Category Archives: Teaching English

ESL Regions Explained: Where to Go and What to Expect

If you haven’t heard about teaching ESL overseas yet then you’ve probably been living under a rock or, most likely, you were simply too young. But now that you’re here and reading this article, you might be wondering what all the hype is. How do all of these travellers make the money to go abroad? Teaching ESL is one way to help pay for your travels abroad. In this article I hope to outline the various regions you can expect to find work as an ESL teacher along with some of the benefits and drawbacks of going there.

Money is often one of the foremost questions on people’s minds when they consider teaching ESL overseas. After all, money, or at least the job benefits, may cover your transportation costs alone. To be sure, each region (most are continents unto themselves) discussed below offers a unique cultural experience and a chance to broaden your mind about the global stage. If you take the opportunity to go abroad, at the very least you’ll gain a broader perspective of the world around you and

Middle East
The money is good and the contracts lengthy, but you’ll have to prove that you’re worth the price of flights, visa, accommodation and the other amenities that are offered to teachers. Many schools will require you to have more than just a university degree, you’ll also need a Master’s degree and often another certification such as TEFL or CELTA. It’s not impossible, however, to land jobs without these qualifications, you’ll just have to look a little harder, or maybe befriend someone who is or has taught in the Middle East. Your salary is tax-free, but men often earn more than women due to male-dominated religion (Shari’a law). Religion is one thing to consider. Although most locals won’t bother you because of your religious beliefs, you will be perceived to have certain benefits being a different skin colour than the local population. This is common in many parts of the world. As a foreigner you probably won’t be expected to follow the local religious customs, but you will be expected to respect them regardless of your personal beliefs. Further, the Middle East gets a bad rap from the public media so it pays to search around for some first-hand accounts. A lot of people work in the Middle East because there are plenty of jobs there (not just for teachers, but for engineers, miners and others) so it shouldn’t be too hard to find out a few different opinions on what it’s like to live and work over there. As for contracts, expect to commit 2-3 years in a school or city. Not to worry, often round-trip flights are supplied on an annual basis. Finally, your accommodation is provided but will often be located within a compound which means armed-security. If that doesn’t tell you what the region can be like, then maybe you’re better off looking elsewhere.

This is the hotbed for ESL teachers. From Japan, South Korea and China all the way down to the tip of Indonesia, the Asian region thirsts for education, especially in English. The population of this part of the world is over 3 billion people and they’re all looking to step on the world stage either in business, travel or simply for interest’s sake. Qualifications range from nothing (if you show up and are willing to teach) to university degrees and/or ESL certifications for those sought-after international and university positions. Freelancing is also an option, whether online (read more below) or in-country as additional income to your regular pay or on your own. Whatever the case, southeast Asia is quickly becoming the new home of the so-called “digital nomad” who are able to work with only their computer and an internet connection yet want affordable cost of living combined with access to state-of-the-art facilities (just visit Singapore!) Finally, some areas of southeast Asia have a bad image because of fighting, namely the border between Thailand and Malaysia, within Cambodia, and also in Myanmar. Yes, there do exist pockets of religious extremists and inter-tribal fighting, but much of that is off the beaten track and rarely affects the tourist industry or the expat community. Use your head and if the people you meet say don’t go there, then don’t go. If you’ve never been to Asia, now’s the time to go either as an ESL teacher or simply as a traveller.

Eastern Europe
It’s a dynamic and growing region that is undergoing changes every day. Made up of formerly Soviet or communist countries, these places (Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Georgia, etc.) offer a glimpse of countries-in-transition. Some countries, such as Ukraine, are almost a step back in time as their ability to develop is limited by various factors. Although you’ll find some folks who speak English in these areas, knowing a Slavic language (such as Polish, Ukrainian or Russian) or German would prove useful in your search for a job. The salaries offered are good enough to travel around the region but not good enough to save up very much. Many of these countries offer a very affordable cost of living but lack a few of the amenities more developed countries have, such as good health care or hospital coverage.

