Travelling Welshman
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Discussions,  Teaching

Being an ESL Teacher: Pros & Cons

Many people decide to pack their bags and escape the constraints of their lives back home to start afresh in a foreign country. For the most part, becoming an ex-pat isn’t necessarily that hard, except for one thing, you need to find a job. Without it, a new life in an exotic country wouldn’t be possible. It’s quite a daunting prospect as there aren’t many jobs that a foreigner can do outside English speaking countries country. Despite that, many ex-pats have found the perfect way of integrating into a new life in a new country, becoming an English (ESL) teacher.

As so many people have chosen this way of life all across the world, there are clearly some enormous benefits. That being said, there are still plenty of issues with the industry that most teachers will have to deal with at one point or another. In this article, I will be detailing some of the general pros and cons of being an ESL teacher abroad.


It’s important to consider that every school and country is broadly different. From the requirements, methods in the classroom, general attitudes towards its workers and everything in-between. This list does not necessarily reflect any one particular school. It’s a general outlook on some of the best and worst things that can happen across the board.



Clearly, the sheer number of people living this type of lifestyle, there must be some serious benefits to it. I can only speak highly of my time as an ESL teacher. I truly believe the advantages outweigh the negatives, so let’s look at them in greater detail.


The Pay is Great

For English schools, you’re an incredibly valuable asset. To have a native English speaking foreign teacher working in their school is a big deal. Parents become much more willing to pay their child’s tuition knowing they’ll be interacting with native speakers.

Consider this, if you wanted to learn French, would you prefer to be taught by a native French speaker or from someone that just learned the language? It just makes sense. You’re automatically (and sometimes unfairly) at an advantage.

ESL Teacher
Hanging out with my students during graduation

As such, foreign teachers are paid handsomely for their time, in some places three times as much as local teachers doing the exact same job. This isn’t the case in poorer countries, but for the most part, you at least get enough money to live off and might be able to save a bit in the process.


Travel the World

It’s absolutely the best way to set yourself up somewhere new on a long term basis. Think about it, if you wanted to move to another country, what jobs could you possibly do? Sure, you might already have necessary qualifications to get a particular type of job, but how likely are you to find an opening or a job that’s okay with you not understanding any of the local language? It’s a minuscule chance. Whereas, practically every country in the world always need ESL teachers, so there are always doors open.

On top of that, you don’t need to know any of the local language. Of course, its a big help if you do, and you wouldn’t want to be one of those ignorant foreigners that refuse to learn a single word. However, it’s not a necessity for the job. Schools will actually discourage the use of any language other than English, so the kids are immersed in the language as much as possible.

yunmeng gorge
A group of English teachers mid-camping trip

But if you’re working all week, surely you don’t have enough time to travel? Granted, you don’t have as much time compared to regular backpacking. However, teaching schedules are always very structured and have regular holidays, so you know exactly when you’re free and how much time you have to explore the country you’re in. Regardless, you’ll be in the country for a couple of years, maybe more, so there’s plenty of time. What’s more, you get a deeper experience of the country’s culture compared to just travelling through. You get a unique opportunity of truly knowing what it’s like to be a local.


No Experience or Qualifications Needed

You may be surprised to learn that you don’t necessarily need to be a qualified teacher to teach English! For certain countries and more prestigious schools, it may be necessary to have teaching qualifications, but a large proportion won’t require them. Many schools and different countries may only require a degree, which doesn’t even need to be related to teaching. Others may only need a teaching certificate that you can be obtained online, such as TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults). Others don’t require a single qualification other than you’re able to speak English!

A TEFL Certificate obtained after a 120-hour course online

Work Always Available

Teaching English is a truly enormous industry throughout the world which continues to grow, thus doors are always open. Along with having such a high turnover of teachers, it’s not even that hard to find an opening. Once you’re in the country, you’ll get offered jobs from everywhere! Openings are posted on Facebook groups daily, strangers will approach you on the street, and you’ll even get offers on tinder!!


The Students Know the Work

This is one huge advantage of being an ESL teacher, particularly for new learners. For the most part, the students already understand the work. It’s not as if you’re teaching entirely new concepts. The only barrier you’re trying to cross is teaching another language for things they already know.

An example of an ESL student’s work

Of course, many aspects of English won’t be familiar to them e.g. grammar rules or synonyms of various words, as they vary widely between languages. However, these just take practice and still use the basic concepts of other languages which the students will understand, such as words being grouped into adjectives and nouns. It just takes practice and repetition to familiar with the work.


Structured and Laid Out

The schools are always well structured when it comes to what they are going to teach. Usually, there are textbooks or readymade lesson plans that you should follow. Some schools might give you some freedom to play with the lesson where you see fit, as long as it reaches the goals that the school have. As an ESL teacher, you only have to think of how you’re going to teach them. You don’t have to design a curriculum or struggle to think of something new to teach them. Hours don’t have to be spent every day planning every aspect of your lesson. Some time may be needed to prepare some materials, but other than that, you can just turn up and teach.


Having a Co-Teacher

Now, this isn’t true for all schools, but its a huge advantage for you if it is. Some schools will provide you with a co-teacher in your class, usually someone who’s native and act as an effective middle-man with you, the students and the parents. They’ll help cross the language barrier and use their experience to help teach these kids the way they know best.

