Can Teaching English Abroad Be A Career?

Can you live out your days teaching English as a career in a foreign country?

For many teachers, this question starts to nag at them once they've overcome culture shock and settled into their new home. They love their job (who wouldn't love working 20 hours a week?) and they love their apartment (free rent! Yay!). If you are one of these teachers, then the simple answer to your question is "Yes".

You CAN make a lifelong career out of teaching English abroad, but it's not quite that simple.

VISAS 

While you're an ESL teacher working with an employer who sponsored you to enter the country, you are on a visa that has lots of conditions attached. You can only work for the employer who sponsored you, and if that employer lets you go, for whatever reason, you must leave the country and find a new sponsor.

This makes your status as a resident rather precarious.

Your entire career is in the hands of one employer who may or may not have your interests in mind (usually not).

One way around this is to become a permanent resident of the country. Depending on the nation you wish to stay in, this may be as simple as applying or as complicated as having to marry a local citizen in order to even qualify.

Another way around this, and this is the route I took during my decade-long stint as an ESL teacher, is to not think of yourself as a teacher in any particular country, but as a mercenary teacher-for-hire ready to bring your expertise to whichever country hires you. This way, if you get let go from one employer or need to make a run for whatever reason, you can still find another employer in another country. 

China and Indonesia are relatively easy to find jobs in and you can always bounce over and work for a year while you plan out your next big move!

PENSION

 
Old age catches up with us all, and you're no different.

Unless you're saving religiously, something difficult to do in a lot of countries, you will never have a pension when you finally retire. Your home country may provide some sort of safety net but it won't be a lot. If you're planning on retiring in a developing country, make sure you have a lot of money saved!

Along with the question of income after retirement is the question of health and services.

The older you get, the more help you'll need with things like mobility, hearing, keeping your heart beating, etc. Once you've retired you'll lose your employer's health insurance.

I've seen older people living and teaching in foreign countries with no problems, but if you want to make a real career out of teaching English abroad, you'll need to plan on returning to your home country eventually. Unless you've married a local and gained citizenship, you won't be able to stay as an elderly person.

Unless you've married a local and gained citizenship, you won't be able to stay as an elderly person.

So how can you comfortably and successfully make a career of teaching English overseas?

The first step is to be a good teacher. If your students like you and your employer isn't going out of business, then you'll most likely be able to resign contracts year after year.

SIGN FOR ANOTHER YEAR

 
If you like where you live and work then simply re-sign a new contract every year. This keeps you in your job, keeps your health insurance active and keeps you with a valid work visa. Best of all, it keeps you free to go home or to a new country if your plans change.
 
I stayed with the same employer for the last couple of years I was in Korea, and I only ever worked with one employer my entire time in Russia. It was easy and simple to sign a new contract every year and the schools and I had such a good working relationship that they were excited to have me stay on.

GET PROMOTED

 
Take the classic route and move into management yourself! Learn the local language and you could become a DOS (Director of Studies) and manage the school's ESL teachers. Most reputable organizations around the world have various management roles available for their foreign staff and you could get a pay raise.

If you're teaching for a smaller outfit then this may not be an option.

OPEN YOUR OWN SCHOOL

 
I'm always amazed when I learn of western ESL teachers opening their own school while overseas. I know a young lady who, after marrying a Russian man and being sponsored as a spouse, opened her own tutoring outfit in Moscow. She rented a shared space and hired other English teachers as tutors, then filled the schedule with eager students.

In Warsaw, I knew two brothers who opened their own big school in the city center and then franchised it.

I'm personally a strong believer in entrepreneurship and love to see people strike out on their own.

As an investor and business owner, you qualify for a completely different type of visa and can sponsor yourself. It's actually not as difficult as you would think in many countries!

IN SUMMARY

 
There are a few ways to make a career as an ESL teacher. You could sign a new contract every year, get a promotion or open your own school. You could even marry a citizen of the country you want to stay in!  All of these options come with some downsides, such as no pension and limited help when you become elderly.

I personally found that the simplest route was to re-sign a new country every year, which allowed me to live in 5 countries in 10 years. Unfortunately, I had very few savings when I got home, and while most of my friends and family had bought houses and had kids, I was starting out a new when I got home, like an immigrant who arrives with nothing.
I did have one thing that nobody else had: irreplaceable memories of countries and people I had seen and the knowledge that I could easily drop everything again and head back out to continue my English teaching career abroad!

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About Nate Drescher

Nate spent 10 years teaching overseas before returning home to Canada to start his own publishing business. In that time he taught in South Korea, Thailand, Russia, Ukraine and Poland!

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