My experience teaching ESL abroad is not the same as everyone else’s. While working as a teacher, I also focused heavily on improving my finances and debt situation back home, especially paying off student loan debt. Furthermore, travel was a priority for me as working in Asia enabled me to explore parts of the world most of my friends back home had never even heard of.

Other people do it differently. Some people travel more, some save more, some get out of teaching and move into other fields, and some people struggle. I was pretty lucky in that I was patient and insisted on working at quality schools for good salaries. I was also more focused on my specific goals than some ESL teachers are.

There are, of course, teachers who have had bad experiences, and teachers who make the experience less positive than it should be. Like in any endeavor, if you approach teaching abroad without planning and consideration, things can go awry. The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to have a plan and to work with people who have experience. 

Here are a few common hazards teachers may face when teaching overseas, as well as how I was able to avoid them:

Bad schools

The unfortunate truth is that for many ESL programs, the business and financial concerns can take priority over the quality of the program and the well-being of the staff and students. 

As such, there are, sadly, schools that don’t take education as seriously as they should, or they try to take advantage of teachers. 

Teachers have complained about not being paid for work they have done, being promised hours they never got, or having pay docked illegally.

How to avoid bad schools

One of the best ways to protect yourself is getting a teaching certificate of any kind, like a TEFL certification, as it will make you eligible for better jobs. 

Next, be sure to read hiring contracts fully and ask questions of the hiring manager. Pay attention to how professional the manager or principal is in the interview and hiring process—hiring managers that seem desperate or pushy are a red flag.

You can also get online and look at reviews of the school, or, better yet, try to find former or current teachers and get their opinions on the program. Take obviously disgruntled criticism with a grain of salt, but other teachers are usually willing to offer information and help should you need it.

Finally, it can be helpful to work with a placement service or consulting program to ensure your first job, and subsequent positions, are high quality and reliable.

Make sure you carefully read hiring contracts and ask questions. If the contract is in a language you don’t understand, make sure you get a translator to help you.

Low pay

Some teachers complain about low pay at ESL teaching jobs. This is not universal – there are many ESL teaching jobs that pay very well, and low paying jobs are usually for teachers with little to no experience, or they’re at low quality schools for teachers without better options. 

Still, you should make sure you are earning the most money you can for the good work that you do.

How to avoid low-paying positions

Again, a surefire way to earn more early on is to have a TEFL certificate or something similar. Any kind of certification not only helps prepare you as a teacher, but it also shows potential employers you have trained for a teaching role.

Another important way to maximize your earnings is to be patient and do your research. If you know where you would like to teach, research what the entry, average, and high level pay rates are in that country or area. Don’t just jump at your first job offer, and if a school is offering something you are not comfortable with, be willing to keep searching.

Not staying focused

The most common mistake I saw teachers make was to not have long-term goals and to simply coast in their ESL teaching jobs. Some of these people never worked to improve or learn more, they didn’t try to explore very much, or they didn’t see anything worth sticking around for, and just kind of gave up.

Some teachers ended up going back home to a dead end job like I had. Some of them got too involved in expat party scenes and spent all their money “having fun” and then had nothing to show for it. Some teachers became dissatisfied and malcontent with the same type of work and the same level of pay year after year, but also weren’t doing anything to improve their situation.

For most people who have a bad experience with teaching ESL, their negative feelings are rooted in a lack of focus. I was the opposite – I was hyper focused on paying off debt and doing some travelling, so I saved money. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t living like a hermit and I still made friends, went out, and of course travelled, but those were only options after I had made sure I was approaching work professionally and I was saving money for my future.

How to keep focused

First, before you move overseas, you need a plan. How long do you want to be away from home? While you are away, what do you hope to accomplish? How much are you going to need to earn, and what kind of lifestyle are you expecting?

To answer these questions and make my own plan, I used what I call the SEE method: Save, Explore, and Engage:

  • Save: Many teachers find it important to put aside money away each paycheck to pay for a large ticket, long term item. Some people save up for graduate school, down payments on houses, or to open a business. I worked to pay off student loans.
  • Explore: I made travel and exploration a priority. I was enthusiastic to learn about my new home and the culture I was in, as well as taking the chance to visit new places as frequently as was reasonable. For me, this included putting a little extra money aside each paycheck.
  • Engage: I wanted to make sure I was present and engaged with my work, and with the type of life I was living. Socializing and making friends was cool, but I also was committed to being a strong teacher, a role model to my students, a positive coworker and employee, and someone who was healthy both physically and mentally.  

Once you have made a plan, based on the SEE method or otherwise, use it as a benchmark to measure the types of positions you want to take, the places you want to go, and the activities you want to engage in. Stick to your plan. Stay focused.

The pitfalls of ESL-teaching pale in comparison to the benefits, but they are also real and something to pay attention to.

The people who have the best experiences and set themselves up for success in life, whether in continuing their adventure or moving on, are the ones who have made a plan and who are focused.

Mac Lee

Teacher in Taipei

Mac is a longtime ESL educator and teacher trainer living in Taiwan. He got his start teaching elementary classes but has developed into a college applications coach and academic writing teacher as well as an occasional lecturer at universities in Taiwan. Mac originally comes from California.