on the recruiter’s/school’s website for information. Try to find information from teachers who are currently working at the school or have worked there in the past. They will likely be more truthful and more helpful. Remember, recruiters are most concerned with advertising their assigned schools/positions, identifying qualified candidates, and getting you to accept the position so that they can get PAID! Unfortunately, we can’t assume that they are looking out for us. 

Also, don’t forget to negotiate with taxes in mind! How much do you want to make after taxes are deducted from your paycheck? I am working in Korea, and I get about $450 deducted from my account, which is about 2-3 bills for me, ha!  Please disregard this statement if you’re working in a region of the world where your salary is tax-free. 

  1.  Question unabashedly. I am the most inquisitive queen you’ll ever meet. This is my power. Asking a million questions will reduce the likelihood of confusion and bamboozlement. Notice that I said reduce, not eliminate. Ask yourself: what do I care about most? For me, it was curricular autonomy (i.e. whether or not I’d be able to live out my teaching philosophy), issues related to equity and inclusion, lifestyle, and vacation time (because I LOVE to travel), so I prepared questions in relation to those areas. I would also recommend annotating your contract so that you can clearly identify your key responsibilities and document any questions. Make sure you ask questions about vague or ambiguous language in the contract because you might end up agreeing to something that will annoy you later. Pay attention to what your contract does NOT say as well and pose questions accordingly. 

You should also try to find contact information for people working at the school to which you’ve applied. If you allow the recruiters  to connect you with teachers, you may not get an honest depiction. Use social media apps such as LinkedIN or relevant  social media groups (such as a page devoted to teachers in the country you’ll be teaching in on Facebook)  to help you locate your colleagues. Ask about in-country support mechanisms such as assistance with language acquisition and other essential tasks (like opening a bank account, etc). 

Things to Remember About Teaching English Abroad

  1. Do not romanticize teaching abroad, and I suggest that you don’t trust people who do romanticize teaching abroad. If you teach at a school or other space devoted to serving youth (e.g. an afterschool program), you’ll meet children with a range of personalities, attitudes, and perspectives, just like in your country of origin. There is a seemingly uncontested narrative in circulation: children/youth abroad are easier to teach. The truth is that children are going to be children wherever you go. They’ll be defiant, internally chaotic, hormonal, mischievous, and fickle; however, they’ll also be curious, bright-eyed, humorous, playful, and loving. Kids are complex. What I will say is that a child’s attitude towards schooling and education—ranging from apathy to neuroticism—is not random or inexplicable. It should never be separated from its cultural, historical, and sociopolitical context. In fact, the more you learn about a child’s attitude toward schooling/education, the better off you’ll be! You’ll be able to offer contextually appropriate support. 

Now, am I saying that an acute understanding of the forces that influence a child’s behavior will result in swift solutions? Absolutely not. It does, however, put things into perspective. 

  1. Conduct contextually appropriate research. I am a voluptuous African-American woman who desired to work in East Asia, and I was eventually offered a teaching position in South Korea. My interpretive framework—informed by my lived experiences, social identities, cultural models, value systems, literary and theoretical influences, (and the histories that undergird each)–is unique, so I navigate the world much differently from others. I suggest that you (a) name your interpretive framework (what influences how you view/understand yourself, others, and the world—honesty is required here so that you can navigate your new home responsibly); (b) identify resources—books, travel blogs, and Youtube videos—that discuss how people with similar interpretive frameworks have acclimated to their new world (it’s appropriate to exercise a healthy dose of caution because not everyone who teaches English abroad is critically conscious); and (c) take notes and assess whether you’re willing to take the necessary steps to teach abroad purposefully. Challenges are inevitable.

As a Black woman, I always think about gendered racism. I am a firm believer that white supremacy, racism, anti-blackness, and patriarchy have left no shore untouched and no land unexplored. Therefore, racism in the eastern part of the world would never deter me, especially because it is usually not as conspicuous, loud, or pronounced as racism in the west. But…it’s still here. On the other hand, I have learned how to navigate the USA, a country LOUDLY riddled with the isms, quite well! I have mechanisms, systems, structures, and routines  to help me process oppression, injustice, and marginalization. I also have to think about the parts of my identity that are historically dominant (sexuality, language, religion) and how they will influence my actions. Human identities are complex. 

Conclusion

For my people that are thirsting for new, rich life experiences, I urge you to consider teaching English abroad. However, you should only enter this space if you’re willing to exist outside of your comfort zone. A wise man once said, “A comfort zone is a wonderful place, but nothing ever grows there. Teaching English abroad isn’t shimmery instagrammable moments. It’s  struggling to communicate with those around you due to language barriers. It’s getting accustomed to new ways of being, new ways of existing. It’s taking calculated risks. 

If you’re willing to take a chance and do so responsibly, then this may be the path for you. So, what are you waiting for!?!?!?!

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