5 Myths About Teaching English Abroad

In Vietnam, Work by Nick4 Comments

Teach English overseas! Make fat stacks of cash, add insane value to your resume, gain valuable life experience, help children achieve their true potential!

Teaching English as a second language is usually the easiest way for a restless Yank/Brit/Aussie/Canuck/Kiwi/etc. to fund dreams of endless adventure, travel and wonderment.

Well, it is and it isn’t.

Before we get into why you might not be cut out for teaching—or even traveling—I want to dispel a few myths right out of the gate.

These opinions are based off my own brief stint as a teacher, plus picking the brains of other teachers both in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Myth #1: You will get rich teaching English.

Pictured: What you'll smoke like a cigar while riding in a convertible after your first pay check.

Pictured: What you’ll roll up and smoke like a cigar while riding in a convertible after your first pay check.

That depends on whether your definition of rich is closer to the Donald Trump lifestyle or just “being comfortable.”

You will be rich relative to the families of the kids you’ll teach…sometimes.

I interviewed for 5 teaching positions in Saigon. The wages ranged from $13 to $25 per hour. Bear in mind I have no teaching experience. The job I wound up taking was for $17/hour (it was the easiest one).

Now, let’s talk about what “$17 per hour” really means.

Technically, I did make $17 per hour worked. However, my classes were usually 40 or 45 minutes long. It’s possible to get a gig working at just one location, teaching back-to-back classes all day long. And that’s great, if you want that sort of thing.

What’s more likely (and what I experienced) is that your classes will be peppered throughout the day across multiple schools. I worked for a company who basically sent out its teachers to public schools across Saigon—ALL over Saigon. Saigon is a big city.

It’s my personal opinion that commuting is the single most soul-destroying aspect of work.

Now imagine taking your 1-hour morning commute and having 2 or 3 more every day.

30 minutes in the morning, 45 more around lunch, another hour at dinner…it adds up. And you don’t get paid for it.

Tack that on to the problem of getting paid per class and per hour, and even less money is going into your pocket than you think.

Let’s look one of my average work days (I worked 4 days every week, MTThF):

  • 20 minutes commuting to my first school;
  • Arrive 10 minutes early to set up;
  • First class is 45 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of unpaid time;
  • Second class is 45 minutes;
  • 20 minutes driving back home;
  • Later, spend 30 minutes driving to the second school;
  • Arrive 10 minutes early to set up;
  • Two 45-minute classes separated by 15 minutes of dead time;
  • 40 minutes to drive back home (evening rush hour);
  • 1 hour of preparation every week (this is just enough for me to get by without screwing up).

So, we’ve made $51. Clearly that’s not working out to $17 per hour, though.

In one day, we’ve spent roughly 6 hours devoted to work.

That means we really earned about $8.60 per hour.

If you actually have a hard job where your lesson plans aren’t entirely made by your school, you’ll need much more time per week than a single hour of planning.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t fly halfway around the world to earn minimum US wage.

“But the cost of living in Saigon is so cheap! $8.60 there is like $20 in the US!’

Yes, this much is true. Saigon is somewhat unique (and this is one of the reasons I chose to come here in the first place) in that teaching wages aren’t that bad compared to its cost of living.

If you want to teach in Japan or Korea, you’ll make more money but your cost of living skyrockets in cities like Tokyo or Seoul.

In China, you’ll make more money in Beijing or Shanghai or Shenzhen, but the cost of living is likewise higher. Teaching in a second- or third-tier city? Cost of living drops, but disproportionately compared to wages and quality of life.

Bangkok? Everyone wants to teach in Thailand. Supply of teachers far exceeds demand, driving wages lower.

South/Central America? Have fun competing with the thousands of other teachers flooding the market. Good luck earning a livable wage in Panama, Brazil or Mexico.

The most lucrative option turns out to be the Middle East, with salaries for qualified teachers sometimes exceeding $60k.

That’s with a real teaching degree (more on that later) and at least two years of experience.

Also, you have to be alright with living on a compound and having fuck all to do in your spare time.

The fact is, teaching English in most parts of the world amounts to little more than token compensation for volunteer work.

On average. Yes, you will find good jobs in China or Brazil or Indonesia if you look hard enough. Vietnam provided me the path of least resistance. And yes, if you’re a superstar you’ll get paid accordingly. But let’s be honest, not everybody can be some hotshot teacher right off the plane. Temper your expectations.

So how much can you reasonably save as an English teacher?

Let’s assume you can find enough work to fill out a solid 20-hour week. Let’s assume that with no experience, you’re making $15 an hour. You take home about $1200 per month. That’s pretty good in Vietnam.

Rent for a reasonable western-style apartment is around $400 per month. We’ll assume you run AC 24/7, so add $50 for utilities. Say $300 per month eating street food twice per day and one meal in a real restaurant. $50 per month for coffee, smoothies, juice, etc. If you go out twice every week, expect to spend about $80 every month. Tack on $20 for gas, or (God help you) anywhere from $50 to $200 on taxis, depending on how far you live from your school. Maybe $10 for toiletries, $40 every month for a visa, and say $50 for miscellaneous expenses.

