Five Myths of Teaching English Abroad

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If you are reading this, you probably have some interest in teaching English abroad. It is also likely that you know someone who has taught overseas. You’ve heard stories, been given advice and contemplated the pros and cons. The truth is that teaching abroad can be a great experience simply because it’s a chance to live in a foreign country. In reality, those of us who were born into a native English-speaking country are fortunate to have that opportunity to teach abroad if we desire to do so. Of course, it’s not for everyone and there are qualifications that need to be met. However, if you are a native English speaker and hold a university degree, then you pretty much have a guaranteed shot at landing a job somewhere. It may not be the best paying teaching job, but you will most likely get something.

At this point, you’ve probably been doing research and figuring out which country to teach in, where you qualify to teach, the requirements for teaching abroad and how to get a job. I am sure you have spent a fair amount of time justifying your decision for going overseas and weighing the benefits versus the sacrifices. If you are young, you may simply be inclined to do so because it seems to be a thing to do when one is young and fresh out of university. If you are over 30 or even 40, chances are you’ve grown sick of the daily routine of the everyday grind and merely need a change of pace. Maybe just something to rejuvenate your soul before you grow too old.  Whatever it is, I am sure that you have your reasons. Before you do venture out there, keep in mind that there is a great deal of misinformation and misconceptions. Here are five Myths of Teaching English Abroad.

1. I will save enough money to pay off my student loans

If you are a typical graduate of an American university, then you probably have a good deal of student loan debt. In fact, the average graduate owes upwards of $40,000. Why not teach English abroad to pay those loans off? Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? Well, if your main motivation to teach abroad is to pay off your student loans, then I would reconsider or else you are going to be disappointed to eventually  find out that it most likely isn’t going to happen. Sure, there are a few young teachers in South Korea that have managed to save enough money in three or four years to pay off their loans, but the vast majority of people teaching abroad are not saving nowhere near this type of money or little money at all.

I often get emails from potential teachers asking me to place them in South Korea because they need to pay off their loans. While there are still plenty of jobs in South Korea, schools there are becoming quite picky, which increases the chances that you won’t be teaching there. If you are teaching in China, Vietnam, Taiwan or Japan, you will save money, but you are going to spend a good amount traveling and going out. Even if you land a job in South Korea, there is a good chance you won’t save much money simply because of your lifestyle. The bottom line is this. You should teach abroad because you want to experience living abroad, immersing yourself into another culture and have great students. If you are able to save money and even pay off some of your loans, think of it as an added bonus.

2. I can do as I please because I am a Westerner Teaching English Abroad

I often receive emails from individuals who seem to think that they are doing the world a favor by teaching English abroad. Unfortunately, there are a significant amount of tools teaching English, particularly in Asia. Individuals who have conjured up some bizarre idea that they can act and behave however they please while abroad as if  consequences did not exist. These types of Westerners give the rest of us a bad rap and reinforce a sometimes negative image of foreigners in countries where English education is in high demand. Most of these types are more often than not blue-eyed, blonde haired Western men and women who think the world is in love with their looks. News Flash! It is 2014, the world is moving at warp speed and what is perceived to be attractive is quickly changing as well.  It’s not about the color of your skin, but your character as a person.

Personally, I came across these types when I taught in Japan. Fortunately, they never lasted long as both Japanese and other foreigners quickly caught on to their behavior and utter disregard for another culture. When teaching and living abroad, you are expected to act and conduct yourself in public the same  way as you do in your home country. You are expected to try new things, be respectful and make an effort in life. Sure, you will be flattered anywhere in Asia simply for being a Westerner. However, that doesn’t give a Westerner the right to act inappropriately in public  and with little respect for the local community. When teaching abroad, you are automatically by default acting as an ambassador for your own country and culture.

