You’ve thought about it long and hard: Wouldn’t it be great to get paid to travel abroad?
The idea of spending yet another day in the same thankless job where you are overworked, unappreciated, and definitely underpaid is enough to make you want to scream yourself into oblivion.
Why not just go and teach English in a foreign country?
Leave your home country for a while and see the world, especially given the current global circumstances that have kept you in the house for a while. Plus, English teaching sounds easy enough, right? After all, you speak English fluently! How hard can it be?
Luckily for you, I’ve been teaching English in three different countries since 2007, and that means you’ve got fifteen years of experience condensed into this article. Yep. You read that right. Fifteen! Hopefully, I can help answer the question of whether or not English teaching is right for you… or if you are right for English teaching.
Hey now, stay with me! Don’t give me that look, and don’t click the back button!
Everyone thinks they’ve got what it takes until they arrive, only to wonder what the heck they’ve gotten themselves into.
So, just sit back and give you an inside look into the glamourous industry of ESL (English as a Second Language).
A quick note about terminology
I’ll throw around a lot of acronyms. Many of them mean the same thing. Here is a summary of general terms:
- ESL – English as a Second Language
- TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language
- EFL – English as a Foreign Language
- CELTA – Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, Cambridge English
How the heck I got here (and how you might too)
I started my (accidental, I assure you) career in ESL back in 2007 in Shanghai, China. An extremely dramatic romance ended, and I was bewildered and stuck needing to make a living. Juicy, right?
Anyway, it was easy back then to find job opportunities and land a decent gig teaching as an ESL teacher. I didn’t even have my undergrad degree back then, and I was in China where if you look white (and I’m extremely white-passing), you got the job.
But here’s the truth: I was a terrible teacher.
One of the first things I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’re scrolling through ads on EslCafe.com and others is a lot of places asking for native English speakers. After being in this industry for fifteen years, I feel like I could spend all day shouting, “Being a native speaker alone is not enough” until I died.
My experiences in China, all five years of them, did NOT hold up when I arrived in Poland, where I was actually asked questions like “how do I use zero conditional in this context,” and I had no freaking clue how to answer. It’s honestly embarrassing in hindsight.
I would like to say that in 2022, the situation for ESL overseas has improved to the point where we don’t have native English speakers who answer, “Uhhhhhhhhhhhh, that’s just the way it is,” when being asked a question, but we do. (By the way: it’s not. It actually isn’t, 99% of the time. Please don’t do that to your students.)
If this is the kind of teacher you’re going to be? Please reconsider. I should have myself. I was too busy thinking about the money and not enough about the quality of education I was providing students, who were trusting me to provide a service.
Doing CELTA forced me to really become professional, and it’s why I will definitely insist that if you want to do this, please consider getting a certification like CELTA ahead of time. Now obviously, I can’t stop you if you decide not to, and I especially understand that grammar is probably an extremely boring study for you. But hopefully, this will make you think twice about at least brushing up on grammar before lessons if you decide to head overseas.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about each country I’ve taught in and the process of being hired for each, ranging in which is the least to most demanding skill-wise, at least in my experience.
Getting a Teaching Position in Japan
I’m currently based in Japan, teaching English and learning kimono. In particular, it is very lax here. Companies like NOVA or GABA will hire you without job experience and without any TEFL certification whatsoever. In my opinion, that’s why a great deal of private teaching center (eikaiwa) “teachers” are so poor at it.
But these big companies know this.
These big companies know that you’re probably just using them to come to Japan anyway and that if you can’t handle it -and their terrible work conditions- there’s always somebody else who wants to come to Japan very, very badly. That means you’re expendable, sorry not sorry.
However, once you are in Japan and a Certificate of Eligibility has been issued to you via Gaba, NOVA, etc, and you have your residence permit, you are not bound to that company. You CAN find another job and many ESL teacher jobs in Japan want you to have that residence permit first, which is why it’s difficult to find better paying, hopefully, less awful companies to work for.
