The Challenges of Teaching English Overseas

Supriya Bhatnagar | October 2001

"Expect the unexpected. To my surprise, all the young monks were obsessed with 'My Heart Will Go On,' the Celine Dion song from the movie Titanic. They insisted that I teach them the lyrics, which I did not know. A tape was produced, however, and soon I found myself belting out song lyrics to a classroom of enthralled and highly amused monks."

Gabriel Cuming was a student interested in Thai culture who wanted to conduct independent research for his thesis. Securing a summer teaching position in a Thai monastery gave him a job while allowing him to do his own research on the side. He lived in the monastery with the monks, ate with them, and in return, taught them how to speak English. But as Cuming’s above quote demonstrates, you must be prepared to expect the unexpected when teaching abroad.

In "Teaching English Abroad: An Introduction," Don Snow tells us that "teaching English as a novice teacher in a foreign country is very different from teaching as a trained professional in an English-speaking country, and knowing how to speak English is not the same as knowing how to teach English." Agencies such as the Peace Corps, the Voluntary Service Overseas, and academic organizations hire thousands of people each year from English-speaking countries to go abroad as English teachers. Are you, as a teacher of English, interested? What is involved in this process? What must your qualifications be? How do you prepare for this job? Where do you go? This article presents the possibility of teaching English abroad as a career and broadly discusses ways in which to go about it.

The possibilities of teaching English overseas are endless, because anywhere there are people who want to learn the language from a native speaker, the demand is there. In Asia, for example, labor is so cheap and jobs so few that teaching English is virtually the only job available to outsiders. Japan is a popular choice for Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) students, as are Taiwan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Eastern Europe, too, has embraced the English Language as a way to prosper in global markets. And in Africa and South America, finding an English teaching job is easy.

According to the University of Calgary’s International Student Center website,, Asia offers the most opportunities for teachers of English. Europe and Africa are relatively difficult, and in Eastern Europe, there is demand, but salaries are low. Calgary’s International Student Center site advises those interested in teaching abroad to keep in mind that:

  • In the majority of schools, it is not necessary that you have knowledge of the host country’s language. On the other hand, a thorough knowledge of the language speeds up the adaptation process.
  • If you are interested in teaching in Latin America, expect to work in private schools. The best bets are Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela.
  • The "big" markets are Eastern Europe, Turkey, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Japan.
  • In Western Europe, applying for a working visa is tough. The British and Irish are given preference as they have access through the common market. The jobs tend to be market oriented, and the best bets are Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey. Private schools will still hire unqualified teachers, and private tutoring is in demand.
  • In Eastern Europe, demand is highest in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech and Slovak Republics. Highly qualified teachers are definitely given preference, but expect loads of red tape, shortage of accommodations, and negligible pay.
  • In Africa, most of the work is done through volunteer organizations like World Teach and New World Teachers.

Certification & Salary

Even though certification is costly, it is highly recommended for those interested in pursuing a career in teaching English as a second language. Higher quality schools hire higher quality teachers. If, upon your return to the U.S., you want to make this your career, then investing in certification is a good idea. Karrie Koesel, who is currently working on her PhD in Political Science, studying corruption and social networks in China and Russia at Cornell University, taught English for two years in China. Asked about training before going to China, she says, "I spent one month in Beijing doing an intensive language and English as a Second Language (ESL) course. The ESL course left me well prepared, but one month of language training gave me minimal conversation skills." Once Koesel became settled in China, she had two tutors to help her learn Chinese. For Cuming, who was already comfortable speaking Thai, teaching English in Thailand enhanced his language skills. "When you are teaching your own language, you quickly begin to learn the language of your students," he says.

When it comes to researching for certification courses, be the consumer. Certification courses vary from two days to six months. Asking the agency if you may contact past participants is wise for two reasons-you find out a first-hand account of the course, and the past participant’s cooperation or lack of it may indicate the quality of the agency.

