Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what I do for a living. “How did you start teaching overseas?” “Do you teach at a Chinese school or an American school?” “How do you travel so much?” “What kinds of benefits do you get?”
Then the most important: “How can I do it too?”
Six years ago, when the U.S. economy took a turn and I was left without a job, I decided to throw all caution to the wind and move to Korea to teach English. I had never taught before, I hadn’t traveled much, and admittedly, kids weren’t really my thing. But I thought, Hey, I can do anything for a year.
My year turned into two, then three. Now I’m on my fifth year and third country. I’ve traveled all around the world, made life-long friends, and learned more about myself than I ever thought possible. It was the best decision of my life.
If you’ve thought about teaching abroad, or living overseas (heck, maybe you’ve just seen the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” one too many times), I encourage you to read over the options below and seriously consider packing your bags.
Here’s how to get started:
Option #1: Teaching ESL (English as a Second Language)
Good for: People who want to see the world, are interested in trying out teaching, but lack the experience. Or if you have experience but aren’t sure teaching abroad is for you.
My advice: Head to Korea! All you need to teach in South Korea is a Bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t matter what your degree is in, just as long as you have it. The only other requirement is that you speak English fluently. (The schools usually prefer someone from an English-speaking country, but there are ways around this.)
How to do it: The first step is to head to Dave’s ESL Café. This site has a plethora of information, providing insight from other teachers, as well as job postings and information on anything and everything ESL. This is where I personally got my first teaching gig at a hagwon (Korean language school) in Seoul. Footprints Recruiting is also another great resource for ESL candidates. The company specializes in placing teachers in Korea, but also posts vacancies in China, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai.
My own experience/two cents: While it’s true you can teach English in many non-English speaking countries around the world, I would strongly suggest limiting your search within Asia. The cost of living is usually lower in Asian countries, and the demand for teachers is higher.
I personally chose a job in Korea because of the convenience. True, some schools are better than others, and not all Korean expats have positive experiences, but most do. Plus, schools provide housing, airfare, healthcare, and a salary to allow you to live well and travel often. Just make sure to talk to current or past teachers, research the school, inquire about the living situation, and make sure the salary is above 2.1 million won per month (I would try to get 2.3+ if possible).
I loved my experience in Seoul. The people were friendly, the food was amazing (and cheap), the cost of living is low, it’s very safe, and there are a lot of other expats, making it an easy transition abroad.
Option #2: Teaching at an International School
Good for: People who have already been teaching for 2+ years, have their teaching certificate, and are interested in moving abroad for 2+ years. Maybe you’re a public school teacher and are sick of teaching to the test and not making enough money to pay your bills. Well, there’s a better way!
My advice: Start looking into teaching at international schools. There are hundreds scattered across the globe, and they offer a much better package than language schools. There are also DOD (Department of Defense) schools, but they are dwindling and are very hard to get in to.
How to do it: The first thing to do is to register with a recruiting company. The two major ones are Search Associates and International School Services (ISS). They both have good reputations, but I can personally recommend Search Associates, as they have placed me at two schools and are very thorough and professional.
You will need to pay a fee (around $200 USD), and prepare to attend one of the many international job fairs offered around the world. Once accepted (they require 2+ years of experience, a teaching certificate and professional references), you can peruse their site and sign up for daily emails to stay on top of job vacancies. Think of it like online dating; if you both like what you see via the profiles, you can move on to Skype conversations, and eventually even (gasp!) an in-person meeting. Keep in mind that most schools do their hiring between November and March (very early), but there are always positions that come up last minute–I even got my first position at the end of June!
My own experience/two cents:
Like language schools, international schools can vary widely, as can your experience. A good tool to get recent reviews from past and present employees is InternationalSchoolsReview.com. Know that most contracts are for two years, sometimes three, so make sure you choose wisely. It’s important to think about things like language acquisition, proximity to your home country, work load (how many preps you will have), what housing is provided, how long your commute will be, and what the social scene is like at the school and in the country you are considering.
My first international school experience was in Bogota, Colombia, and it wasn’t easy. I didn’t speak the language, there weren’t many expats at the school or in the city, and there was a long commute and long hours. I was lonely for most of my first year. Then I learned enough Spanish to make local friends, learned to sleep on the bus, and learned to love the crazy city for what it was.
Shanghai has been a much easier transition for me. The school did an excellent job moving me here, getting me settled into an apartment, and providing an inviting orientation to the school and to the city. Not to mention, there are more than a million expats living in this city, so there’s always someone to speak English to. I haven’t been lonely once.
International teaching isn’t always easy. There will be moments of homesickness, frustration and miscommunication. You’ll struggle to complete the simplest tasks, and will spend a lot of time understanding your new culture. But you will also experience the joy of spending vacations on tropical islands with coworkers, you’ll learn new languages (or at least a few words), and you’ll get to know a different culture–all the while getting to know yourself.
What are you waiting for?