Is Teaching English abroad a Waste of Time?

by Teach and Go Staff | Last Updated: April 14, 2021

Is Teaching English abroad a Waste of Time?

Teaching English abroad is a wonderful opportunity for any young person out of school looking to get out into the world. It can potentially blossom into a full career where you teach internationally at a professional level, it can also be that stop gap as you’re working towards a bigger goal.

But it can also be a trap. The dangerous side of teaching English abroad is that too many teachers get stuck. Stuck at a low level school, getting paid enough to live but not much beyond that, not developing any new skills and making it harder to transition back to your country of origin.

The teacher trap

Teachers tend to get stuck abroad precisely because it’s so much fun and engaging (at first). As a younger person with minimal skills your quality of life instantly goes up. Top that off with meeting a cute foreign girl or man and it’s no surprise how a 1 year plan becomes 6 years of doing the same exact same thing.

You get stuck in your ways, your routine and life passes by quick. It’s easy to go from 26 and being “young and just figuring things out” to 32 and “what am I doing with my life.” So what exactly are the positives and negatives of teaching abroad?

The 5 positives of teaching abroad

There are numerous positives. The staff here at Teach and GO all have international experience teaching abroad and from our collective experience here are the best reasons to go abroad and teach:

It can potentially change your life for the better

Going abroad for all too many people has changed lives. We’ve meet teachers who meet someone, fell in love and now work together internationally at schools as professional teachers. We’ve meet others who used teaching abroad as a means to an end as they we’re building their blog, online store, side hustle and so forth.

Creators like YouTuber Drew Binsky and blogger Nomadic Matt both got their start respectively as low paid English teachers. Same with Johnny Ward who one upon a time was making $800 a month teaching English in Chiang Mai and is now a millionaire.

While the exception does not make the rule, it’s totally possible to teach abroad and then to continue your education to expand your opportunities. Our community manager Brad for example started as an ESL teacher and now has a masters degree and because of his previous work experience teaching, was able to get a job at a startup in Vietnam in addition to managing this website.

The industry is huge with many opportunities

Don’t just think that teaching abroad means being a broke backpacker trying to make ends meet. There are so many levels in this industry with a lot of highly paid professionals. The only catch is you have to become a professional, continue your education and take on more responsibility to warrant a higher pay.

This is why we first brought up the concept of a teacher trap, too many get comfortable and stuck in their routine. But if you’re ambitious and are willing to move to new places, take on new positions and continue your education, you will discover that there are many interesting positions you can have as an international, ESL teacher.

See the world, develop more flexibility with your location

This is more targeted at Americans than anyone else, but one great thing about going abroad is that you can see the world and develop a greater perspective of work and opportunities. No longer will you limit your choices and opportunities to the part of the world where you happened to be born.

Going abroad you realize that you can go anywhere and make a life for yourself. A lot of Americans want to live where they grew up and miss out on opportunities because it’s not in their home state or region. Once you go abroad you shed this notion and realize that it’s a big world and there is reason to limit yourself.

Develop helpful soft skills

Hard skills are technical stuff like learning how to program. Soft skills by contrast are those more intangible abilities like public speaking, fitting into a work environment and managing a room.

Most new teachers who set foot into their first classroom ever are quite overwhelmed and nervous. 20 to 30 students looking to you to lead the class, it forces you to adapt. As a teacher you’ll eventually develop the invaluable skill of public speaking, managing a room with regards to discipline and how to maintain a level of professionalism.

If you’re someone who is a bit shy or reserved, going abroad and teaching for a year will enable you to correct the weak parts of your personality quickly.

International travel made easy

An absolutely huge advantage of going abroad is that you can travel internationally much more easily. As a teacher in Thailand for example you can easily visit Myanmar, Bali, Vietnam or Japan. No longer are these places on the other side of the world.

Instead, they cost a few hundred dollars for a round trip without you needing to fly for 12+ hours. By far, the best thing about being a new ESL teacher is the travel opportunities. This fades as you become more experienced and settled as a professional teacher, but as a young 20 year being able to see the world a bit makes teaching abroad an invaluable experience.

The 5 negatives of teaching abroad

Teaching English abroad in a foreign country like Thailand or Vietnam is a worthwhile experience for almost anyone. However, it’s not without it’s drawbacks. Here is what you should be aware of when going abroad:

Getting stuck in a dead end teaching job

Most positions abroad require teachers to have a degree, be a native English speaker and preferably have a TEFL certificate. These positions are obviously the easiest and lowest paying to get. But they are a good start for new ESL teachers.

The problem arises when you get complacent and comfortable. You like the area where you live, you have a few friends and a routine you enjoy. Your teaching job is good as young person, but too many let a 1 year teach abroad experience turn into 5 years. Doing the same thing for years all while making roughly the same low pay.

Not progressing professionally

Most professionals continue their education in some capacity. Be it certification, higher education, taking on more responsibility and so forth. This ties in with the first point, but too many ESL teachers stagnate instead of looking for ways to improve and progress.

When you go abroad to teach, have a timeline and a plan. We here at Teach and GO suggest most teachers go abroad for 2 years max at the same job. Two years is enough time to enjoy your time abroad. When finished, move onto something else.

Be it building an online business, more education and certification to become a teacher at an international school or to return home and become a school teacher.

Culture shock and not being flexible

Did you know that in Thailand no student fails a class? If you fail a student then they have to go to summer school with you to complete the required work until you pass them. Most Thai teachers simply opt to pass all students for this reason.

We bring this up because other countries and cultures are different. You’re not the first or last foreigner to find something wrong about a place and wish things were done differently. Just accept things as this is a form of culture shock.

Last, be flexible in doing things differently. Yes, in Vietnam they sometimes drive their motorbikes up on the sidewalk to get around traffic. Is it right? No. Are you going to change this behavior by complaining and getting mad? No. Be open to doing things differently.

This does not mean you need to tolerate bad behavior, but it does mean you need to go with the flow proverbially.

You will miss family and holidays

Most who go abroad love it and don’t really miss home but there are a few new young teachers who find it difficult to be away from family for a year or two. You can combat these feelings through travel and making the most of your time abroad as it is only temporary for most.

Also understand that what holidays that are important to you, don’t apply abroad. Your school and the staff are not really going to care about some random American holiday like the 4th of July. Yes you may want to take the day off an celebrate but you’re not in your country and culture anymore.

The longer you’re abroad, the harder it is to transition back to your home country

Plan a 1 or 2 year stint abroad teaching. Then move on to something else. Having a plan is important because as time goes on it gets harder and harder to transition back to life and work in your home country.

It gets harder to obtain employment after being abroad for literally years as employers outside of education won’t value your experience. Enjoy your time abroad but have a plan. Otherwise you’ll fall into the teacher trap. Where you’re abroad, you can’t really go home because you have no skills and you’re stuck teaching English.

Conclusion and final thoughts

To conclude teaching English abroad is a life changing opportunity. That life changing aspect however can be good or bad. Just make sure you have plan as the benefits of teaching abroad peak at the two year mark, beyond that you start wasting your time by doing the same job in the same place.