Travel Abroad, Funded by Teaching English

I was thinking about doing some international traveling. Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) seemed like a good way to pay for my travel. So I looked into it.

A couple of insights came to me pretty quickly. One was that there was a ton of information out there about this. It was a mess. Everybody seemed to want to sell me a course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). Everybody seemed to be willing to sign me up for semester or a year abroad, at a price of only $2,000 or $3,000 or $4,000 for the privilege of their assistance. Everybody seemed to have lists of jobs that I could get.

It appeared, unfortunately, that the really easy days of teaching English abroad were largely gone. It may have been the 1970s; it may have been the 1990s; but whenever it was, it was past, that era when any halfway intelligent English-speaker, with or without a degree, could get a job for as long as s/he wanted, teaching English for a few hours in the morning and lounging on a beach for the balance of the day.

Maybe the more refined statement would be that you could still do that, but it would have its drawbacks. You might have to do your jobhunting from a location within the country, ready to respond to last-minute jobs offered by panicked English school directors who needed a warm body – a native English-speaking body, in particular – to provide something resembling an English-language education. These would not necessarily be the most organized or stable organizations. I got a sense that that segment of the market could be less happy-go-lucky and more fly-by-night.

I had a degree, so I didn’t do too much investigation into the opportunities available to people with only a high school diploma. Even with a degree – even with advanced degrees – the current situation was not entirely rosy. As dug into those lists of jobs, I began to accumulate a set of reasons why I was not qualified.

First, there was the possibility of being in over my head. For the highest-paying positions, in places like Saudi Arabia and other oil countries, it seemed I might need a master’s degree or even a PhD in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL).

Instead (or perhaps in addition to the master’s degree), for many positions, I would need a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages offered by either Trinity College London (CertTESOL) or the University of Cambridge English Language Assessment (CELTA, which was short for the former name, “Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults”). Those would evidently cost around $2,500 for a monthlong course. I could get some other kind of TEFL certificate via an online course for as little as $400 or so, but a lot of people said employers had little interest in those. I wasn’t sure what I might get from one course that I wouldn’t get from another, but the prices ranged across that spectrum, from $400 on up, and there sure seemed to be a lot of people offering them.

Sometimes employers’ job ads would describe a TEFL certificate as an alternative to a regular baccalaureate teaching degree that might or might not be focused specifically on ESL. Other employers seemed to want both the certificate and the degree. In many ads – the large majority, I would say – employers expressed a requirement or at least a preference for prior ESL teaching experience. That could range from a year or two up to five or more years for the higher-paying positions. Corporate employers (potentially expressing a particular interest in English for Special Purposes) could pay a lot, and they could also expect a lot. Here’s the email I got back from one of them:

Thank you for your interest in [this company]. We’ve reviewed the situation in terms of both our teacher needs, and also our available pool of applicants. On the basis of these, most especially the number and quality of other applicants, we will not be sending your application on to the next stage in the hiring process. Please don’t feel too bad about this – we have over 5,000 applicants a year for around 250 positions, and so we do only choose a small percentage for our program, and some people must miss out.

Age was another factor. Some ads wanted someone at least 18 years old, but most seemed (via at least the requirement of a college degree in some subject) to be shooting for a bottom limit more in the early to mid-20s. For reasons of health care or insurance expenses, apparently, and perhaps also because younger employees tend to be more pliable, most ads specified an upper age limit. Many upper limits were at 30, some were at 40, occasionally I would see one open to people as old as 50 or 55, one specified an age limit of 74, and there were some with no stated upper limit or even a remark that retirees were welcome to apply. Presumably good health would be expected at any age. In the words of a response to an inquiry I sent to an organization that placed teachers in Asia,

I’m very sorry to tell you that I don’t think we have any opportunities for you, and this is because of the restrictions that Asian governments put on incoming teachers. Schools can generally secure proper work permits for teachers that are 55 years of age and under, but you would need to be in country to interview with a school directly to secure a teaching position at 58 years of age. Sometimes this is restricted by the government as they may issue teaching work visas or government health insurance up to a certain age.

In our experience, most English language schools in Asia tend to hire university graduates in their 20s and 30s. We’ve seen a few teachers hired in their 40s and 50s.

We ourselves don’t work with colleges or universities, but observation suggests they prefer to employ teachers based on experience and skills. This usually favors more mature applicants over less experienced and often younger applicants. Here is a link to an article which you may find helpful: http://www.internationalschoolsreview.com/nonmembers/age-article.htm

Location was also a factor. First, in some cases, physical location was essential even at the initial application stage. You could not get some of these jobs unless you could appear at an in-person interview, or market yourself at a job fair, and those would typically be limited to just a few specified cities in the U.S. or at designated locations abroad. Timing could be a factor in the latter: at this writing in April, for example, there were jobs in Thailand, advertised on Craigslist, that would only be open to people already in the country, due to the amounts of time required to get a visa and otherwise prepare for the trip before the May start of their school year.

