A lot of people where I went to school had big dreams of corporate or government jobs after graduation, only to be disappointed. After going to college for four years, many careers still require extra training or advanced degrees. 

Some of my friends went back to graduate school, many more ended up in jobs they didn’t love. I had friends who became managers at fast food restaurants or shops in the mall, car salesmen, and admin assistants at an insurance company. Through college I worked as a waiter and bartender, and when I graduated, I was offered full-time hours and benefits at my restaurant, which was a better financial option than any other job that was available to me.

Still, I didn’t want to be a bartender in a college town for the rest of my life. There is nothing wrong with the jobs my friends still have in retail and food service and the like, but it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to do something more, but I didn’t have a ton of money and my work experience was all related to restaurants.

So I looked for different options, and one possible plan of action stuck out to me: teaching English overseas. I did some research and decided it was a wise way to move my life forward.

Long story short, I earned a TEFL certification, picked a country, and set up some interviews. A few months later I got on a plane and started a whole new life. I had my moments of uncertainty, sure, but I also made lifelong friends, have seen sights and places my friends from back home only daydream about, and set myself up financially so I have a lot of options these days. 

A decade after leaving my bartending job, I want to share my ESL teaching experience with everyone else who might find themselves over-educated for their job, underpaid, and looking for something more fulfilling in life.

Teaching ESL – what it’s good for

There are a lot of ESL teachers and a lot of ESL teaching jobs. Some of them are serious academic positions that require advanced degrees and years of experience. Some are at the university level and some are in corporate boardrooms.

However, some feel a little like babysitting. That was my situation at first – I got a teaching job in Asia at a cram school where I was teaching three groups: a class of first graders five days a week, then alternating evenings were different groups of older kids, aged 10-12.

I was nervous at first – I never really had a desire to work with kids previously, and now it was going to be my full-time job. However, I ended up surprising myself because I liked it. Pretty quickly my students adjusted to my personality and my classes were fun. It wasn’t a particularly high-powered curriculum that I covered; mostly vocabulary, grammar, and reading simple stories. But there was a lot of conversation and exchange, my kids had fun in my class, and more importantly, they were learning English and getting valuable cultural exposure. I wish I’d had a foreign language class like mine when I was in grade school.

Moreover, I felt better about working with and helping kids every day than I did about pouring drinks and earning tips for a living. And it didn’t hurt that the pay allowed me to cover my living expenses, do some travelling, and save more than $700 a month.

I got to see the world

In all honesty, one of the biggest motivating factors behind me leaving my job in the States and moving overseas was the chance to travel. I had a deep urge to see more of the world and put myself in places most of my peers hadn’t even heard of.

My first few months were all about getting adjusted. My school helped me get set up with an apartment, I found some language classes so I could learn to communicate better with the locals, and I began exploring my neighborhood. There was a lot to see.

Living in Taipei, Taiwan, I saw centuries-old temples, funeral parades and dragon dances, bought vegetables at bustling traditional markets, and learned to eat foods I would never have considered before I’d gotten on that plane.

Once I had my bearings, however, it was time to travel. Living in Asia is fantastic for people who are inclined to see a new country a few times a year. Taipei is a short flight to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Vietnam – all of which I visited in my first three years.

I simply set a few hundred dollars aside every month of work after paying my bills, and then used that money as a travel fund. My trips to Japan and Hong Kong were short holidays while my Vietnam trip lasted two weeks. I was able to use my apartment and job as essentially a travel base from which to explore East and Southeast Asia. I saw cultures I had never heard of, met a ton of interesting people, and everything was sensory overload, from the food to the smells to the grand vistas and towering skyscrapers.

And then after my trips, I got home, unpacked my stuff, and got back to work teaching.

A shot of Tokyo Tower in Japan.

Gaining financial independence

Travel was important to me, but even more than that was getting out of debt. College required taking out student loans, and I was making almost the minimum payment per month on them before I left. I wanted out of that cycle.

I’ll be totally honest with you, in terms of pure numbers, I made more money as a bartender than I did as an English teacher for my first few years. However, the money that I got to keep back home was much less. I was sharing an overpriced apartment with a roommate and needed to make car payments and insurance payments each month. With these expenses in addition to my student loan payments, my bartending job wasn’t enough.

So I sold my car and used that money to finance my plane ticket and set myself up for my first few weeks. Then I started earning a regular paycheck. Sure, the number value was lower, but my cost of living was so much cheaper. I was paying less than half of what I used to for rent and had no car payments or other fees to worry about. 

As I mentioned above, before long I was putting away over $700 a month. I wasn’t saving all of this money—some of it was going to my travel fund, and a lot of it was going to paying down my student loans. Instead of making minimum monthly payments, I was now not only paying off interest, but starting to dig into principal.

I should also mention that I wasn’t just working my main teaching job—I started offering tutoring lessons on the side and doing language exchange, and eventually I was earning an extra 30 to 40 percent each month.

After five years, my loans were paid off, I was debt free, and I had teaching experience and a steady income. I also had friends, a girlfriend, a great apartment, and a high quality of life, especially compared to what it had been before I left.

Giving myself options

I don’t want to give the impression that it was always a breeze; on the contrary, I had to work hard, stay focused, avoid common pitfalls, and sometimes buckle down and do work that I didn’t love in order to put myself in the position I am in now, a position where I have a lot of good options.

Having continued to save and travel, and now I have some choices to make. I have enough in savings that I could go back home and put a down payment on a house or go back to graduate school. I have considered opening a business here. I have since gotten married and we are discussing building a family.

My point is, I have a lot of choices and options now, and I am not sure I would have had as many opportunities, both financial and personal, had I not made the decision to teach overseas.

Teaching ESL abroad not only helped to set me up for a happy future, but also was the vehicle that put me into the next stage of my life and took me out of a disappointing situation.

If you are tired of working too much for too little and disappointed with the rut you find yourself in, it might be time to consider changing your context. Put yourself in the position to make a difference for students, see the world in ways you never thought possible, and get back on track financially.

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.