How hard teaching English abroad is really depends on you and what you encounter. Here I'll share with you some of the difficulties and experiences that I and other teachers encountered while teaching abroad in Asia: China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
As far as starting goes it's not that hard to get a job teaching English abroad since it's not that competitive of a market in many countries. English is in demand around the world. Sure some schools can be harder to get into, but it's an industry that is growing and that has a high turnover rate. Most teachers only do it for a year or two.
Each country and each school can have different requirements. But for the most part...
If you have a bachelor's degree and are a native English speaker then you already have a foot in the door, somewhere
But if you are:
- not white
- a non-native English speaker
- or you don't have a degree
...then you will have a harder time finding a job.
But don't panic as I have met all of the above teaching abroad. It doesn't mean that you can't it just means that certain schools have preferences for younger, Caucasian, more attractive, native English speaking teachers with degrees (needed for your visa).
Most schools do have preferences though
They usually prefer teachers with experience and some can prefer teachers with TEFL certification, may require master's degrees or for you to be a licensed teacher. The later two are often needed to teach in universities or international schools.
But again for the most part if you have a bachelor's degree and are a native speaker then you have a foot in the door. It's not that hard to start teaching abroad, yet getting there is one thing and teaching there is another.
What's hard for this guy in Japan might not be for you
As you will soon find out a lot of people have a hard time with the language and culture.
Everybody deals with stuff differently. I interviewed around 30 teachers and one of the questions I asked them was what their biggest challenge teaching abroad was. Below is a short list of their challenges. If for example 3 teachers mentioned it I marked it with a "x 3".
- Language x 9
- Culture x 6
- Students/teaching x 5
- Food x 3
- Employer x 3
- Loneliness x 2
- Discrimination x 2
- Living in an underdeveloped country
- Leaving home
For me I would say that the teaching was the hardest part about teaching abroad so you could make the above "x 6". I'll tell you about that later.
I figured if I asked them then I should share my experience too. Here I listed some of the things that got to me the most while I was teaching English abroad in China, Korea and Taiwan.
Not knowing the language doesn't usually make things easier
I had done quite a bit of traveling throughout foreign countries in Europe before moving to Asia to teach. I liked it. I was curious and life is kinda simpler when you don't know the language. And it is fun learning a new language.
Yet not knowing the language can make for some tough times. Expect to do some creative miming and pointing to get your points across. Fortunately many people can speak some English since its the world's most spoken second language, but remember you'll be in a foreign country and people don't speak that much. Younger people tend to speak more. Small things like ordering food and basic day to day communication can be difficult.
There can be communication difficulties with your school too. I definitely recommend learning the language and choosing a place where you are more interested in learning the language.
Culture shock is real
In my experience culture shock wasn't really a "shock". There were just things that would annoy me at times.
Stuff like saving face and people being indirect or lying bugged me sometimes. There are sometimes big differences in the ways of doing things and then there are sometimes subtle things that can get to you like for example, smoking.
The laws or people's ability to follow them is not that strict. And in some restaurants people will smoke. Or sometimes like in Korea they'll smoke in the bathroom. In some restaurants in China they'll throw their trash and butts on the floor.
The food is different... I hope you like Korean, Japanese or whoever's food you'll be eating
Sometimes the lack of diversity stunk, but it wasn't a big deal for me. It is different and you won't be able to get what you usually eat. Foreign restaurants like Thai, Italian or Mexican aren't common and you'll only find those in the big cities.
They'll also cost a lot more and probably not taste as good as they do back home.
I just adapted and when I first went to Asia (Taiwan) I was a vegetarian. I got along o.k. In fact I ate out in Taiwanese restaurants for like almost 2 years straight before cooking anything.
Expect a lack of diversity in the supermarkets too.
They're staring because you look like an ALIEN
If you look different from them then they are going to stare at you. This can get annoying. Many are not taught that staring is bad. If you are in a city with a lot of foreigners then fewer people will stare at you.
In Japan this is not that common.
Spitting and hawking... manners are just different
This is pretty common in parts of Asia. A lot of men and even sometimes older women will go to great lengths to clear their throat and then spit it on the street.
In Taiwan they chew betel nut.
In Japan people are more well mannered.
It can get lonely
Being different can set you apart from the rest of the crowd. You can get a lot more attention because of this too. People will be curious about you, but it can be lonely at times living in a foreign land.
Teaching abroad has a sort of impermanence to it. So even though you make friends chances are you will be leaving within a year or someone you know will be.
You might be breathing some pretty dirty air
Parts of Asia can be pretty polluted. It can be pretty crowded and the air can be bad from scooters, cars or factories depending on where you are. People can dump or throw trash anywhere. Sometimes there is also noise pollution from stores blaring music, scooters or politicians doing there drive by marketing.
Job stress can come in the form of teaching or from the people you work with such as co-teachers, managers or your boss.
Teaching is NOT usually easy
"Teaching English is a difficult job. And people don't actually understand that to do it right is incredibly difficult, because there's lots of lesson planning involved. You have to learn how to control an audience especially if they are younger. You'll have to learn how to engage... To do it right is difficult..." - Winston
For me the teaching was probably the most stressful thing especially in the beginning. It was similar to this guy's experience in China.
Don't expect much training.
You might follow a teacher around for a day or so depending on the school, but expect to be thrown into the classroom and told to teach.
And some students are docile regardless if you do a good job or not. But the less skilled you are at teaching the more problems you are going to have.
