In 2009 when I graduated from university I was working at a bar and living in a tiny attic bedroom in the San Francisco Bay Area. I wasn’t making enough to pay rent and there were days when I didn’t have enough money to buy lunch. Student loan payments were coming due.

2009 was one of the worst years to graduate from college in America, and living in the Bay Area meant competition for work was fierce. I was applying to any job I could, and getting turned down for many. I interviewed with tech companies, university departments, retail stores, non-profits, and sandwich shops. Either there were too many applicants or I was overqualified for the job and they knew that when the economy improved that I’d move on. 

Then I was offered a job as a teacher. Overseas. I hadn’t even considered it, but that job offer changed my life.

Maybe your story is different. Maybe you got a job out of college and money isn’t such a problem, but you hate the work and feel disconnected from any sense of purpose. Maybe you were able to pay for school but as you finished, you realized you wanted to see the world.

Whatever the circumstances, the same opportunity that changed my life can change yours.

Considering the state of the world and what it’s like just to get by in many developed countries, considering the hard work you’ve put into your education and skills, maybe it’s time to consider going abroad. You have the opportunity to get your financial house in order, see the world, and do meaningful work.

It’s time to take advantage of that opportunity. Now is the time to move abroad and teach ESL.

You were promised a dream that doesn’t exist

All my life, my parents, teachers, and other authority figures insisted college was the path to the promised land. Go to school and get a job and everything will work out. Sure, student loans are a factor, but with a degree you’ll land a career that will allow you to pay those down, as well as let you buy a house, a car, start a family, get a dog – you know, the American Dream.

That is not how it happened. There were no jobs, or if there were, we were overqualified and underpaid. The people who found work after school were either the kids who studied computer science or they were the kids who’d had the luxury of doing internships and attending networking events. 

Contrary to what my parents had told me, a degree wasn’t enough. You aren’t going into tech? Don’t have a job lined up through an internship or someone your dad knows? Go to grad school. Go to law school. 

But with what money? I was already in massive debt – how was I going to take out more?

I am clearly not alone. The average American college student graduates with $30,000 of debt. Housing costs are skyrocketing. Jobs for college graduates are increasingly hard to come by. Financially, I would have been better served apprenticing in a trade or joining the Army.

And this experience is not uniquely American. The world over, people are graduating college only to find that the middle class lifestyle they were told was available to them is not, in fact, available to them. At least not without more schooling, years of grinding menial labor on the edge of poverty, or some other type of assistance.

The rent is too damn high

Cost of living across the English-speaking world is extremely high. In the U.S., the vast majority of people can’t afford the median cost of a house. The average rent in the U.S. is US$1,100 a month. In the UK it’s almost US$1,400. Those prices are the average, and don’t include major cities like New York and London, where cost of living is so high it’s amazing to most of us that anyone is able to do it. And we haven’t even mentioned Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or Ireland where the story is pretty much the same.

The same applies to other cost of living metrics. Transportation, utilities, health insurance in the U.S., all are too high.

The cost of living in a common ESL teacher destination: Thailand

Contrast this to living in a country like Thailand. A normal starting salary as an ESL teacher in Bangkok is roughly US$1,300 per month. The average rent for an apartment? US$300 a month. 

After rent, you have US$1,000 left over to cover other living expenses, savings, paying debt, and recreation. But you can get by in Bangkok for less than US$1000 per month. 

This means the day you land, if you have an ESL job, you are making enough to cover expenses and save. And, again, this is starting; after gaining some experience and working their way up, some teachers in Bangkok have earned over US$3,500 – they can live comfortably and devote more than half their income to saving and/or getting out of debt. 

Also, these numbers are for Thailand. Other countries offer higher pay (but also higher cost of living), and the more experience you gain and the more qualified you are, the more you can earn relative to your expenses. This is how so many people have been able to teach ESL abroad and get on their feet financially.

The amount it costs just to live a decent life is absurd. Many college grads will spend years trying to attain financial security, and some never find it. Instead of getting stuck in the rat race, flip the script. Go abroad and teach. See the world. Save money. Feel good about what you do.

Plus, Thailand is beautiful.

With a TEFL certificate, you have the training and qualities to do the job

For better or for worse, if you speak English natively or fluently, you already have the main skill required to teach abroad.

If you have a college degree, you are an educated professional.

The only thing left is a TEFL certificate; getting one will help boost your resume and make sure you have some idea of how to teach when you start an ESL teaching job.

The reason getting a TEFL certificate is so important, beyond the fact that many countries and employers require ESL teachers to have one, is that earning a TEFL certificate ensures you have spent ample time studying education and how to teach. Knowing something, like the English language, is not a guarantee that you can impart that knowledge to someone else. 

Teaching is a skill, and your TEFL certificate shows you have the skill set to do the job.

English education is increasingly in demand

English is far and away the most studied second language in the world.

English is also the lingua franca – the common global language of business, trade, diplomacy, and academia.

And the importance of English is only increasing, as is the market for English education.

This means that with fluent English skills and a TEFL certificate, you are positioning yourself to be part of a growing and important global industry.

People the world over want to learn English and are ready to pay for capable and enthusiastic teachers. You can help these people and explore the world at the same time.

Financial independence

Like myself, many potential teachers are looking for a way to stand on their own two feet financially. Cost of living is high and jobs are hard to find. Student loan debt is out of control.

Many teachers have used their positions as ESL educators to improve their financial situation. As with the example of Thailand above, teachers are able to save more of what they earn and thus address debt, savings, or reach other financial goals.

Financial independence through teaching abroad doesn’t happen overnight and it requires consistency and focus, but it is also perhaps the best and most rewarding way for people in debt to improve their financial situation.

Travel and exploration

The thing about going abroad is that once you do it, it’s hard to stop. And by living in a foreign country, you find that it is easier to travel to other countries.

Travel is its own reward, but by teaching abroad, you are in many ways getting paid to explore a new place and culture. 

And beyond the country you have decided to make your second home, you have the opportunity to travel to so many different places. There are a million ESL teacher travel blogs because there is an endless supply of opportunities for exploration. Some of these teachers even go on to become travel bloggers or writers.

Since I have moved to Asia, I alone have visited South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, and China. ESL teachers in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East have an equal number of travel opportunities.

Travelling and ESL education go hand in hand. If you want to explore the world in a meaningful way, teaching abroad is your ticket.

Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities to visit.

Teaching abroad is rewarding

As I mentioned, before I left for my ESL teaching job, I was working in a bar. I met a lot of drunks. I was kicking around in my college town. I was doing a lot of sleeping in the middle of the day. Life didn’t seem to have a whole lot of meaning.

Then I moved overseas. I had a group of students I was responsible for. I had deadlines and lessons and planning meetings to attend. I had coworkers who were new teachers like me and others who were veterans who helped show me the ropes. We worked together and became close friends. 

I developed relationships with students. I met their parents. I went to dinner with their families, and was offered jobs and side gigs and projects by the people I met who liked me, thought I was doing a good job, and appreciated the work I was doing.

I went from doing meaningless work to doing work that was directly benefiting people. I was working in a positive, happy environment where people were trying to learn. 

I was happier for the chance to be doing something rewarding, both financially and personally. You can be happier too.

Whether you live in the U.S., UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or in many other countries around the world, life can be difficult these days. For financial or personal reasons, you may be considering making a change.

Perhaps the best change you could make is to go abroad and teach ESL. Clearly, doing so can help you save money, explore the world, and engage in rewarding work. If you are ready for a life changing adventure, now’s your chance.

Now is the time to move abroad and teach ESL.

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.