3.  Everything is paid for upfront and I do not need any start-up money

Teaching English abroad sounds like a wonderful idea for most people in the beginning. That is before they realize that some start-up funds will be required. When someone ask me about teaching overseas, the first thing I ask them is whether or not they are prepared to invest in a plane ticket to the country, tuition for a TESOL/TEFL course and spending money to survive the first month. Not surprisingly, it is at this point that most people are turned off by the idea. There seems to be an idea floating around that everything will be paid for and schools are just dying to cover all expenses simply because one is a Westerner.

If this is what you imagine about teaching English abroad, then think about these Five Myths of Teaching English Abroad again. Only schools in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will pay for your initial airline ticket and free housing from the start. Schools in China will pay for housing, but they won’t pay for your airline ticket or TESOL/TEFL course. It is quite difficult to get a teaching job in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as most schools there want a teacher over 30 and with years of teaching experience. South Korean schools are starting to become quite picky as to who they hire, so don’t assume that you will automatically get a job there. Even if you are hired to teach in South Korea, you will still need money to get through the first month. If you going to teach anywhere in the world outside of South Korea, Saudi Arabia or the UAE, then you are going to need at least $3000 to $5000 when you factor in the cost of an airline ticket, aTEFL/TESOL course and spending money for the first month. When I first landed in Japan, I had about $4,000 in savings to hold me over before I received my first paycheck one month later.

4. I don’t need a TESOL/TEFL and Recruiters will get a portion of my pay

While it is possible to get a job without at TESOL or TEFL certificate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to land a position without one. Even in countries where it isn’t always necessary, such as South Korea and Japan, many of the better schools are now requiring teachers to have one. If you are planning on teaching in China, all of the legitimate schools (ones that pay on time) require a TEFL or TESOL. It is also better to get a 120 hour TEFL or TESOL since 120 hours is the globally recognized standard amount of hours throughout the world. Just as important, taking a TEFL or TESOL course before stepping into that classroom for the first time will prepare you to become a quality teacher.

There also seems to be the idea out there that recruitment agents like myself take a percentage  of your paycheck. That is absolutely not true as we  are paid directly by schools to find them quality teachers. It is simply more economical in the long run for schools to pay a commission to recruitment specialist rather than adding on another staff member. If a recruiter or agent does ask for any upfront payment, then it is definitely a scam.

5. I don’t need to be professional when applying for a job 

There was a time when you could just kind of waltz into Asia on a tourist visa and land a job on a whim. Those days are long over and the schools of today are much more organized and seem to follow some standard of regulations. You need to have your stuff together when applying for a position regardless of where it is. That means an updated resume, recent head shot photo dressed in a professional manner and a flexible attitude.  Sure ,there are still plenty of jobs teaching English, but with a sluggish Western economy, there is also a large amount of individuals looking for teaching gigs abroad. Schools in China, South Korea, Vietnam and so on are always in need of Western English teachers, but they are not going to beg you to come.

When applying for a teaching job abroad, treat it exactly as you would for a job back home. If you are going through a recruiter/placement agency, you need to do so in a professional manner.  Recruiters for China, South Korea and Vietnam  are often swamped  with email inquires, so you likely will not get a response if you are too casual and send an outdated  resume. If you are applying directly to a school or program, make sure to include a cover letter. It isn’t necessary to send a cover letter to a recruiter, but write a few lines about yourself in the initial email.

Teaching English is a great way to live abroad, meet great students and encounter heaps of interesting people. There are many misconceptions about teaching English. If you like the idea of living abroad, possess a curiosity for other cultures and have an open and flexible mind, then you should consider teaching abroad.

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About James 66 Articles
Since finishing Graduate school in 2007, I have been teaching ESL and adjuncting as a political science instructor. I taught English in Japan for four years and I have traveled throughout Asia and South America. These days, I spend most of my time customizing Wordpress themes, blogging and understanding SEO. My next goal in life is to become a successful entrepreneur. I recently have started a teacher placement agency, Beyond Borders ESL Jobs, and I am looking for investors to start-up an online language school with an innovative twist.

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