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The English Teaching Abroad Trap

The English Teaching Abroad Trap I stared into a computer screen to find the next year of my life looking back at me. A pdf of a year long employment contract sat on the screen, the employer was a private English school in Ulanbaataar. “I like Mongolia,” I spoke to myself as I got ready [...]

The English Teaching Abroad Trap

I stared into a computer screen to find the next year of my life looking back at me. A pdf of a year long employment contract sat on the screen, the employer was a private English school in Ulanbaataar. “I like Mongolia,” I spoke to myself as I got ready to print it up and sign. But something made me hesitate, as is typical of someone taking an action they know to be counter-intuitive.

The trick is not to travel forever, the trick is to travel for yourself forever.

Signing a year long teaching contract is a way to get to Mongolia and stay for long enough time to really get to know the country, make friends, to observe what moves beneath the covers of the culture. But through signing a year long contract I would no longer be traveling for myself — I would be an employee, a time for wage trader, strapped to a schedule, a place, a set of people. Signing a year long teaching contract would be signing myself into a trap: I would no longer be traveling for myself.

[adsense]Though I must admit here that teaching English abroad is a good way for most people to get around the world. If you are a person use to working for others, do not have your spirit sucked away by the simple action doing what someone else tells you to do, and are not completely adverse to a preplanned and metered life, then this is probably the best profession that I know of for the traveler.

I, myself, even thought of changing my travel strategy to allow for moving about the world in one year jaunts. One year in Mongolia, another year in Kyrgyzstan, a year in Japan, one in South Korea, how about one in Bulgaria? This suggestion sounded good to me for the span of a day dream. I am traveling with a family now, and year long stays would probably benefit my wife and child greatly — not to mention the money that would continuously be coming in.

Chaya teaching in South Africa

But then I snapped out of it. The employment contract that was sitting on the screen before me took on the form of an open door leading into a cage, a trap — What if I want to leave Ulaanbaatar before a year is up? What if I want to switch employers? What if I don’t want to go to work one morning? What if running this website full time and teaching English become mutually exclusive and I have to choose one at the expense of the other?

These were not idle “what ifs,” they were what I knew would happen. I have been self employed for too long to go into a year long box of formal work. For two months, three months at a time, yeah, I can work formally without severe consequence — taking new work is often a stimulating experience. But 12 months of not being able to dictate the flow of my days, I knew, would be far too much for me to want to commit to.

I am a traveler.

I sent a message to my friend Craig at Travelvice about this pending job offer, he warned of a 27 degree Fahrenheit average temperature: “Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city on the planet.” In the lulls of this conversation I searched out the school’s reputation:

It was beyond horrible. The English teacher message boards were flowing over with reports about how this school mistreats their employees by doing everything from making them work all day long six days a week to denying workers who break their contracts exit visas and, essentially, trapping them in Mongolia. The list of this school’s antics went on and on, and all of these reports were written in native English (they appeared legit).

So if may be a good idea to arrive in a place first in order to size it up for its potential at being a base of operations for an extended period of time. I would not dream of signing an English teaching contract for a school in a city that I have not visited. –How to make money traveling

I laughed with irony as I remembered writing the above passage in a recent Travel Help answer while staring at the unsigned contract before me. I had not visited this school in Ulaanbaatar, and did not even interview. My wife was being interviewed by this school and mentioned that I was also an English teacher. The guy on the other end tried to sign me up too. My own advice rung back to me:

In point, it is sometimes a potentially perilous endeavor trying to nail down an English teaching position from outside the country you are applying for work in. When it is possible, I highly recommend prospective English teachers to visit their potential employers in person prior to signing down a year of their life to them. This is a good way to keep yourself out of indentured bondage. This is advice to myself.


Though I must admit that landing teaching jobs from abroad is often so easy to do that it is incredibly tempting. All an educated, native English speaker typically needs to do to get employed as a TEFL teacher is to respond to an online job posting, send in a CV, do a Skype interview, sign a contract, apply for a work visa, and hop on a plane. No problem, unless things are not how they were suppose to be after your plane lands. Those contracts that you sign are legally binding agreements for the amount of time that you are in the country, and they can sometimes be costly and difficult to get out of — they can be a trap.

Though sometimes — due to visa technicalities and/ or transportation expenses — it is not possible to apply for English teaching jobs in person. In countries where you must apply for work visas from your home country or cannot change visa status in country (cannot change from a tourist to working visa) and cannot work as a tourist, then finding jobs online and signing a contract from afar may be the only recourse. Sometimes employers also offer to pay airfare expense to their country or offer reimbursements for this expense — so booking your own flight just to check out a school is tossing away money that would otherwise be covered by the employer.

Sign on dotted line, take the ride.

Before doing this, it is my impression that it is absolutely pertinent to look over the prospective employer’s online reputation. When doing this, expect the usual grumblings from former teachers — keep them in prospective and take them for what they’re worth. I do not know if there is a single employer on the planet who has a perfect track record in terms of employee satisfaction, so expecting this is to be in a perpetual search for employment. But when these grumblings become unanimous howls and screams from every direction against a particular employer, it may be high time to turn down the job and look for another.

The jobs that were offered to my wife and I in Ulaanbaatar were from a company that had one of these awful reputations.

Good, I didn’t want to work for them anyway.

Teaching English Abroad can be a good way to get around the world while making money, but it can also be a trap.

Keeping out of the English teaching trap

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Filed under: English Teaching, Travel Tips, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3367 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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