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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.

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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 The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3422 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

17 comments… add one

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  • craig | travelvice.com March 20, 2011, 12:27 am

    Average pay for teaching English down here in Peru (as an employee, not private sessions) is around S/. 20 per hour (US$7.30), working a few hours a week to a few hours a day. The commute is the killer. A 1 hour session might take 2 in traffic plus your personal lesson prep time.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 21, 2011, 10:48 am

      Not bad. Also, Peru seems to be a place where you can go and check out a school without having to deal with visa issues. But “off the street” applicants, I have noticed, sometimes get the shorter end of employment deals — bad hours, lower pay, long commute — than contracted workers.

      But still, why don’t you do this? Could be fun.

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      • craig | travelvice.com March 21, 2011, 1:11 pm

        Because while I’d need the money and be willing to give up my personal time if I wasn’t being wrangled back into the US, I saw no point in spending my last months of freedom bound to a job in Peru when I’ll simply be working full-time in the US while the wifey’s obligated to live there (3 years) in order to apply for citizenship.

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 21, 2011, 2:30 pm

          Good call.

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  • baron March 20, 2011, 9:23 am

    Wade,

    Eventually I’m going to have to go back to work and this TEFL thing is something I’m toying with in the back of my mind. What site/sites did you use to research this school?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 21, 2011, 10:46 am

      Hello Baron,

      The TEFL is, ultimately, a great way to get around the world. It is my impression that most teachers do not find themselves with major problems with their employers and have good runs through their contracts. I highly recommend this way of travel — though I am not sure if it is really for me. I just did a general search for the name of the school and its location. The negative results that were turned up were astonishing. It is my impression that searching one site for information about a particular school may be a needle in a haystack endeavor, and, honestly, I do not even remember the names of the sites that I browsed for this school. I just took whatever came up in the Google SERP.

      It is my impression that if a school is bad there will be a mountain of complaints available online about it.

      Also, it is my feeling that the easier it is to get a school to hire you the more you should check it out. Not a fool proof method, I know, but when an employer openly says, “We can never get enough workers,” or just hires you right off with little evaluation, it may be a good move to think twice.

      My wife is currently going through an arduous interview process for a school in Japan. So far she has sent in tons of application materials and interviewed twice (up to an hour for each), wrote up sample lesson plans, and even performed them over Skype for the interviewer. I feel much better about a school who would put so much time into evaluating employees — it gives me the impression that they may put time and effort into other elements of their business.

      Good luck with finding TEFL work. If you want to make a lot of money, go to Oman.

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  • Mike March 21, 2011, 10:46 am

    Why don’t you and your wife spend a year in Korea at a good school teaching English. You can build up a surplus of cash that can be used to travel in freedom after that, probably for a considerable amount of time.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 21, 2011, 11:10 am

      We have considered this. My wife is actually applying to jobs all over, and has gone through an extensive interview process for a decent seeming, high paying, school in Japan. Though having a child complicates this — someone needs to watch the kid while the other works, my wife does not want to be away 40+ hours per week.

      Also, running this website takes 8 hours from me and 4 from my wife — MINIMUM — per day. So even if only my wife worked, I would be responsible for watching Petra and would not be able to tackle my own business properly. The game, I suppose, is not just to make money, but is to make money doing something that you enjoy. An hour put into VJT will make me very little money but it is an investment that will benefit me years down the road. An hour spent working for someone else is to make money that is quickly spent. The choice, I suppose, is between short term gain or the potential for long term economic stabilization (success doing something I enjoy). If I gave up running VJT I would make a lot more money, but it would be at the expense of personal liberty and the enjoyment of the workday. The story here is not just about making money, but making a creative project prove economically successful. It is tough.

      But, then again, this site brings in surprisingly little money — it is truly unbelievable. So sense, I suppose, should also be a factor here. The TEFL option is fully in our sights. As you point out, it make sense.

