Many people wonder about the quality of life they can expect when teaching English as a second language. For some the quality of life you’ll enjoy is much like the life a trust-fund baby becomes accustomed to in post-secondary without the staggering amounts of debt they incurred. On an ESL teaching salary in China for example, you’ll be able to eat out regularly, booze often (3/4 nights a week), and do quite a bit of miscellaneous spending. For many reading this the standard of living you enjoy will be much, much, better than back home.
It’s also important to keep in mind that when searching for a job teaching English in a foreign country, don’t get too hung up on the salary. No matter how much less you’re making than everyone else, chances are you’re still making a sweet wage compared to the locals. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t hold out for the best wage and contract you can, but keeping this in mind gives you some perspective on who you are and why you chose to travel. A good rule of thumb is; you will always find someone who does less work than you for more pay. But if you look hard enough the opposite is also true. Don’t get too hung up on little discrepancies. Even the lowest wage you’ll make can still allow you to live a pretty comfortable lifestyle depending on where you end up. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t search high and low for a position which fits you.
Picking Your Position
Now is the point where this gets a little more complicated. You need to find out what kind of institution you want to teach in. Don’t focus too much on whether the school is a public school or a private language training center. Instead, schools are best divided by the potential amount of work you need and can do. As a teacher, the bulk of your work will involve the lesson plan. You need to find out whether the company you will work for has pre-made lesson plans and whether you must use them or if you have to make most of class materials yourself. Different people will want different things. When I first landed I had a huge hard-on for education. I envisioned everyone under my tutelage becoming fluent in a matter of weeks under the genius that would be my guidance. I was wrong. When I got here I decided that I didn’t want to be making mind-numbing lesson plans that were both educational and interesting for children. I enjoyed the actual teaching part but honestly creating good lesson plans every day is going to be a challenge and some men like a challenge…but not me.
On the flip side of the coin, having your entire lesson planned for you every day can be an entirely new devil. It can be boring, especially if you are teaching children and it can make you feel as though you are a willing cog in the misery engine that is the education system. I mean it; a lot of the kids in countries who need ESL education have to go through some shitty years to find a job that just pays well never mind being emotionally satisfying.
Negotiating Your Contract
The number 1 rule when looking for an ESL job is, do not let anyone other than yourself negotiate your contract. I know negotiating a contract sounds intimidating but it’s really not that bad if you do a little research and get informed. So DON’T let one of the million agencies who pair teachers with schools negotiate your contract for you. If they do, the headhunting company usually becomes entitled to a portion of your monthly salary. There is a shortage of foreign teachers in many places around the world, especially in the summer months which are the peak times for ESL training. Many companies see you as a commodity and a damn valuable one at that! Don’t forget it but also don’t let yourself believe it. We both know you’re just a lump with a shitty liberal arts degree who wants to protect your virgin soul from the barbed, glass-encrusted BBC that is a career.
What you should be looking for is a contract that offers you free accommodation or at the very least helps you find some and gives you an allowance for that apartment 10 days off not including statutory holidays, try for 2 days off a week, no more than 20 teaching hours a week, and a load of bonuses for completing your contract (i.e. not being late for work, having a shit-eating grin on your face every day, etc.). You may also want to look for a contract which redeems your airfare and trust me; they are a lot of those out there. A good website to try is eslcafe.com they have a new jobs available daily for positions all around the world.
As for pay and duration of contract, this really depends on where you want to go. In places like Korea, China, and Japan the contracts are most often a year long. This is true of most places in South America, Europe, and the Middle East. However it is possible to also find contract at only 6 months, specifically in Southeast Asia. I know it seems like a long time but if you really want to learn a language or culture, expats often find that even a year isn’t nearly long enough. As for pay it can vary a lot between countries and companies. However Japan, and the Middle East regularly advertise jobs offering $2000-3000USD monthly. In China and Korea it will be a bit lower at $1500-2500USD while Southeast Asia and South America can offer as little as $300USD a month. A good way to separate the earning potentials of each job is to look for words like stipend and homestay. Although you may have a more authentic cultural experience in these settings, traditionally you won’t make as much.
Now we enter the shady world of broken contracts. There is a lot of misinformation out there on what you can and cannot pull off when it comes to breaking your contract. As someone who has broken many contracts throughout my career I count myself as somewhat of an expert on the subject. To answer the most important issue, yes you can break any contract you wish. Indentured servitude is not a ‘thing’ English speaking people have to worry about these days. However depending on the contract and the country there are some things you should look out for.
If you feel for whatever reason that you want to leave a contract you must remember to at all times, be firm but remain professional. Flying off the handle will only make the company you’re leaving to make your life a little more difficult for doing the same to theirs. Remember, you are all just doing your job. Secondly if your contract stipulates that you have to pay back a portion of your wages, be prepared to pay it. Most contracts however will allow both parties to give a months’ notice of termination of contract without penalty. If you’ve followed this and they are still looking for money, the midnight run is always an option. Bottom line, just make sure you read the contract thoroughly before you sign it and know your exit plan in case of emergency.
So yes, overall it can be a pretty decent gig. Some people do this for years while others use it as a means of traveling the world or moving into something more professional. ESL can open a lot of doors for a westerner but honestly so can a lot of other jobs. The best thing to do is suck it up, take a chance, and come over. I’ve never heard of anyone who did who and ended up regretting the experience.