There are a lot of misconceptions that people have about teaching ESL overseas. Here are the ten that I come across most often, and why they are all (mostly) bunk.
Teaching ESL abroad Doesn’t Pay Very Well
This might be true if you look at the salary by western standards. But when you are working in a country where the cost of living is a fraction of what you’d be paying back home, teaching ESL becomes much more lucrative. You’ll typically be making double or more of the average local wage, while working less hours than the average local worker, and saving huge chunks of your salary every month.
You Can Just Show Up Anywhere and Get An ESL Job
A few decades ago, this was totally true. Any idiot with a white face and the ability to speak their native language could land in China or Brazil or Malaysia and have a job the next day. Those days are gone and frankly, good riddance. It may sound nice, but the truth is the ESL world at the time was full of shady business practices and outright scams, and seemed designed to take advantage of teachers and students alike.
Now it’s a well-regulated, reputable field requiring at minimum a bachelor’s degree, as well as a TEFL and/or full-time teaching experience. There are still a lot of countries where you can just show up and find a job within a week or two — IF you are qualified.
It’s Not a Career
The stereotype is that all ESL jobs are entry-level positions with little room for advancement. Which is perfectly fitting, because the majority of ESL teachers are looking for entry-level jobs with relatively few responsibilities to fund living abroad for a year or two (I don’t mean that to sound negative or cynical – that’s exactly what I was looking for when I first started teaching ESL).
If you decide that you love it (like I did), and want to stay in this field long term, does it mean an endless string of one or two year stints at various schools? Not at all. You can definitely have an ESL career. You can use your years of experience to move into a cushy and respected job teaching at a university or international school, or take your experiences into other travel related jobs, or start making money from blogging, photography, and travel writing.
ESL Jobs Are Just Blow-Off Jobs to Pay for Your Travel
Unfortunately, some teachers really do think this way and treat their job as such. It’s a huge shame. As a teacher, you have a real responsibility to your students. Their future prospects – getting into a good school, studying abroad, landing their dream job – will depend on their English language ability. As a role model and authority figure (even if they don’t always treat you as such), you are always imparting lessons to them – do you really want that lesson to be: I don’t give a shit?
You also have a real opportunity to learn some amazing life lessons, grow as a person, deepen your understanding of a new culture, and develop a set of skills that will benefit you in anything you do in the future. An ESL job is whatever you make of it, but it’s somewhere you’re going to be spending 30-40 hours of your time every week. If you treat it as just an obligation to fund your adventures, you’re cheating yourself and your students.
Teaching English is Easy
How hard can it be? All you really have to do is go in there and speak your native language. Right? No. Definitely totally and completely wrong. The fact that you have been able to intuitively do something your entire life makes it, if anything, harder to teach, since you never actually had to formally learn it. Teaching takes an incredible amount of creativity, experience, patience, interpersonal skills, management ability, organization, and confidence. Add in the fact that your students speak very little English and it becomes clear that teaching English is a skill that takes time and experience to master.
You Don’t Need a TEFL
Sure, if you want to get paid two weeks late every month, then show up to work one day and find that your school has gone out of business without anyone bothering to tell you, then don’t bother getting a TEFL. You can find a school that will hire you regardless of your qualifications, but just about any reputable school wants teachers who have shown enough of a commitment to teaching to get at least a 120 hour TEFL and some classroom experience. The only exception to needing a TEFL is if you already have a year of two of full-time teaching experience.
You Need Teaching Experience
As mentioned above, a lot of schools will view full time teaching experience as more valuable than a certification, but it’s definitely not necessary for landing a good ESL job. These are entry-level positions, which means they don’t expect you to have a lot of experience. If you get your TEFL from a reputable organization, it will included a practicum with at least 6 hours of teaching experience – this is enough for most schools looking to fill basic, entry-level ESL jobs.
Students in XYZ Country Are Very Well-Behaved and Respectful
Ha! I don’t care what country you are teaching in, kids are kids. Do you honestly think that your 6 year old Chinese students are going to diligently adhere to Confucian standards of respect for their teacher? Nope. They’re going to call you “poopy-face” and throw paper airplanes at you, just like any other self-respecting 6 year old would. This goes right back to the misconception that teaching English is easy. Unless you have a basic understanding of classroom management and some experience working with kids, you’re going to have a very rough few months learning it on the fly.
You Can Only Teach Kids
A lot of what I write about involves teaching kids. The vast majority of ESL job posts out there are for K-6 positions, with plenty of high school and middle school jobs thrown in there. This is because yes, most entry-level ESL jobs involve working with kids. Can you only teach kids? No. Are you probably going to teach kids? Yes. Adult education jobs are in high demand, and can be hard for brand new ESL teachers to get. You can definitely find private tutoring jobs at college level or higher, but the bread and butter of your income, at least for the first couple of years, is very, very likely going to come from teaching kids.
ESL is Just Another Form of Western Imperialism
I mean…maybe. Yeah, this one might sorta be true. But get off your high horse for a second. It ain’t gonna change by people sitting around on their asses getting all pretentious about ESL jobs. It’s gonna change by people gaining a real understanding of the industry, bridging the gaps between their native culture and another culture, learning a foreign language, introducing the value of that culture to their friends and family back home. It’s gonna change by having educated and articulate people who can advocate for their country and culture in the language that the world runs on right now.
Alright, I’m gonna come down from my high horse here, too, and admit that there are things about the ESL industry that reek of imperialism or at the very least explicit discrimination, but that it also provides a very important service for individuals and cultures looking to get ahead in the world as it is. Take it or leave it or jump in there and try to change it, but don’t over-simplify it with no inside understanding.