How to Teach English Abroad: Decisions

Update: For a more concise, complete version of this article (with links to all the important stuff), please click here to view my five simple steps to finding a job in Asia, over at Bootsnall.com.

When I first decided to go down this road, I searched for hours trying to answer questions I hadn’t yet formed. Not knowing exactly what I was looking for, I would get lost in the possibilities. The Internet was an overwhelming source of information. If you’re headed down the same path, this post is for you.

This is my attempt to simplify the decision-making process. However, I’m biased. Thailand is the first and only country I’ve taught in, so most of the information will pertain to my experience here, but I believe it to be applicable at least in some respect to many other Asian countries. Without a doubt, wherever you end up, it will be an experience of a lifetime and one I would recommend to anyone.

Where do you want to teach?

Choosing a country will help narrow your search and allow you to learn about the culture while you do so. Asia is a landmine for teaching possibilities right now, so it’s a good place to start. It’s hard to find a paying job on other continents, such as Africa and South America (I looked into those originally), where it’s more common to pay for a volunteer program, but Asians, Thais especially, are hungry to learn English.

Thailand will become part of the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) in 2015, a community developed “to create a stable, prosperous and highly competitive ASEAN economic region, in which there is a free flow of goods, services, investment and capital, equitable economic development and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities by 2020,” according to the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau. Already, Thailand is preparing for this with a lofty goal to be an English-speaking country before their induction, knowing that it is necessary for global communication.

The effects of this goal are already noticeable in the schools, which means many more teachers will be needed in the near future.

But maybe deciding why you want to teach will help you decide where.

Why do you want to teach?

Do you want teaching experience, a lucrative way to travel, or are you just looking for a way to pay back your college debt? If the latter is true, look in to South Korea (the EPIK program) where you can earn as much as $2,000/month plus all expenses paid. Japan and China both pay decent salaries, and I’ve heard the same of Taiwan as well.

If you just want to make enough money to travel around your chosen country, Thailand is perfect. With AYC (more about my agency below), I make $1,000/month, and I’m managing to save about $300 of that without trying too hard. I live in the Northeast (Isaan) where things are cheaper than the more visited parts of the country, but not by a significant amount. My rent is $150/month, which is on the high end, and other bills (water, electricity, internet and cell phone) total about $15.

If teaching experience is what you really seek, then your decision becomes a bit harder. Most Asian countries are going to significantly differ from your home country on many levels, so it will be hard to compare. If you’re a qualified teacher, look into teaching for an international school. They usually operate similarly to what you’re used to. If you want structure, look into Japan or China. And if you want a real understanding of teaching in a developing country, in a run-down wooden shed, in front of a battered white board, come to Thailand.

As different as Thailand is from the U.S.A., I do feel like I’ve received an experience that will undoubtedly help me in my future classroom. Granted, the lesson planning will be more intensive, the material I teach more extensive, and my requirements more strict, but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to such a career.

Public or Private?

I have never taught in a private language school, but I made my decision based on the following beliefs: private schools are easier to get work, but they require you to work long hours, often seven days a week. They might also pay better than a public school, but you probably won’t have any free time to enjoy the extra money.

Doing an online search will often wield several results from such schools, often times because they are owned by westerners who actively seek other western teachers. If that’s the case, not dealing with a language barrier might be appealing to you. Other things to keep in mind: the students might be more inclined to learn – whether they are studying by choice or because their parents made them – which could make your job easier; You’ll most likely be dealing with a mixture of age groups, from preschoolers to middle-age; and many of the class times will be after school and work hours, which means nights and weekends that you have to give up.

I work normal school hours at a government school, Monday through Friday, 8am to 4pm. My weekends are free, and I get to take advantage of all public holidays, unlike a private school that wants to make money. However, my students don’t have a choice to learn English, and many of them would choose not to if they did.

I chose a public school because I felt that I would get a much more authentic experience (which is what I was seeking), and so far, I’d say that’s exactly what I’ve received. If you’re looking for the same, choose public.

Should you sign with an agency?

