Seth Barham Design
Minimal and effective design, inspired by culture.

Spartan Wanderer

Ramblings from the road, gear reviews, design trends, and whatever else happens to be on my mind.

How to Travel: Teaching English

Next in our ongoing quest to find opportunities for long-term travel abroad is a classic, and one that I have several years of experience with myself. Teaching english abroad, or TEFL, ESL, TESOL, or any other number of acronyms, is a great way to get yourself established in a different country. Depending on the school, your hours can be low and the pay can be high. Especially in Asia, it's also a launchpad to explore other nearby countries. If a room full of screaming children doesn't necessarily appeal to you, check out my previous posts on volunteer opportunities abroad and study abroad. We've still got quite a few options to come, so stay tuned!

Inexplicably, I’m doing this now. I say ‘inexplicably’ because I never imagined I would be a teacher in a million years while I was pursuing my degree in Graphic Arts. It was one hell of a left turn for sure, but I can honestly say that it’s grown on me. I worked as a teacher assistant for special needs kids in the US for nearly a year to save money for the next trip abroad (this one), and wow, talk about diving into the field headfirst. I was terrified my first day. But I became passionate about it, genuinely loved the kids, and here I am.

Now seeking 20-somethings that want to travel

But enough about me. If you want to travel perpetually with no end in sight, this is it. I can’t tell you how many people have told me “If you survive one year in China, you can go anywhere.” And really, teaching English is where it’s at right now. Especially in Southeast Asia, demand is incredible for foreign teachers that speak English with a native proficiency. So incredible, in fact, that the requirements for both some schools and entire governments are incredibly lax. They are hiring anyone with a pulse. 

For example, I met a Swedish guy in a bar who worked in Daqing’s new Volvo plant. He wanted to find his 19-year-old son a job teaching English. The problem is: 1) he’s not a native English speaker, 2) he didn’t meet the age requirement, 3) he didn’t have a degree, 4) he had no relevant work experience, and 5) he did not have a TEFL certificate. After relaying all of this information to my boss, she still asked me for his Skype details. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the kid was a great guy and all Swedes have excellent English in my experience. My point is that he met almost none of my school’s or the government’s so-called “requirements”, but my school was thirsty for teachers, so the rules suddenly didn’t exist. But, it's worth mentioning this is changing and the golden age foreigners in China, at least, is ending soon. The work visa process is far more selective than it once was. However, if you're willing to jump through these hoops and have a degree, you still don't necessarily need to have relevant teaching experience. 

Scams, Hoodwinks and Bamboozles 

While the above anecdote demonstrates that it is possible for almost anyone to get a job teaching English, do not expect this to be the norm. If you want a legitimate job that isn’t shitty, you’re going to have to meet some actual requirements. The requirements will always depend on two factors: the school you will be teaching at and the government. The government puts a certain burden on the school to meet their own requirements when hiring foreign teachers. First of all, almost every country’s government will require that they have a license to hire foreign teachers.

Of course, not having this license does not stop them from trying to illegally hire naive and eager foreigners with the right native language and skin pigment. You’ll realize early on that something is up if a school doesn’t want to help you get a work visa right off the bat and instead insists that you enter as a tourist, but we’ll get to all of that complicated visa shit later on. 

You’ll know a good (or bad) school online when you see it. The number one thing to look for is that they will help you get to their country legally. If they don’t say this in the job listing and/or are cryptic about it when asked, run. It’s a trap! 

Some schools would like nothing more than a yes-man for 6-12 months that can be used or abused without any grounds for recourse whatsoever. Oh, we’re not paying you the amount we agreed to in the contract? Sorry. That thing is broken in your apartment? Too bad. You think we’re treating you like shit? Who are you going to complain to, the government? So you can be deported for being here illegally?

Hooking you up

Handling your visa is a given, but a good school will normally offer you a pretty sweet living situation as well. While working in a public school back home in the States, I was making about $1,400/month for working 40 hours a week, no overtime allowed. Here in China – where everything is supposed to be worse in every way imaginable – I bank $2,700/month for 22 hours a week. That leaves a lot of free time for me to do freelance design work, write, and whatever else I want. 

But wait, there’s more! I have a very nice, modern apartment paid for by the school, health insurance, and a nearly $2,000 flight bonus every year. That’s nothing to scoff at. And when you factor in the cost of living in China (pretty damn cheap) you’ll wonder why you didn’t take the plunge sooner. 

Nature of the work

If you like working with kids, or at least think you can learn to like it, you’ll be fine. I’m a pretty stoic, introverted dude and can still summon the energy in my classroom to be a fun teacher. I get most of the energy from the kids anyway. You might not be as happy if you simply hate kids. I feel you; they can be annoying sometimes. But for the most part, they’re cute, actually want to learn, and you will fall into the role of teacher even if you have no experience.

