ESL Teaching: The Easy Way to Live Abroad

eraserI need to qualify my title: living abroad is never easy. It’s fun, it’s rewarding, but it sure isn’t easy. However, finding a job as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher is easy if you know what you’re doing and what you’re looking for. It’s also one of the easiest ways to leave your home country and live abroad for a year or five.

Teaching ESL is not a long vacation. It is definitely a job. At the end of the day, my sore feet and frizzled  brain tell me it’s a job. But it’s one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever had.

If you’re looking for freedom to travel to a lot of places and bounce around, save your money and go backpacking for a few months.

Don’t teach. Enjoy your nomadic lifestyle.

At most private schools you won’t get a lot of vacation. I’ve had seven vacation days this year, three of which was because our school closed for some mysterious reason. Of the ten days I was promised in my contract, I’ve been allowed to take four and probably won’t get anymore. Am I getting screwed? Yes, a little bit, but it could be worse.

If you want to live in a foreign country, become familiar with a culture and a place, learn the language, and have enough free time to pursue creative projects, then definitely teach.

What you need

Education and Certification A bachelor’s degree in any subject is the minimum for Korea and other developed/developing nations. For new teachers, schools in countries besides Korea usually require a degree plus some kind of training or certificate. A CELTA is the most popular and reputable certiface for ESL teaching, and many certificate programs offer some kind of job placement.

Once you’ve got a BA + training + a little experience, you can live just about anywhere in the developing world.

However, if you haven’t earned your degree yet, you may still find some work. You’ll face more instability, uncertainty, and lower pay, but if you hustle, pound the pavement, and dress like a teacher, you can probably find something.

The Good Luck to Have Been Born in an English-Speaking Country Employers do discriminate based on your background. Students (and their parents) want someone who has been speaking English all their life. That said, if your English is close enough to that of a native speaker, you might be able to find something, but your search will be harder.

Experience I came here with no experience, but this is Korea, and experience is often, um, undesired. If I had to do it over again, I would have spent some time volunteering as a conversation partner. Many universities have international students who would like help with their English. As a conversation partner for someone whose second language is English, you can not only gain experience, but you can start to get an idea of your aptitude for helping people learn. You can also test your own tolerance and patience.

Paperwork You’ll need a passport, an updated resume, diploma, sealed transcripts, passport-sized photos, and some notarized and apostilled background checks. In the U.S., your state’s Secretary of State office can apostille documents (an apostille is a stamp used to verify documents to be used internationally).

Seed Money The first month or two can be pretty expensive. You’ll need to buy plane tickets, pay rent and maybe a deposit, purchase food, travel to embassies, and bribe officials (this varies by country).

Choosing a Destination

When you’re trying to decide where to live for the next year or longer, you’ve got a million factors to consider.

What are your interests? Is there a particular country or culture you’ve always found fascinating? Maybe you’d like to live in the place your ancestors came from. Are you interested in the language of your target country? A year is a long time to spend in a place you have little interest in.

Consider your health. If you have any conditions that require decent medical care, you’ll need a country with a decent health system. Korea’s is okay, but compared to Cambodia Korea’s hospitals look like the cutting edge of health and science.

How much money do you need? Most jobs will provide at least a modest-to-good local salary, but if you need to send money home to service debts, you’ll probably need to limit your search to the north Asian countries, Russia, Turkey, and the Ukraine.

If all things are equal and you really can’t decide, throw a dart at a map or flip a coin and just go with it.

Matador has a top 10 list of countries for ESL teaching  here.

How to Find Work

Two basic ways to find ESL work: secure a position before you leave, or look for a job when you arrive at your destination. The first is far more stable, but the second will present more opportunities.

If you want to find a job before you leave, you’ll need to either find the employer yourself or work with a recruiter. Plenty of employers advertise on the interwebs (see the resources section at the end). Some people  secure employment directly through an employer, usually a private school, or go through some kind of placement program. With this option, you might face less choice as to your location.

Whatever you do, be sure to do as much research on your target school before you leave. You’ll need to be aware of the types of jobs available in a country or region, as well as the visa requirements for teachers.

Brave souls may be able to find work by simply showing up to a place, putting on a tie or a dress, and hitting the street. I’ve never done this, so I can’t offer any advice other than to have plenty of money saved and to do a lot of research before you leave. The benefit of this approach is that you can see whether or not your housing and school are infested with insects. Here’s an article that may give you some ideas.

Types of Work

Here’s a pretty general list of the different types  of work and what you can expect from each.

Private schools and institutes These places are pretty much the proving grounds for inexperienced teachers. The pay varies from place to place and country to country, but they hire year round. Expect short vacations.

Public schools Public schools may be a bit better than private schools, and since you’re a government employee, you’re more likely to be paid on time. Most will require a little experience and maybe a teaching certificate. A little more vacation and public holidays.

Universities Usually but not always require a masters degree, but it doesn’t necessarily be in language.  Some require a two-year contract. Most schools will have plenty of vacation, though a lot will be unpaid. Like public schools, they have a limited hiring season.