South America
The same desire of learning English as you would find in Asia but often with the pay of Eastern Europe. That is to say, the demand to learn English is huge but you won’t be making as much as if you were to go to Asia or the Middle East. Many placements are volunteer or offer a modest salary (around $1000/mth) and may include round-trip flights from your home country. Places such as Brazil, however, offer better pay but come with a price, a lot of corruption. There are a few notable recruiters who can help you in your search but it pays to have an idea of where you want to go. A teaching job in Brazil that pays well may require much more commitment than a job in Chile, where the pay isn’t as good but the cost of living, and the standard you can buy with your money, may be comparable. Brazil, the largest country on the continent, hosts the World Cup in 2014 and, as a result, is rapidly modernizing itself to deal with the influx of tourists and attention on the global stage. Other countries, such as Argentina, offer a unique cultural experience from north to south (it’s a long country) but you’ll see sides of life (eg, poverty) that you may make you feel uncomfortable.

For certified teachers Africa offers some great placements especially in places such as Egypt, Morocco and Ghana. However, those with no experience will still find plenty of opportunities to teach all over Africa, but often those placements will be volunteer. You may choose to use a program such as the Peace Corps in the USA, BUNAC in Europe, or maybe another NGO you can find online. You could also show up and and lend a hand wherever you’re needed. Much like parts of southeast Asia, orphanages and small, local schools would love the opportunity to have a foreign teacher in their classroom. Another thing to consider is that, due to European imperialism in the last few hundred years, many parts of Africa still speak French in addition to their tribal language. In other words, although English is the new global language, it’s not found everywhere.

North America, Eastern Europe or Australia and New Zealand
The main problem with these markets is that they require more qualifications than other markets around the world. The pay is better and you have access to better health care and standard of living, but sometimes the contracts are even shorter than those offered abroad and the jobs don’t offer the same benefits as other placements. Further, some countries won’t recognize your experience teaching abroad, at least that was the case a few years ago. However, as more teachers want to return to their homelands after having taught abroad, that experience is paying off in the classroom not only for new immigrants, but for new teachers who want to learn more about going abroad to teach.

I put this last but it’s certainly not least. It’s the newest entrant to the education field and becoming increasingly important. Teachers new and experienced alike can find work online by offering products and services to students. Be it a free website in combination with paid-tutoring, teachers are able to work “flexible” hours (only in the sense that you don’t have to leave your house, you still need a good internet connection and accommodate the time zones of your students), while also creating their own course work. If you choose to go the solo route, you’ll have to also devote time and energy to marketing your products and services. If you choose to be employed by an online school, then you’ll have to learn their system and follow their rules for engaging students. Whatever you choose, don’t rule out teaching online before, during or after your time in the classroom.

I hope that helps you decided where you want to go or at least gives you some guidance in making your choices. Keep an open mind and give yourself permission to go. Be safe and have fun!

How to Get Started Teaching ESL in East Asia – FREE eBook!

Well, here it is folks, my first “book” of sorts. It’s a guide on how to get started teaching ESL in East Asia. It discusses finding a job and preparing for the interview, planning a class, the advantages and disadvantages of each country in southeast Asia, and much more than that.

The book is free to download and you can share it as you wish, but please give me credit and a link back to this website.

If you have any questions, concerns or comments about the book, please get in touch with me through email, stevensirski [at] gmail [dot] com. I hope you find it useful!

00 - Title Page - Getting Started - August 18a, 2013

Teaching ESL Abroad: Volunteer or Work?

There are different ways to go about travelling the world as an ESL teacher, two of the most popular are to volunteer through a program or get a paying job. In this article I want to outline some of advantages and disadvantages of teaching ESL as a volunteer and as an employee.

Kids will be kids.
Kids will be kids.

By volunteering, future employers will view you as a helpful and caring person, willing to take time off from your work schedule to spend time with those less fortunate. Time spent volunteering will also look good on your resume. It shows you’re not simply motivated by money, but willing to help those in need and take yourself out of your comfort zone. Many volunteering positions will be in impoverished areas which will require you adapt to a different set of circumstances and people.

