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It’s something that has crossed the mind of every language lover: what if you quit your day job, packed your bags, and spent a year (or two) teaching English abroad? Indeed, the notion is a romantic one: in addition to satisfying your wanderlust, working abroad allows you to connect with an entirely new culture, and — especially important for the linguists of the bunch — learn a new language. Sounds perfect, right?
Unfortunately, the reality of being a language teacher is not quite so idealistic. Before you put in your two-weeks notice and buy a one-way plane ticket (like I did), it’s a good idea to consider the perks and drawbacks of teaching English abroad. Yes, being an English teacher in a foreign country can be an immensely rewarding experience, but it also comes with its challenges.
Pro: You don’t need advanced linguistics training.
Con: Teaching English is NOT an easy job.
One thing that makes teaching English abroad particularly attractive is that it doesn’t require an advanced degree in Linguistics, or even in English. In fact, many students don’t even require a TEFL certification for native speakers (although I recommend it, especially for novice teachers).
However, don’t be mistaken: teaching English is hard! You’ll be forced to confront challenges that, as a native speaker, you’ve never considered. Indeed, putting yourself in the shoes of a non-native speaker is exceedingly difficult, and requires analytical thinking and creativity. Further, the challenges will be different for speakers of different languages. For example, a Spanish speaker, for whom “b” and “v” represent the same sound, may struggle with pronouncing words like “bat” and “vat”; a Chinese speaker, whose language does not contain articles, may have a harder time understanding the difference between “the” and “a”.
As an English teacher, you’ll have to take concepts like these into consideration when you write your lessons, and plan accordingly. This can be a trying task for those who aren’t genuinely passionate about (or at least interested in) language.
Pro: You’ll genuinely help your students.
Con: Some of your students don’t want to be helped.
There’s nothing better than reviewing your lesson history with your best, most motivated students, and seeing how much progress they’ve made. In these moments, it becomes clear that you’re actually making a positive impact on someone else’s life — and what could be more rewarding than that? Indeed, teaching English is a great job for those who love helping others, as you will be able to watch your students improve right before your eyes.
You might expect at least some motivation from all of your students — after all, they were the ones who decided to take English classes! However, this is not always the case. Especially if you are teaching in schools or businesses, many of your students will be required to take classes, as per their jobs or curricula. For overworked businesspeople, putting in a great deal of mental effort and enthusiasm class may be the last thing on their mind. But as an English teacher, it’s your job to instill enthusiasm in even your most unmotivated students.
Pro: You can build your own schedule.
Con: Your classes will be in a constant state of instability.
Some English teachers and find a full-time job teaching English for a school or language institute. For most others, however, you’ll be juggling classes at several different institutions, as well as teaching your own private lessons. A great thing about this system is that you have the liberty to choose your own hours. Don’t like mornings? Great — don’t take any morning classes.
However, this freedom is a double-edged sword. Students can be flexible with their schedules too, and as such, classes don’t last long (often only a couple months) and cancellations are frequent. Indeed, if you’re a type-A personality who plans each hour of your day several weeks in advance, the instability of teaching English abroad might drive you crazy.
Pro: You’ll connect with people from a new culture.
Con: You won’t necessarily learn their language.
To me, the best part about teaching English is having the opportunity to meet new people from different cultures, with different opinions and life experiences. Of course, navigating cultural norms can be tricky at times — but it’s an exciting and valuable learning experience that will broaden your perspective of the world.
However, one of the greatest misconceptions about teaching English abroad is that, in your daily life, you’ll easily pick up the language of the country where you’re teaching. Though you’ll meet interesting people who speak a different language, you’re their English teacher — your interactions with them will be in English.
Indeed, learning a foreign language while teaching English requires that you be both organized and proactive. Given that you will be speaking English in class, try to limit your use of English outside of class as much as possible — even with other English speakers. Try loading up your iPod with target-language music, and in your spare moments, spend as much time with native speakers as possible.
Pro: You’ll be part of a wonderful, supportive community of English teachers.
Con: This community can quickly turn into bubble.
Wherever your English-teaching travels take you, you’ll inevitably meet other like-minded English teachers, who probably are there for reasons similar to your own. Indeed, you’ll strike up an instant bond with your fellow English teachers, who will help you greatly adjust to life in a new country, and who may end up being lifelong friends.
But as great as the English teaching community is, you certainly run the risk of living in an English teaching bubble. Think about it: if you spend all day teaching English, and spend all your free time with English teachers, suddenly your whole life is either teaching English or interacting with other English speakers . . . and while both activities can be great fun, it’s unlikely that you traveled to a different country just to recreate a replica of your life at home.
Indeed, you’ll have to put yourself out there, and make a conscious effort to connect with those who aren’t involved in the English teaching community. While this may come naturally to those who are naturally outgoing, it can be a serious challenge for the introverts of the bunch.
Pro: You’ll make enough money to sustain yourself.
Con: You won’t live a cushy life.
As English increasingly establishes itself as the global lingua franca, qualified English teachers are in demand everywhere. As such, everyone’s heard about selective institutions in Hong Kong or Tokyo that set up their students with luxurious accommodations and generous compensation.
However, for the vast majority of us, teaching English does not entail living in five-star hotels. English teachers receive decent salaries, which is part of the reason why it’s such a popular job among travelers. But don’t expect to strike it rich: you won’t be earning heaps of cash to burn on luxurious apartments or extravagant vacations.
As you can see, the reality of being an English teacher abroad may not quite match up with the lofty fantasies that we language lovers harbor. Indeed, teaching English abroad can often be challenging, nerve-wracking, or downright frustrating — it’s definitely not for everyone. But if you can live with the instability, unmotivated students, and long travel times, it can be an immensely rewarding experience. Speaking as somebody who’s done it (and, in fact, is still currently doing it), I can’t imagine a more interesting, stimulating, and enjoyable job.
Paul Mains is an English teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free language level tests and other resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.