James Soller had an article a few months back on where to go to teach English abroad. I’ve been teaching in Asia for more than seven years now, so I want to give my perspective. As much as I’ve enjoyed my time doing this, there are a lot of things to watch out for, and evaluating the bad is just as important as the good.
Before I that, I want to second his advice of getting a TEFL (and not an online one). Get a Celta, they’re the best recognized out there and any other one you get costs nearly as much. I’ll also recommend where: Ho Chi Minh City, it’s cheaper but the actual course is the same anywhere you go.
Don’t take it with no experience. Get any job you can and teach before you start your course. Do it for half a year to a year. It will be stressful, but when you take the TEFL course, you’ll get much more from it.
I started in South Korea, teaching in a public school. I hated it. Classes were huge, I was given virtually no training or books to use, my co-teacher and principal were bitches, and at least half the class would scream at me while I tried to teach. Korea has a bad reputation amongst English teachers, and the Koreans work hard to earn that reputation.
They’re perpetually angry, demanding, and have a reputation for not paying you. I’ll admit the country has advantages. It’s first world and the pay is good. If you’re in the Seoul area, there are things to see, good public transport, and other foreigners around. I was there in 2007, and I don’t think it’s changed enormously since then.
After that, I wanted to work in Japan. Japan’s cool, right? It is a cool place, but not easy to work in. The English job market is old and therefore developed. Those who have jobs there don’t want to give them up. The number of positions aren’t increasing either, for demographic reasons. If you look online, most places require you to already be in Japan or even already have a work visa. Some don’t, but they usually have other requirements.
If you have special credentials, give it a try. One big disadvantage is the amount of money you need to start living there. It can be a few or even several thousand dollars. No school gives you an apartment, and the key money is huge. You’ll have to fly in and survive by yourself until your first paycheck.
I worked in Kaohsiung for a year (2008) and absolutely loved the place. Taiwanese people are friendly and polite, everything is cheap but of good quality. The countryside is beautiful and easily accessible from the city, and the city itself is pleasant. There’s a surprising amount to explore on the island.
When I lived there first, it was easy to find work. With everything being real cheap, life was easy. No experience no qualifications ESL work has somewhat dried up though. When I went back to visit a year ago I saw almost no young English teachers like before.
Like anywhere, there is some work available. Most of the work is in the north these days, around Taipei. Years ago I met Canadians who entered on a tourist visa and overstayed it by years just working illegally. I met others who went to some public school in a small town, the principal was just happy to have any foreign teacher there and he wouldn’t get too agitated about proper paperwork.
In 2009 I moved to Vietnam. I stayed for over four years. When I arrived jobs were everywhere, paying a shockingly high wage despite how poor the country was, and things were cheap. Visas were easy too. If mine was about to expire, I’d just hand it into my school three days beforehand and tell them to get me a new six-month visa, the cost was deducted from my salary.
Those days are over though. Around Tet New Year (it always happens then), the authorities decided there were too many foreigners making money. So overnight, with no warning, prices on visas went up and regulations went way up. I had to go through a long, expensive process of getting my degree notarized, getting a criminal background check, and more just to get a work visa.
Many, many teachers had to leave. Others had to make visa runs to Cambodia every couple months. Jobs are still there, but foreign teachers flooded in and the economy had some problems, so the golden age is over.
You can also run a side hustle in Vietnam. I was an extra in a movie (pays shit), I’ve met people who buy shoes and clothing made in ‘Nam and sell them on eBay overseas. I know a guy who makes salsa. You can start a restaurant.
This was also my first time living in a third world country. For those of you who haven’t before, you can’t totally understand it until you live there. Rivers of motorbikes flowing down the street, making sudden turns, tailgating, driving on the sidewalk. The only thing the police do over there is pull people over to fish for bribes.
Bathrooms can be vile. Don’t talk on your phone when you walk down the road! You’ll get mugged. If you rent a room, the owner will feel comfortable just poking around your place when you’re not there.
There’s a lot of things I miss too. It’s a crazy place. For meeting girls, Vietnam’s hard to beat. They’re beautiful, horny (yet interested in marriage), and love foreigners. I didn’t have the same success at all with women in China.
I’m currently in China. It’s quite different from Vietnam. The infrastructure is much better, roads are wider, and buildings are taller. The people are more disgusting though. They smoke and spit everywhere (everywhere!), and their children shit and piss everywhere. People also seem less inviting to foreigners (although friends tell me people are much friendlier in the North). Not that I’d gotten any negative reactions, but no one is interested.
