How I started Teaching English

I was 23, fresh out of university sporting a degree that seemed more than ever like a glorified letter of recommendation to assure possible employers that I was of average intelligence.  The realization that I had finally entered the “adult world” hit me like I had plunged into the icy pool of water. I had been in freefall over for the past four-and-a-half years.

I was spending over half of all my waking hours mindlessly creating Excel spreadsheets, vouching invoices and wondering if Diane knew she had a mustache…

I had been plummeting towards it my entire life, but had always told myself that there must be something beneath the surface, invisible to those above, that kept people ticking, that justified getting out of bed on Monday morning to trudge into their office where they would repeat last week’s tasks in slightly nuanced ways.

I quickly realized there was nothing waiting for me under the surface and began to question the sanity of everyone around me.  Was the carrot-on-a-stick simply a week-long vacation at the end of the year?

I was spending over half of all my waking hours mindlessly creating Excel spreadsheets, vouching invoices and wondering if Diane knew she had a mustache, and if she did, why the hell didn’t she shave it?  Maybe some people are content to live this way, but I was not.

I was young, restless and I wanted to travel.  I wanted to meet new people, see things I didn’t understand and not know what was going to happen next week.

A series of fortunate events led me to learn about the innumerable opportunities to teach English abroad.

Without a second thought I sold my car, TV, bicycle and everything else of considerable bulk, condensing the remainder of my belongings inside two old suitcases.  I kissed my heartbroken mother goodbye and fled to Vietnam to teach English.

Teaching (Harrison) an English class in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

So now, I will lend you my expertise so you can make an adventure of your own, start a new career, and learn how to teach english overseas.

Requirements of an English (ESL) Teacher

Regardless of which country a person chooses there are a few basic requirements that all share.  You must hold a bachelor’s degree.  

Teaching Certificate

While a teaching or English degree would obviously be preferable, it is not mandatory.  You must also have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate.  This can be obtained so easily it’s a bit scary, and it’s often the case that the only real obstacle to acquire one is the fee, which can be as little as $100 or as much as $2500.  This can be done online or in person at a TEFL center.  Here are a couple important tips for choosing the correct TEFL course for you.

Ignore “guaranteed” job placements.  Nine out of ten times the school will be some shithole in the outskirts of China whose only requirements are to not be Chinese.

Ignore “guaranteed” job placements.

Nine out of ten times the school will be some shithole in the outskirts of China whose only requirements are to not be Chinese.

Purchasing a TEFL or CELTA Course

You get what you pay for.  While everyone would be tempted to choose the cheapest course you can find, you must remember that it may not be high quality.

Beware discounts. Many websites, like Teflen.com, will offer an outrageous discount of anywhere from 50% to 80% off, claiming you only have a few days before the sale ends.  This is just a marketing tactic and blatant lie.  Teflen.com has advertised a 70% off “sale” for the past two-and-a-half years, trying to scare you into enrolling by saying you have a limited time left before the “deal” ends.

A TEFL is for a job; a CELTA is for a career. If you want to make real career out of teaching English you should consider getting a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults).

A CELTA is backed by an accredit university, however, it does require much more time and money to obtain compared to a TEFL certificate. Go overseas has a whole article dedicated to the intricacies of teaching certificates if you are looking for more details.

Image Source: www.gooverseas.com

Choose your location before you choose your TEFL.

Do some research on the different schools and their requirements for your given country.  Some schools, like many in Southeast Asia, are not very strict when it comes to TEFL certificates and treat it more as a formality required by the government than an actual testament to your ability.

It was not until a year later that I finally coughed up the money for a legitimate, albeit cheap, TEFL certificate in order to be considered for a job at one of the more renowned English centers.  Teachers who take their TEFL course in person claim it to be very helpful, especially in the area of classroom management.

While you may find a job without a TEFL, I would not recommend it. It is a short, easy course to complete, and will prove beneficial for not only you, but your students as well.  It’s important to remember that the students you are are teaching pay good money for the classes and deserve a good teacher!

Teach English in Rio De Janeiro

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Image: Agustin Diaz

Choosing a Country

Choosing a single country from the voluminous collection is a daunting task.  Each country is very different and has its own benefits and shortcomings.

South Korea is a very popular choice with its high demand for English teachers and common benefits such as health insurance and a paid 2-4 week vacation, though the students are infamously difficult to deal with and the hours are long.

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. Image Source: Unsplash – Peter Nguyen

Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are all great choices with high pay, low living-costs and generally affable people, but the weather is always scorching hot and the monsoon season can be annoying to say the least.

There was a time where you could make a killing in Japan teaching English, but sadly that time has come to an end.  While there are still many opportunities to teach English there, the pay has dropped and the cost of living will eat up a significant portion of your salary, especially if you have your eyes set on Tokyo.

If you don’t want to travel quite as far as Asia, there are many choices in South America and Europe including Spain, Poland, Brazil, Colombia and Nicaragua.

Finding a Job

When it comes to finding a job, there are many online resources at your disposal.  It can be effective to drive directly to a school with your CV to try to meet someone in person, but I have had much more success using the internet.  Here are some sites to help you in your job search.

English Teaching Jobs in Vietnam

www.vietnamworks.com
www.jobstreet.com

English Teaching Jobs Cambodia

www.everjobs.com

English Teaching Jobs in China

www.teachabroadchina.com
www.eslcafe.com
www.teachaway.com
www.eslteachersboard.com
www.tefl.com

English Teaching Jobs in South Korea

www.eslcafe.com/Garamond
www.gone2korea.com
www.weteachkorea.com

English Teaching Jobs in Thailand

www.ajarn.com
www.teachingthailand.com

English Teaching Jobs in Brazil/Latin America

www.eslcafe.com/Latin America

Reasons to be an English teacher

While it isn’t the most glamorous job, the benefits of being an ESL teacher are numerous.

