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Tips for Teaching English Abroad

Updated on November 21, 2013

Tips for Teaching English Abroad

So, you want to live abroad for a year or two (or fifty), but don't know if you're qualified to do anything? Well, if you're reading this, there's a good chance you speak English, and in many countries, that's almost all you need to find a fairly stable job with a decent wage and hours. I would recommend teaching English to anyone who wants to experience living abroad, not only because it is pretty easy to find a job, but because the path is pretty well paved with expatriates. Generally, "teaching English" means being either a teacher's assistant in a classroom setting, or a one-on-one or small group tutor rather than a full-fledged classroom teacher. Neither position is particularly difficult, but there are potential obstacles than can make your time abroad rocky if you don't know how to avoid them.

I taught English in Japan for two years, and though I enjoyed my time immensely, some things would have been good to know about before leaving. The problems generally have to do with practicalities and finding good companies, and second, dealing with the inevitable "English bubble" you'll find yourself in when you want to experience the local culture, but teach the English language - and inevitably about your home country all day.

1. The usual qualifications required to teach English differ from country to country. In many Asian countries, including Japan, you don't need much more than English fluency and a bachelor's degree (for visa purposes, and the degree itself is unimportant). In Europe, there's a higher chance that you'll be asked for certification, such as a teaching degree or a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adult) course. That being said, requirements also vary between companies. It doesn't hurt to boost your resume by teaching private lessons through the Internet, or in your home country volunteering at an ESL class, either.

2. Even if you are contracted for a good salary, you need to bring a lot of money over to get you started. It's possible that you won't receive your first paycheck for a good two months, depending on how the company does payroll, and moving is expensive. In the case of Japan, I brought a thousand dollars with me and crashed with a friend - bad choice! I was living off of cheap nutrient bars for weeks. If you're living alone in an expensive city like Tokyo, I would recommend bringing at least $4000 to be comfortable.

3. You might be required to speak only English when you teach - and that's great - but don't cut corners with learning at least the basics of the local language. In Japan, average people don't speak English very well, and not only will you have difficulties understanding everything, but you will probably feel overwhelmed and stressed with how much you have to guess your way through the day. Even in other countries where people's English levels are higher, learning the local language is both respectful to the people who live there and opens so many doors with understanding and interacting in the culture. Additionally, as an English teacher, if you learn some of the local language, you will be able to understand the mistakes your students make, and how your students are approaching language learning. You don't have to be fluent in the local language, but remember that the more you know, the more able you'll be able to integrate into the culture.

4. Big chain schools tend to be more stable but often pay less, and small schools are more risky but there's a chance you'll get paid more. This is probably true in any career field, but when looking for an English teaching job it's not a bad idea to start out at a chain school. For one thing, bigger companies tend to be more likely to hire teachers overseas, and you can usually trust them not to scam you, even if they might take advantage of wide-eyed expatriates who don't know any better in regards to long hours and low salaries. Smaller or independent schools are hit-or-miss. It's harder to find a job overseas because they usually want to interview teachers in person, or don't want to be burdened with making your visa and relying on you to actually come, but they often have higher salaries and friendlier atmospheres. Just remember, there's probably not a union or strict regulation enforcement to protect you if you're taken advantage of!

5. If you're brave, you don't even need a job before you come. In many countries, English teachers come and go quickly so there are always jobs available if you look. In Japan, it's completely possible to come with a tourist visa, find a job, and change your visa after. The only problem is that your visa will likely have a three month limit if your country doesn't offer 'working holiday visas' (sorry, USA) and you might have trouble finding semi-permanent accommodation if you don't have that, either. However, it is much easier to find a job in the country than online, though I wouldn't recommend trying it if you're completely unfamiliar with the country you want to go to.

6. Learn how to tell a sketchy company from a legitimate company early on. Do NOT work if you don't have your work visa, even if the company promises you they'll make it. Don't pay the company any sort of fee for the visa, either, that paperwork is their responsibility, not yours. Research what a reasonable salary is in the country you want to go to. In Japan, ¥250,000 a month is where you want to start - a little less is possible, but much less for full-time work is underpaid. Make sure your contract is clear about work hours and salary. Don't let the company force you to come in early for "unpaid preparation time". If you're working, you're on the clock and they have to pay you for it. Most of all, research the company you're thinking about working for! The Internet is a great tool for tracking down legitimacy.

7. Pack more lightly than you think. Unless you are sure you will live there permanently, you'll find a lot of the things you brought simply sit in your closet, and most necessities you can get where you'll be going. Do what you can to downsize - you'll save transportation money and strain on your back when you travel around. For example, I used to haul a lot of books with me, but then I got an e-Reader and saved myself close to an entire suitcase's weight. Pack more of what you'll actually need. In Japan, it's true, clothes sizes do run smaller, as do shoe sizes. It's not impossible to get clothes, and there's always Internet shopping, but if you're worried about sizes, it's best to stock up in your home country with things you know you'll be comfortable in. I wear a size 8 and a half shoe, which in America might be near average, but in Japan I found my size something like a double L. Additionally, there are some staples that just might be rare or unavailable wherever you're going, like certain hygiene products, medications, and so on.

8. You'll want to make new friends when you go, but you won't want to abandon your social circle at home, either. Luckily, with technology and services like Facebook and Skype, staying in touch is easier than ever. I put Skype on my Smartphone in Japan, so I could call friends and family as I would normally. Blogging about your experiences is also a good way to keep people updated about your adventures!

9. Bear in mind the costs of the place you're going. Tokyo is considered one of the most expensive cities in the world, and though with plenty of research on cheap locations and stores it can be done on a budget, it's still important to remember that costs won't necessarily reflect the price at home. Have a good understanding of the exchange rate, but try not to think too much in terms of your home country's money, either - you've got to adapt to the market prices in your new home before assuming something is cheap or expensive.

10. Try to hang out with local people. Expatriates often go to their new country expecting to make loads of local friends, only to find that they just hang out with other expatriates. As an English teacher, your co-workers will probably also be foreigners, and in periods of homesickness it's natural to surround yourself with people who understand your situation. But if you make an effort to integrate into your community, not only will you improve your understanding of the culture and language, but you'll also feel more at home in the place you're living.

Most tips boil down simply to make an effort and do your research. Living abroad will change you, and hopefully for the better. Teaching English is a great way to support yourself abroad even with no particular skills, and you'll probably learn a lot just by talking with your students about the country you're in.

If you've taught English abroad, what was your number one problem?

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