Since the hardest part in teaching English here is getting a job that will sponsor your Certificate of Eligibility so you can even enter the country, many people end up ditching their first companies and getting a job at other eikaiwa or other jobs that have better working conditions and pay better.
But if I’m to be honest?
Eikaiwa work is some of the worst. Most eikaiwa pay around $12-15 USD/hour (places that pay more do exist, but they’re hard to find). However, universities pay between $40-60 USD/lesson, which is usually around 90 minutes.
Most eikaiwa like to push packages on clients, so you buy X amount of points towards lessons. This is a disaster for a teacher’s income if the students don’t ever show up. People often buy packages and treat English learning like a very casual, often forgotten hobby. Then, suddenly, when their package is about to expire, they come in, so they don’t lose their money. I’ve seen people show up and take six lessons on a single Saturday afternoon just because they would lose their package and then disappear, never to learn English ever again.
Cancellations were also an issue at eikaiwa as well regarding consistent income. In Japan, if a student cancels a lesson last minute, you don’t usually get paid the full amount. They don’t want to “push” the clients and make them uncomfortable or feel pressured, so the teacher takes the financial hit.
You may be asked to do a “task”, a.k.a. admin busywork, and get maybe half pay. Sometimes there are no tasks and you get nothing. You have possibly traveled all the way there for nothing, which is extra painful if it’s an eikaiwa that doesn’t reimburse your transportation (and they should. Fight for that, please!).
Outside eikaiwa: Becoming an EFL teacher at a university, public school, or ALT
I have a master’s degree and CELTA, so I was able to get a university job. I am paid MUCH more than at an eikaiwa, but again this is because I have the certifications and skill sets necessary to be qualified for the teaching job.
The downside to university? Most university jobs are not direct-hire job opportunities, which means you’re at the mercy of a dispatch company that acts as a go-between third-party, and you are extremely expendable.
Contracts tend to be signed for a six-month period, and you have a whopping four months out of the year that typically you are not paid while school is out of session. That’s a large part of the year where you’re not making income, and you often have to search for camps or other work to survive.
Another common job in Japan is ALT work or Assistant Language Teaching. This is usually for native English speakers who assist a local Japanese teacher in public schools.
Perhaps you’ve heard of teach abroad programs like the JET program, which is affiliated with the Japanese government and popular among Japanese language learners. JET does not cover every single public school in Japan, however, so there are plenty of dispatch companies such as Interac.
I also feel it necessary to mention that ALT work is typically very boring. You aren’t the main teacher. The primary teachers themselves may or may not have good English. They also tend to be very pushy about teaching, According to The Textbook and Only the Textbook (and the textbook may be awful.)
Some people have had great experiences and freedom as ALTs but honestly, it really depends on the school, and who you are working with, so please keep that in mind. You probably won’t know until you get there.
Again, if you’re working for a public school or a university, you’re probably getting hired by a third-party dispatch company, which can’t always guarantee cushy things like getting paid during the months the students aren’t in session.
If there are fewer days, the students are in school that month, like university, you are getting less pay that month. I’m extremely broke between February and March most of the time. You won’t see the first month’s paycheck until the next month usually, so if you start on April 1st, you may not get your first paycheck until May 15th or even later. Be careful!
Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get consistent pay with an eikaiwa either.
What teaching experience do you prefer? Teaching adults vs. children
When teaching adults, your income is entirely reliant on whether or not the adults decide to come to class here. Children? Very guaranteed income in comparison.
Parents aren’t going to miss out on an opportunity to get their kids ahead (a.k.a. get them out of the house and out of mom and dad’s hair), so those children are going to be there, curse it all!
There are all kinds of kids teaching classes, from standard eikaiwa focusing on language to Fitness English Exercise. Woohoo.
If you are an introvert pretending to be an extrovert for a paycheck and you’re not passionate about children, teaching kids is exhausting. You have to constantly play games and keep them entertained- it’s really more about entertaining them in English than actually truly learning the language.
More sidenotes on being an EFL teacher in Japan
One very nice thing about Japan is that they do hire NNES (Non-Native English Speakers) at certain companies. BUT there is a bias against them, mainly among the students.
