For the past year, life after ESL has been on my mind. It was about a year ago that I decided to leave kimchi-land and return home to Canada. After a decade here, it wasn’t an easy decision but the moment I made it, I knew it was the right one. And it now seems that all the stars were aligned such that all the logistical details involving getting myself, my 2 cats, and my stuff across a big ocean has been strangely easy. And everything on the Canadian end of things has fallen into place quite easily as well.
Anyway, during this past year, I’ve been obsessed with what life after ESL looks like, both for myself as well as other teachers. I’ve interviewed many of them, with the aim to glean as much wisdom as I could from them and then share it with my readers. You can pick up the book, Life After ESL: Foreign Teachers Returning Home on Amazon.
What follows below is an interview I did with Heather Douglas, a former teacher in Korea who is now back home in Oregon. She started off teaching in public schools initially, but is in the process of transitioning into freelance work. Her story is an inspiring one about making her own way with freelancing after the initial plan didn’t really work out. I myself am planning on doing something similar to her when I go to Canada so I am very happy that she agreed to do this interview with me.
Be sure to check out her websites listed at the bottom of this article. I’m sure she’d be happy to talk with you or answer any questions you have. Read on for the interview with Heather Douglas!
Can you briefly describe your time teaching abroad?
I got my Masters in Education in 2008, which was the worst possible timing. The recession hit and teaching jobs were scarce—even substitute teaching was all but impossible to get into. Although I was technically a bit overqualified for a general ESL job in Korea, it was at least a step in the right direction. I taught middle school for three years at a private school. My time teaching abroad was amazing. I was lucky enough to turn a crappy situation into an amazing experience that would shape my entire perspective on life forever. Now, when I think about the job market, I think global career opportunities, rather than just those limited to my own country.
Why did you decide to go back to your home country?
Our lifestyle in Korea was easy with very few responsibilities. We had very little overhead, no rent to worry about. We walked and biked everywhere; my commute to work was a 10 minute walk. For three years, we had no car or cell phones. We (my husband and I) talked about staying in Korea for 10 years or more because life was virtually stress free and it was much easier there financially than making it in the states. I got to a point where I could not ignore that the job was not challenging me professionally and I really felt there was a definite ceiling on what I could do there as an ex-pat. I also had a major medical emergency and my husband was limited in the work he could do there—it was sort of just ‘time’ and we tried to be grateful for everything we gained by living in Korea and bring those lessons home with us. It was definitely hard to leave behind wonderful friends we had made, though.
When you first returned to the USA, you taught in public schools. Were you already a certified teacher, or did you have to go back to school?
When I came back to the states, I was already a certified public school teacher with a Masters, so I was able to teach in my home state of Oregon. However, I was very lucky to be hired right away; at the time I applied I had an expired teaching license, a translated letter of recommendation originally in Korean, one letter in English from my Korean co-teachers and a very eclectic resume. Despite my unconventional resume, it turned out that my international teaching experience was very desirable to my potential employers. Another thing that got me hired quickly were Spanish speaking skills and my experience adapting to other cultures. I went on to get an additional endorsement in ESOL after realizing that I truly loved working with foreign students in the states because I could relate somewhat having been a foreigner myself for three years.
How did your experience teaching abroad compare with teaching in the USA?
I look back to teaching in Korea as a dream come true—the hours, the respect from society and students and the light work-load. My biggest complaints about teaching in Korea stemmed from lack of feedback (I rarely got any feedback on my work and I’m very goal oriented), there was no substitute system (I felt I could never take a sick day and as a teacher sometimes you just need a day off), and no seniority system (I was not rewarded for staying more than 1 year) and had to work with a lot of other foreigners who abused the freedom of the job and took advantage by sneaking out early or just showing kids movies—things that frustrated me to no end and made all foreign teachers look bad to Koreans.
When I came back to the states, I was ecstatic to be around serious teacher colleagues, but over time I found the work load of the job absolutely unsustainable. I was working close to 80 hours a week the first year and made a little less than $2,000 a month (with a Masters!). I never had money left over out of my paycheck (if not for my husband I wouldn’t have survived as rent was at least 50% of my paycheck) my personal life had all but evaporated. I was always tired, stressed and poor. When I was in Korea, we were very comfortable. I made about $2,200 a month in Korea but ALL of my expenses except food were paid. I had about $2,000 take home pay! I had never had that in my working life. We not only saved money, but we went on many trips both international and weekend trips to Seoul and I came home with a big pension as well.
