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Teaching English Abroad: A Guide to Earning Money While you Travel

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Teaching English as a foreign language has appeared on the radar of many Americans as a viable way to travel the world while also supporting themselves financially. Whether you’re interested in teaching online while you hop from one travel destination to another, or you plan to find a teaching job in a foreign country, teaching English is an incredibly valuable skill to have — especially now in 2021. 

My motivation to teach English abroad stemmed from my interest in traveling to and immersing myself in one part of the globe in particular – the former Soviet Union. Having studied Russian in university, I became enthralled with the language, cultural influences and historical events that shaped these countries into what they are today.

Upon graduation I decided to pick up and move my life to the former Eastern Bloc to learn more about the region, improve my language skills, and gain work experience as an English teacher. I’ve established myself in the cultural capital of Russia – St. Petersburg. It took a few months, but I’ve finally started to settle in and call St. Petersburg home.

I completed my TEFL course, found a job with a local school, and began renting an apartment. Although I definitely underestimated how much work it takes to be an English teacher – learning grammar rules, how to structure lesson plans, and ensuring students are able to take something away from the lessons in a practical way – teaching has been a very humbling and satisfying experience since day one. To be able to provide students with the tools they need to achieve their personal goals within the English-speaking world is incredibly rewarding. 

Now . . . How did I and thousands of other travel junkies get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity teaching English abroad? Pure luck! Just kidding, of course, it takes research, the ability to step out of one’s comfort zone, and being able to roll with the punches.

Below I’ve compiled a comprehensive guide for anyone considering doing the crazy thing and moving abroad to become an English teacher! This guide includes important information to consider so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not teaching English abroad is suitable for you. 

Let’s begin!

English Grammar Rules

1. Being a native English speaker doesn’t inherently mean you can teach English

I decided to take a TEFL course before applying to jobs because I wanted to be 100% certain I could find a job when I arrived. I can’t recommend this enough because it wasn’t until taking this course that I realized how little I knew about the grammatical components of the English language. Seriously, my class of eight students had two non-Native English speakers, and they blew all of us native English speakers out of the water. 

I specifically remember my reaction when our teacher passed out a handout on adjectives, and I couldn’t help but exclaim out loud, “Wait.. There are rules for which adjectives come before others?” The non-native speakers laughed with a hint of resentment because I hadn’t had to endure learning and memorizing the order of adjectives since it came naturally as a native speaker. So, if you are not a grammar whiz or an editing master, I highly recommend investing in a TEFL/CELTA course. 

Moreover, the course also gives you detailed information about how to lead classes to increase student talking time and develop lesson plans for all different types of classes (i.e. grammar, listening, reading, speaking, etc.). It only betters the experience of the students, as well as your own if you are confident and comfortable with the language and lesson components. 

There are two options when setting yourself up to teach English abroad: 

  1. Take your TEFL/CELTA online
  2. Take your TEFL/CELTA in-person

There are several advantages and disadvantages to consider when you’re deciding which program is best for you. Check out Go Overseas’ article How to Choose a TEFL Certification Program to learn about all the different criteria to look for in a program so that it best suits you.

2. The beginning is going to be messy, but just like most things in life, you will improve with time and practice. 

My first English class that I taught without supervision was me and three old Russian men. Gulp. I became so nervous, and I was worried this age gap would undermine my credibility. This anxiety was then compounded by my lack of teaching experience.

It took a few lessons to feel comfortable, but I soon realized that they probably felt more vulnerable speaking a foreign language than I did teaching, and it was my job to help them with their courage, not the other way around. 

Teaching English Abroad - Don't Expect to Become a Millionaire

3. If you’re looking to become a millionaire, teaching English abroad probably isn’t the right decision for you

While it is possible to make a good buck teaching English abroad, in the majority of countries, you should expect to break even with maybe some pocket money for weekend trips/travel expenses. First off, you need to consider the substantial startup costs: visa fees, flights, and initial accommodation.

After you’ve gotten your footing and you’re ready to start teaching, you should familiarize yourself with the average salaries for an English teacher. It’s possible to make decent money if you hustle, but don’t be discouraged if your paycheck is just enough to cover rent and other living expenses. Alternatively, if you’d like to earn some decent spending money, you can supplement your 9-5 with online tutoring or private lessons.

