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“Teaching English abroad is an easy way to travel and make money.” There are countless job postings and articles with these headlines beckoning native English speakers who want more than a quick vacation overseas.
Many of these articles make it sound like anyone who has fluent knowledge of English can do the job. But they don’t often address the people who hated the work.
If you are considering teaching English abroad, I’m guessing you already started your research. Maybe you have a lifelong dream of being a teacher or maybe you need something that will pay the bills. The most polarizing voices on the internet tend to get the most attention. If they are teaching English abroad, they are either in a utopia or a hellhole.
I’ve been an English teacher in South Korea, Thailand and Japan. I’ve enjoyed my experiences and have recommended the work to others. I have also met people who couldn’t wait for their contracts to end.
Before you accept a job offer and empty your bank account for a plane ticket, I would ask yourself these questions.
1. Do You Have an Interest in the Country?
You would think having an interest in the place you were moving to would be the minimum requirement for an international relocation. I’ve met teachers who knew they wouldn’t like the food, the weather, or the customs of their new home before they even arrived there.
They didn’t like spicy food and picked a country that dumped a bowl of chili peppers on top of every dish. They hated cold weather and moved to a place with record snowfalls.
I’m not saying you need to do a master’s thesis on a country before you move there, but doing research can only help. You might find that while you love a country’s pop culture, their idea of work-life balance or views on LGBTQ+ topics contradict yours.
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You might love Turkish culture so much that you aren’t worried about the country’s political issues, but it doesn’t hurt to be aware. Take some time to reflect on your biggest priorities in life and see how the potential country handles them.
A positive attitude towards a country overall will also help lead you toward positive experiences. Most people appreciate it when a visitor appreciates their country. I’ve been out alone or with other teachers where we received free food from strangers just for complimenting their country.
Positive and adventurous people tend to do better in the unknown than pessimists. Curiosity about a new culture, even towards something small, will carry you through the uncertainty of teaching English abroad.
2. Do You Like Kids?
I once spoke to a fellow new teacher in South Korea about why we chose the country and what we hoped to get out of our time there. He told me he didn’t like kimchi and he didn’t like kids.
I didn’t know how to respond since he just signed up for a year in the land of kimchi to teach public school students. Needless to say, he didn’t love his time in South Korea.
I enjoy working with kids. I find they are much more honest about their motivations in life than adults. I’ve had significantly more good days than bad, but it also takes a lot of energy. You might find yourself needing a snack and a nap as much as the kids do.
I’ve had students get into fistfights, slam doors, break down crying in the middle of a speech, and sometimes they just have a rough day. No child can be a perfect angel all the time, but there’s nothing wrong with saying you don’t enjoy being around children often.
If you barely tolerate kids now, spending 8 hours a day with them won’t help.
3. Do You Have Health Needs the Country Can’t Meet?
Not all healthcare options are available in every nation. You might get medication over the counter in your home country but need a prescription for it in another.
One country might have the world’s top cancer researchers but have a limited number of dentists with long waiting lists. If you need medical care that you have trouble accessing in your new country, can you wait until a trip home?
Mental health is still taboo in many cultures around the world. Finding a mental health professional that also speaks your native language may be close to impossible in some countries.
Sexual health, addiction, and neurodivergent healthcare are all topics that the world is still learning about but some countries have further to go than others.
Any path in life is going to have pros and cons but sacrificing health may be a con you can’t bounce back from. Your health needs to be prioritized if you want to be successful at teaching English abroad.
4. Do You Hate Being Away from Loved Ones?
I’ve missed birthday parties, Christmases, funerals, and random Thursday night pizza outings with loved ones since I started living overseas. I’ve told friends that in a lot of ways, I miss the ability to drop by and see people randomly more than on big holidays.
I talk with my friends and family a lot over video chat and travel home when I can. It takes a lot more planning than driving ten minutes for a lunch meet-up.
Not wanting to move thousands of miles away from family and friends doesn’t make you weak. The emotional cost of being so far away is not for everyone. You’ll also have to consider the financial and career responsibilities of needing to get home in an emergency.
Will you have the funds for a last-minute plane ticket or allocated days of leave? You might have visa restrictions that let you leave the country but not come back. Your limits in how long you can be away from loved ones are something only you will know.
5. Do You Assume It Will Be Easy?
If you already have experience teaching English as a foreign or second language, then the job won’t be a huge challenge for you… probably. You will still be in a foreign country with plenty of new things to navigate besides your job.
You will be picking up a new language, eating unfamiliar food, learning the appropriate manners of the local culture, and spending stressful hours at an immigration office.
Not knowing the right thing to say or do and needing help for what you consider to be basic tasks can be a big hit to your self-esteem.
If you’ve never taught English abroad, you might do a Google search of the topic and see smiling teachers holding up flash cards of “RED” and “BLUE” with engaged children repeating after them.
Teaching beginner or intermediate English as a native English speaker sounds easy enough, but working with a rowdy group of students can turn a simple lesson into an exhausting battle. Think about your years of early education as a student.
The material you were studying was easy for your teacher to understand but they also had to deal with kids crying over broken crayons, fights over line cutting, bullying, scraped knees, temper tantrums, and constant runny noses. Sure, the math equations were easy, but the day was not.
Before Teaching English Abroad
I don’t want anyone to assume that they will hate teaching English abroad. No matter how much you prepare for a life change like that, you are still jumping into the unknown. I always knew I wanted to live abroad but I didn’t know what it would be like to be a teacher.
I’ve had days that were frustrating and exhausting, but I also had days like that in my home country, too. I have found work that allows me to put a roof over my head and still travel the world.
For me, the pros have definitely outweighed the cons. No matter what anyone says on the internet about teaching English abroad, you know what’s right for you.
Author Bio: Sadie Welhoff grew up in the rural Midwest and after she finished her journalism degree, she jumped on a plane to teach English abroad. She has worked in South Korea, Thailand, went to language school in Taiwan, and is now working in Japan. When she isn’t enjoying trips on Japan’s wonderful rail system, she is eating pasta or dreaming of living on a yak farm.