Teaching ESL Abroad as a Career: A Good Option?

Teaching ESL abroad as a career

Lots of people ask me about teaching ESL abroad as a career and whether or not it’s a good option. My answer is: sometimes, it really depends on the person. Teaching English abroad doesn’t exactly fit into the category of a “serious” job where you make “serious” money like you would doing many things back home, but I would argue that it actually has a lot going for it and it’s a good choice for someone who doesn’t want to live a typical kind of life. It’s also great for someone who wants to have a few years of fun and travel before settling into life back in their home countries.

Teaching English Abroad as a Career: The Upsides

It’s Easy on the Body

Sitting at a desk for the entire day is extremely hard on the body and leads to a whole host of problems including joint pain, obesity, etc. On the other side, heavy physical labor can lead to overuse injuries. Teaching English abroad is neither of these things as you get a good mix of sitting, standing, and walking around. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an ESL teacher with carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow or other such occupational injury.

For example, I teach around 15 hours per week and during that time, I’ll rarely sit but instead be standing at the front, or walking around the class. I then spend another 20-25 hours at my desk doing lesson planning, grading, and working on various online ventures.

It’s Ain’t Rocket Science

If you want to have enough mental energy left-over at the end of the day to devote to something like writing a book, creating art, brewing beer or being in a band (just to name a few things), teaching abroad might be an excellent choice for you. While it can be a bit tiring to teach kids all day, it certainly isn’t difficult and you’ll still have plenty of creative energy left.

It’s Easy on the Number of Hours Worked

I feel like I quite rarely work-I probably feel that way because it’s actually kind of true. I consider my job more of a 1/4 time job, but with full-time pay. Certainly not everyone has this kind of gig, but even those with heavier teaching schedules often have plenty of free-time to get other things up and running. Here in Korea, even those with the worst jobs will max out at 30 teaching hours/week, with minimal preparation and grading beyond that. There is certainly no English teacher abroad working 50 or 60 hours per week like some people in our home countries.

For tips on how to get the same sweet job that I have, check out: How to Get a University Job in South Korea: The English Teaching Job of Your Dreams.


It’s Mostly Low-Stress

There truly is no English-teaching emergency and my time outside work really is my own time. I don’t give students my phone number because there really and truly is no reason that they’ll need to contact me urgently and every single problem they could possibly have can wait until I email them back or see them in class next.

I leave work and generally don’t have to give it another thought until I get back in the next day. This of course assumes that I’ve prepared for things a week or two ahead of time and am up to date on my grading. Stress is a huge enemy of productivity and general health and well-being and teaching English abroad basically allows me to have none.

Travel Opportunities

I’m kind of convinced that just about everyone wants to travel the world-experience different cultures and see the sights but most people find it pretty hard to escape from the daily grind and actually do that. Teaching overseas means that I’ve been doing it already for the past 10 years and the best part is that I was getting paid while I did it! Although I’m a bit more focused on saving money these days in preparation for my return to Canada in about 6 months, my general rule for a lot of years was this:

1. Hit the money-saving hard during the semester by living frugally and doing plenty of overtime.

2. During vacations-don’t go in the red. Working at Korean universities, I’d get 2 10-week vacations per year where I’d get paid my regular monthly salary. I’d go on a lot of vacations during those times (Africa, Europe, Canada, SE Asia, etc.) but I’d never spend more than I had coming in from that salary. If I got paid $2500 per month and took home about $2100 of that, my absolute max for spending was $2100, which is most cases was really easy to do.

Teaching English Abroad as a Career: The Downsides

It’s Often a Dead-End

In a place like Korea, there is almost no room for foreign teachers to advance into management or administration positions. During my 10 years here, I can literally count the number of people I know on one hand who held this kind of position and now that I think a bit harder-I think the answer is precisely 2 people, but they both still had to teach part-time. See this post-Korean University Jobs: The Golden Handcuffs.

Other countries are perhaps slightly better, but it’s not exactly a career where regular promotions are the norm. The way that you make things better for yourself is to move to new positions with higher salaries, better vacation and lower working hours. But, it’s really not that easy to move into admin because those jobs are most often reserved for the locals.

It Ain’t Rocket Science

If you’re the type who likes to feel challenged at work, you’ll likely be pretty unhappy being an English teacher abroad. By the time you teach the simple past for the 57th time, or do the “weather” unit for the 34th time, you’ll feel like you’re dying a bit on the inside. Trust me. It really does feel like I’m dying a bit due to brain atrophy and if I didn’t blog or write books, it’d just wither away, getting smaller and smaller until…something really bad happened.

You’re Responsible for your Own Future

If you’re the type who doesn’t really think about the future and have a “you only live once” philosophy with regards to money, teaching abroad probably isn’t the best idea for you. When you’re in your home country, you’re contributing to things like government or company pension plans and retirement savings plans. Abroad-possibly, but it certainly won’t give you enough to live off of once you’re older and a way more common scenario is that foreign teachers take this lump-sum and use it to travel the world. Seriously, it’s dangerous stuff to return to your home country after many years traveling abroad and have nothing but you won’t even have the government stuff to depend on.

Feel scared? You Should Be

I talk way more about it in this book: The Wealthy English Teacher and give a ton of suggestions for how to get your financial future on track while teaching abroad.

To Sum This Up

Teaching ESL abroad as a career is a good choice for some, but not for others. It all depends on your job prospects back in your home country as well as whether or not you’re okay doing a job with very little room for advancement in many countries. And of course you attitude towards life and money. It was great for me for a lot of years, but now it’s not. Onward to Canada soon!

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