If you’d like to teach English and live a bit more comfortably, I’d recommend heading to South East Asia or the Middle East. These countries typically provide teachers with additional benefits such as higher paychecks, flight reimbursement, and housing. Check out ITA’s article about the countries that offer English teachers the highest salaries.

4. You do not necessarily need to speak the language of your students, but it certainly helps 

It’s definitely a benefit for you if you can understand a student’s translation logic. When you hear commonly repeated mistakes, it is certainly helpful to understand why those mistakes are common to help you better address and correct them.

For example, a very common mistake that native Russian speakers make when speaking English is translating “I went to London,” as “I was in London.” If you have a background knowledge it is understandable why Russian native speakers translate it directly (Я была в Лондоне). So, although not essential for correcting students, it is helpful to know why this mistake is often repeated so I can better address it. 

  • Fun aside: If you’re familiar with the Russian language you’ll know that when someone wants to say “Happy ____’s Day,” for a holiday, Russian speakers instead use the verb “Congratulations.” I was teaching one day and I hadn’t realized it was International Women’s Day, a holiday which Russia celebrates particularly well. I had a student approach me and tell me excitedly, “Congratulations!” I was a bit puzzled, and asked, “For what?” My student paused a moment, and responded with, “You’re a woman!” It took me a few hours to understand, but it gave me a nice giggle after learning it was a holiday, which was why he used the word “Congratulations.”

It is not an absolute necessity to be familiar with the local language, but I’d recommend learning the basics. This can help with translation errors I described above, but it also serves as a benefit to you living in that country. It’s obviously much easier to navigate a city if you can read street signs, speak with merchants, and execute other basic day-to-day tasks. 

Thinking of teaching English in Russia / to native Russian speakers, and you want to learn the basics? Check out my Russian language guides!

Teaching English Abroad - Mental Health

5. Mental health is an important factor to consider 

If you are braving this journey alone, it is crucial to prepare yourself for homesickness, culture shock, and the psychological effects of living alone in a foreign country. It can be incredibly lonely at times, so having a plan to combat the possible negative moments can help prepare you for your trip and help to ensure you have a great experience while living abroad. Living abroad is incredibly freeing and exhilarating, but the loneliness and anxiety that you might encounter is often underplayed when scrolling through travel influencers’ Instagram feeds. 

If you take medication to manage your mental health, be sure to bring a prescription that will last you long enough until you get settled. Then, you can navigate the healthcare system in your new country, see a doctor, and get a new prescription. Don’t underestimate how long this can take, especially if you are busy taking your TEFL course or teaching all day. The last thing you want is to run out of medication and go cold turkey! 

Also, just because you are arriving alone, doesn’t mean you are alone. Keep a concentrated effort to stay in touch with family and friends, and surround yourself with people once you are there. I am 100% a homebody and love nothing more than getting into bed early with a glass of wine and an episode of John Oliver. But the nights I made the effort to get together with coworkers or students have certainly been more beneficial for my mental health. 

One of the best things I’ve done since settling into my new life is starting a book club with my coworkers. Do I like reading? – No – Do I like spending free time with other people if my bed is just calling my name for a cozy night in? – Certainly not. But, this is exactly why I started a book club – to force myself out of my comfort zone. It is now the highlight of my week to get together, discuss the book of the month, and drink wine and eat cheese and get to know my coworkers better!

Teaching English Abroad - Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet at the Marinskii Theatre

6. Make every effort to immerse yourself in the culture and community

Just like working back home, it is easy to get stuck in your work routine once you begin teaching abroad. Be sure to periodically remind yourself to spend some time on yourself and explore your host city/country. It’s okay to take a night off of grading homework to go to that ballet you’ve been wanting to see! Teaching abroad is an amazing way to connect with others around the world and break out of your community bubble. But be cognizant you’re not jumping from one bubble to another. 

A great way to take advantage of your abroad experience is by engaging with the local community. This can be in any number of ways: volunteering, taking local classes (cooking, dance, language, etc.), or attending local events. Not only is this a great way to learn more about the culture and social life of your city, but it is also a great way to meet people and make friends.