Congratulations—in one year, you can put away maybe $2500. Oh, but that doesn’t include extra entertainment, trips, plane tickets to and from home, and any other random expenses that can and will pop up.

These estimates are based on what I believe the average westerner needs to live a lifestyle that doesn’t feel lacking.

In reality, I didn’t live this way at all, and I still don’t. I have a small studio that costs about $300 per month after utilities, I rarely drink alcohol, drive my own motorbike, and I don’t eat western food.

Your mileage may vary—what I’m getting at is…

Don’t expect to step off the plane and resume the same lifestyle you had before on an ESL teacher’s salary.

If you have experience, a teaching degree (that you didn’t print off the Internet) or other awesome skills, then yes—you should absolutely expect to earn more money.

But your average college grad with a science degree (me) doesn’t have much to offer besides a strange face and a native accent.

Myth #2: You should/shouldn’t get the most expensive/cheapest TEFL/CELTA/DELTA/ESL/CPR certification available.

Meanwhile, certificates in Badassery are only recognized from accredited institutions.

Meanwhile, certificates in Badassery are only recognized from accredited institutions.

Depends on where you’re going and who you’re teaching.

The Wild West days of teaching English are coming to a close (I’m told), with fewer and fewer countries accepting fly-by-night backpacker teachers.

And why should they? I was listening to a French guy teaching two Vietnamese girls English at a cafe the other night.

That’s ridiculous. I’ve had to un-teach several pronunciation errors my girlfriend picked up from her old English teacher, who I suspect was German.

There are still plenty of schools in Vietnam (and many more in China) who will take you in without teaching credentials. For better gigs (meaning you get paid on time), you’ll need some type of certification.

Those little pieces of paper run the gamut from nearly worthless to highly coveted. They are:

TEFL/TESOL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language/Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages): These basically mean the same thing, but you’ll most commonly see TEFL in use.

A TEFL certification can consist of anywhere from 10 to 150+ hours of “class” time. Generally, anything less than 120 hours isn’t worth shit. 150 hours is probably unnecessary.

You can sign up for TEFL courses in many cities, but know this: if you decide you need a TEFL, only take a course with a minimum of 20 hours of practice teaching. Anything else is a joke and won’t be taken seriously by the schools that actually require a TEFL.

Some schools will overlook the practical component, but then why even get a TEFL in the first place?

That brings me to my next point about TEFLs—for shit’s sake, don’t take an online course if you want a real job.

This is what I did, and it’s a waste of money. It’s basically a $200 piece of paper that says you’re really good at theoretical bull shit. When a school sees a shitty certificate that looks like it was pulled out of a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, they’re going to know you haven’t actually done any teaching.

I’d recommend taking a real class anyway because how the hell are you going to figure out if you’re teacher material otherwise?

CELTA(YL)/DELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults/Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages…yeah that one doesn’t match up as well)

The CELTA also has a Young Learners module focused on teaching children, but this will be discontinued in 2016. I assume that’s because CELTA is already prestigious enough to be recognized by most English centers and schools without the extra stuff.

The key difference between CELTA and DELTA is that the former is geared towards new and inexperienced teachers, while DELTA is for educators who have been around the block already.

I haven’t seen any listings that demand a DELTA—CELTA is fine.

The CELTA is serious shit and comes with a serious price tag—several thousand bucks, even.

Where the TEFL can get your foot in the door, CELTA kicks the door down and tosses tear gas with reckless abandon. No warrant, no mercy.

Also important in upper-tier schools and universities is an actual teaching certificate from your home country. That bad boy says “Hey, I’m a real teacher. I’m not going to smoke pot before class and wear flip flops to work.”

Combine that with a CELTA and a few years of experience and the TEFL world is your oyster.

To summarize:

  • If you want to party and show up to class half drunk and curse at the children, go ahead and wing it with an online TEFL or YOLO-no-credentials. Just don’t be surprised if you can’t find a job.
  • If you want to have more options for a decent job, get a real TEFL. It’s not too much money and it gives you a leg up on your competition.
  • If you’re really serious about teaching, get a CELTA or DELTA. The best jobs require these expensive certificates—partly because they teach you a lot, and partly because a CELTA degree says “I’m serious.”

Myth #3: Being a westerner is enough to get a job.

You're hired!

You’re hired!

Not anymore, Dances with Wolves. This sort of has to do with the second myth, and it’s equally important. While there’s a gray area with both English-teaching certification and your other qualifications, there is definitely less wiggle room when it comes to the latter.

Let’s talk about “westerners” in the sense that Asians view westerners, since most TEFL positions are in Asia.

In Vietnam, for example, a westerner (tay) is someone with a white face. That means, at first glance, I am viewed the same as a German brewer and a French baker.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention westerners who aren’t white.

3rd generation Indian? Guess what, you might as well be a Bangladeshi cobbler fresh off the boat.

Black? “Where in Africa are you from?”

Finding a job isn’t impossible if you don’t have a white face, but I’m going to be completely honest—it will be harder.

