Pros and Cons of Teaching ESL Abroad
Teaching ESL in a foreign country can be an amazing way to travel and experience new cultures, but it’s not for everyone. The good points are easy to see – the chance to see new places, meet new people and explore destinations far from the tourist hubs. But packing your bags and moving to a new place can be challenging, too. Below are some upsides and downsides to teaching ESL abroad.
What this article is about:
You probably know why you want to teach ESL abroad. Maybe you want to see a new country or bring your teaching skills to a developing part of the world. But below are three more pros that you may or may not have considered about teaching ESL abroad.
You don’t need lots of degrees or experience
A big draw to ESL programs abroad is that they will take pretty much anyone with native proficiency in English. Most programs don’t require you to have a degree in any particular subject. The minimum qualifications most schools ask for is a bachelor’s degree. Many schools don’t even require a TEFL certification for native speakers.  Teaching ESL in the US or Great Britain, on the other hand, often requires a bachelor’s in English or a related major, a TEFL certification, a teaching license, and three or more years of classroom teaching experience. So teaching abroad is becoming an increasingly attractive option for teachers who are just starting their careers, who don’t have the money to go back to school, or whose experience is primarily in private tutoring or teaching online.
The chance to do something fulfilling
ESL teachers abroad can rest in the knowledge that they are making a genuine, positive impact on their students’ lives. Whether you’re volunteering with the Peace Corps or tutoring businessmen in a fancy language school, the skills you are passing on to your students will help them to improve their lives. Many students choose to study English because they are pursuing promotions at work, international opportunities, or the chance to study at a university in the US or the UK. Teaching ESL abroad is the perfect job for anyone who loves helping others, as you will be able to see your students’ progress in your class, and you’ll know how their education is helping them progress out in real life. 
Unless you’re a private tutor, you probably won’t have much control over your schedule. However, many ESL programs abroad are housed in language schools or special language programs within a public school. Therefore your schedule is probably not going to follow the typical 9-to-5 model, as you need to be available for students and/or their parents to schedule classes at times that are convenient for them. This is an often-overlooked plus of teaching ESL abroad. An a-typical schedule means you probably won’t be commuting during rush hour. You may not have to come into work until late, or maybe you’ll get out early in the afternoon. Your weekends probably won’t be Saturday and Sunday, which means you’ll be able to explore your host city or country on days that are not crowded with tourists or clogged with locals.
The downsides of teaching ESL abroad can be hard to spot until it’s too late. Recruiters and program websites are not going to advertise the disadvantages of going overseas with them, and many people who are willing to talk about their experiences teaching abroad are willing to do so because they had a good time. Below are some things to keep in mind before you buy that one-way ticket.
The reality is you are not going to make a lot of money teaching overseas.  You may expect that with a government program in a developing country, but even if you’re working for a fancy language school in Singapore, you’re not going to be making that much. Your salary may look good on paper, but once you get to your country (no matter which country you end up in) you’ll quickly realize that, while your salary is plenty to live on, it’s not enough to put anything away. This is a big reason why many ESL teachers don’t stay abroad for more than their contracted one or two years. ESL teachers just don’t make a lot, and while that’s fine for a year or two while you’re exploring and getting some experience under your belt, it doesn’t make for a feasible long-term option, especially if you have student loans or other bills to pay at home.
Everyone thinks they can handle culture shock until it hits them. And for some people, it can hit hard. You may not be able to find the foods or follow the diet you followed at home. For some people, that’s okay. You’re there to experience something new, after all! But living abroad can sometimes take you too far out of your comfort zone.  What if you’re vegan? Or you have a serious nut allergy? Or you’re gluten-free? These kinds of diets often come from serious ethical or medical concerns, and may not be so easy for you to give up. It can be incredibly frustrating or isolating to constantly negotiate your food needs in a culture that doesn’t accept or understand them. The same can be said for amenities and services. You are probably expecting that the amenities in a developing country may not be what you’re used to at home, but it’s not all about power outages and internet access. Access to things you deem basic or essential for reproductive health like birth control, condoms, and tampons may be limited in your host country due to religious or political facets of the culture, facets that you’ll have to learn to accept.
The Grey Area
Some aspects of teaching abroad that aren’t necessarily pros or cons. Below are three things that may be good for some people and bad for others, depending on what you want from your experience.
What are you being paid for?
To teach, of course! For some, this is a pro. You’re passionate about teaching and you believe that teaching in a non-English speaking country will make a genuine, positive impact on your students’ lives. For others, however, this may be a con. If your primary reason for wanting to teach ESL abroad is travel, you may want to reconsider.  Of course you’ll have plenty of opportunities to travel and sight-see while you’re living abroad, but remember that you’re going to be spending 40 hours a week in a classroom. ESL teachers rarely get more than 10 days of vacation time in their first year, so while you will have time to explore locally, you’re not going to realistically have the time or the energy to do 5-country sweep of Europe or Asia.
Making and maintaining relationships
The “making” part is the pro. You will have so many opportunities to meet amazing people from around the world, and will almost certainly make new friends with people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The “maintaining” part is the con. Leaving home doesn’t just mean physically leaving the country – it also means leaving behind friends, family, pets, and even romantic partners, people that it can be very difficult to stay in touch with while you’re living abroad. Depending on where you are, you may find yourself surrounded by poverty or political crises that you can do very little to help, you may find the local language much harder to learn than you anticipated, or you may find yourself hit harder with culture shock than you thought you would be.  All of these situations are normal parts of teaching abroad, and can even become opportunities for growth that ultimately become positive parts of your experience. However, they can also be incredibly isolating, especially in the beginning before you’ve established a network of friends and co-workers in your host nation.
Many ESL schools offer their international staff the chance to gain additional teaching qualifications, like the CELTA or a TEFL certification, while they’re still contracted with the company. If ESL is a long-term career plan for you, this is a pro. Though you often have to pay for these certification programs out of pocket, these additional qualifications can make a huge difference in your professional opportunities, not to mention your salary.  Schools will often support you by reducing your teaching time or allowing you to take some academic leave. If ESL is not a long-term career plan for you, this can be a con. Schools that offer these kinds of opportunities will eventually expect you to take advantage of them, especially if you choose to renew your contract.
Cheat Sheet and Key Takeaways
- Teaching ESL abroad can be an incredibly positive experience, but it’s not for everybody.
- ESL teachers can make a genuine, positive impact on the lives of their students.
- Teaching ESL typically does not pay very well.
- While you will get the chance to see new places, remember that you’re being paid to teach, not travel.
- Many ESL schools offer their teachers opportunities to get additional teaching qualifications while they are still contracted with the company.