Where People Go to Teach Overseas

If there is any lesson I’ve learned in my 4 years of teaching overseas, it’s that nothing compares to first hand advice. I can only speak for my experiences in China, Vietnam, and South Korea, but that hardly covers the multitude of options available to people or the variety of different jobs and cultures in which to immerse oneself. So, for my final installment on teaching overseas, I’d really like to share real opinions of people from different countries around the world about your options in various countries.

What People Say About Japan

Having grown up in places around the US and graduated with an English degree, Casey, 29, and his wife enrolled in the JET program in Japan (a government-funded position within the public school system) in 2006 and lived in the Sendai region north of Tokyo for two years. Of his experience, he says: “By and large, the students where I taught were polite and respectful and eager to learn. I had several students who would regularly seek me out at my desk to ask questions or just chat [and] I still keep in touch with four or five of them who are all off at college now.”

While Casey found many ways to relate to his students through activities such as the school’s English Club and the unofficial Film Club, he also had many challenges. “My students were sometimes polite and respectful to an almost mind-numbing degree, staring blankly back at me with a complete lack of emotion. It was disconcerting at first; I felt like I wasn’t properly engaging them. I also had a hard time knowing just what was expected of me from my fellow teachers. There was really no rubric for the lesson plans, and I was pretty much left to come up with material on my own, with little feedback on whether it was good or not. This definitely differs from the experience of some of my friends who taught at junior high schools, however, where they were basically used as “human tape recorders” for conversational English classes and had little input into lesson-planning besides coming up with a warm-up game to play at the beginning of class.”

If you want to apply to the JET program or teach elsewhere in Japan, Casey advises that you consider a few important factors first. “Pay and location are obviously the big ones, but you may not have too much control over either of those. Going into JET, we knew approximately how much we’d be getting paid, but we had no idea where we would be placed. We landed in urban Sendai, but we could’ve easily been put in some remote inaka rice field at the end of the train line. Not that that would’ve necessarily been a bad thing. It’s all what you make of it, and I think that’s the most important thing–to be open to all the possibilities.”

These days, Casey is a photographer and freelance film critic in Seattle. Would he go back? Casey says, “Teaching was more or less a means to an end for me, with that end being living in Japan. But if I had the opportunity to move back to Japan, I’d definitely be game for it.”

What People Say About South Korea

Heather, 35,  an experienced teacher from the USA , currently teaches in the English department at one of Korea’s leading universities. Of Korea, she says, “I love it, but it’s not for everyone! Winter is cold, and Koreans can be blunt and critical, but in general I find them to be helpful and polite. [Seoul] has everything! It’s a huge, cosmopolitan city with great food, great art, great sports, and great shopping, and I’ve got access to great hiking and running.”

As for finding a job, she says you “should consider whether or not [you are] flexible and willing to roll with the punches. Wherever you go, things will not work the way you expect them to, but that’s part of the whole experience. It’s important to check out the legitimacy of any potential employers and [EFL/ESL certificates] are not necessary, but it helps in making it past the first cut. Also, if it’s a worthwhile certificate, it will make you a much better teacher!”

While Heather is a seasoned teacher and traveler, Sean, 25, is just starting. He had been interested in teaching abroad since 2008 and decided to take the leap after graduating in 2009 with a business degree.

In his first 6 months of teaching in a private Korean academy (hagwon), he says he learned some important lessons. “Initially I had some very negative experiences when I started teaching. Things were kind of tense and I wasn’t sure if I would make it through the first 3 months of my contract, let alone finish an entire year. At the end of my first quarter I transferred to another branch in another city.”

The outcome? Better management, working environment, less stress, and more fun has changed his mind about staying longer. “I really enjoy my new location, and I’m having the type of experiences I expected to have when I signed up to come to Korea. I don’t know for sure if I’ll renew [my contract], but I definitely feel that I could happily spend another year here!”

What People Say About Turkey

Louise, 29, is from Australia and currently resides in Europe as a teacher in an IB private school. She got her start teaching in Turkey. “While I was studying International Relations, a regular at the cafe I worked in would come in and chat with me about her daughter (a primary teacher) who taught in international schools in Nepal and Mexico. I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, had always thought I’d quite like to try teaching, and decided to give it a go, and I got my first overseas teaching job about a month before my graduation ceremony. For my first job, I was happy to go anywhere at all. I just wanted an adventure and I knew that as a graduate with no real teaching experience, I was lucky to get anything. I leapt at the offer of a job in Turkey. Their main requirement at the time seemed to be that I was able to fill the position as soon as possible!”

Teaching in Turkey was a good experience for Louise. She says, “Turks have a great respect for teachers. I found it refreshing to have my point of view respected, which is often not the case in many places.” Teaching mostly Turkish students, she says they were motivated, hardworking,  friendly, chatty, and “I developed a very close bond with them.”