International Schools These are the places where diplomats, international businesspeople, and wealthy people send their kids. The pay tends to be good. Tthe standards are high, usually a masters degree in the subject area to be taught, and hiring is done at hiring fairs held a couple times a year.

Entrepreneurial activities If you’ve got plenty of money and can’t stand the thought of working at a school, you can work as a private tutor. Pay will of course vary by geography and marketing savvy, but if you can hustle, you can probably build up a good network over a few months. You’ll need to be very familiar with your target countries visa requirements.

I’ve also heard of people having good luck giving private lessons on Skype….


I don’t want to turn anyone off to what could be an excellent experience, but you should be aware of the dark underbelly of the ESL world: broken/ignored contracts, isolation, missed paydays, freaky co-teachers, etc. Do as much research on schools before you leave. Contact former teachers and other teachers living in the area. If a school is particularly bad, people have probably heard  stories.

Be aware that in many countries, contracts are more like outlines of job responsibilities rather than strict, legal binding agreements. Relationships, especially in Asian countries, are more important.

One more thing: a recruiter does not work on behalf of your interests. They work for themselves and the schools that pay them to find you. I’m not saying all recruiters lie, but they will stretch the truth if it means the difference between getting their commission or not.

How to Be a Decent Teacher

Let’s face it: you’re not going to become a good teacher in a year. When you start, you’ll be horrible. At nine months, I’m just now hitting my stride, and it ain’t for lack of trying. I’m struggling toward mediocrity. If I teach for a couple more years, I’ll probably become a good teacher. Now, though, I’m the last person you want to listen to for advice, but I’ll share some anyway.

Be Patient and  Listen The students have spent years studying their moves and they need someone to practice on. Your role as an English teacher is partly to be an linguistic punching bag. Talk with them about stuff they care about.  Ask questions in order to elicit responses.

Fake Competence If you don’t know what you’re doing, fake it until you do. Before you know it, you will know what you’re doing and you’ll be surprised to find you’re not faking it anymore.

Don’t Smile Until December You’re not there to be the students’ friends, though that can happen naturally. You’re there to teach them English, damnit, whether they want to learn or not 🙂 But seriously, start out firm or the kids will turn you into a doormat.

Know (or Learn) a Foreign Language No matter what language you learn, certain learning principles apply to all languages. If you understand the challenges of learning one language, you’ll be better equipped to teach your own language.

Understand Grammar and Syntax You don’t need to be a schoolmarm, but you should know the parts of speech (verbs, nouns, adverbs, etc.) The clever teacher will also learn the names of these in the students’ mother tongue.

Learn a Methodology At the very least, familiarize yourself with task-based learning, and the communicative and dogme methods.


ESL Cafe Job Board. Lots of job postings, they’ll give you a sour view of teaching before you even start.

Local English newspaper classified sites. Most countries and major cities have an English-language newspaper or two, and some employers advertise here.

How to Stay Sane While Living Abroad

Here’s an article a friend of mine wrote on preparing for the first day of teaching.

Transitions Abroad has more in-depth country information, though some of their articles are a bit dated.

KoreanStranger is an excellent resource for people new to ESL work.

That’s about it for now. I know this is a long post, but everyone has to start somewhere. If you find this helpful or you have any questions, just let me know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Frozenchipmunk

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jason Teever October 31, 2009, 4:00 am

    Hey, thanks for posting this. I have a friend that’s been living somewhere in China and really loves it.

  • Margaret Polk November 3, 2009, 7:24 am

    Seth, I found this article quite entertaining. Not in the funny sense, but as you explaining your life at this point in time. I am sure many “experienced” teachers, including myself, will chuckle when reading, “Don’t smile until December”! I have given that advice to many “new” teachers during my teaching career. Also, for the young person–or the not so young person–looking to travel and to be employed, I think this article would be informational.

  • Seth November 3, 2009, 7:35 am

    Hey Margaret. Thanks for stopping by. The advice about not smiling till December, I found that worked pretty well. All this teaching advice that’s rattling around in my head, I do wonder how I picked it up. Hmm… 😉

  • Hizzank May 16, 2011, 5:35 am

     “Whatever you do, be sure to do as much research on your target school before you leave. You’ll need to be aware of the types of jobs available in a country or region, as well as the visa requirements for teachers. Before you leave, if this is a legal position,”

    The paragraph ends here, and needs some editing. I know I’m late to the party, but better late then never.

    I’m an English teacher living in China who started right after graduating college and getting a TEFL certificate. When my friends piss and moan about the job market, I always tell them that this option exists. However, I’d say that if you do it for more than 2 years in a row, it’s quite hard to adopt to other jobs and get out of the education industry. What do you think? 

  • Anonymous May 17, 2011, 12:29 am

    I’ve told more than a few underemployed  grads to head to Asia for w o r k . . I think that as long as they  spend that time doing something other than teaching (language learning, personal/skill development, distance
    education, etc) than they’ll be able transition into a new career when they return.