Teaching Abroad – In The Know Series: (No.3) Getting Started (Part B) or Ten Modern (TEFL) additions to Theophrastus’ Characters By Thomas Dowling

“It was either TEFL or the army,” the guy said with a wry smile before he donned his kevlar and re-entered the classroom...
OK, OK, that's made-up - I’ve never met anyone who said that. The ESL world isn’t some educational version of the French Foreign Legion, though there is some crossovers in the form of deserts, French, spilt blood, and romantic ideals (depending on where you end up, of course).

In the 21st Century, the days of being press-ganged into imperial navies or electing for the army rather than prison as the only ways of ‘seeing the world’ have been largely consigned to the 19th and 20th centuries (at least in the west), the 21st century imposes that most liberal idea in the aftermath of the First World War: our own uniqueness. We, as a collective (ironic enough in and of itself), buy into the fiction that we are special and follow our own path in life. 

Perhaps we do. 

However, when it comes to sketching out the various motivations for leaving home for some foreign clime, there are some broad drivers that we can categorise. This may bust a few bubbles to lump you in with thousands of others, but this practice has the advantage of highlighting some of the pros and cons of particular motivations, and help us to think of some suggestions on where to concentrate your job-hunting efforts.


Ten Modern (TEFL) ‘Characters'

While thinking about how to approach this topic from an original perspective, I found myself inspired by Theophrastus’ Characters - a nod to my ancient history degrees. With that old text in mind, I’ve come up with 10 modern (TEFL) characters that broadly represent most of the people I’ve met abroad in the industry (presented in no particular order), which are broad enough that i hope will provide a starting point for your character. Through these ‘characters’ I try to explore relevant motivations and offer suggestions of where to start targeting your oversees job hunting. 

Again, as ever, the recurring caveat should be mentioned: while I feel this blog is a fair representation of those in the ESL industry (the monikers are my indulgences, of course), they are largely subjective, arrived at through my personal experience or related to me by others during the engagement of those same experiences. Therefore, this blog is unable to provide a definitive assessment of every country in every way paying heed to every type of person out there; that of course would be a book rather than a blog. The hope ambition, instead, is to provide a decent survey of the people in the field and the sorts of motivations that have driven—and in many cases continue to drive—them in this 21st century profession.

My overall intended outcome is that this blog helps you to think about what you want from the experience of teaching abroad, and then, empowered with the answers or fragments of thought to these questions, become better placed to make superior, informed choices that fit both you and your aspirations: think tailored tux rather than prison jumpsuit.

1. The Phileas Fogg Aficionado: I’d wager—no pun intended—that most of us have either read Jules Verne’s classic travel novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, or otherwise know the story of this daring traveller through one of the many incarnations on celluloid. In the TEFL world, the ‘travel bug’—the love of travel and visiting new countries—is one of the primary reasons that motivate people to leave their respective homes and start TEFLing.

If the love of travel just for its own sake is your primary driver, then the world really is your oyster. Obviously, any new country would fulfil your ambition by definition, which negates a long discussion of of individual countries here (thankfully for me). Instead, we should talk regions. Southeast Asia is cheap, easy to navigate, has strait-forward visa rules, and has been the main stay both for backpackers and TEFL teachers for decades. Likewise, European TEFL jobs present a huge number of short and longer trips around the continent. These forays may well be more expensive than their Asian counterparts, but this is partially offset by better transport infrastructure and in some cases better wages. The Middle East, in contrast, has some of the best wages in the industry, but lots of visa-centred red-tape that can make travelling around difficult. For example, to LEAVE Saudi Arabia, you need a visa, a visa that must be approved by the relevant ministries in-country. Back in East Asia, South Korea ticks lots of boxes in terms of the TEFL experience, but if you work in an academy, your travel opportunities are likely to be restricted to one week’s vacation in summer, and one in winter, not the 13 paid weeks you might be thinking about (In forthcoming blogs, we’ll discuss more about the types of institutions that you might consider working in).

For the Phileas Fogg Aficionado I would suggest places like Thailand, Turkey, and Italy, all of which are good ‘starter’ countries that present wonderful opportunities to see lots of places and really make the most of your downtime.

2. The Unemployed Opportunist: For many in the industry, this too is a significant motivator. With an increasingly growing university-educated workforce in many (native) English-speaking countries, compounded by shrinking employment options, heading abroad armed with English and a degree is an attractive proposition. Often, salaries are good (especially if you are already unemployed), the cost of living much reduced, and in some places, tax is low or non-existent.

