Teaching Abroad: Fun, but Not Financially Lucrative

teaching-abroadTeaching Abroad: Fun, but not Financially Lucrative

I’ve been living out the Life After ESL part of my life since I moved to Canada a few weeks ago after living in Korea for the past 10 years. If you’re interested in transitioning out of teaching English abroad, check out the book I wrote about that:

Life After ESL: Foreign Teachers Returning Home

Or the following interviews which you might find useful:

An Interview With Heather Douglas about Teaching in the USA and Freelancing

An Interview with Stephen Mayeux about Learning to Code while Teaching Abroad

But, keep reading for details about why I think teaching abroad isn’t a great option for a long-term career and also my own plan for life after teaching abroad.

Teaching English abroad is probably going to be the best few years of your entire life. Teaching in a foreign country can often feel like one huge adventure, especially that first year when everything is new and exciting and you’re figuring out how survive, and thrive in your new country. I totally recommend that everyone with a BA go abroad for a year to teach and have an amazing adventure, but I most certainly don’t think it’s a great career for the long-term. There are a few reasons including low salaries, lack of advancement, and the world ESL job market.

Low Salaries for English Teachers

English teachers in places like Korea or the Middle East can make $2000-3000 per month. Of this, they can often save $1000 a month which is pretty decent, but it’s certainly not what university graduates back home can save, if you factor in things like mortgage payments (which builds equity and is like a mandatory savings system), 401K or Roth IRA contributions (in the USA, or equivalent tax break plans for retirement savings), or the Canada Pension Plan (plans where the government takes out a portion of your pay each month during your working life and you’ll get benefits once you retire).

If you’ve just finished college, being able to save $1000 a month might sound pretty appealing to you. I totally get it. It sounded really appealing to me as well, which is why I decided to go teach in Korea. But, 5, 10, or 20 years later, many English teachers are still saving only $1000 (some people aren’t saving even that!) a month whereas people back home have paid off houses, and made significant contributions to government or employer pension plans or retirement savings account.

Lack of Advancement for English Teachers

Why teachers are still saving the same amount of money years or decades after entering the ESL industry is because there is a lack of advancement and most of the management positions are held by the locals. For example, in Korea it’s extremely rare to meet a foreigner who holds any sort of position that involves management because all these positions are held by Koreans. In some other places (the Middle East or China), or companies (the British Council and Wall Street English are two), there is more room for promotions beyond teaching, but it’s still quite rare.

Some teachers make the jump into working for a big publishing company, but again, this is quite rare. And even if you can get one of these jobs, you’ll make a decent amount of money but you’ll be expected to always be on the road and you’ll certainly earn every dollar that you make with blood, sweat and tears!

The World ESL Market

When I first came to Korea in 2003, everyone was throwing money at English education. It was like money was being dumped out of a low-flying airplane and all teachers had to do was reach up their hands and grab it by the fistful. Salaries were excellent (2.2 million Korean Won average starting wage) when compared to the cost of living. Private teaching could be found in abundance and it often paid something like $40 USD per hour.

These days however, the average starting salary is still 2.2 million while the cost of living has increased significantly. Things like basic food staples or bus and subway fares have doubled in the past decade. You can certainly see that teachers have less money in their pockets at the end of the day and that the savings potential is certainly less than it once was when teaching in South Korea. Korea is an employer’s market and there’s no incentive for schools to offer higher wages than what’s currently on offer. Just the other day I read an article about how there will be 160,000 fewer university students by 2023 (from 2013), so I don’t see the situation improving within the next decade or so.

While Korea is only one example, other places that have traditionally been quite lucrative for English teachers are in similar situations. The exact same thing happened in Japan as in Korea, just about 10 years earlier and to further compound the problem, the cost of living in Japan is extremely high.

China is an interesting option with some quite lucrative positions to be found in the bigger cities, and people paying very well for private teaching ($30-50 USD) per hour, but the university positions with reasonable teaching hours per week and a decent amount of vacation still have pay that is staggeringly low. China’s economy is slowing down and my prediction is that the English teaching industry will soon follow. The same thing that happened in Japan, and is happening now in Korea will happen in China 10 years later.

Malaysia used to have some excellent mentor programs where foreign teachers would work with local teachers in elementary schools. These positions paid really well but almost all of the funding for these programs has been cut.

My feeling is that is there are simply too many well-qualified teachers and not enough quality positions that offer reasonable pay, adequate vacation time, and a number of teaching hours per week that won’t leave you totally burnt out after a month or two.

Teaching Abroad is not a Great Career Choice? What should I do?

Maybe you feel pretty discouraged after reading the previous section. That’s okay. During my decade in Korea as I was figuring out these things for myself, I felt pretty discouraged too except I didn’t despair. I just took this knowledge and turned it into action once I realized that teaching abroad forever was not going to be a great life plan. The action I took was the start my online business and begin building various passive income streams. The best thing about building passive income streams is that it’s really easy to get this up and running while you’re still abroad. That way, you can move back home and not start at ground zero in terms of income coming in.

In late February 2016, I left Korea and moved back to Canada. I’m currently living for free (by working part-time on a farm) and making money by doing my online business stuff (self-publishing books on Amazon + Amazon affiliate sites, as well as a few other things I have going on.

For more details about starting an online business, check out one of my other websites: Freedom Through Passive Income. You’ll find lots of ideas for how to get your passive income streams up and running.

4 Comments

  1. mizliz61

    My problem when trying to save money while teaching in South Korea was the traveling that I ended up doing. At least I managed to pay off my student loans. But oh, the collection of photos and memories I have now!! Next stop when I get itchy feet is Europe. Jackie Bolen, I think we met at a KOTESOL conference. Liz Bailey, London Ontario

  2. Brent

    I heard what you said, but I have been out of Canada for 19 years teaching English, and it has turned out to be a wonderful career. Sometimes when you have a job in your own country you have to reinvent yourself to keep a job! Teaching overseas is pretty much like that. I own my own business teaching English, and there have been lean times and plush times. Life is what you make it!! Stick at it and you can make something of your life teaching and coaching!!

  3. Kiwidee

    While I agree with most of what you say about teaching abroad, your figures are slightly off. The average salary in GCC countries is 4000-5000USD not 2-3000. We wouldn’t come here if it were that low. Also it is completely tax-free with free accommodation and transport. I’m from NZ which has one of the highest income tax rates in the OECD. I taught in NZ for a couple of years, but due to the high tax and high cost of living, I saved only a little. By teaching in the Mid-East I’m able to pay off mortgages etc much faster and invest in many different things I wouldn’t have been able to in NZ. Of course I can contribute to my pension from here also!

  4. Pingback: 49 Frugal Living South Korea Tips -

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