Try new things, be adventurous, break out of your comfort zone. If you grind 24/7 and don’t make an effort to explore the local area and culture, you’ll return home wondering why you traveled across the world to do the exact same thing you’d have been doing at home. 

Tip: Follow local Instagram accounts that announce different events / community programs so that you’re always in-the-know!

7. Don’t underestimate the headache of bureaucracy and visas

Oh boy, could I write a novel on this one. It sounds straightforward, right? Submit the paperwork, send payment, wait, and enter…right? Maybe I’m just bad at this, but in just under six months I encountered two major visa issues. These problems resulted in $400+ wasted dollars and 2 months of my time. Each time I followed the given instructions to a T, yet I was unexpectedly met with roadblocks. 

At least four months ahead of your big journey, be sure to familiarize yourself with all of the visa application requirements specific to the country you’ll be teaching in.

Teaching English Abroad - Have a financial backup plan

8. Have a backup plan financially

For a variety of reasons, it is essential to ensure you have a rainy day fund when you travel. One shining example I can give for why is that within two weeks of entering Russia for the first time, nearly everyone in my TEFL course had their credit card information stolen. Seriously, it was the most stressful ordeal because I couldn’t withdraw money or use the card because the bank locked the account, leaving me financially stranded in Russia alone. I couldn’t make international collect calls to verify my identity because I couldn’t pay my phone bill. I couldn’t pay my phone bill because my credit card was locked due to suspicious activity. So, I think you get the picture of my shitty catch-22. Sidenote: Don’t go with Citibank. Just don’t do it. 

  • Recommendations:
    • If you can’t find a local branch of your bank, be sure to add an authorized user to your account. An authorized user will be able to unlock any restrictions to your account if you can’t call your bank’s international collect number.
    • Identify a bank that you can wire money to if all shit hits the fan. The fees associated with money wiring are expensive, but you need to have a Plan F just in case.
    • Get a local phone number ASAP. Once you’ve had your trusted authorized user added, add your new number to your account so that you can respond to suspicious activity holds yourself without needing to go through someone back at home. 
    • Be aware of local scams so you don’t make yourself an easy target. Not to suggest that credit card theft is ever the victim’s fault, but you will save lots of time/energy/stress if you are informed and aware. 
    • Have an I.C.E. sum of money to use if you have no other option. Be sure to hide this well – my favorite travel accessory is my fake hairbrush money storage.

9. Do your due diligence and research every detail before deciding

This should not be a “f*ck it, let’s move to China,” decision. Moving across the world is not something that you should decide overnight. Do you research so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. This includes researching the job market, average salaries, and standard of living costs for your desired location.

Teaching English Abroad - Enjoy the ride

10. Most importantly: Enjoy the ride

Teaching English abroad has been one of  the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I’ve improved my Russian language skills, met some incredible people and added some work experience to my resume. And I’ve done it all while being able to travel and explore a new region of the world!

As discussed above, there are a lot of potential issues you might encounter when traveling and teaching abroad. It is not all peachy keen and beaches and drone shots, despite what travel influencers depict. But above all else, you will learn to overcome these challenges, making you a more confident and responsible human being. 

Additional Resources

Teaching is an incredibly rewarding experience, and mixing that opportunity with travel has been a dream come true! If you’re flirting with the idea of teaching English abroad, I highly recommend you check out these additional resources below:

Currently teaching abroad or have done so in the past? Let me know what you think about my tips below in the comments! What would you add to give readers an even better overview of teaching abroad?

Happy teaching!
Melissa

November 26, 2020

Melissa Miller

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central Asia

central Asia

Eurasia

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Russia

Kyrgyzstan

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EASTERN EUROPE

eastern europe

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The caucasus

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Kyrgyzstan

central Asia

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Kazakhstan

central Asia

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Belarus

eastern europe

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Moldova

eastern europe

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Armenia

The caucasus

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Pssst - Where are the rest?

As of right now, I have not hit my goal of traveling to all 15 former Soviet republics - I'm a working girl, cut me some slack! In the meantime, however, I am doing a ton of research to plan these future trips. Interested in seeing what online resources I use to create an itinerary to ensure my travels are educational, thorough, and, most important of all, safe?

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