Salary

For the work you do, the pay is generally quite high, assuming you’ve chosen one of the many countries with high demand.  I am currently teaching English only twenty hours a week and still making enough to save around $400 a month.  When I was working 35-40 hours a week I was saving about $1000

Flexibility

Most schools, especially English centers, are very lenient when it comes to taking time off.  As long as you let them know a month or so in advance, you are golden.  Even better, if you are in Asia, airfare is astoundingly cheap!  I can fly to almost any country in Southeast Asia for $100 round-trip.  In the U.S. I couldn’t fly one-way to the state adjacent to me for that price!

This is a job that can take you almost anywhere in the world.  Tired of life in Nicaragua?  Book a one-way ticket to Myanmar and don’t look back.  Myanmar losing its luster?  Pack your shit and throw it in the back of a bus heading down to Thailand.  Sick of Thai food?  Move on!  This is one of the few jobs where you can pack up and move at a moment’s notice with few repercussions.

Giving Back

While you may not be a couple steps away from being the next Jesus, it feels really good to know the work you are doing is helping someone. Not only that, but you actually get to watch your students progress over time.  In a country like Vietnam, learning English is the key to creating a better life for many people and their families. Not only does it widen the scope of job opportunities, but it significantly increases their potential salary.

Respect

In many countries outside of the USA, teachers are revered.  In Vietnam the word “teacher”, or “thầy” in Vietnamese, is actually a title, much like the way we address doctors. While becoming an English teacher probably won’t make you feel like a superhero, it’s nice to know that people value and respect what you do.

Personal Growth

I know what you’re thinking – you get down towards the end of the list and read “personal growth” and think to yourself, “Wow, this guy is really starting to grasp at straws…”, but it’s true!  Think about it. Moving on your own to a foreign country on the opposite side of the Earth is a great opportunity for self-discovery and growth.

It will test your resolve and character, and you will learn much about yourself and your role in the world itself.  To quote Roman Payne, “Wandering is the activity of the child, the passion of the genius; it is the discovery of the self, the discovery of the outside world, and the learning of how the self is both “at one with” and “separate from” the outside world. These discoveries are as fundamental to the soul as “learning to survive” is fundamental to the body. These discoveries are essential to realizing what it means to be human. To wander is to be alive.”

Tips for your journey

Children as Clientele

Unless you land a job at a university, you will mostly be working with people under the age of 18. In Vietnam and many other countries that we sometimes refer to as “third world countries”, over half of the population is under the age of 30.

Most adults have already started a career path of some kind and don’t want to spend their time or money learning a language that will be of little or no aid to their career at this point in their lives.  For these reasons, children are the most abundant form of client in many countries.

Teaching English in Thailand. Image: National Geographic

Strange Schedules

If you are teaching at a public school or university this will not be the case, but if you are teaching at a language center the classes will be scheduled for nights and weekends, because during the weekdays people must either go to school or work.

Beware of Expat-focused Housing

Housing that is marketed specifically towards expats almost always has an extorted price, because they know that you are inhibited from dealing with locals by the language-barrier.  Not only that, but your housemates will be constantly changing every few months, as many of the expat-housing company’s customers are college students studying abroad or doing an internship.

The rooms nearly never have separate electricity meters, meaning the electric bill is split evenly, and there is usually one scumbag who likes to leave their air conditioning on all day so their room is cool when they get home, screwing everyone for the sake of their own comfort.

So if you have a friend or someone that can help you find housing, take advantage of it!  It will save you quite a bit of money and hassle

Most foreigners here share the attitude that it’s a waste of their time and energy, and confine their movements to….places where people speak English.  As a result, they are only getting a fraction of what the country has to offer them.

Learn the Language!

I cannot begin to tell you how empowering it is to speak the local language in a country where very few people speak English.  Not only that, but it is fun as well!

In school I hated learning Spanish because I never had any opportunities where it could prove useful, but here I can learn something and use it the very same day!  Most foreigners here share the attitude that it’s a waste of their time and energy, and confine their movements to places that are designed for foreigners and people that they know speak English.  As a result, they are only getting a fraction of what the country has to offer them.

Not only that, but the people here love seeing a foreigner speak their language, even if you are butchering it like a sick pig.

Research Transportation

It’s important to know how you are going to get around before you move to your new country.  In most countries you will probably end up riding some kind of scooter or motorcycle, but do you need a motorcycle license?  Will an American license suffice in your chosen country?

Xe Om

Find Temporary Housing

I would argue that it is better to wait until you are in the country to find housing, maybe even until you find a job.  Make sure that you like the area and it has good proximity to your place of work and any other places you think you will be frequenting.  In the meantime you can stay at a hostel or hotel.  Most will give you a deal if you book a room for an entire month, so don’t hesitate to negotiate the price.  It would be wise to book this before you get there.

Conclusion

If I had a general piece of advice for anyone, it would be not to settle. We don’t live long enough to waste our waking-hours slogging through an endless procession of papers and numbers that mean nothing to us. Don’t do it because it’s what your parents did. Don’t fool yourself into thinking your paycheck is a reflection of your personal success. If you are not happy with your work you are failing to seek your true ambitions and realize your true potential.

Author Harrison Kelley

Harrison Kelley is the modern day Ernest Hemmingway. Except instead of spending his time in communist Cuba he’s in communist Vietnam. He is an English teacher by day, and a writer/photographer by night.

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