Needless-to-say, if the ESL industry is entered into due to a contracting job market at home, any pay packet is preferable. The highest paying jobs are usually in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman), but often require an MA, a CELTA, and experience. Likewise, Brunei pays very well, but demands a teaching degree. So, if money is your top motivation, but perhaps you are lacking the benchmarks of the Arabian Desert, South Korea and China both remunerate well (in excess of $2,000 US per month), and exact low tax contributions. These two countries would therefore be good places to invest your CV-sending time. And, it should be mentioned, as the fun things in life are cheaper out in these places, you can live well and save, even if your salary is seemingly lower than similar jobs back home. For me, the important fiscal imperative is not how much you earn, but how much you bank (after tax, living costs, rent, etc.).

I would temper any fiscal motivation by saying that a secondary aim is important too; don’t be or feel like a mercenary. Have, or develop, a secondary interest. In my experience, some who have gone to countries in the Middle East just to ‘make money’ don’t live the happiest or fulfilling of lives. 

It’s often better to earn less but have plenty of options for fun.

3. The Desperado: In my mind, this is attached to the Unemployed Opportunist. But it’s more of a negative. Desperation manifests itself in many forms in the ESL world. I’ve meet addicts who have tried to go ‘cold turkey’ on narcotics or alcohol in Saudi Arabia, tried to battle loneliness by setting themselves up in China—patently a populous nation—attempt to ‘get-over’ lost loves, or taken jobs to pay-off crushing debts in their home countries. There are also those who have embarked on an adventure abroad in a desperate attempt to convince themselves (and others) that they are achieving something. While these issues are all serious and are eminently worthy of our admiration in trying to address them, if a general sense of desperation or malaise are your sole motivations for going overseas, in my experience, it will likely end in tears. Living abroad, for all the wonder, joy, and memories it can potentially bring, the job also thrusts a range of pain and challenges your way, too. If your mind is already negative when you go into an alien environment with limited emotional support (at the very start, of course), things will be really hard. And as my previous two blogs have suggested (and foreshadowed future publications), so many unknown problems can arise from cancelled visas to family bereavement. It might only take one serious problem to push you over the edge into properly depression or outright despair. Don’t be The Desperado. 

The only recommendation should be your home country: put yourself in the best frame of mind you can before applying and then take things from there. Ultimately, the change, the time overseas may be helpful or therapeutic - I’ve just not seen it myself.

4. The Culture Vulture: This is an old phrase now, cliched and worn. But it remains precisely because there is a need for it to do so. The exploration and discovery of foreign cultures is a genuine reason for why many leave home. Whether one’s fascination is with the local cuisine, the history, language, art, music, architecture, sport or dozens of other aspects, teaching English abroad is an extraordinary ends to this means. One is given the opportunity to immerse themselves in all of these elements in a way that a traveller simply can’t normally do when passing through or staying for only a few weeks. In this job, you’ll have the potential to really learn and get to grips with a country’s culture that’s radically different, even alien, from what you know. Whether one’s is thrust into surroundings where the burning incense of Chinese temples perfume the air, or the athan of Muslim Iman’s ring through the air ring long; whether’s you’re drinking camels milk with kapsa or quaffing Chang beers over a street vendor’s pad Thai.

The caveat, perhaps expectantly, is this: some cultures are very, very different from the US or UK, and so there is a real chance you simply might not like it or fit in. Consider this before applying.

Again, assuming that you have no experience and limited teaching certificates, China with it’s vast myriad divergences or Thailand’s reverent yet sardonic vibe would suit the first timer. If tapas and cathedrals are more your thing than dumplings or mangos, consider starting in Spain, or anywhere in Italy.

5. The Party-goer: To be honest, this one shouldn’t really need much elaboration. The ESL world is rammed full of these characters. People who focus on the fun elements of teaching abroad perhaps a little much. As with university, it’s important, at least in my view, to find a balance between actually doing your job (which is, after-all, why you’re there in the first place), and enjoying yourself. I would be lying if I said I’ve never gone into a classroom without a hangover (I have done this at least once in every country I’ve worked in), but this is obviously not ideal and unfair to your students. In my defence, it is difficult to strike a balance, admittedly when a) the beer is often cheaper, b) the job can be stressful, c) other existential worries and problems might be affecting your judgment, and d), more likely of all, there will be several in-week events hosted by ex-pats like yourself who are wanting to develop friendship groups and be part of the foreigner community and it can be hard to say no. Also, e): in Korea, male bosses tend to take out their foreigner male teachers drinking; they might well pay, but they’ll still expect you in the next day to do a good job, too.

While I can’t speak with the authority of a saint on this one, try and keep things to the weekend. And try to maintain a balance (teaching is extraordinary hard with a banging headache and the feeling of nausea.

Again, remember where you are: in some places the ‘accoutrements’ of a party/clubbing lifestyle might be illegal and could get you seriously in trouble with the police—particularly if they need to make an example of a foreign.