My husband was an excellent teacher with fluent English who could explain grammar better than a native, but because he’s Polish, he doesn’t get as many students, despite having very high student ratings. Most of them are looking for teachers from the UK, US, etc, and if students can pick their teachers, he may not have gotten picked just because he’s not a native speaker.
Now, let’s discuss support.
How much is your company willing to help you when you move?
If you’re unmarried, sometimes your job will provide housing for you. This is good because finding housing as a foreigner can be a pain. Many places only rent to Japanese citizens.
However, if you are married, you are on your own. The major eikaiwa that brought me in said I couldn’t live in the Leopalace apartments with my husband. This varies, as I’ve heard of couples living in Leopalaces, but that company refused to do that, so definitely ask in the interview ahead of time.
As for visas, your visa status restricts your job.
Like most teachers, mine is in humanities, so I pretty much can ONLY do teaching jobs. I can’t switch fields to something unrelated, and I would have to change visas if I did.
Unlike China, however, at least I’m not beholden to that company, and I’m not obligated to get a brand new visa if I quit.
Teaching English abroad, this time in China
The Chinese version of eikaiwa pays MUCH better than Japan.
In fact, overall, when it comes to salary, China is definitely one of the best places to work overseas for ESL, regardless of the type of school.
Unlike Japan, where I make more teaching university than at a private teaching center, I made less money teaching at a university, earning 150 RMB an hour ($20 USD) at my uni job. However, I did private tutoring on the side that paid me for every lesson via WeChat at a rate of 300 RMB ($45 USD), and I would often use my tutoring money to have fun and pay off a lot of debt from the United States with my regular job.
On average, adult students in China are less flakey about lessons and are more likely to commit when you teach adults at a training center. They’re also MUCH better about cancellations in China than in Japan. This means that if students cancel with less than 12 hours remaining before the lesson in China.
In my experience, I was always paid for the lesson if it was through a school. Private students, I had to explain this policy ahead of time, and they were fine with it.
But China takes ESL a bit more seriously and demands TEFL certification to even get the job, unlike most jobs in Japan. You CANNOT get a work visa for teaching English in China without TEFL certification if you do not have a degree in education already. If you have a degree in education, especially a master’s degree in education or EFL, you will not need a TEFL certification to get a work visa.
A quick word on English teaching job scams
I must stress caution here:
There are people who teach English on business visas or tourist visas in order to go around the strict visa rules. But you do this at your own risk. I’ve seen people intentionally lie to teachers and tell them they can work on a business visa, only for the teacher to get arrested.
Yes, you read that correctly. Arrested.
If spending time in a Chinese jail is on your personal bucket list, then go for it, knock yourself out.
But if you’re on the fence and a company promises to protect you, while offering a lot of money for work in smaller Tier 2 or Tier 3 cities? I am here to burst your bubble. Sometimes these companies will turn in people working on the wrong visa for rewards from local police.
Yes, they will turn you in for cash, happily, after “hiring” you.
So please be careful, and don’t trust companies who can’t give you a proper work (“Z”) visa. Anything other than a Z visa isn’t worth it.
The ESL teaching position is reserved for a (white) native speaker
Another issue is that you must be a native speaker of English to get a work visa for ESL, to begin with. China only recognizes citizens from the following counties as native English speakers: USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.
Even worse, it would be remiss of me not to mention that a LOT of Chinese companies are anti-Black and they will sometimes “forget” to list South Africa. The excuses I’ve heard over the years for defending hiring only white people or BIPOC with paler skin range from “the children will be scared of such dark skin” (they literally never are) or something horribly racist that isn’t even worth repeating.
Chinese ESL companies almost always ask for a video or photo with your CV. They claim the video is to see if you have “good energy” for kids or what have you. But in reality, it’s to make sure you appeal to whatever the customers want, a.k.a. as white as possible.