If you’re nervous about teaching ESL and don’t know if you’ll enjoy it, volunteering will let you try it out and give you a pretty good indication about whether or not you’ll enjoy the job. Performance reviews and well-intentioned, but persistent, parents aren’t usually a problem for a volunteer. When you go volunteering, teaching is often a secondary consideration while the primary consideration is whether or not you can work well with the kids and care for their needs. Your presence alone shows them that there are others out there that are aware of their problems and are willing to help. Further, volunteering doesn’t just reflect you as a person, but your country as well. This is important to bear in mind since your students will often have various ideas in mind about you and your country. Movies will often influence their ideas, but word of mouth and the news are among the other influences shaping their impression of foreigners. You’ll soon realize how your country and its people are perceived abroad simply by talking to the students.

As a volunteer, you’re often seen more as a caregiver than simply a teacher. Many places focus on your character and how you deal with people. Although the majority of your students will want to learn from you, some might not be interested. Difficult children or students may simply walk away from your class and you can’t, and probably won’t want to, do anything about it. You won’t be responsible for their educational needs or their future. As a volunteer, there aren’t as many expectations and pressures to discipline the students for not attending class. Of course they will want to have fun but, at the end of the day, English is just one of the tools they want in order to improve their livelihoods.

As a volunteer you are also given much more freedom in regard to what you teach and how. If you are a musician, most places would love for you to teach some music classes. Filmmaker or theatre major? Get the kids involved in a production. Sports enthusiast? Soccer/football is practically an international language itself. The gamut you can run as a volunteer is much more varied and open for interpretation than as a paid ESL teacher. The kids, and the organization, will be grateful that you have taken the time to teach and let them practice their language abilities with a native speaker.

...In any country.
…In any country.

Getting Paid
This is by far the most popular option since, in many parts of the world, teaching ESL is well-paid. Some of the folks I met during my year in South Korea stayed and kept teaching, either at the same school or somewhere else. Getting paid as an ESL teacher offers you another career choice different from what you probably had back home. After all, you probably went abroad to teach looking “for something different” in the first place, right? Although volunteering can lead to work with NGOs or other such volunteer programs, finding a job as an ESL teacher in another country offers you a more immediate career choice. You get a job, do it well, renew your contract, and repeat.

There are a few different challenges as a paid ESL teacher. You will be expected to deal with difficult children and demanding parents. Further, you might be required to mark their English abilities which can have lasting consequences both personally and academically. Sometimes this means deciding whether or not a child can go study abroad in an English country. It can be a lot of pressure for some people. And as an employee you might find large differences between the work ethic of your home country and your new host country, particularly in regard to sick days and holidays. Often, your vacation days are limited and your sick days are monitored and must fall in line with the school’s policy on “being sick,” which is often much different from how it is in Europe, North America or Australia. Lastly, your job description may include having to participate in school functions on your own time or conducting summer or winter school programs.

And if you surpass all that, you may find that your boss himself may not speak English and has never met a foreign employee before!

In conclusion
There are benefits to both volunteering and getting paid so it really comes down to what you are willing to do and how you want your travels to take shape. Both offer great experiences and will no doubt expose you to a variety of work environments, people and cultures. If you’re concerned about your career, both will enhance your resume while broadening your mind. Do some research and understand what’s involved in either type of placement. But, after all that, don’t forget to just go!

The Basics of Teaching an ESL Class

The Monster gameI recently met a fellow who was looking into finding work as an English teacher. He had volunteered a few times before but he still only had a general idea of how to structure an ESL class. He asked me what I normally do and so I gave him a very basic break down of an ESL class. I learned this structure in South Korea and have used it ever since.

An ESL class typically consists of 4 or 5 parts:

Introduction/Greeting – 3 minutes
Very basic part. The best idea is to establish some sort of routine that you go through. Good morning/afternoon/evening and allow the students to give the appropriate response. You can call on a few of the students and ask them how they are, what they did, where they went, etc. I always liked to engage my students in conversation at the beginning of the class. The strong students usually responded first, but it helps to get the nerves out of the weaker students by asking them a few simple questions. Don’t drill them, but show them that it’s okay to speak up and make mistakes. This will help their confidence. The introduction gives them a chance at a rehearsed section and some free conversation. This works for both younger and older students, though with older students I’m more inclined to ask them about how their day went, friends, work, etc. and generally make more conversation than with younger students.