When my search began, I wanted to avoid paying any fees beyond the expected, so I was hoping to contact a school directly, and to have a job set up before I left. I wanted to avoid private institutions, despite the abundance of postings, and find work directly with a government school. That’s easier said than done, and after being in Thailand, I know why. Many of the rural areas don’t have internet, let alone websites, and they aren’t actively recruiting teachers. Many of the directors and other decision makers in the schools don’t actually speak English, so communicating with them is difficult. Plus, the school has to earn enough money from the government to afford a foreign teacher before they can even begin looking.

So I found myself with an agency. I did my research, checked it out fully, and eventually signed up with ESLstarter. They promised to take care of everything from a weeklong orientation to organizing and paying for my work permit. After weeks of being overwhelmed with decisions (not a strong point of mine) and information, it was easy to let them take care of everything.

But when I arrived in Thailand, a company called AYC was waiting for me at the airport, not ESL Starter. I was confused, yes, but after nearly 24 hours in transit, I was just happy to have a ride.

Fifty soon-to-be teachers were also puzzled. It turns out we had signed with a recruitment agency that works for AYC, and they never told us. ESL Starter was full of empty promises and misinformation. They were eager to tell us what we wanted to hear: “Of course you’ll get two weeks for Christmas vacation…. Sure, we help you find living arrangements… Absolutely, we can place you on a beach in southern Thailand!”

And while all of those things were lies, I did in fact end up in Thailand, teaching at a public high school and enjoying my time here.

This post has been delayed because I wasn’t sure how I felt about recommending AYC to future teachers, and to be honest, I’m still on the fence. Everything I read before committing to ESL Starter said I should just come to Thailand and find a job after I arrived. That terrified me. I wasn’t brave enough, or rich enough, to walk into totally unfamiliar territory without speaking the language and find myself a job. However, after being here, I completely understand how it’s possible. Especially in Isaan, where not many travelers venture, the schools are overzealous to find native speakers willing to stay a while. They might even come to you!

But if you aren’t brave enough for that, take a look at AYC – directly. Don’t get suckered by the middleman like I did. I’ve mentioned before that AYC is a terrible company – that they would never be in business in the states – but they are the best in Thailand. They are the biggest, and the most known, for both good and bad reasons.

The big guy in the company is nearly impossible to understand, and he’s notorious for making empty promises, but he’s been good to me. He changed my placement that first awful day when I learned I was to be in Bangkok. He even personally apologized when his staff member sent me an extremely out-of-line email, to which I give him maybe more credit than is due considering his reputation.

On the bright side, I have a job. And I like my job. And because I have no problems, I rarely need to communicate with AYC, unless I need a work permit (which they pay for) or a visa stamp (dido). They provide insurance (which is automatically deducted from your wages, but it isn’t much) and they supposedly have your back should your school not want to rehire you (which can happen for any number of unexpected reasons, from being too fat or too ugly, to simply not making an effort to make friends with the locals).

Plus, AYC always pays on time. Going directly to a school can often make you 10-15,000 baht more than the 30,000 ($1,000) starting rate that AYC pays. But AYC is a security blanket, so to speak, because you never know what can happen.

So, I lay out this information in hopes of helping you make your own decision, though I can’t confidently say which is best. I’ve only done it one way. However, I can offer this: If I were to do it again (and I might, in another country), I think I now have enough courage to go on a whim and try my luck at securing a job without an agency. I feel more assertive in traveling alone, and more open to failed attempts. But if it were my first time all over again, I would sign directly with AYC.

I hope this helps at least a little. I realize this is only scratching the surface of the plethora of questions you’re sure to have, but stay tuned for more to come.
And if you have specific questions, just ask!

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6 thoughts on “How to Teach English Abroad: Decisions

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post! My fear of going through an agency is not getting to decide where I’ll teach. I heard of some port town where everything smells like fish, and I’m just like, terrified. Luckily the contract is only 4.5 months (if I go with a certain agency), but I guess I’m worried about not being near other English speaking people and in the middle of nowhere!

    • I was worried about that as well, but I have to answers for you. The first is that my agency sent me somewhere I never would have chosen, in the middle of nowhere with with few other expats, but I loved every minute of it and it was the exact experience I had hoped for.

      Secondly, if you sign directly with an agency (and not a recruiter, like the mistake I made when I THOUGHT I was signing with an agency), you can actually put in a request for a particular area of the country, or to be near a large community of expats, etc.

      A 4.5 month contract sounds really odd. I’d be careful about choosing that agency.

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