I also found many American parents to be downright abusive to teachers. It shocked me after coming from Korea where parents are wonderfully respectful and thankful. Not only do American teachers receive little or no thanks from a society that seriously undervalues teachers, but it was mind-blowing to handle rude parents who never stopped to realize that I was giving hours and hours of my personal time (unpaid) to help their child succeed. Although there are supportive families, I often found myself apologizing for things that had very little to do with my quality of teaching or the relationship I had built with that student, but had more to do with dysfunctional relationships at home and the need for that parent to place blame on someone. Public servants (government workers) are easy targets, unfortunately. We listen because that’s our job and at the end of the day we don’t take it personally, but it does take a toll and I eventually quit teaching here in the states because I didn’t want that toxic energy in my life.
Do you have any advice for those looking to teach in public school in the USA?
Unfortunately, my advice would be this: think really hard before going back to school to become certified as a public school teacher in the U.S. I wish that someone would have given me this advice. If you are already poor and take out loans, you will most likely never be able to pay off your debts with a teacher’s salary. I am $95,000 in debt—do the math. I cannot buy a house (because of my huge debt to income ratio) and I cannot get out of my student loans. With this salary, I can barely afford basic expenses, let alone keep up on my debts.
It is absolutely true U.S. teachers are fleeing the profession rapidly—and for good reason. We want to be treated better. We want to move to the middle class so that we can be stable enough to help kids and families in need—when we are barely not getting by financially, it creates a lot of turnover in the profession and stressed out teachers—this transfers to students.
I went into teaching because I wanted to help kids and have a stable lifelong career. To me, teaching in the states feels just as disposable as a career as it did when I taught abroad. Our country doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal that most teachers leave the profession within 5 years and some don’t even last through their first year. It’s a huge red flag that so many amazing teachers really just can’t make it work and our country has no problem bailing out millionaires but our teachers are drowning in debt. Had I gone out and bought a boat and a new car and lots of shiny new toys, I could have declared bankruptcy. There is no bail out for poor kids who take out loans, work hard in school and expect to have a sustainable career in teaching.
If you want to be a teacher, I really think the only way you can make it work and not become financially ruined is to go to two years of community college, transfer to a university and get your bachelors. Move abroad and pay off your bachelors. You can see if you really like teaching and at least get a handle on that debt before you go get a Masters in Teaching. My Canadian friend did this and paid off her undergrad in three years living in Korea and had enough money left over to take some great vacations to other countries as well. She then went on to her Masters when she got home. In contrast to my own situation, she really did it the right way.
You’re now doing freelance work. Can you describe what kinds of work you do? What are the things you love about it? What are the things you don’t like? Any advice for English teachers who want to get into doing freelance work?
Right now I freelance write and illustrate coloring books and provide paid blog content. I am making money, but not yet paying the bills. I think it’s important to define what success means. Freelancing takes time to build and for me only 6 months into it, I feel that I am successful just because I’m making something. Maybe in 3 years, that definition of success would change.
I am also happy that I have not totally given up teaching. I freelance as an educator (substitute teaching) and it’s a great way to see the kids I miss and get into the classroom on my own terms. I’m hoping to make a difference in education by writing about it and doing some activism.
I love that I can create my own reality with freelancing. If I want to take a late morning yoga class, I can work my schedule around that. I am self motivated, so I am lucky in that regard. I have a good work ethic (I credit some of that to being a teacher), but I often find myself moving in too many directions. Another hard part of freelancing is getting work, making sure you get paid and tracking down the type of work you want. I love being my own boss. I have had so many bosses over the years—they run the gamut from good to horrible and it’s a stressor that I don’t like.
More advice: be patient. This has been a challenge for me, as I am a very impatient person. I’m willing to work hard for things, but I want them now. I think the biggest piece of advice is that there are so many different roads to success—I prefer to have many different facets to my overall income. It keeps me from getting bored and I love mixing it up! Fear also plays a big part in this career option. It’s hard to put yourself out there. Keeping a “day job” on the side for awhile will allow you to ease into this freelancing lifestyle where you’ll have to promote yourself more.
It’s hard to be a self-promoter. As a shy person, this is my biggest challenge as a freelancer! Social media can be your best friend to spread your word or your talents or products. In this day and age I don’t feel that the stable life-long career really exists anymore. If you can make it work for you, freelancing is just as practical as having a full time career.
Where can people find you online?
I illustrate at: “Oscar Astoria” www.oscarastoria.com.
I write at: “Rabbits and Hatters” www.rabbitsandhatters.com.
Thinking about Life After ESL?
It’s Jackie again! If you’re looking for some more ideas about what to do after teaching ESL abroad, check out this interview with Stephen Mayeux who used his time in Korea to teach himself computer programming. It’s pretty inspiring stuff.
Or, you could also check out my book, Life After ESL: Foreign Teachers Returning Home which is available on Amazon in both print and digital formats. I interviewed 55 teachers who’d gone back to their home countries and gleaned all the wisdom I possibly could from them. Here’s what one reviewer had to say:
“So here’s my verdict: This book should be the starting place for anyone thinking of going home after a stint abroad.”