But many other foreigners have had different experiences: “Friends and students of mine spoke about experiencing racism and anti-Semitism in the forms of not being admitted to night clubs and racial/religious slurs being cast. As you would when travelling anywhere, you just need to remain aware of what’s going on around you and dress and act as is appropriate to the context. I suppose I was fortunate in that I am dark-eyed, dark-haired and not particularly pale, so I didn’t attract attention. [But] it also pays to be aware of social, religious, and cultural customs. Turkish people do not generally show a lot of skin, although again this depends on where you are. [And] it helps to be aware of when the Islamic holidays are and learn about what kind of behavior is expected at these times.”

Like most teachers, Louise says one of the best parts of teaching is travel. “Turkey is an amazingly diverse country – culturally, socially, and topographically. The history of the area is incredibly rich, with extensive ruins from a number of different ancient civilizations. Travel within Turkey is relatively easy, cheap, and it is by far the most fascinating and welcoming country I have traveled in. I traveled extensively throughout the country, with other single female friends and experienced no trouble (beyond a drunken pre-teen trying to kiss me on the street once!).”

What People Say About Qatar

Cynthia, 32, spent two years teaching in Qatar with her husband at a university but is now back in the US after finishing her contract earlier this year. When asked what she loved about teaching in Qatar, she says she loved never having to worry about money. “We had more than enough to live comfortably in the Middle East. Our housing, medical, most of our car payments, and annual flights home were all paid for on top of a good salary. My salary was approxiamtely $4,000 USD a month, for each month of the year – even vacation months. Although we lived on a budget, we did not think twice about eating out at international restaurants like TGI Friday’s or Applebee’s on a weekly basis. We could live well because both of us worked and we sent home about $2,000-$3,000 USD/ month in savings. We also traveled to many places while on a budget.”

But as the months dwindled down, Cynthia found herself accumulating more reasons to go than to stay at the end of her contract. “I hated the heat (150F in the summer–like cabin fever), the sameness of no real seasons and no real geographical variation, and the subtle but annoying lack of personal freedom. As a distance runner who is chemically dependent on running to feel not good but normal, I was borderline depressed because I felt I could not run outside by myself. There was an overwhelming majority of men in Qatar. The figures vary, but the population is something like 75% men in Qatar and most of them are living away from their families for years. This created a situation where dozens of eyes would stare while I did mundane things like grocery shopping or drive through traffic on my way to work while wearing loosely fit long pants and long sleeved shirts. It got old, and after a while I made my husband go with me everywhere to thwart some of the staring. Living in Qatar didn’t offer much for cultural understanding. The communities seemed very closed and I only once interacted with locals outside. It was a very hard place to live. We spent a lot of time pretending we weren’t there by staying inside our apartment, going to friends’ homes, or by planning our next trip abroad.”

What is her advice for aspiring Middle East teachers? “The most important thing to remember about monthly income is that you cannot put a numerical value on the way a place feels. [And when considering your job], you need to compare packages. I got out a spread sheet to compare the positives and negatives the second time I went abroad: salary, vacations, housing, airfare reimbursement, location, co-workers, administration, transportation, etc. I think most people can do anything for a year, so if a position abroad is terrible, it will not be forever.”

What People Say About Finishing Teaching

Katrina, 26, spent nearly two years teaching in Korea and has since returned home to WA. Immediately following her contract, she embarked on nine months of backpacking through Asia, Africa, and Europe. Of her teaching experience, she says, “Teaching in Korea was immensely beneficial financially. I was able to live well on a third of my earnings each month. I saved over $30,000. This allowed me to pay off credit card debt, travel, and save for the expense of relocating.”

Now that she’s back in the US, Katrina works in the admissions department of a university. She says her experience teaching really geared her towards the education field and that her work with students in an international setting helped her get the job. But she cautions returning teachers to be careful about how they market their teaching experience. “I think [potential employers] who have never left the states saw it either as an unthinkable feat or that I have the ability to book a plane ticket. Those who have traveled really valued the experiences and skills that I have acquired through such a unique experience [but] I do believe that you have to be careful how you talk of your experience during interviews. If you are too excited or longing to go back you might be seen as a flight risk, as most of us have [already] been bitten by the travel bug!”

For more information on teaching overseas, see the two previous posts in this series: The Pros and Cons of Teaching Overseas and How to Get a Job as a Teacher Overseas, or leave a comment below and I will attempt to answer your questions.

By 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.

2 replies on “Where People Go to Teach Overseas”

I had friends teaching ESL in Hong Kong – one is still there. Their general assessment was:

cons – general expat outsider-feeling; dealing with other teachers and the cultural differences; and trying to find vegetarian food. One friend also found the school she was in incredibly sexist and had to transfer.

pros – the city itself, opportunity for travel, the pay, and the huuuge amount of free time. They could live comfortably and work 15 hours a week.

Leave a Reply