Development – 15 minutes x 2
Usually split into two parts, each part dealing with one or two of the four basic skills: listening, speaking, reading, writing. Most schools will have a textbook that you can go by so your job may be little more than explain the exercise and then walk around correcting answers. The typical structure of BOTH development parts is:

  • introduce the material
  • given an example
  • get one of the students to try
  • ask them if they understand
  • instruct the students what they are to do
  • give them five minutes to work on the exercise
  • then spend 5 minutes asking students for their answers. Select both stronger and weaker students, though it pays to let some stronger students go first.

Game – 20 minutes
All students love games if only because it means they can squirrel away to the back and avoid eye contact with you. You’ll know better, of course. The game section often has the following pattern:

  • introduction of the game
  • example
  • explanation of the rules
  • play

Splitting the class into two teams is fun because it fosters competition, though make sure you lay down the rules for misbehaviour. The last thing you want is students yelling out answers, hitting each other (it happens), or getting overly excited that chaos rains supreme.

Review – 2 minutes
Another easy part of the class and only 2 minutes until you can sit down and breathe a sigh of relief… until your next class begins in five minutes. Ask one of the stronger students what they learned today, then select a weaker student to give an answer.

Extra – ?? minutes
There are times when you will finish your class early. As an ESL teacher you’re expected to keep those kids working on their English skills until that bell rings. If you have extra time, it pays to have a few quick games to play. Word games, chain game, hangman (kids LOVE this game), or anything that gets the kids talking and using their English will work.

TOTAL = 55 minutes

These times are, of course, flexible.

Can you survive for 55 minutes? Yes, of course you can. Really, it’ll go by faster than you can possibly imagine.

Teaching ESL off the beaten path in Asia

You won’t be making the big bucks here but you’ll be seeing the countries develop and you’ll be helping them build the next generation into a force to be reckoned with. What do I mean? Consider that the Asian continent has more than a billion people, that’s a lot mouths to feed and one way to feed them is to do business with the West. With the places listed below, you’ll often be making enough to live comfortably within the country but may not be able to save very much. The requirements for some positions are a university degree and a TEFL certificate BUT don’t let that stop you from looking around and passing out your resume. The jobs often listed online will have a certain set of requirements but if you show up in person, you’re better than a promissory email. That being the case, some of the countries below offer TEFL certification either for a cheap price or in combination with your work.

Dave’s ESL job list has shown an increase in jobs in Myanmar. As the country modernizes and opens itself up to tourists, folks they are going to need to learn English. The British Council runs one school, though there are a few others, mostly in Yangon and Mandalay. Setting something up beforehand will save you a trip to do a visa run, but unless you’ve been to Myanmar before, you won’t know what the country is like. Another option is to volunteer. Due to the impoverished situation of many of the locals, children get abandoned and live in orphanages. If you’re willing to commit a few months with minimal compensation, teaching in an orphanage could be a test of your English teaching abilities. one organization that was recommended to me was Jobs aside, Myanmar holds great promise since it is one of the last countries in the world to begin modernizing itself. That comes with a cost, however, as some folks say that despite it’s impoverished people, the prices are similar to that in Singapore. In any event, it’s an untapped country in many ways and it would be a true adventure to see this country now and then visit it again in 10 years.


Lively kids at the orphanage in Cambodia.
Lively kids at the orphanage in Cambodia.

Prepare your heart strings to get pulled in this country as the devastation caused by the Pol Pot regime came only after the country was bombed during the Vietnam war. It seemed the country just couldn’t catch a break and the bombs kept falling and land mines filled the fields. To this day, land mines permeate arable farmland and cause numerous casualties each year. Warnings aside, Cambodia is a country you will either love or hate. The younger generation has only heard about the damage done, but the older generation lived through it. As a result, you might detect a difference in attitude towards foreigners in different age groups. What’s clear, however, is that the people are optimistic and eager to improve their situation. One of the ways they can do this is by learning a second, or even a third, language. I worked in an orphanage, SFODA (Sacrifice Families and Orphans Development Association), for three weeks around the Khmer new year in April. I found the kids highly sociable and fun-loving, eager to learn and participate in class. I had a class of about 20 students, ranging from 4 to 19. I was brought there mainly to teach while other volunteers (if there were any) would also help out with caring for the kids. I went through an agency to get my placement but, as I would find out once I got to Cambodia, you can find lots of places in need to help simply by asking your guesthouse or looking through the classifieds in one of the English new papers. If you’re looking to make money, you can do that to by freelancing. When I was there most teachers were charging about $10 an hour. Not for the faint of heart, but you’ll be glad you went. Some folks I met went through the Peace Corps, though there are other agencies you can go through that often ask for some money so they can place you. Use your judgment, for many of these countries an agency can be helpful but not necessary. As a final word of caution, I met one lady who worked for this orphanage, which was recently closed because of corruption.

