Teach English Abroad: The Downside

What’s the downside of Teaching English Overseas?


What if things go bad?

In TEFL, just like any career, things can go sour. You can find yourself in a job or with coworkers you don’t like. The same can happen if you don’t like or don’t feel comfortable with the culture, country or city.

Anything that could go wrong with a job back home, can also go wrong overseas and even a few more things.

Fortunately, in most countries, it is not difficult to change jobs. Be aware though, that in some countries there can be a difficult process for changing jobs and you may need to go to another country for a “visa run” or even to find work.

Plan for the best, prepare for the worst

None of us have trouble dealing with ideal situations, so lets talk about the worst case scenario. There are many ways to avoid this difficult situation: be sure to read and follow the advice in the “Job Hunt” sections of this blog, especially the parts on what to know before you accept a job.

Just in case things do go bad, it is my opinion that you need to make sure you have a return ticket home or to another desirable country and/or enough cash to travel there and survive for at least a few months.

This is more than most people recommend, but I am a financial conservative and I don’t ask family or friends for loans.

Three months and a plane ticket will give you the time and ability to figure out your next move, make it, and work in your new job/location until you get your first pay check. In an ideal world six months cash would be great. But I know most people don’t have that kind of money put away.

Culture Differences

Stay cool, try to work things out. Cultural differences can take their toll when you are first overseas. Misunderstandings are easy and culture shock is common. Some of my most frustrating moments have been due to simple cultural and/or language misunderstandings.

One was a university dean who thought I was insulting him due to the direct translation of a positive comment being negative in his language.

Another was a supervisor refusing to say “No” when he meant “No”, but it was a cultural impossibility for him to say that, so he said “Yes” and I didn’t pick up the cultural reluctance until later, with uncomfortable feelings all around.

Follow the guidance on this website on looking for a job and researching your new position, and you can avoid 90% of the headaches involved.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Keep a little cash in reserve and have a Plan B and Plan C as discussed elsewhere on this blog. Then – no matter the problems, you can hit the road in search of greener pastures if need be.

Is Teaching English a Real Job?

Is Teaching English Overseas a real job?

Can I take it seriously?

If supporting yourself while living overseas and experiencing another culture is a goal, then yes you can consider TEFL a “real” job.

If the possibility of saving substantially more money over a year than you could “back home” is your goal, then yes again.

If you would like to live overseas for extended periods and travel extensively, all while making a decent living, then yes, yes, yes, you can consider TEFL a “real” job.

Like any real job

Just like any “real” job back home, you can expect to start out at the bottom in EFL teaching. You will need to learn the ropes and should plan some study to improve your skills.

You will also need to network to improve your job possibilities and can expect periods of frustration and a difficult boss or coworker from time to time. The “real” world doesn’t go away overseas.

You can expect that your employer will want you to make a serious effort at providing quality instruction for your students and will want you to represent the school/company/institution in a positive manner.

Employers will not see your job as a “lark” or a chance to see the world, they will want you to produce.

You will be expected to groom yourself and dress and behave in a professional manner. An out-of-the-ordinary personal appearance such as tattoos, piercings, oddly colored hair, etc. will make getting and keeping a job more difficult.

Unlike jobs back home

You might be hired without meeting your employer, might do just a telephone hiring interview, might have shorter work hours, fewer work days, longer vacations, free housing, airplane tickets to your new location, transportation to and from work and other “perks” that are not common back home.

Some things that are common in overseas hiring that you might not like include the need for a photograph accompanying your resume, interview questions about your marital status, family members and/or other non-work related issues. Every country will be different in this regard, but you can certainly expect some surprises.

Just because . . .

Just because you might be saving more and working less, and traveling and enjoying your life far more than those people “back home” – that doesn’t mean that TEFL is not a “real job”. It surely is.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Expect to work just as hard as you did “back home”. Take pride in your work and provide a good service for your students.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Let people back home know that what you do is work. This may well be important when you return home looking for work. Giving the impression that you are only playing while overseas leads friends and employers to hesitate in taking you seriously when you return.

Repatriating from Working Abroad

Will I have trouble finding work when I return home from overseas?

How can I prevent that problem?