In most cases, the applicant could be anywhere; employers would interview applicants by Skype or phone. Location could nonetheless be an issue, for several reasons. First, if you are a non-European, you would apparently have a hard time getting a visa to get a job anywhere in the European Union, or in some other locations (e.g., Brunei). Although some non-Europeans found regular teaching jobs in Europe, it seemed that many would have to be content with volunteering opportunities, where you would come in as a tourist, pay your own airfare and perhaps a fee (mentioned above) running into the thousands of dollars, and optionally do your own fundraising to cover monthly expenses, to get placed in your short-term “job” teaching English. Volunteering organizations that I encountered, placing people in Europe and/or elsewhere, included the Peace Corps, Project Trust (for residents of the United Kingdom), WorkAwayInfo, and CIEE. Given the widespread preference for native English speakers (as distinct from those for whom English was a second language), teaching English in Europe was evidently a real growth industry for people from the United Kingdom and Ireland.

For those unable to bankroll the teaching English project out of their independent wealth, pay became a factor, insofar as the necessary airfares could be pricey. At this writing, for example, with a 21-day advance purchase, Kayak.com said that I would be looking at $1,600 round-trip, Chicago to Beijing. That would be in addition to visa fees, in-country transport fees, and whatever else somebody might tack on. Fortunately, it appeared that some employers in some countries (notably China and Korea, possibly also Japan and Taiwan) would pick up the airfare. The situation seemed to be quite different in, say, Latin America (only about $650 round-trip in the middle of their winter, Chicago to Peru), which one website described thus:

As in most Latin American countries the students are lively and sociable and therefore a pleasure to teach. Employers at some language centres can be unreliable and have unreasonable demands such as the common one that you are effectively ‘on call’ from 8am to 8pm or similar. You are rarely paid for travelling from one location or class to another and this can take up a significant chunk of your daily schedule. If you are experienced and hard-working then you may be lucky to find one of the few well-paid positions, such as those at bilingual schools. For the majority, however, TEFL in Peru is a fun experience for a short period of time but only rarely a serious long-term career option.

That website used virtually identical language for almost all Latin America countries.

As these remarks may suggest, it appeared that the incoming English teacher could be dealing with a country that really had its act together, South Korea being commonly cited as the best; or s/he could be arriving in the middle of a circus. Notwithstanding the good salaries offered in the Middle East, for example, I did see some discussions among people whose employers in that region apparently withheld their pay, and then coerced them to accept a fraction of what they were owed. In all regions, there were many warnings about flaky and even fake ESL employers. The usual warning applied: be careful of whom you give your money to.

Some countries seemed to attract hordes of would-be English teachers. There were people saying that China and Korea, for example, had “insatiable” or “bottomless” demand for native English speakers. I was not sure that would always be the case, though: it had lately been announced that China was going to downgrade the importance of English on its college entrance exam. Take away a couple hundred million potential customers, and you may be seeing some English teachers scrambling for jobs – or at least that was what some people were foreseeing. At this writing, there still seemed to be a lot of demand. The other major downside in China was the environment: China had recently been described as experiencing significantly worse if not catastrophic levels of air pollution. For a person who would only be staying a year, just to get an experience of teaching abroad, the effects of such pollution would probably vary according to individual health condition and needs.

On the other extreme, there were places that were so far attracting very few English teachers. Several former Soviet republics were in this category: for example, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Georgia had lately instituted a program to attract English teachers. Other small countries and out-of-the-way locales would take on the occasional instructor but, due perhaps to limited budgets or limited English-language commitment, would not necessarily provide the most pleasant, comfortable, or remunerative international travel and living experience.

Now, for my sources. Along with numerous webpages that I did not bookmark, here are some that I did keep. First, there were sources of information about specific countries. On the level of the all-purpose traveler, these included the CIA World Factbook, Wikipedia, the BBC (look at the bottom of that webpage for country links), InterNations, and LonelyPlanet; but many others would come up with an appropriate search (for e.g., “tourist Egypt”). For insights into weather, safety, and other comparisons among cities and countries, I had a previous post citing various sources. ESL-specific country information websites included Dave’s ESL Café, Quinn’s World of TEFL, Transitions Abroad (though it looked like some of their materials were dated), i-to-i, and the topical page at Wikipedia.

For many purposes, it appeared that ESL discussion forums would be especially good sources of information. There were a few discussions on individual country pages at Quinn’s, but Dave’s ESL Café appeared dominant here; others included TESOL.org (assuming they fixed their apparently chronic login difficulties), TeachAway, and ESL Jobs Forum (assuming they decided to permit my username). Forum topics of discussion could extend well beyond jobhunting and choice of country to include ESL career development (see also NAFSA and another page at TESOL.org), teaching methods (e.g., the teacher, student, and ideas forums at Dave’s ESL Café, UsingEnglish.com, ESLemployment, TESOL.org, Coursera, and TEFL.net), and other subjects.

And then there was the question of where, exactly, one should go to get a job. To me, it did not appear that the major U.S. job boards and aggregators (e.g., Monster, Indeed.com) carried much in the ESL world abroad. Nor did it appear that any other organization had stepped in and gained dominance. This seemed to mean that your potential employer would place an ad on some random job board that s/he considered the obvious place for that sort of thing, and it would be up to you to find it. Or – in many of the job boards listed here – you would have the option of posting your résumé and hoping for responses from suitable employers.

