Oh man, the dreams we have before embarking on expat life, the ideas we have before teaching English abroad! Visions of motivated students delighted with every inspired lesson, eager to listen to the wisdom you drop. Relaxing sunset tapas (or Korean barbecue or Mexican ceviche) after work, laughing over drinks with colleagues. Romantic weekend getaways with that hot Australian teacher who’s just come to town. It’s the ultimate way to sustainably travel, to soak up all the joy the world has to offer you. So now you’re thinking–
Damn girl, should I move abroad to teach English?
I mean, like, maybe.
Look, you may be addicted to travel, but just because you’re living abroad doesn’t mean you’re automatically happy. You’re also doing real life, and that brings its own complexities. I’ve been very lucky to have a diverse range of experiences, teaching English in several different countries, and each time I apply for a job or settle in a new region I learn something new about this lifestyle. So for anyone thinking about uprooting their lives and embarking on new adventure, here are five things to know before teaching English abroad.
1. How much money can I make teaching English abroad?
Salaries for English teachers can vary wildly around the world, from upwards of $5,000 a month in places like Saudi Arabia to $500 a month in a country like Georgia. If you’re looking for lucrative teaching jobs, consider teaching in China, the Middle East, or Korea – places where high demand for teachers and strong economies have lead to significant opportunities. Cost of living might be moderate or high, but with a competitive market for teachers you’ll be able to pack away money for traveling or saving for a house (if you’re into that sort of thing). If you’re happy to subsist paycheck to paycheck, your options widen even further. And in places where cost of living is low, like in Ukraine, you can live a really comfortable life — but maybe without banking anything.
Regardless of what you decide, I’d strongly suggest making a budget before you start teaching. Research what the cost of living is in your potential destination. Talk to current teachers to see what they spend money on. Make sure you ask your employer what they will cover – flights, medical insurance, accommodation, visa costs – and what is your own responsibility.
And remember, an expat’s cost of living is typically higher than a local’s cost of living. Because we’re clueless. We don’t know where the cheapest stores are, we get tired and just want the expensive tourist restaurant with the English menus, we splurge on apartments partly because we can’t negotiate in the local language. If you underestimate your budget, you might find yourself stressing out when you’re living abroad. Yes, you might be able to live in that country for $500 a month – but will you be happy? Give yourself some flex room in your budget to make life a bit easier.
Of course your budget will change, as you adjust to your new lifestyle, but having a guide right from the start will make saving much easier. Even if you’re happy to break even, think about how much money you’ll want to ‘restart’ your life at the end of your teaching contract. Will you need to buy a flight home? Do you want to spend time traveling? Will you need savings for start-up costs in a new place? Do you have money for first and last months’ rent?
Many teachers think that they’ll be able to make additional money by private tutoring or teaching online. That might be the case, but make sure you carefully understand the rules your school has for teaching outside of the company. Many contracts have exclusivity clauses. Some employers turn a blind eye, especially if you’re working with someone outside of their target market, but others will see it as grounds for dismissal.
2. Who do I want to teach?
“Teaching English abroad” is a vague daydream that thrills many people, but that amorphous idea has a myriad different ways of playing out. Are you excited about teaching very young learners? Want to tackle language academically at a university? Dream of merging your expertise in IT with English? Talk to your employer extensively about your future students. You might be applying to a school, but will you be ok if you teach ten-year-olds instead of teenagers? Or, if you can’t stand kids, make that clear to any language school that offers classes to all ages. Or maybe you have a particular area of interest that your school can use to entice corporate clients – my screenwriting degree has come in handy in Ukraine, where two thirds of my teaching hours are spent at a film company!
Who you want to teach can also influence what country you end up in. Some countries have more of a demand for teaching kids than adults. In Ukraine, I’ve ended up teaching way more corporate classes than I anticipated. I’ve been happy to do so, but now I’m thinking of trying to secure a job teaching kids to switch it up a bit.