Now, this is changing a bit, especially as the NBA has become extremely popular in China, but this is a slow change and don’t expect the industry to change overnight. If you’re from the USA and you’re Black, you will definitely have a higher chance than someone Black from South Africa – just on the basis of prejudice. Don’t be surprised if you get asked about basketball all the time either. (I am so sorry.)
This law requiring you to come from a “native English-speaking country” was enacted in 2017. It breaks my heart because I have former colleagues from countries like Nigeria who had ALL of their formal education in English and were EXCELLENT teachers who suddenly lost the ability to renew their work visas. Nigeria is not on the list of “native English speaking.” I hope this will change sometime in the future as, again, native does not necessarily mean better at teaching a language.
ESL in Central Europe: More support, uncertain pay
To teach in Poland, you need a university degree, and most places prefer having TEFL. I have CELTA, which was expensive, but it’s the most universally known certification and helps guarantee teaching jobs better regardless of the country you choose to teach English at.
I touched on this in the beginning, but Poland is a place where you cannot genuinely teach English; if you don’t know how to explain grammar; if you are unable to provide a genuine education for your students? You will not make it.
Most “English teachers” I know in Japan and China wouldn’t make it in Poland, and teaching English as a second language in Europe, for the most part, will make sure you are very aware of how much you do not know about your own language.
The NNES English teachers at these schools are incredibly proficient in English as well, and if you don’t have a degree or professional training in English, they probably know how English works better than you. No, I’m not kidding. I always tell people that I became a Real English Teacher in Poland, and I mean it.
English language teaching in Poland isn’t profitable
However. While teaching in Poland was the best thing for my career as an ESL teacher, it was awful financially. When I moved to Poland, I was thinking I would work summer camps as I did in China (which pay very big money for your suffering), but summer work was nonexistent.
Everyone took summers off to travel, and students who started lessons at the beginning of summer usually ended up changing their minds to go have fun with their time instead.
There are always holidays every single month for WWII or something religious, which means that Polish people who can afford English lessons with native English speakers will also be the ones who just jet off to Turkey for the weekend or go skiing in Italy. That means you don’t work as much as you could or probably need to. Only in October did I get a full month’s salary. The rest of the time I was struggling.
I think teaching in Poland is only feasible if you have income from other non-Polish sources, such as teaching English online to Chinese students in the afternoon, then teaching Polish students in the evening. But that’s only if you have a good internet connection, which I didn’t.
If you’re able to make that workout and you wish to be challenged on your skills in teaching English, I do recommend Poland for that. There is also the added benefit of being able to travel throughout Europe rather inexpensively if you can find online work from other countries to supplement your income while living in Poland.
A few more details about working a teaching job in Poland
When it comes to cancellations, the companies I worked for in Poland were the best. Students were expected to give at least a 24-hour notice, and then the teacher was paid if it was less than 24 hours.
Most students didn’t mind that because they understood this was their teacher’s livelihood, even if things like getting sick weren’t their fault. Sometimes a lesson was rescheduled for the same week, but the teacher was still paid. Students signed up to attend lessons for a certain semester instead of the points system in Japan, which made scheduling lessons easier.
Finally, I was never reimbursed for transportation in Poland. Ever. If you were, I am extremely happy for you, but I never was, and it gets expensive and adds up quickly when you’re being sent to various students’ homes repeatedly.
Is teaching English abroad still right for you?
Those are three experiences of an EFL teacher in East Asia and Eastern Europe. And there are similar trends across the board. Generally, English language teaching in a foreign country is difficult, not just because of the job but because of the environment.
All three jobs can be financially precarious. You are dependent on your work for your visa. Even if you have more wiggle room with a Certificate of Eligibility in Japan, you still need to find consistent work or find a way to get home. In many countries, you have little control over your scheduling, and you can end up overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated.
My advice? Working a TEFL job can be worth it if you have an exit plan. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a loop of bad ESL jobs.
That said, working with students can be rewarding. I’ve met so many amazing people and made so many great memories.
But before you make the leap – make sure that this is the path you want to take. It’s not an endless vacation. There is a lot of work. But if it’s right for you, it can be satisfying.