Among the job boards I found, several seemed to come up repeatedly. On the general level of seeking work abroad of any kind, these included a USAJobs search for federal government jobs with an international orientation, MyWorldAbroad (fee), ExPatSeek, and Craigslist. Within the ESL world specifically, there were various atypical or special-purpose sites, such as the TIE Online listings (fee), the TEFL-Tips list of Best TEFL Jobs in the World, and lists of jobs that recruiters (e.g., Footprints) were seeking to fill on behalf of employers.

Finally, as noted above, there were many lists of ESL jobs, typically sortable by country and perhaps by other criteria. Some of these lists were open to all comers; others contained only opportunities offered by specific organizations. As I reviewed the set of sites I had collected, I dimly recalled that some had been recommended by various people, who may or may not have been knowledgeable in such matters. Based on my browsing, for purposes of digging through ESL-specific job boards, I would probably start with lists provided by Dave’s ESL Café, TeachAway, LanguageCorps, WorldTeach, TEFL.com, Reach to Teach, and TESOL.org. Others of note seemed to include ESLjobfeed, ESLemployment, TeacherGig, GoAbroad, i-to-i, and Craigslist. If those were not enough to keep a person busy, there were others (e.g., Teflnet, TeachingHouse, Tesall, Teaching Opportunities Abroad, AsiaTeachingJobs, TesConnect).

Again, these were impressionistic orderings; it could well be that my preferred set of lists would not be the best place to look for a certain kind of ESL applicant or position. It did seem likely, though, that these sites would offer enough possibilities to keep most applicants busy. If I had to focus on just one site for multiple purposes, at present I believed it would probably be Dave’s ESL Cafe.

In most cases, the best time to do all this would be in the autumn. Since I was writing this in the spring, I was not as attuned to programs that, like the college admissions process, began their recruiting seasons as early as August or September. These included Japan’s well-known JET program, the Fulbright scholarships, and those employers that hired on a rolling or first-come-first-served basis. There were probably also options to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in ESL abroad, with a presumed teaching practice component and perhaps a head start on a post-graduation job. Note, too, that countries in the southern hemisphere might use calendars different from those in the U.S.. For example, the school year in Botswana begins in January.

None of this was to completely deny the possibility of just bumming one’s way around the world. I had known a programmer who had done that, back in the 1990s. But it was one thing to have a highly valuable technical skill and to be able to work as a freelancer, and quite another to be a relatively fungible English speaker looking to get locked into a semester- if not year-long teaching obligation. Hence the last-minute panic hiring opportunities mentioned above.

I had heard that a person arriving on a tourist visa in some countries would actually have to leave the country, at least going across the border to the country next door, in order to qualify for a work visa. It seemed that one might need a funding cushion to support the airfare and other gyrations associated with a seat-of-the-pants approach. This would have to be balanced against the likely payoff. I saw many indications that people teaching English in some countries would not typically earn enough money to pay expenses and also to support international travel within the region (e.g., across East Asia). A brief look into costs exposed me to one webpage, which I cannot locate now, in which a number of ESL teachers from the U.S. said they had incurred costs in the vicinity of $7,000 or more to obtain their teaching positions, after taking account of airfares, visa fees, health insurance, TEFL course tuition, and so forth. Apparently it could be very advantageous to go to a country or a type of employer that paid higher and that covered certain expenses (e.g., airfare, lodging).

These, to emphasize, were my impressions from looking through numerous websites and reading assorted materials on the process of becoming an ESL teacher. My concluding impression was that teaching English as a way of seeing the world would be especially appealing to two kinds of American travelers: (1) those who would be making a good living at a reputable, well-paying school, sufficient to afford trips around the region during holidays, and (2) those who had enough flexibility (and, perhaps, enough of a cash cushion) to go with the flow: paying for travel as needed, working long hours if that was what had to happen in some markets, basically just bootstrapping their way along, from one country to the next. It seemed that most ESL teachers abroad would fall between those two extremes: they would get an assignment, go there for the year, perhaps use the bus or other means to travel around their vicinity, and then return home at the end of the year. In light of another one of my posts, discussing how challenging the international teaching gig could be, there was a fair question as to whether this would be the best way to see the world.

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2 Responses to Travel Abroad, Funded by Teaching English

  1. Hi, Nice blog.There is a hurdle among students to get TEFL certificate to study in abroad, so TEFL coaching becomes very popular among students. Teaching English is an good idea if you are going to travel abroad, you will make some money for living in abroad.
    Thanks for this post.

  2. cailinobac says:

    I had a great year teaching English in Belarus 10 years ago. I’d done a 1 month course over 4 weekends costing €500. I didn’t even speak to them over the phone, the important thing was that I had a certificate. I’m sure these days they’d have organised a Skype interview. At that time I found a lot of info on the same pages, interesting that they’re all still around. The thing is though, the money was fine for there, I wasn’t short, but nothing like Southeast Asia. I just didn’t have any interest in going to Asia at that time. Anyway, I only stayed a year, I enjoyed the experience but it was time to move home. My American colleague stayed 5 years until he moved home with his Belarusian wife.

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