As long as you make a solid lesson plan that educates as well as entertains, you don’t need to worry about much. Oh, the entertaining part. If you have a masters of education and several years of real teaching experience in America, prepare for things to be, well, different. In China at least, it sometimes seems like more importance is placed on the foreign teacher being entertaining rather than his or her ability to educate. You’ll hear your fellow expats throw around the colloquial term “white monkey” in reference to jobs where the Chinese just want a foreign face to add some sort of prestige to their business. Schools are not immune from this. 

Because of this whole deal, you’ll be expected to play a lot of games in your class. I’ve actually got another book on Amazon with some advice on classroom management and 50 fun games to start you off. I try to keep things as educational as possible and blend the games in as a kind of reward for participating in class. If the topic of the class is more difficult or the kids are having trouble grasping something, maybe we won’t play a game. The importance of being “entertaining” also depends on the type of school that you’re working at.

Types of schools

Of course, most of what I’m saying applies to China and China alone because it’s the only country I have experience teaching in. That said, you’re experience will vary depending on what kind of school you’re working at. These are some of the most common gigs readily available in China.

Language Centers – These are the most common, easiest to get teaching jobs in China. Language centers are private schools that usually focus only on English. The kids are generally age 4 to 15 (sometimes even younger) and their parents are paying to send them there for extra English practice in addition to their public schooling. Poor kids, but I don’t blame their parents, as the English teaching that goes on in public schools is abhorrent. The busiest days are Saturday and Sunday because the kids are there on their off time. The range of quality when it comes to language centers is vast. Some are quick cash grabs completely devoid of ethics while others are quite respectable. Because this is not part of a public school’s curriculum, this is the type of place where you will be expected to be more of a clown than an educator. On the other hand, the earning potential is higher and the hours are lower than most of the other schools on this list. 

Pubic Universities – I would say that being a university teacher here is slightly more respectable than working at a language center, but based on my sample size of professors I’ve met in Daqing, white (China can be quite racist) and a pulse still seem to be the major requirements. The pay is not great most of the time, but you have more holidays than a private school. Also, you will have more freedom in developing your own curriculum. This can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on what you’re looking for. Private schools can be annoyingly restrictive with their books and teaching format, but at least it provides scaffolding to build on. Sometimes you are completely responsible for what happens in your university class, which means a lot of planning in your downtime.

Kindergartens – In my opinion, these are the least desirable places to work in China. They’re usually lacking in resources, the staff is completely inept, and the pay is shit for high hours. Unfortunately, my school outsources me to a kindergarten for a few hours each week. Sometimes I feel that I speak more Chinese than English in the kindergartens because the kids are so young and none of the staff speak English at all, so it’s very difficult to check if the kids actually understand the meaning of what I’m teaching unless I, myself, know the Chinese equivalent. In my experience, most of the Chinese kindergarten teachers assume it’s their break when you go in, so prepare to handle 40+ small children with little to no help. Those who love working with the youngest of the young (I’m talking barely able to walk, in some cases) might enjoy it. I don’t. 

International Schools – These jobs are the Holy Grail in China if you want to be a “real teacher”. International schools generally require some actual teaching credentials because, as the name implies, you won’t only be teaching Chinese students. Although the bar is set higher, so is the salary – sometimes as high as $6,000/month in the more developed cities. Of course, you will be working more hours and have more expected of you than just dancing around and playing games. In many cases, you’re teaching a Western curriculum to children of other expats, but getting paid and appreciated more for what is such a thankless job back in the States. 

Getting started

If you think teaching English is for you then here are a few resources to get you on that path. Keep in mind that the possibilities are nearly endless if you have the qualifications; I only focus on China so much because that’s my experience. Demand for teachers is high all over the world, including in some parts of Europe if Asia or South America aren’t really your bag. 

eChinaCities A great website specific to China with job listings, classifieds, and articles reporting the going-ons in the middle kingdom. Once you get a job you can keep a blog and maybe even become a contributor!

Ajarn Pretty similar to eChinaCities, but for Thailand. In addition to the job listings, there are many resources to help you out in the classroom once you’re on the ground.

Dave’s ESL Café This is the granddaddy for all things ESL and TEFL. You can find job listings for just about anywhere, forums, and a ton of game ideas and other resources to help you become the teacher that you want to be. 

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Uprooting | A Beginner's Guide to Extended Travel
If you found these tips helpful, then you might enjoy my new travel guide, written for anyone embarking on their first long-term adventure abroad. You don't need to be the host of a travel show or a trust fund kid to have some incredible experiences abroad. After 5 years of travel through 12 different countries - and living in 4 of them - I've tried to encapsulate everything I've learned into this short guide for anyone who wants to hit the road long-term.