Whether you intend to spend three months, six months, one year or even the rest of your life overseas, keep networking with your friends and former coworkers back home. Keep in touch with them. Maintain your friendships!

When you go back home on vacation, visit with your former coworkers, go to lunch or out for a beer with them. Exchange e-mails. Send them photographs of your travels and of your life overseas.

Let them know you are doing REAL work, not just traveling around on a lark. And you will, btw, be doing real work (you may be surprised just how hard you end up working!). You never know when you might need or want their help to transition back home again.


Yes! Even more so than back home, networking is critical in the EFL business. In the last 20 years I’ve only done a couple real interviews.

Of my last two jobs and one was completely arranged by a long-term friend, and the other was with a former employer I kept in touch with and went out for a beer with whenever I was in his town.

And I bought more than a few of those beers to keep our relationship equal, though he is a far wealthier man than I am.

After about 20 years in the TEFL world, I now keep in touch with friends in several countries, all of whom would be willing to help me find a job if I needed their help.

And, I would be willing to do the same for them and they know it.

Foreign Cultures

Networking is even more important in many foreign cultures than back home, so keep those contacts solid at home and everywhere you work overseas.

You’ll be amazed how important they can become. In many cultures introductions are just as important as, often more important than, qualifications and experience.

Okay, but WILL I have trouble going home?

Just because you are overseas, maybe even living large, doesn’t mean you can forget about the world back home. You need to keep your contacts up to date, continue educating yourself in your previous occupation and in your new one too.

Depending on your previous career and the skill level required, and how fast that career field is changing, it DOES become more difficult to return home into the type of position you held at the time you left. This is true particularly after about five to eight years of being away (in my opinion).

My Case

I last worked in my chosen profession back home (social work administration) in 1989. Though I have maintained many contacts in the field, I do not think I could return to the level of job I had when I left. But I don’t think I would have trouble returning to that line of work due to my contacts.

Though I might have to start a little lower down the totem pole.

I last went to lunch with a former supervisor about a year ago. I really believe that she would help me land a quite decent job if I asked, and she is certainly in the position to help as her responsibilities and abilities have moved her high up in such organizations (CFO and CEO of large non-profits) in the time I have been gone.

About Eighteen Years Later

As I write this page, I am preparing for the visit of a friend with whom I worked in Africa in 1989 (a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer)! Good friends, great experiences over all these years, no doubt we would be happy and pleased to help each other if needed.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Keep those contacts “back home” strong. Enjoy a beer or lunch when visiting there.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Make sure your contacts know you are working and seriously trying to do an excellent service for your students.

Many people who work in more traditional roles see TEFL as a lark, as an abdication of any real responsibility.

Let them know that isn’t the case for you. And it likely won’t be.

Reverse Culture Shock and TEFL

What is “Reverse Culture Shock”?

Will I get it?

You might! “Reverse Culture Shock” (RCS) is essentially the same thing as culture shock, but you get RCS when you move back home.

Culture shock when I move home?! What?


When you move back home after a period overseas you will have a lot of idealized expectations about how it was, how you remembered it, how things worked so much better and how things will go. And often things aren’t exactly as you remembered.

You will, just like regular culture shock, have feelings of elation, disappointment, and even anger and depression.

Research says . . .

Some literature indicates that the more and better you adapted to your new country overseas, accepted and lived in that culture, then the greater your RCS will be when you return home.

When I go home

I have to admit, my home country is not my home anymore. I feel a little odd there and the high speed, high stress life that my relatives and friends live holds little interest to me. In fact, repels me a bit.

Not totally comfortable anywhere?

There is an old saying (please send me the reference if you know from where!) that says basically – that once you have learned to live anywhere, that you don’t feel totally at home anywhere. I tend to agree with that.

Each Country

After you live in a variety of countries, each one leaves you just little more skilled at dealing with cultural and adjustment issues and I think it all becomes easier and easier.

Don’t worry about it. It is just another of life’s challenges.

Ted’s Tips™ #1: Work hard to keep your contacts “back home” so you have a ready mix of friends and employment possibilities when you return.

Ted’s Tips™ #2: Just like when you are abroad if you feel your adjustment is getting a bit out of sorts, get busy: volunteer, get involved in your community. Don’t sit home an mope.