It was the summer of 2013 and I had just graduated from the local university. My job prospects were bleak, a sales position at a paint supply company, a call center job, and an unpaid internship with the local radio station.
I was young and optimistic. Years ahead of me and no certain plan. Ready for something more than my small town could offer. Somewhere in that hazy memory of my college days I remembered a professor that had gotten her start teaching English abroad.
I did some online research and applied to a number of different schools around the world. In the end I got a job offer to work at an English training school in Beijing, China. I applied for a visa and bought a plane ticket. So in late August, when my friends were enjoying their last days at the beach, I was landing in the China’s capital city for the first time.
Since that time a lot has changed. I don’t teach anymore but I do work in education. I don’t regret my decision today, but there have been many times in the past when I doubted it; the types of questions that pop up on cold and lonely nights in a foreign city.
Anyhow, when I look at the decision rationally it’s pretty easy to see that it was right for me at that time in my life. However, I don’t hold any illusions that teaching ESL abroad is the right choice for everyone. The following are some pros and cons you can read and use to reflect if the decision is right for you.
- Good work life balance.
Teaching ESL offers a comfortable work like balance for competent teachers. For most people, it seems that it takes between six months and one year to go from a novice to a halfway competent teacher. Once you understand the basics of your school’s curriculum, methodology, and expectations, then you will have a fairly cushy job.
The most important thing is that your students are showing documented progress and the parents are happy. If you can get these two things correct then your school will love you. Actually, it’s quite possible that just the second criteria will do, depending on the school.
- Integrate with locals.
Teaching ESL provides you an opportunity to make friends with the locals and integrate into their culture. This is great because normally travelers don’t have many opportunities to experience the authentic and contemporary culture of the place they are visiting.
While in Beijing I have met and made friends with many Chinese from both Beijing and other provinces in China. This has given me a much deeper understanding of China. Furthermore, the locals don’t move around as much as your fellow foreign teachers, and therefore some relationships have had the potential to develop into deep friendships as I have stayed put.
- Develop transferable skills
Developing your skills as an ESL professional also develops your transferable skills. Good ESL teachers know how to prepare a class, plan a lesson, develop curriculum, conduct assessments, and coordinate parent teacher meetings. You will also learn how to take care of yourself in a challenging environment and develop cross cultural competency.
- Professional opportunities
Working in a foreign country means you will be privy to many professional opportunities that others would not have available to them. Although some people may think that “being a teacher” limits where you can move, I have found this not to be the case.
A lot of ESL teachers use the profession as a way to change their physical location. This is different from teaching in the traditional sense of a career profession. If you are willing to work hard, develop a network, and commit to one location for a longer period of time than you will improve your chances for moving into another profession.
- Valuable Life Experience
Teaching ESL is both a challenge and gift that will provide anyone with a valuable life experience. Think of Bilbo Baggins from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo, the comfortable hobbit, wanted nothing of the adventure that Gandalf was pushing on him. He resisted and resisted, until one day, he became the hero. Many ESL teachers’ growth trajectories mimic this same pattern of resistance and growth.
A lot of people fail. A lot of people give up, break their contract, and move back home. The challenges to living abroad are many. However, the ones that persevere and take ownership over their decisions are the ones that take away the most from the experience.
- 6-12 month integration period
It will take 6-12 months before you feel decently integrated in your host culture. All of the time in the beginning will be focused on learning how to teach ESL, developing relationships, and understanding how to properly navigate your host culture.
When I first moved to China I would sit in my bedroom and write Chinese characters over and over again. Chinese, I would think, is basically impossible to learn and I would do so much better studying something useful like stock analysis or building a business. I should just quit, accept I was wrong, and go back home.
Luckily I didn’t quit. I didn’t want to admit I was wrong. Yes, it was very hopeless for me in the beginning. However, it did get better.
- Cultural differences are hard
ESL teachers that move abroad to teach must deal with cultural differences every day. Every country and group of people has their own set of rules and customs. It can be quite difficult to understand and live under alongside these rules.
Chinese spit and cut in line. They don’t say things straight to your face because they think it’s rude. They yell at waiters to get their food faster. These are all examples of the cultural differences that I have had to understand and adapt to.
- Homesickness and separation from family
ESL teachers that move to foreign countries to teach will most likely miss their family, friends, and native culture. Oftentimes we don’t realize these things until we are abroad, and we literally can’t call someone without the internet or meet someone for a meal. For many people, this is a deal breaker and will hold them back from moving away. You need to do what’s right for you.
- Learning a language requires a lot of time
A big part of cultural integration is learning how to speak your host countries language. However, learning a language, especially for adults, requires a serious commitment of time. There is no way around it. A lot of adults find this too difficult and end up not learning much of the language at all. While this is understandable, it is also stressful when you can’t do basic things like set up your phone or internet without calling in a favor from a friend or coworker.
If you aren’t willing to put in the time, be prepared to ask someone to do stuff for you all the time, or get nothing done on your own.
- Legal Challenges
As mentioned in point 2, teaching abroad means you will be living and working under a new set of rules. More than just cultural differences, ESL teachers will also need to operate within a completely sepereate legal code. Not understanding your host countries legal system is costly and stressful.
(Sidenote- you also need to understand the people’s attitude towards the law in your host culture.)
“But it wasn’t in the contract!” yells the stereotypical ESL teacher asked to speak with a parent last minute, as the training school’s sales rep stares at him with narrow eyes. No, it wasn’t in the contract, she thinks. But neither was that iced Frappuccino I bought you earlier in the morning, and I didn’t hear you complaining then.