Is Teaching English Abroad Right for Me?

Can you build a happy, successful life working overseas?

A difficult question like this is one only you can answer for yourself. However, I’d like to offer some guidelines and questions that may help you find the best answer within yourself.

The truth of it is that expatriate living is not for everyone. In the best of times it is a life of wonder, excitement and new experiences. On the other hand, it also has its share of challenges, frustrations, and problems.

For example, some tasks that we’d consider to be simple to complete “back home” can take lots of time and effort to resolve overseas. Even something as functional and normal as obtaining your driver’s license in some countries can seem just as difficult as completing the requirements for a bachelor’s degree.

Eight Questions to Consider

Here are eight questions to ask yourself—to see if you are ready to move abroad:

1) Do you have dependents? How would your family feel about being moved to a foreign land? If your whole household isn’t on the same wavelength about moving abroad, you’ll be in for domestic strife as well as the pressures of your move.

2) Are you married or living with a partner? If you move overseas, you’re basically asking them to give up their job and friends to follow you. Will they be able to find a job abroad as well? Are they also passionate about teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL)?

3) Are your kids school-age? If so, how are they going to complete their education abroad? How will they handle moving away from their friends and resettling in a whole new environment? International schools exist in many cities abroad, however most of the pupils of these schools come from expat families who have the sponsorship (read: monetary backing) of the corporation who relocated the family overseas. These schools may ask enormous sums for their tuition—often more than what an ordinary EFL teacher earns.

4) Do you owe money at home? If you have to make payments on your credit card, mortgage or student loans while you’re overseas, you had better carefully plan what country you’ll be teaching in. In some countries, it will be possible to save up to $1,000 US per month or even more, but in others you’ll do well to scrape up enough cash to pay your ticket home for a visit once a year, even though by local standards you’re well-off.

5) Do you (or your family) have on-going medical issues? Now, in many countries medicine and medical care will actually be cheaper than you paid back home (and perhaps even a fraction of the cost). However, cheaper care may mean that you’re not getting modern care or drugs. It’s important to check with your physician before you go abroad, and also to double check what the medical situation is in the country you’re going to.

6) What’s your financial situation? Have you got enough monetary reserves to go home and set up again if things (heaven forbid) don’t work out at your first TEFL posting? It’s practical to have a cushion of money, just in case.

7) Why do you think you’ll enjoy teaching EFL? Have you taught before? Do you enjoy working with people?

8 ) Is this your first time abroad? Do you enjoy traveling? I left the US for Africa to become a Peace Corps Volunteer when I was 37 years old – what a transition that was! It worked out great – for me. But not everyone may take to traveling and the expatriate life like I did.

9) Do you embrace challenges? Living in a foreign country has its own challenges (and rewards) on top of life’s other daily frustrations. Will you find the combination of the two refreshing and reinvigorating – or just stressful?

Of course, this list of eight questions is just a starting point for you if you are thinking of moving abroad. Each person will have to consider their own individual circumstances to see if teaching EFL is the right plunge to take.

Ten Characteristics of a Happy EFL Teacher

In my experience, the ones who succeed in TEFL overseas exhibit the following characteristics:

1) They have expectations, grounded in reality, about what their new job as a foreign teacher can and can’t provide for them.

2) They are sensitive to the differences  between their work country and their home country and they know that each country has different appropriate ways of problem-solving.

3) They know that, ‘wherever you go, there you are’ – which here means that personal problems at home will probably follow you overseas as well.

4) They know life is a mixed bag of good days and bad days; it’s the same both abroad and in their home country.

5) They know TEFL, just like any other industry, has its share of excellent bosses, but crappy ones too. The same goes for schools and positions within those schools.

6) They embrace flexibility and can adjust quickly to surprises and overcome bad situations with grace.

7) They are ready to embrace different cultural norms in the workplace and to accommodate different cultural expectations.

8 ) They are not usually moody or depressed.

9) They see their personal success as a challenge – not just coming from luck or coincidence.

10) They spent lots of time doing their homework, that is, researching TEFL and their move, before they jumped into the new profession in a new land.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Only YOU know what’s best for you. It’s helpful to ask around and do your research, but at the end you must be the decision-maker. Is moving abroad a personal dream of yours? I’d thought about going overseas to work for many years before I finally did it. When I did do it, it was a heartfelt decision.  Had it not been, I wouldn’t have made it through those two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.  Parts of it were pretty tough and I was not then and am not now – all that tough!

TED’s Tips™ #2: Your decision isn’t irrevocable. Always remember, that if you go abroad and everything goes wrong: you hate it, you hate your job, you don’t want to even see another English student as long as you live, you can always go home. It’s a simple fix.

Teaching Internships in China


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Author: Ted

Semi-retired EFL teacher/teacher-trainer working and living abroad since 1989 in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.