The Pros and Cons of Teaching Overseas

I get asked a lot about how people can get jobs teaching overseas. Most people find out that I’ve been living and teaching overseas for more than 4 years, that I’ve made good money doing it, that it allows me to travel, take beautiful photos, and generally live a pretty awesome, adventure-filled life, and they want to know how they can do it too. As a result, I probably get about ten emails a year from friends asking me if I could help them get a job and I get asked at least twice as often in person (like one time when I spent 30 minutes in a pharmacy explaining to a young college student what her options are). People are curious.

So here is my advice, the why, the how, and the where of teaching overseas. But before you start, you need to be real with yourself about the pros and cons of teaching overseas.

The Pros: 

First, you will have a fairly secure job and it’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to fire you or lay you off. It’s true that overseas teaching jobs are quite competitive at the moment but if you get a job, you can expect that baby to be yours until you no longer want it. It takes employers a lot of work to get teachers into the country (visa support, sponsorship, apartment hunting, arranging classes, training) and their hope is to keep you as long as possible. As long as you aren’t doing drugs and show up to work on time, you shouldn’t have to ever worry about losing your job (even if you aren’t particularly good at it).

Second, you are going to earn a reliable paycheck that will probably be more than you’ll ever earn as a recent college graduate in America. What can you expect to earn? Here are a few average salaries per month by country: Saudi Arabia: $3,000, Japan: $3,000, Korea: $2,000, Taiwan: $1,500, China: $1,500, Turkey: $1,200, Thailand: $900. These salaries will put you firmly in the upper-middle class in most countries and will allow you quite a few luxuries you may not be able to afford at home like eating out every night of the week, a large two bedroom apartment, designer purses, or the ability to pay your student loans! There have literally been times when I had so much money that I didn’t know what to spend it on and I saved out of excess and not out of purpose. Added bonus: most schools provide you with housing so that’s at least $400-$800 of savings each month!

Third, the opportunity to travel is incredibly rewarding. You’ll learn new languages, experience new cultures, build courage, life-long friendships, develop excellent survival skills (like how to speak with taxi drivers in languages you don’t know), and you’ll see the world. The stories you take home will both entertain and make people cry, and they will most certainly be treasured forever. And if the memories aren’t enough, consider how much more valuable you will be to an employer because of your experience! If you are hardy enough to stick it out in a foreign land, then you’ll probably be able last in a difficult job as well.

The Cons: 

First, it can be very stressful at times to navigate another culture and not get angry or bitter about the things that bother you (remember: you aren’t moving to paradise and often times nothing will work out or go your way–trust me). You will probably find yourself without an adequate support system for the first few months and if you’re not capable of mustering up some patience and indifference, then you’ll quickly find yourself in a downward spiral of hate. Little cultural things like being shoved out of line at the grocery store can really set a person off on a bad day, so you need to be prepared to let things like this slide if you want to make it as an expat. And don’t forget homesickness. You might find yourself feeling very lonely at times so be honest with yourself: if you’re extremely attached to your family, then this isn’t the job for you. Many teachers don’t receive a lot of vacation time and when you do want to take your vacation, you might find it hard to get your employer to agree on dates, so don’t make any promises about when you’ll next be home–it could be a while (I haven’t been home in 4+ years).

Second, you won’t know what your school is really like until you get there and that’s a big gamble. The majority of schools are exactly as they are advertised and your employer will stick to your contract, but there are horror stories (lots of them) about schools that rip people off and abuse their teachers–and you should take heed. If you want to teach in a private academy, you need to keep in mind that this is a business, not a school, and your boss may be equally demanding of teachers and lenient towards outrageous parents. This might mean you end up teaching six days a week when your contract agrees to five, that the apartment might be a real crap-hole and not at all like the one described to you, or you just might find the native staff to be entirely unhelpful and rude. Sometimes these schools can’t be avoided as they are excellent at deceiving foreigners, so be very clear on your contract, the things you are willing to negotiate, and do your research. Don’t wait to research your school until you’ve landed and are ready to start working.

Third, there are often high start-up costs. Most schools will reimburse your airfare with your first paycheck (no one is going to send you a ticket), and they might give you a little start-up cash or signing bonus but other than that, it’ll be at least four weeks until you see your first paycheck. Considering these things, you’ll probably need about $2,000 at least to start teaching, maybe more depending on if you have to pay for hotel rooms when you arrive and what kind of furniture your school provides you with. For some people in desperate need of a job, that kind of money is difficult to come up with–and this is just an estimate. Depending on where you live, you might need more. Food is one of those un-calculated costs that you can never really estimate until you arrive and know what your options are. Just be careful and remember that it’s better to bring too much money than not enough.

There are a million pros and cons to teaching overseas–far more than I can list in one article. Truthfully, teaching overseas is exhilarating because of the simple fact that you don’t know what could happen; the adventure of moving across the world to a job you know nothing about is 50% of why people do it. I’ll never forget being midway across the Pacific on my way to my first full-time teaching position in Korea and realizing that I forgot to write down my new school’s name and my contact’s phone number, which caused me to panic. I panicked even more when no one came to pick me up at the airport until an hour after I arrived! But it worked out–it always does–and I’ve never looked back. From the first day, it’s been an experience every bit worth taking.

Coming up next week: how to get a teaching job.

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Thelma

Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

3 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Teaching Overseas”

  1. Even after reading all the cons, I still wish I’d dragged Peter out of the country to teach English with me. I have a thirst for world travel that my pocketbook cannot accommodate and teaching has always seemed the preferable avenue.

    Alas, now we have a mortgage and Peter has a killer job that we would be fools to leave behind, so we’re stuck in one place for the time being.

    If he ever loses that job, however, my first suggestion will be to book it for Japan or Saudi Arabia. :)

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