This question includes age, focus, and also culture. I truly value my time teaching in New York City because I got to work with students from all over the world. Not only is teaching a multilingual, multicultural class incredibly fun, but I also got an idea of what it would be like to teach in schools all around the world. It opened me up to the idea of teaching in countries I had never considered before – for example, my Taiwanese students were a dream! While I had never thought of teaching in Taiwan, I would be happy to go there now if the right opportunity came along. And on the flip side, one country I had been strongly considering slipped down the list of possibilities as I struggled to click with those students. I would never write it off completely, but I would be very careful in selecting an employer there. And on that note…
3. What do I know about my employer?
Because your residential status is likely tied to your employer, it’s incredibly important that you’re happy with your job. If you’re unhappy and want to switch jobs, you might end up just having to leave the country.
Do all the research you can. Ask your employer very specific questions about pay, responsibilities, working hours, etc. Discuss opportunities for continued professional development.Note their pauses and hesitations. Ask if you can talk to other teachers. Maybe be a creeper and see if you can find former teachers, who might feel freer to talk about their experiences. Read reviews of the employer. Study your contract and question parts that seem unclear. Make sure you’re aware of the consequences of breaking a contract early.
Don’t sign a contract just so you can teach abroad. Don’t take any job just so you can get going. Don’t undervalue yourself in your eagerness. There are many many many English teaching jobs out there. If something seems off about an offer, politely decline. Spending a little extra time looking is way better than being miserable four months into a twelve month contract, trapped with no way to get out.
And, on the flip side, a good employer is the best support you’ll have abroad. When I slipped on the icy streets of Kyiv and had to get x-rays, my boss was there the whole time. When the doctor put my whole right arm in a cast, she re-arranged the room schedule so I could have the only classroom with a smart board. Teaching abroad has rough patches, but they’re made smoother when your employer is compassionate and supportive.
4. What new cultural norms am I going to experience?
When you teach and travel, you’re going to be immersed in a cultural situation vastly different from your own –that’s part of the charm. But it can also throw you for a loop if you’re not prepared for it.
Even in Ukraine, a country that feels very culturally similar to my own and where I’ve loved living, there are some things I just can’t stand. From pushiness on public transport to ingrained prejudices to the intense emphasis on beauty, I’ve become exasperated over some deeply entrenched world views. (And of course, I’m sure people coming to the US also find things that frustrate them.) I’m not saying don’t go – I’m saying, just know what you’re getting in to, as much as you can. Be open-minded, and maybe adopt a little pushiness of your own, to help you through the inevitable culture shock.
5. What is the expat community like?
I know, you’re probably thinking – ugh, Amy, the expat community is not the reason I’m going abroad! I’m trying to get away from the familiar.
And I totally feel you. One of the things I love about living in Ukraine is how easily I can avoid other expats. But…
Since you’re a foreigner, you’re going to be inexorably tied to the expat community. Think about its character before you join it. How big is it? How do you get plugged in? Are they supportive of newbies or are they jaded? What do locals think about expats? Does your school do anything to connect you to other expats? Are there certain expat types you’re going to want to avoid? What kinds of entertainment options are available to English-speakers? What is the dating scene like?
In the countries I’ve lived in, I’ve had various amounts of success in integrating with the local community. But in general, my closest friends have been other expats. It makes sense – not only are you going through similar experiences, but you have similar lifestyles. My Ukrainian colleagues are not able to spontaneously go out for drinks after work because they have families to get home to. And if you don’t speak the language, locals might be shy about extending invitations where you’ll be the odd one out. Also if you’re looking for anything, whether it’s an English-speaking surgeon or sweet potatoes to make a Thanksgiving pie, the expat community is probably going to have the knowledge you need.
You don’t need to be BFFs only with other internationals, but you’re part of this community whether you like it or not. Consider how much you want to be involved with it.
I’d highly recommend considering each of these questions every time you look for an English teaching job abroad. Because your circumstances – and what you want — will change. When I first left New York, I had money saved so salary wasn’t as a high priority for me. Now, I’m thinking of how much I want to have in the bank in case I want to move back to the States in a year or two. And while a big expat community was not important to me when I first set out, things like making friends easily and normal dating situations have grown in importance so I’m looking for a place with a bigger, more stable expat scene.
Being able to teach and travel has been an incredible privilege and opportunity for me, and it’s definitely a career I’d recommend to others. Like all jobs, it has its challenges, but with a little prep and planning, you’re more likely to love the life overseas that you build for yourself.
What else would you list as things to know before teaching English abroad? Do any of my tips resonant with your experiences?