Is Teaching English abroad a Waste of Time?

By Editorial Staff •  Updated: 01/14/23 •  Teach Abroad

Teaching English abroad is a beautiful opportunity for any young person out of school looking to get out into the world. It can potentially blossom into a professional career where you teach internationally. It can also be that stopgap as you work 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 and 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 their 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 life quality instantly increases. Top that off with meeting a cute foreign girl or man, and it’s no surprise how a one-year plan becomes six years of doing the same thing.

You get stuck in your ways, and your routine and life pass quickly. 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 five 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 overseas and teach:

It can potentially change your life for the better

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

Creators like YouTuber Drew Binsky and blogger Nomadic Matt got their start respectively as low-paid English teachers. Same with Johnny Ward, who once made $800 a month teaching English in Chiang Mai and is now a millionaire.

While the exception does not make the rule, teaching abroad and continuing your education to expand your opportunities is possible. Our community manager Brad, for example, started as an ESL teacher and now has a master’s degree. Because of his previous work experience teaching, he got a job at a startup in Vietnam and managed this website.

The industry is enormous, 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 many highly paid professionals. The only catch is to become a professional, continue your education and take on more responsibility to warrant higher pay.

This is why we first introduced the concept of a teacher trap; too many get comfortable and need help in their routine. But suppose you’re ambitious and are willing to move to new places, take on new positions and continue your education. In that case, you will discover many exciting 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 at anyone else. Still, one great thing about going abroad is seeing the world and developing 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 you can go anywhere and make a life for yourself. Many Americans want to live where they grew up and miss out on opportunities because it’s outside their home state or region. Once you go abroad, you shed this notion and realize it’s a big world, and there is reason to limit yourself.

Develop practical soft skills

Hard skills are technical stuff like learning how to program. By contrast, soft skills are:

Most new teachers who enter their first classroom are overwhelmed and nervous. 20 to 30 students are looking to you to lead the class, which forces you to adapt. As a teacher, you’ll eventually develop the invaluable skill of public speaking, managing a room concerning discipline, and maintaining professionalism.

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

International travel made easy

A massive advantage of going abroad is that you can travel internationally more quickly. For example, as a teacher in Thailand, 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. 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 its 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 native English speakers, and preferably have a TEFL certificate. These positions are 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 suits a young person, but only a few let a one-year teaching abroad experience turn into five years. You have been 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, etc. This ties in with the first point, but more ESL teachers should look 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 that most teachers go abroad for two years at the same job. Two years is enough time to enjoy your time abroad. When finished, move on to something else.

Whether building an online business, getting more education and certification to become a teacher at an international school, or returning home and becoming a school teacher.

Culture shock and not being flexible

Did you know that in Thailand, every student fails a class? If you fail a student, they must go to summer school with you to complete the required work until you pass them. Most Thai teachers 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, they sometimes drive their motorbikes up on the sidewalk to get around traffic in Vietnam. 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 go with the flow proverbially.

You will miss your family and holidays

Most who go abroad love it and don’t miss home, but a few new young teachers find it challenging 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 are important to you, don’t apply abroad. Your school and the staff will not care about some random American holiday like the 4th of July. You may want to take the day off and celebrate, but you’re no longer in your country and culture.

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

Plan a one or 2-year stint abroad teaching. Then move on to something else. Having a plan is essential 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 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 go home because you have no skills and are 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 a 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.

Editorial Staff

I'm David Unwin and I head the editorial staff here at Teach and GO. I've taught as an ESL teacher in Thailand for 5+ years at all levels of education, from elementary to University. I was also one of the first 1000 VIPKID teachers. I and my team now share my extensive experience as a teacher here at Teach and GO. Learn more.

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