IMAG8447This mixed Buddhist and Islamic country is similar in nature to Thailand. Kuala Lumpur offers the big city lights, while Pulau Penang on the West coast offers small island life and the Perhentian Islands off the East coast offer some of the best diving spots in the world. Remember, however, you’re here to work not just play! With the tropical weather and ease of life among an eclectic mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian, you’d be surprised that you could actually find a job teaching English here since so many of its inhabitants already can speak very well. The British Council runs a school but there are quite a few private institutes that need English teacher. Don’t restrict yourself to the mainland, however, as Borneo can offer a very different experience. Some say Malaysia is “expensive” compared to its neighbours, but I found that it depended on what you did. If it’s drinking, yes, Malaysia is more expensive, but accommodation and activities are all similar in price through Thailand and Malaysia. Again, it depends on where you want to be, as Malaysia doesn’t pop into mind when folks think about SE Asia. That being case, the Malaysian government is revving up its marketing engine to attract businesses and tourists with its 1Malaysia and Visit Malaysia 2014 campaigns and a push to draw more international and multinational companies to the capital by 2020.

Row of Sitting BuddhasIf there’s one place that just about everybody wants to go, it’s Thailand. The affordable bloody cheap cost of living combined with gorgeous scenery, Western amenities and adventure travel all contained in one elongated country. This is Thailand. While reverently holding their King in their hearts and minds, they welcome foreigners with open arms and smiles. Although you can snag contract jobs with various private institutes and international schools, you can also find work in smaller towns or areas off the banana pancake-trail. Remuneration isn’t much, $1000, though some jobs will offer you other benefits, but it’s enough to live comfortably and enjoy a decent standard of living. Further, if you’re like many of the foreigners moving to SE Asia, you probably have an idea to work online, a la Digital Nomad style. Since so many people visit Thailand, you may want to gain some experience to back up your qualifications (if you have them). Other than that, freelancing is an option, though it might take you a few months building up the necessary client list to support yourself in the country. Try for listings.

This small Islamic, monarch-controlled country boasts huge reserves of oil and natural gas making it one of the richest countries in the world. It’s probably best to see what the recruiters have to say about working in this country since work visas and permits can be difficult to obtain without sponsorship. It’s not a very big country but the demand for English is there and landing a job may depend heavily on your experience and qualifications.


Idyllic beaches along the coast of Bali.
Idyllic beaches along the coast of Bali.

Spreading itself over an almost impossible number of islands with the fourth largest population in the world, Indonesia is divided. The west, primarily Islamic, booms while the east, primarily Hindu, lags behind. But the Indonesian government now offers some nationalities a working holiday visa wherein you can work and travel in the country for up to a year. In any event, Jakarta (estimated population of just over 10 million people) is probably your best best bet in regard to finding employment. A city teeming with energy, the city attracts many students from the villages. Salaries aren’t very large and the usual benefits are included in the contracts, but understand that the medical system and contract system in Indonesia a little behind western standards. Further, some employers have been known to hold onto foreign teachers’ passports for the duration of the contract. Indonesia may be one of those countries you want to visit first before committing to any contract. That being the case, most folks prefer Yogyakarta to the nation’s capital, so you might want to look there instead. Bali was home to a few folks who were working online for a company called English Town. If you aren’t too concerned about making money, there are a few volunteer organizations that would love to have someone teach a few lessons or stay for a few months, Sekolah Menengah Atas Unggulan CT Foundation was recommended to me. It is based in Medan, Sumatra, but I’ve never gone through them.

And now you have an introductory guide to finding ESL jobs in Asia. The continent is booming and the demand for English is practically insatiable. That being said, things could change very quickly so get there while you can. You’ll broaden your mind, open your eyes, and gain valuable work and travel experience while having fun along the way. Good luck, have fun, and be safe!