In Taiwan and ‘Nam it was easier to make friends with locals. Recently the internet got worse too. You’ve heard of the great firewall of China. They don’t just block Facebook and Youtube, any foreign website gets throttled. The job market is different too, more stable. Salaried full time work is the standard instead of by-the-hour part time work. There are ESL centers like anywhere else in Asia, but a big advantage is that you can teach subjects instead of just English.
Private bilingual schools that replace regular public schools abound. Kids don’t come here evenings and weekends just for English. It’s half in English, half in Chinese during regular weekday hours. Last year I taught a wonderful first grade class in a school like that. I spent half the day doing English, math, and art with them.
My Chinese co-teacher assisted when I taught and also taught them classes in Chinese. Now I’m teaching A-level physics in an international section of a public school. It’s much more satisfying teaching in a real school than playing hangman on evenings and weekends.
When looking for a job in China, location matters. Check www.aqicn.org to find out how bad air pollution is. Chinese “cities” will almost always include a fair amount of land that you and I would not consider urban. A better translation would be “county.” You could be far away from anywhere interesting.
Unfortunately, for those of you overseas, it can be very hard to check this out before you get there. Talk to current teachers. Check it out on Google maps. You should should also consider mobility. How will you get around? If you’re downtown, buses and the subway will get you anywhere. If you’re in a smaller city you can probably buy a motorbike—they can be fun and useful to get around. But bigger cities in China usually ban motorbikes.
So if you’re not in the coolest parts of town, but still technically in a big city, your options are limited. Electric bikes are ubiquitous, but not as fun or useful as a motorbike. I miss my motorbike in Taiwan and ‘Nam.
I never worked in Thailand, only visited. It’s a beautiful and exciting place, and the women are easy—but consider the negatives. Thailand is a nation of thieves. All the people you see online talking about it being a paradise on earth don’t mention the non-stop scamming and harassment there.
The golden age for jobs in Thailand ended a decade ago. Thailand is full of teachers who have been there for ages and will work for anything, since most places pay peanuts. However, if you’re not just some backpacker and you have serious teaching credentials, you can get good work there.
If possible, contact the job directly instead of a recruiter. The recruiter is a middleman who provides little real value but has incentives to lie. Some are good, but generally, try to find a school yourself. In China, echinacities.com is an excellent site for that. They have China news and guides too.
Seriousteachers.com is great for China and other countries. Dave’s ESL is the classic site, specializing in Korea but also China, the Middle East, and anywhere. Websites can be very country-specific. In Taiwan, tealit.com is a good place. Japan has their own sites as well: www.ohayosensei.com. Eslteachersboard.com is a great site, not only do they have jobs, but they also have forums for people to say which schools are good or bad. Other job boards tend to be heavily censored.
Online reviews will provide valuable clues, but are not perfect. People are far more likely to post something negative than positive. Some of the people who go out of their way to post seem halfway crazy, or just intensely angry about something. I’ve read reviews for schools that I had worked for and been amazed. Try to find recent reviews. Schools can change, and it might even be a different school with the same name. Even schools that have branches may have wildly different working conditions.
The job hunt can vary a surprising amount by country. In some places (South Korea) it’s almost impossible to get a job by visiting on a tourist visa and then visiting schools in person and changing your visa in country. This is by design, the Koreans got sick of backpacker teachers. In other places (Vietnam), the opposite is true, a few schools advertise online, but most don’t.
You have to go there in person and apply, oftentimes doing a demo. The last few years have seen regulations tighten up everywhere. China has gone this way. If you arrive on a tourist visa and get a job, you have to leave the country, or at least go to Hong Kong, to get a work visa.
Arriving on a tourist visa and looking for jobs on foot can cost you serious time and money, but you have the advantage of being able to check things out before you get there. There are more than a few scammers and bad bosses out there. Being able to talk to current teachers away from prying ears is a huge plus.
If you must find your first job online though, ask for three current foreign teachers’ emails and phone numbers. If they refuse or the contact info seems suspicious, you just saved yourself some serious trouble. I visited a school in Guangzhou that I was all but certain I’d sign with. I went there and even slept a night in the school dorms.
Then, I looked at the contract they gave me. It was different than the one they sent over the internet, with the monthly salary much lower. I asked my recruiter if there was some mix up. She got back to me and said that the school could find teachers for less money now. They felt no need to tell me this before I visited the place. Stories like this abound. Yet China’s still where the jobs are, so it’s hard to avoid the country altogether.
So happy trails, good luck, and stay vigilant in your hunt so that you can be happy in your work.