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English as a foreign language teaching - a year or a career?

Updated on July 8, 2009

Teaching English as a foreign or second language is an attractive option for many people. For fresh graduates, opportunities to work overseas are rare, so teaching is often a default option those eager to see more of the world. The barriers to entry are quite low; to work in Europe a CELTA or similar qualification may be necessary in addition to your degree, but in East Asia an undergraduate degree and a positive attitude are often all you need. For more information about the one month CELTA course, see the Cambridge ESOL site. In my experience, most people drift into teaching English after witling down their options, but it can become a rewarding occupation nonetheless.

So is it best viewed as a “year out” or a viable career? It depends on a lot of factors, not least your own personality, but here are some thoughts on the subject that may help those who are currently considering their options. My experience has been in Japan, but I’ve collected some opinions from other teachers who’ve worked elsewhere in order to write this hub.

Teaching English for a Year or Two

Saving some money

In Japan, most teachers stay for an average of two years before returning to the “real world.” A large minority plan to stay for one contract year and do exactly that. For recent graduates, the typical salary in Japan, Korea and Taiwan will allow you to save, travel a bit and live comfortably for a year or so. The wages in these countries compare quite well with the options typically faced by most recent graduates back home, especially during this time of recession. The typical salary for an English teacher in Japan, for example, is 250,000 yen per month. Avoid any companies that pay less than this. In Europe, the salary does not compare so favorably once you take into account the cost of living. In China, your salary will grant you a luxurious lifestyle in relation to the local people, but you will not able to save as much when it’s time to convert it back to your home currency.

Gaining Work Experience

Teaching for one year will also help you to gain some valuable work experience. If you are considering becoming a teacher of any subject in your home country, a year’s experience will look great on your university application. It will also help you to clarify whether teaching really is “your thing.” Plenty of people start teaching English purely for the chance to travel or save, but soon fall in love with education. Others aim to teach English for a year, with a plan to then take up a “proper teaching” career back home. However, once exposed to the realities of the trade they quickly decide that teaching isn’t for them after all. While working my way through graduate CVs in my previous job, we used to laugh (quite unforgivably) at those that mentioned the personal growth that the applicant had experienced through traveling internationally. To an employer, “I like going on vacations” is not particularly interesting or relevant, no matter how it’s dressed up. If you can see the world and work internationally, this will look infinitely better.

Building Confidence

If you lack confidence when speaking with strangers, then teaching English is the surest way to banish this demon. After a year spent overseas meeting new people every day, you will scarcely remember that horrible feeling of your mouth drying up before a job interview, or how stomach-churning it can be to have to give a speech. You will learn to enter a room with confidence and how to bide your time when fielding difficult questions. If you have the motivation to improve these aspects of yourself, then teaching English will give you ample opportunities.

English as a foreign language teaching as a career

After a year or two in the job, frustrations often begin to creep in. For some, the honeymoon period can be considerably shorter. If you are a gregarious, sympathetic and patient person, you’re unlikely to tire of your classes and students unless you have specific issues, like behavioral problems in kids’ classes. However, if you are working in a commercial school, certain gripes are very likely to develop. You might become frustrated at how commercial priorities often override educational principles. The level of professionalism among your fellow teachers might begin to irritate or – worse – rub off on you. This is a particular problem in English teaching due to the high turnover of teaching staff, the lack of training in some institutions and the “low barriers to entry” mentioned earlier. Incentives and bonus structures are often either perverse or non-existent in the larger conversation schools. There are also schools you should avoid at all costs so check out he TEFL blacklist to ensure you can't see your prospective employer. Furthermore, you are likely to be working in the evenings which may cause problems if you have a family, and finding regular 9-5 employment in teaching English can be tough. To get an idea of the teaching jobs out there, see the website.

Promotion Opportunities for English Teachers

Decent promotion opportunities in English conversation schools are relatively rare. Many schools across the world employ native English speakers to teach, and local staff to do everything else – even curriculum design. This can make it hard to further your career once you start to feel you are stagnating. Promotions, when they do arise, are often accompanied by either literally or virtually no pay rise. There are exceptions, of course, depending on the company and country in which you are working. However, the attractive salary with which you started off will look less so after a few years of practically zero growth. Furthermore, if you teach in Japan, you will be liable after one financial year for raised health insurance and pension premiums plus residence tax. Your reward for one year’s service will be a hefty pay cut in real terms!

Getting the best jobs

There are a great deal of English teachers across the world with pretty much the same amount and level of experience, so moving onwards and upwards can be difficult. Spending a few years teaching in a conversation school will help you to get a similar job elsewhere, but in all likelihood won’t be enough to help you get you something better. Therefore, at some stage in their career, most English teachers are faced with the choice of either (A) completing a Masters degree in TESOL/Applied Linguistics and teaching in a university or (B) starting their own conversation school. There are various online options so you would not necessarily need to leave your adopted country. There are a few other well-paying opportunities, for example teaching business English in Germany or the Middle East, for the highly qualified. If either of these first two options sounds promising, be sure to get as much firsthand advice as possible from people who’ve done it in your desired location. If you’re in Japan , note that Japanese universities and their students are vastly different to their western counterparts, so be aware of what you’re in for. Also, founding your own school will be far easier in some places than others. The rewards may be considerable, both personally and financially, but of course so are the risks. Be sure you don’t turn into the boss that you spent your early career cursing…


Teaching English as a foreign language for a year or two is a great way to save, travel and build up some experience for your CV. It’s a relatively easy job to do quite well and an impossible one to perfect, but if you are professional, outgoing and open-minded then there is no reason why a short spell of teaching overseas shouldn’t suit you well. To make English teaching a career requires dedication and hard work. It is not a career for making big bucks but there are chances to earn good money if you can get fully qualified and establish yourself as one of the very best.

So this is my view. If you have any experience of English teaching anywhere in the world and would like to share your advice, please leave a comment below. Thanks!


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    • profile image

      Anon 6 years ago

      Oxford Tefl Prague

      Avoid investing your hard earned money in a Tefl course ith this outfit:

      *Does not follow all Trinitycert tesol requirements - requires TP on minimum 6 students - you may as I did get only 1 student and still be graded on it.

      *Accomodations misrepresented - course requires internet connection to complete assignments - WIFI did not work for one week inspite of multiple student requests to fix it.

      *Instructor sarcastic and belittling if you ask one of them to explain something.

      *Another instructor informs class that she does not like clutter of bookbags/purses in HER classroom so no personal items allowed and if they don't like it they can leave.(No lockers provided)

      *Another instructor basically 'out to lunch'....teaches only the parts that interest him(EFL games)

      * Refusal to refund remaining 3 wks when I chose not to continue for the above reasons.

      Go can do better