You may be considering giving up your 9-5 and taking a year (or more) out to teach abroad. You might have also completed an initial certificate in TESOL or a CELTA and be contemplating your next step. It can be quite overwhelming trying to decide what your next step should be. The world is so large that it can sometimes seem like the possibilities are limitless, and although choice is largely a positive thing, this may at the same time seem a little daunting. As a teacher who has lived in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and having worked with colleagues from different global backgrounds, I have learned a lot over the years about trying to find which country offers the "best fit" for you.
Decide what your priorities are
The truth is that people live abroad for a whole host of different reasons. Some people go into teaching to pay off university debt, so money will be a defining factor in their choice of country to live in. For others, living memorable experiences is the priority. This may mean choosing a destination you feel is easy to integrate with locals, or it could mean choosing a destination that is very culturally different to your home country in order to experience new things. Being aware of what your priorities are will help you to make an informed decision about what is best for you. Likewise, it may also be advantageous to think about whether your time abroad is going to be long term or short term, as matters such as good healthcare or pension schemes may not be important to you if you are only going to stay a year, but they quickly start to get more important if you decide to stay in the long term.
Research, research, research
You can never know too much about your potential options. What is the pay and the cost of living like there? Is the lifestyle compatible with your own expectations? How easy is it to get a job, and what qualifications do you need? Do schools tend to give additional benefits such as private healthcare or housing allowance? Is the local language easy to learn? These are all questions that you should be asking. The internet offers a wealth of experiences in the form of teacher blogs, so nowadays the information that you need tends to be a simple Google search away. Below I am going to share some of my own perspectives, based on personal experiences and the experiences of professional contacts in the field. Of course my own experiences are not representative of all the possible opportunities that you may encounter but merely serves as a guide.
Europe attracts long term teachers and gap year teachers alike. Many people stay for years because of the romantic feeling one gets when sipping an espresso on a piazza whilst people watching. If, like me, you are from the UK, Europe has the advantage of being a stone’s throw away from home, which is handy for staying in touch with family.
Within Europe there is some variation from country to country in terms of salary and conditions, but in general EFL salaries tend not to be so high. Spain, Portugal and Italy tend to have the most demand for teachers and are fantastic destinations in terms of climate and gastronomy, but starting salaries may be around the €1000 mark. Although sufficient to live off if you are single, €1000 is not really enough to save. Spain tends to pay slightly higher wages than Italy and Portugal however there are always opportunities to find private classes. In Germany and France, salaries tend to be higher than in Southern Europe, but there are fewer opportunities, and generally there is the expectation that the teacher speak some of the local language. Because there is less demand for English teachers, employers can be more selective and tend to choose experienced teachers over new teachers. One final point to bear in mind for teachers considering Europe is that learning a European language as an English speaker is much easier than learning a non-European language, making it easier to make friends and get to know the locals.
East-Asia is extremely popular with the teacher who is looking to save or who wants fantastic travel opportunities on the doorstep. Benefits of Asia can include a low cost of living (although not always!), high salary, an abundance of budget flights and lots of exotic locations to visit at the weekends and during holidays.
Like Europe, there is variation from country to country. South Korea and Hong Kong tend to be the countries where teachers earn the most ($2200-3000 per month) but cost of living, especially in Hong Kong, can be extremely high, so it is important to check rental prices in proportion to your salary before you accept any job offers. Vietnam has been "up and coming" for a few years now, and there are plenty of opportunities for new teachers. Salaries are slightly lower at $1500-2500, but there are opportunities for more experienced teachers to earn more teaching at university level or working in international schools. The other advantage Vietnam has is that the cost of living is extremely low, so there are opportunities to save a large chunk of your salary. Thailand is another country that is much-loved by expats where the cost of living tends to be low, but salaries also tend to be low for Asia and saving up for a master’s degree or big purchase may be more challenging.
My experience of living in Latin America was that the people are extremely welcoming, and if you speak Spanish, it can be very easy to integrate. It is also rich in natural wonders (think Machu Picchu, Salar de Uyuni, not to mention Patagonia). Salaries tend to be variable but I have known teachers who struggled to pay for the basics on salaries of $900 or less, and others who were more comfortable. When I was living in Mexico, my salary was around $1,400 per month, which is a good salary for Mexico and allows you to be comfortable in terms of housing and leisure, but I found that when I wanted to save money to achieve mid to long term objectives (new computer, flight home to the UK, extended periods of travel), then it really hurt my wallet. Argentina is an amazingly beautiful country with a rich culture, but the cost of living is by no means low and average TEFL salaries in private academies tend to be around the $700-$1100 range, which may mean that you have to be very careful with your day to day expenses. On the positive side, schools in Latin America tend to be very flexible in terms of qualifications and teaching experience and may be willing to hire new teachers with little initial experience. If you are interested in teaching in Latin America I recommend doing research into the particular country that you are interested in before making any decisions.
The Middle East and North Africa
The Middle East has a reputation for being the pinnacle of luxury and conjures up images of flashy limousines and extravagant swimming pools. A lot of teachers are drawn there for this lifestyle and it is common for employers to provide some extremely attractive benefits such as free housing, healthcare insurance and return flights, as well as generous leave allowance. Additionally, people who have lived in the Middle East rave about how delicious the food is. Culturally, the Middle East is quite varied. Destinations like Dubai and Qatar are extremely modern, whilst other countries like Jordan and Lebanon still retain a lot of their traditional charm. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia may ask for a master’s degree if applying for a university job. Salaries vary from country to country but all tend to be above $2000 and may run up to $5000 per month with accommodation included.
North Africa tends to be well-loved by teachers who work there for its Mediterranean climate, friendly locals and culinary traditions. Salaries tend to be around the $1300 range and there are possibilities to save some of that, but be aware that in some North African countries, there may be restrictions on how much currency you are allowed to transfer back home.
Whichever part of the world you are interested in, try to find out as much as possible about the country and the potential job opportunities before you go there. Ask friends to see if they have any contacts in the countries that you are interested in who could potentially give you the low down on ups and downs of daily life and read up as much as you can on your potential new home.
Want to meet our team of teacher trainers at English for Asia? Join one of our upcoming teacher training workshops held regularly in Hong Kong.
Eve Conway is our TYLEC and CertTESOL trainer. She has worked in Spain, Vietnam and Mexico as both a teacher and TYLEC trainer as well as having worked on shorter projects in the UK, Italy, Azerbaijan and Peru. She worked for over 6 years for the British Council, where she discovered a love for working with children, particularly Early Years learners. Eve holds a bachelor’s degree in English language as well as an MA in Applied Linguistics and a Trinity DipTESOL. Having always loved languages, she is a fluent Spanish speaker and is keen to learn more languages. Eve is a keen conference speaker and occasional writer for ELT magazines and publications.