When teaching overseas, salary scales are nothing compared to the U.S., but they are often a fortune compared to the local population. However, in Japan for example, terribly high rent eats into the wages. Private tutoring brings in a higher hourly rate, but fixed hours and a fixed wage mean more job security. Koesel received $4,000 U.S.D. per year, in addition to insurance and travel expenses. The University in China provided housing and a $100 per month stipend. The money, according to Koesel, was enough to live on comfortably for the two years she spent in China. Cuming, on the other hand, received no salary-only room and board. His additional expenses were covered by a research grant. He does admit that his experience was different from the usual teacher of English abroad. "Board" for him meant only breakfast and lunch, as the monks did not eat any dinner! Because of high exchange rates, the cost of living for Americans is very cheap in many Asian countries.

Apart from a salary, some institutions offer tax breaks, free housing, and other benefits to expatriate personnel and their families. This is especially true in countries like the United Arab Emirates, for example, where there are local shortages of qualified professors. Also, some institutions offer an American-style education and thus need American faculty members.

Challenges of Teaching Overseas

For Koesel, the greatest challenge of teaching in China was the language barrier-for her, learning Chinese, and for her students, communicating in English. "In China, students begin learning English in primary school; however, they do not emphasize conversation skills. So my students could read and write well, but had tremendous difficulty expressing themselves," she says.

How can one, then, prepare for teaching overseas? The best way is to do your research before you go. Talk to people who have lived in the host country, especially those who have done exactly what you are going there to do-teach. Reading and familiarizing yourself with that country’s culture and traditions is a good start. Even though it is not the same, teaching immigrants from the host country in the U.S. is another approach that can be useful, as it will give you the necessary practice and prepare you for the adjustment required of you once there.

In terms of teaching resources, it is always a good idea to bring simple ESL materials that feature fun games and activities. Grammar and reference books help, too. Cuming found that the monks were very skilled in grammar; they just hesitated to speak English. This is often true, he says, in many places where studying English is required, but English-speaking instructors are scarce. "The greatest contribution I could make as a native English speaker was to teach them pronunciation; grammar they could learn on their own." Teaching pronunciation to non-native speakers of English poses its own challenges. For example, the "th" sound does not exist in the Thai language. The monks had to move their mouths differently to enunciate that sound.

Often, the efficiency or living conditions of the host country or the organization of the host institution may not be up to the standard you had imagined. This may result in culture fatigue or burnout as part of the adaptation process. Until you are comfortable in the host country and have mastered the local language, there will be considerable demands on your energy and patience. Learning the host language is the single most important key to adapting to life abroad and increasing your self-reliance.

For Cuming, the adaptation process included different food and eating patterns, early hours, uniforms, and low doorways. Cultural adaptation included being conscious of the rank of the person you are addressing. "As an American, I was hardly prepared to prostrate myself before the headmaster!" he says. "Body language had to be appropriate-I got into trouble for putting my hands on my hips."

Additional factors must be taken into consideration if there is family accompanying you. Is the country safe for your family members? What about medical care and schooling? Does your employer pay for schooling for your children and will the government of that country allow your spouse to work?

Returning Home

Before committing to any jobs abroad, think about your future and your long-term career goals. Relocating back may be difficult, as institutions in the U.S. don’t tend to hire people from overseas. Plan ahead and appoint someone back home who can apply for jobs for you, or, alternatively, who can help with your graduate school applications. Leave this contact person copies of your c.v., information about contacting references, and letterhead, which can be printed with a cover letter that you can send via e-mail. Buying airline tickets ahead of time will be a good investment and also give you the flexibility of flying back for an interview. Find out when schools hold campus interviews and plan your trip home accordingly.

Teaching overseas can be a very interesting and rewarding experience. As Cuming says, "It was not just an experience of teaching, but an experience of cultural learning. The teaching was inseparable from the rest of the experience." He cautions anyone wanting to teach abroad to be committed to learning as much as teaching, because he found that he learned more than he taught.

For more information on teaching overseas, visit the following websites and resources:


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