      Also, I know that this site — and related projects (magazine, books) — cannot be put on a year long sabbatical, there is just too much going on. The three months we spent working in the Guatemala jungle last year or the few months I spent doing archaeology in the Southwest were almost enough to push the total work load far past the breaking point. More on this later, but there are two big new projects in the works on VJT, and while the chance of success in either are minimal, it it is my impression that they may be worth a shot. I am at the confluence between living a dream and doing what makes sense. 99% of people choose the later route, but a small fraction of those who choose the former do something big. We’ll see where these cards lay.

      I published a little more about this at work for yourself.

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  • Denise April 17, 2011, 1:19 pm

    Hi there,

    This is the first time I comment here, but I read the post and thought I’d share my opinion.
    I know many travellers out there have come to see work as some kind of evil thing which deprives them of freedom, and in an ideal world, I’d agree and I’d say, don’t do it, and simply travel and enjoy life. But not everyone can create and run a successful blog and finance their travels that way. For that reason, I’d much rather teach English abroad and be able to travel around the country in the mean time rather than stay in my home country and work (that’s what I decided to do anyway). Plus, teaching jobs almost always offer a smaller work-load than normal jobs – you’d work 8-10 hours in an office job, but a maximum of 6 teaching hours (if you want to remain sane, at least), plus once you become more experienced, preparation time can be cut down to 30 min – 1 hour a day (which you can do on a beach or in the forest, and not necessarily in an office) and you’re left with the rest of the day to explore. Added to that, the actually job of teaching is a form of travelling, because during that time you get to meet local people and learn more about their culture.

    Just my 2 cents

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 17, 2011, 2:45 pm

      Thanks for sharing these tips.

      I agree completely that travel and work are generally viewed as being mutually exclusive activities. The main focus of this site is working while traveling, but I have just always felt that the English teaching contract is risky business. I have taught in a variety of countries, though have never done this the contracted route. A year commitment is a big one. But it seems to me that these contracts mostly works out for the best for most travelers — you tend to only hear about the bad ones.

      Thanks again for this addition to this entry. Your blog is looking pretty good as well.

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      • Denise April 17, 2011, 3:41 pm

        Thanks,

        Yes you are right. We tend to hear about the bad schools, and that’s the point. Nowadays, with a bit of research you can usually figure out which schools are legit and which not.
        I’ve also been advised to never sign a contract until you’re in the country and have seen the school.

        Denise

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 17, 2011, 4:50 pm

          This last line is truly great advice. It seems to me as if many of the best schools with good reputations amongst the English teaching community tend to pick their foreign teachers from the line up of applicants that are already in the country. This is not always the case, of course, but it seems to me that if a school that is in a prime location for TEFL teachers is engaged in over active online/ international recruitment that this could be taken as a warning sign. What is your opinion on this?

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          • Denise April 18, 2011, 1:46 am

            I agree. Back during the time when I was searching for EFL employment (I ended up moving to Switzerland to be with my Swiss partner) I noticed that some schools (one in Japan, China and Vietnam come to mind) kept posting the same job ad over and over again, at approximately 2 weeks to 1 month intervals. Something like that should immediately make you suspicious (not legit, or high teacher turn-over). On sites like Dave’s ESL cafe, it’s easy to see this as you can scroll down through the posted ad history.
            In some countries notorious for bad schools, you really just have to get yourself there and check. I have a friend who went through hell when trying to find a job in Turkey (several schools), and he even signed a contract after checking one school out and actually being in the country, and it still turned out to be a horrible experience.
            The bottom line is – don’t be naive, and know that yes, there are schools out there which are not legit, but there are many others which are great, and all you need to do is research well.

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            • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 18, 2011, 9:05 am

              This is truly excellent advice, thanks for sharing.

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  • ourser January 30, 2012, 4:44 am

    What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
    What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
    What do you call someone who speaks one language?

    American.

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    • Wade Shepard January 30, 2012, 10:44 am

      I’m am American and I can speak three languages. My wife, also an American, has two. Jasmine, who wrote this article and is from Florida, speaks at least three. Don’t know what your point is here.

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  • Weston July 15, 2012, 5:28 am

    I’ve been interested in getting a TEFL certification once I graduate. Who did you go through? How many hours? In person or online?

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