Here are some common problems:
- students who ignore you
- students that don't want to be there
- students that roughhouse or argue with each other
- some are noisy
- some won't do as you say
- some don't want to speak
- some talk when you talk
- students that speak in their native language
Do you know how you are going to solve all these problems?
This course will help you solve and prevent those problems. Teaching English to kids is hard. And it can be quite stressful when you don't know how to teach. Since we are on the topic of courses you might want to know...
How hard is a TEFL course?
Well, that depends on the course. Some of those cheap online courses are not that hard, but they are boring and not very useful - at least the one I took as a test. I also took a TESOL course prior to Taiwan and that was a bit better, but definitely not very practical.
I think in many courses you are going to spend a sizable amount of time studying jargon, grammar and academic fluff that's pretty useless and often painful to study. When you get abroad and start teaching you'll realize that too.
So my experience teaching in Asia and taking TEFL/TESOL courses is what inspired me to create these online courses that were practical and visually orientated.
Then there are sometimes other problems with...
Co-teachers, managers and people you have to work with
In some schools you'll work with a non-native English co-teacher. I worked in a lot of different schools in Taiwan, Korea and in China. The best ones were the ones where I had more freedom and no co-teacher to work with. I thought 90% of them were worthless and more of a distraction than a help.
There were issues of control with some. It just depends on the school, but I worked for several schools with lame co-teachers.
If you work for EPIK or JET or just in a public school you will have a co-teacher. You could get lucky and find one you like or whatever. I wasn't. I was placed with this Christian fundamentalist teacher with permanent kimchi breath in Korea. I had to sit next to her. Yuck. You have to teach class with them. There's not much you can do to escape their presence.
Some co-teachers are envious of you too. You're making more money than them and chances are you have less training. Maybe not, but some are still envious.
But your situation will be different and maybe you won't mind your co-teacher. A downer of EPIK and JET is the lack of control. They choose the school for you.
If you don't want to work with a co-teacher then just ask the school if you have to work with one. There are sometimes other foreign teachers in your school as well. You'll meet all types of people teaching abroad.
I had a manager in Korea who was such an a-hole. This guy was also a religious freak. There are quite a few religious freaks (Christians) in Korea. I suspected that he despised foreign teachers or maybe it was just me. Again it was probably jealousy because he worked more and made less or maybe he was just unhappy. Private schools like hagwons, buxibans and eikaiwa often have managers.
Most of my bosses were fine. I was always paid on time. Although I had a recruiter in Korea who tried to take my months pay. I could have avoided that school and recruiter had I followed this advice on avoiding horror stories and getting a good job.
Then I had one boss in Taiwan who paid on time, but tried to keep my tax money. He was deducting taxes, but not paying them to the government. I had no idea. A new employer helped me get that $500 back.
If my new employer hadn't enlightened me on the tax situation I would have never known.
I am not religious, but stuff like Taoism and Buddhism is kind of interesting for me. You can find lots of cool temples around Asia. Here's a cool one. Most Asians are not going to try to convert you to anything like that as it's just not part of it.
Annoying things were all the Mormons in Taiwan. They would ride bicycles around and try to convert the Taiwanese. They would offer "free" English lessons so they could try to brainwash the Taiwanese.
One of the girls that I interviewed mentioned that her challenge was working in a religious school. In Korea there are a lot of die hard Christians.
Visas and paperwork
Getting your visa sorted could be stressful. Having to do visa runs last minute was stressful. Sometimes there wasn't much communication from a school and they'd tell you that you have to go to Hong Kong or Japan today to get a new visa.
That's stress that can come with getting started in a place. Start-up can be stressful if you have to find housing, a job and get your visa sorted.
The weather is different
Most of Eastern Asia is going to have hot humid summers. If you are in the north you might see snow in the winter as well. If you are in the south and coastal then winters can be mild. In the summer you might see monsoons or typhoons.
If you don't like humidity and you still want to teach in Asia then look at a high-altitude place in the Himalayas like Lhasa, Tibet. It's also one of the cleaner cities in China.
In the big cities the traffic is out of control
The person who mentioned that traffic was a problem was living in Taiwan and driving a motorcycle. In some parts of Asia like: Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam scooters are a really common source of transportation. The streets can get pretty crowded too.
Living in a less developed country
The infrastructure and buildings in another country look different. In Asia depending on where you are sometimes things can look a little drab, dilapidated or just not very attractive.
In Asia you are likely to see a mix of both modern and old infrastructures. Some buildings or apartments may lack screens in the windows (there are a lot of mosquitoes in some places too), hot water, etc.
Leaving home isn't easy
One teacher stated this. It's hard to change. It's hard to leave your home. Home is where the comfort is. Even in my day to day life I know that it is hard to get out of the house. It's hard sometimes to get to jiu-jitsu class or to work out sometimes. But the reward is in the doing. Once you get there you'll be happy you made the effort.
It's getting past the resistance which is the tough part. Humans like comfort and are lazy, but humans also need challenge.
How hard will it be for you?
How hard it is for you will also depend upon how well you can adapt. A lot of things are different: the language, the culture, the food, your job, etc. If you are flexible, have an open mind and adapt easily then it might be a good match for you.
Teaching abroad is A LOT harder if you are not prepared
As far as the teaching goes this whole site provides solutions to the problems that I had teaching. If you know what you are doing in the classroom you'll have way fewer problems and a better time abroad.
I suggest taking the this advanced course as you'll be able to get control of the trouble makers, engage your students and increase your clarity and confidence in the classroom.