This takes an incredible amount of pressure off you and makes teaching so much easier. If you fail to explain something to the students well enough (which happens) then the assistant can step in. They’ll be able to explain in the students’ native language and/or simply translate the right word for them, so they instantly understand. They also ensure that you don’t waste your time trying to control misbehaving students, so you can focus on teaching.

esl teacher
Teaching alongside my co-teacher

Of course, this can at times become a disadvantage. I’ve mostly had a positive relationship with my co-teachers. Each have their own unique techniques and approaches to teaching, as well as how involved they are with the teaching. Between the both of you, you then find a balance that works for you and your class. However, there are some assistants you might not get along with. You could disagree on teaching methods, argue over approaches to the lesson or simply dislike each other personally. This becomes a real ballache as teaching becomes very difficult in the circumstances and its the students that ultimately suffers for it.


A Network of Foreigners

When arriving in a new country, it’s difficult to socialise or even meet anyone, that’s why you tend to see foreigners stick together. You’ll find that within a lot of major cities that there are close-knit communities of English school teachers. You often run into the same people or share mutual friends through the interconnected network of the city’s foreigners. Not always the case but can be on occasion.

A group of newly trained ESL teachers



Now it’s not all fun and games, as there are definitely some disadvantages to this lifestyle. You can’t expect to drop your entire life in the west and delve into the unknown with the promise of a job in a faraway nation without a few bad points thrown in. You could be lucky enough to not experience any of these during your time in any random school, though it’s unlikely. Every ESL teacher has experienced at least one of these points during their career.


You’re A Very Expensive Prop

You are a very valuable tool, but a tool nonetheless. Ask yourself, why would schools be willing to hire an ESL teacher that has no qualifications or any teaching experience? Because you’re a foreigner, and that draws customers. You’ll often be “used” or showed off in different ways to draw in potential students. You get the impression the school is saying “Hey, look! We have a foreigner!”. At times you’re essentially treated like an object as if your only true value is that you’re a foreigner.

ESL teacher

You’re not exactly being exploited, after all, you do get paid very well for your time. It also makes business sense, as you want to advertise the valuable aspects of your school and makes it so unique. However, you can’t help but feel the only thing they want from you is your white face. And on that point…


It’s Best to Be White

Its quite a sickening thought, but one that has been proven to be true. Certain schools in certain countries will prefer to hire a white ESL teacher compared to any other ethnicity. It’s difficult to understand the reasoning behind it, as schools would obviously never admit to it. Some schools simply believe that white people somehow attracts more customers, or that they clearly represent an English speaking nation. I’ve even heard first-hand stories of a black girl applying to over 30 schools without a single response but got one instantly after she changed her photo to that of a generic white girl.

Of course, this isn’t every school, far from it. Plenty of schools across the world hire people from all ethnicities, but to pretend that prejudice doesn’t exist in some places would be unfair.


Be American or Lie

For most of the world, American English is by far the easiest dialect to understand. People are exposed to it much more through TV and movies, so it comes as no real surprise. That is why an enormous proportion of schools around the world teach American English and thus have mostly American teachers representing them. These schools also accept British teachers, though at times even their beautiful royal accent is hard to understand. Parents might not comprehend why you pronounce certain words differently to the Americans (e.g. tomato) and might be asked to speak a little clearer or sound a “little more American”.  This is also true for any other English speaking country like Australia.

ESL Teacher
Mid-class with my elementary kids

For the majority of schools, they only accept native speakers. But what if you’re a fluent but non-native speaker? Simple, just lie to the parents about where you’re from. Schools will tell you that most of them can’t speak English anyway and even if they do, they don’t know it well enough to recognise accents. “You’re Serbian? Tell them you’re from San Francisco.”

Probably the most disgraceful example of this topic happens in China, where many South Africans work as ESL teachers. In one particular company, they aren’t allowed to say they’re South African (despite English being their first language), as the school believes that many of the parents would fail to understand how they are white if they are from Africa. Truly unbelievable.


You Could Be Breaking the Law

Like most countries, working foreigners require the right visa. There are many thousands of legitimate schools that follow government rules by the book and take all the necessary legal steps. However, plenty of schools don’t. Usually, these visas are very difficult to get or require many hoops to be jumped through. So instead, many schools will simply hire you on a hush hush basis i.e. without the proper visa additional i.e totally illegal.

It’s not uncommon for ESL schools to get raided by immigration regularly trying to hunt down foreigners without the proper documents. If you’re caught, there’s little room to argue and you’ll likely be deported. That is unless some bribes get thrown around to not so honest government officials and officers of the law, which believe me, it really does happen. Who knew teaching English could be such a dirty business.


Priorities Lay Elsewhere

If you’re lucky enough to teach in a public school (unlikely but still possible given the right qualifications), then this isn’t as much of an issue. For after school programs i.e. schools which are paid for, it immediately becomes a recipe for disaster. The priority has now shifted from giving the child the best education possible to ensuring that the parents continue to pay the tuition every semester.

Graduating students

It doesn’t matter how well the students are doing in class, just as long as the parents think they’re doing well. That little shit that misbehaves in each class or the kid that can’t follow any of the work, can you discuss it with his parents so he can improve? Of course not, that would give the impression that the classes aren’t working, so the parents would stop paying. Precious time is spent teaching superficial things like how to sing English songs may look impressive but means nothing to their overall learning.


Don’t Expect Any Training

If there ever was a definition of “trial by fire”, it would be being an ESL teacher. Back home, prospective educators study for years to earn the necessary qualifications to teach our nation’s youth. While teaching abroad, everything you need to know is crammed into a single week. So much is thrown at you so fast that at the beginning it truly is overwhelming, and many teachers crumble before they’ve even started. You pretty much learn how to be an ESL teacher on the go. As soon as you get into a rhythm, then its one of the easiest jobs in the world. However, before then, there are a few speed bumps to overcome.


A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.

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