Bringing Home the (TEFL) Bacon

Can I make ends meet while teaching overseas?

There’s a big question out there that newbie teachers ask before they teach English overseas: How much can I earn?

It’s a great question and in this post I’d like to give a useful answer to it.

New teachers often need to pay off some outstanding debt (think student loans or house payments) back home. They need to find out if the job they’re going to will provide them with enough salary to take care of these obligations.

As we get older, the more financial responsibilities we’re likely to have and the more we look to saving for the future; so I get this question very often from teachers who are over 30 years old.

Now, if this is your situation—you’re about 30 (or over) and have some bills or loans to pay back—can you still bring in enough money to make teaching EFL to be a sound decision?

My quick answer is, “Yes.” But, I’d also like to add: “it depends.”

Let’s look at this more in-depth. Take for example one of my readers, who wrote to me with the following questions:

1) In Asia, for example Taiwan, can I make 2,500-3,000 USD monthly?

2) If so, is this a 30- to 40-hours-per-week job or do you think I’d need to supplement that with a part-time job doing tutoring or classes at another training center or school?

3) Will I be able to make enough money to live comfortably, pay off my student loans, and save a little?

This teacher, who was over 30 years old, had a TESOL certification and an MBA, good qualifications. The teacher also had some experience traveling in the East, but hadn’t lived there before.

When answering this teacher or anyone else who asks me these same, crucial, questions, I think it’s important to emphasize  the difference between the salary you get and the salary you can bank. Just because you get a higher paycheck in one region than you might in another doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to save more money at the end of the month. This is your discretionary income.

Talking about Taiwan specifically, it’s important to note that though the wages paid there to teachers is pretty high for the region (Korea is just a smidgen less), you won’t be able to take advantages of some other benefits—such as no-cost-to-you housing and subsidized airfare at the end of your contract. It’s important to compare tax rates between countries too. I’d say that, at the end of the month, even if you were earning less on your paycheck in Korea than in Taiwan, you’d end up with more bankable income in Korea.

Take into consideration, also, the cost of living. In Taiwan, that cost is higher than Korea. I have taught private lessons in both countries as well, and while I found the stress factor to be less for lessons in Taiwan, it was easier (and more profitable) to find private classes in Korea.

When you’re looking at the Asian region and weighing your options for teaching jobs, don’t automatically rule out mainland China, either. Since the teacher above has an MBA, they should be aware that Business English classes are in high demand in China—more so than in Taiwan and Korea. In China the teacher might just find a job that would offer a lower cost of living, a lower tax rate—and, even if the salary was less, dollar-to-dollar, than in Taiwan, perhaps they’d end up with more take-home pay at the end of the month.

China also offers a lot of jobs which include free accommodation or living stipends; round-trip airplane tickets upon completion of the contract; and, occasionally, free utilities (expensive in Korea and Taiwan).

So, after taking all these factors into consideration, what’s the real bottom line?

You can rest assured that in any of the three Asian countries we discussed today—Korea, China and Taiwan—you’ll probably save more money than you would in the USA.

Extrapolating from these ideas, another question that comes up is:

4) Can I make a career out of TEFL? What if I wanted to teach overseas indefinitely!

And my answer is, “Yes!”If this is your dream, then go get ‘em! You can— I did—and many many other people around the world are doing it right now. The only danger is—you may like it so much you never want to go back…

Good luck!

TED’s Tips™ #1: If you, like most of us, are concerned about the financial aspects of teaching overseas, don’t worry as much about how much money you are MAKING, worry about how much you will be BANKING.

TED’s Tips™ #2: When figuring out the true ‘cost’ of teaching overseas, don’t neglect to factor in your whole employment package—not only wages, but also the taxes you’ll pay on them, the cost of living in your target country, your ability to get jobs on the side to supplement your income, and benefits like housing stipends, subsidized utilities and free flight tickets home.




Finding a Place That’s Right for You

What places abroad will offer you a good life?

A lot of teachers who are just starting out in the English as a Foreign Language field forget that, along with evaluating the financial details of their new job overseas, they should also check up on what their social opportunities will be in the new country. Going overseas is a great chance to meet new people, but if you go to a lonely place, you’re not likely to enjoy it.

There are no stupid questions

As you might when researching medical care, banking overseas or the weather, go on-line and find a popular discussion board for your target area. Ask the posters there about lifestyle issues.

For example, are the locals friendly to foreigners or standoffish? Is there an active community of accepting locals or vibrant expats that you’ll be able to join easily? Or, will you find yourself in a remote place where it’s hard to make friends?

For three years, I was teaching in a small town in Korea. Despite the size of the town, though, I had many friends and a terrific social experience. However, I know people who were not as lucky as I was, even in large cities where a lot of people doesn’t always mean more friends.

I would recommend staying away from small towns and smaller cities for your first position teaching overseas. I doubly recommend this if you’re going to a country where foreigners are not readily embraced or where there isn’t an expatriate community. Just my opinion.  You’ll have enough adjusting to do, just with culture and job changes.

Birds of a Feather

Even though a large reason for going abroad is to experience, absorb, and immerse ourselves in the host culture, it’s not always easy to do that right away. It can often take a lot of time to find your niche within the foreign culture. That’s why I think a strong expatriate community is something to look for when you’re finding your first job overseas. These other foreigners will understand what it’s like for you and can give you a lot of support—especially if you don’t know the local language and are trying to find an apartment to rent or need to arrange an Internet connection.

When you first arrive in your host country, you may find it hard to find food that you like, telephone service, TV hookup, a driver’s license or other local documentation, or even transportation. Expats can help advise you about all of this because they’ve gone through it too. Even small things, like getting a bottle of drinking water for your kitchen, can be hard to figure out without guidance.

And those are just the small issues — it’s even better to have inside advice when dealing with your immigration status, work permits, etc.

Ideally your boss and coworkers will help you get set up in your new country, but it’s best to have another help line in case you need it.

Don’t be shy about asking on discussion boards about what kind of support you’ll be able to tap in to in your new country. There’s no harm in asking about this or any other lifestyle questions you have.  Be aware though that many people online exaggerate and misinform, so be sure to get as many opinions as possible before developing your estimate of the situation.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Even though the reason you’re going abroad is to work, you’ll spend much more time off the clock than you will on it. For that reason, you need to check out what the social and lifestyle situations will be before you arrive in your host country.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Get involved! If there is an active community of expatriates where you are going, join them and get to know people. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get to know locals too, of course. Cover your bases and get roots in both communities.