Vietnamese (and other Asians) have an idea in their head of what an English-speaker looks like—and the truth is a white German with a thick accent is going to make a better first impression than a black guy from DC.

That being said, your ivory complexion isn’t a free pass to teach Vietnam’s future worker bees. As of last year, schools require a passport, background check, college diploma and some form of teaching certificate (negotiable).

I suspect those requirements will only become more stringent as time goes on.

If you’re not white, should you just give up on teaching in Asia?

No. But you have your work cut out for you. If you don’t have thick skin, you shouldn’t be considering TEFL in the first place, and that’s doubly true if you’re not white.

Myth #4: In foreign countries, teachers are venerated much like doctors.

I just finished grading your tests. Lots of you got an A+, but there were a few very disappointing O negatives.

I just finished grading your tests. Lots of you got an A+, but there were a few very disappointing O negatives.

This is such bullshit when it comes to TEFL.

If you’re working with children, your job is to be a clown. Singing, dancing, whatever. Keep them entertained until the bell rings. Rinse and repeat.

Yeah, you can find jobs working with adults. In fact, I encourage you to do so. But most positions are with children.

I think the problem with kids misbehaving in English class is because it’s like a fun break from the rest of their school day. Learning English is boring compared to painting or recess or bullying other children.

When you combine the mandatory games needed to keep class from turning into nap time with the excitement of having a strange, foreign teacher, English class tends to devolve into a sort of play period.

It makes sense, because that’s exactly how I felt in my foreign language classes in high school and college.

I always viewed my foreign language teachers as peers rather than teachers—I liked their classes, but often misbehaved and received many a stern talking-to.

Teaching children is similar to disciplining pets—you have to establish dominance early and often, or you’ll find them challenging you for pack leadership and pissing on your shoes when you aren’t looking.

If you have the type of personality that likes to stand up in front of a group and doesn’t tolerate bullshit, you’ll probably do just fine. But as soon as you let your guard down, you’ve ceased being English Teacher and transformed into Playtime Buddy.

Myth #5: Teaching English abroad is a great way to travel and see the world.

The beach: just steps away from most ESL classrooms (after a 3-hour flight).

The beach: just steps away from most ESL classrooms (after a 3-hour flight).

This isn’t intuitive, so let me explain.

Yes, flying to Beijing to teach English for 25 hours each week is a great way to travel to Beijing and have an opportunity to visit areas close to Beijing.

If you have delusions of being some sort of traveling teacher who sleeps in a different city every weekend, I’m here to bring you back to reality.

Could you possibly bounce around to different locations, taking on private students and making enough to scrape by while you see the world?

Maybe.

What’s more likely is that you sign a contract with a certain school or language center for 6 months or a year. Your contract states that leaving early results in withholding all outstanding pay, and that you are required to be available for 5–6 days every week, with hours ranging from 7:30 am to 10 pm.

Worst-case scenario, but not unlikely.

That means your travel opportunities are limited to short weekend trips in the surrounding areas. You probably get a week of vacation (likely unpaid) and a week or two of public holidays off (also unpaid).

So yes, you will get intimately acquainted with your new hometown for a year, but don’t expect to see much else.

The Reality of Teaching English Abroad

 

Even though I came out here to be a teacher, I lasted just 9 days.

And I really mean that I “lasted.”

I felt utterly defeated and ready to come home after less than 20 classes with a bunch of 5-8 year-olds.

I don’t want anyone to make such drastic life changes and wind up feeling stuck thousands of miles from home, feeling disappointed in yourself for not being able to hack it.

I want to end this post with one of my favorite quotes. It tempered my expectations before I left for Vietnam, and it’s a great reality check for anyone out there looking to make drastic changes in their life.

(I’ve seen this quote attributed to sources as far-flung as Alcoholics Anonymous and Confucius. Let me know if you have more info.)

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

Yes, traveling can be a big jolt to jumpstart your life, but if you’re thinking of becoming an English teacher and bringing your baggage with you, you will fail. I quickly learned that teaching shouldn’t be an escape plan, so don’t make the same mistake I did.

Thinking of teaching English abroad? Have any questions I didn’t address? Are you already a teacher and think I’m being a Negative Nancy? Please let me know in the comments below!

Comments

    1. Author
      Nick

      Thanks for reading. Teaching is something that definitely isn’t for everyone, but some people see it as their only way out of a shitty situation. Others are actually good teachers, but in the world of ESL those are few and far between. It’s mainly (and this is coming from a Vietnamese perspective) people who just want money for alcohol while they go on vacation for a year.

  1. Dominic

    Thanks. This post has definitely helped temper my expectations.

    I’m planning to live in Vietnam for awhile and live comfortably. I’m 29, lived two years in canada and just got back from working with a charity in Italy for 9 months.

    Ireland is boring and western culture is pissing me off slightly, hopefully i’ll find some joy in vietnam teahcing engish to sustain myself for a year or so.

    But thanks again.

    1. Author
      Nick

      Hi again Dominic. Even if you aren’t THRILLED about teaching, it’s still a welcome break from working a dead-end job in the west and spending 110% of your paycheck to live barely above poverty.

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