If your motivation is more party-goer than teacher, then Thailand, South Korea, and Spain are pretty good for that lifestyle overseas. I’ll leave any moral judgement for others.

6. The Candide Impostor: So, yes, another literary reference here, this time from Voltaire. What do I mean by this? Well, one tread of Voltaire’s light-speed travel-satire novella, Candide, is the journey of the main character to once again be reunited with his lost love, Cunégonde. 

This short—and somewhat incomplete—synopsis, was an indirect attempt to elaborate upon the point that some—mainly men, but not exclusively—go abroad to find love in a range of ways upon a broad spectrum. From the lotharios and casanovas of this world, to those in search of true-loves, or those signing for their mail-order brides, a gradient of The Candide Impostor becomes more complex and nuanced upon closer inspection.

Whether one is looking to make the most of their Tinder account or marry a local, finding love (however defined), is a factor more important than all the others that are mentioned for a contingent of expats abroad—the ESL world enables a variety of indulgences to be sampled and enjoyed. Depending on exactly what you are looking for in this regard, Southeast Asia—Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, as well as South Korea and Japan, a little further north—provide possibilities. 

But, reader beware! Customs can RADICALLY differ from the west, and between Southeast Asian countries. Form cultural norms, etiquette, and indeed laws, the fun ‘pros’ of this ESL-driver could backfire dramatically if things go wrong. Responses may range from the relatively benign 100-yard stare from male passersby if a westerner is dating a local girl, to assumptions of prostitution in some Arab countries (western women with blond hair are often perceived to be thus in this context), or outright sexual violence towards women in some places (one hears the occasional story of rape by taxi drivers, for example). Males will find it extremely hard to date in to in conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. Draconian penalties and deportation are not beyond the realm of possibilities. As TDT’s recent security update for Asia mentioned the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, many countries still take a prejudiced line concerning gay rights. If these issues relate to you, it is strongly advised that you thoroughly understand the laws, restrictions, and penalties for the LGBT community in the country you are planning to work in.

Lastly, to make a general point (though it should go without saying), many places in Southeast Asia—like other regions around the world (e.g.: Eastern Europe)—do have a high rate of HIV/AIDs, so always insist on safe-sex, especially if this amounts to your primary reason for shipping out.

There will be additional forthcoming blogs on love, sex, and pleasure in the coming months.

7. The Eternal Student: This might mean different things to different people, but the way I envision this ‘character’ is someone who likes to study, collecting degree certificates like a squirrel hoards acorns for the winter. The ESL industry allows this potentiality, and depending on what the content and subject matter is, your institution may actively encourage further professional study, and in some instances, as in the case with CELTA or DELTA courses, might even provide full or partial funding (more on this in future blogs). 

There are a few vectors for further study whilst living and working abroad. The first is obvious enough: being in a foreign country presents all sorts of learning opportunities from language(s) to customs to history, as well as cookery classes and art exhibitions. Secondly, the ESL world, while demanding, does enable the possibility for more extensive, sustain academic pursuits. This might manifest itself in an online course on teaching, or a block of hours concerning itself with the mechanics of English grammar. The ESL industry also affords the opportunity to do that masters degree you’ve been meaning to do, or go on to more advanced study in the guise of a PhD. With the advances in distance learning and the depreciating stigmatism of ‘studying online,’ developing one’s resume or building a solid foundation for future employability is a real possibility in this industry. The ESL world provides the necessary income and time to really achieve something over a year or two.

If you fall into this category of The Eternal Student (my wife has prohibited me from doing anymore than my current degree, my fourth), and are a generic lover of learning, then any country will be of deep interest to you. In contrast, if undergoing, or you are intending to undergo something more formal like a second or third degree via distance learning, having more time will be your main priority. Generally, international schools and university positions afford those long summer breaks that are perfect to catch-up on (or get ahead of) work, or great to focus on a project over a sustained period. From personal experience, there was a lot of down time in Saudi Arabia, while in Spain I was able to spend several hours on research once I had prepared my classes. This won’t be the case everywhere though. Korea is a maybe in my mind. Most academies (the baptism of fire for most ESL teachers in the ROK) will work 6-8 shifts from 1 or 2pm to 8, 9, or 10pm as these institutions are, in essence, after school clubs. If you study best in the mornings, then you are well set to study then work. Not everyone, however, is an early bird.

The major downside to spending significant time on studying AND working full-time (expect to teach 15-30 hours a week depending on country and institution AS WELL AS all the prep and marking etc.), is that it can affect your social networking and exploration of the local culture. That’s not to say don’t follow this avenue if you are adamant, but certainly keep this in mind. Again, balance should be your default catchword. Also (as I’ll discuss in future blogs), just because you signed contract ‘X’ because the work hours seem slight and would therefore give you lots of study time, this might be a misnomer. There may well be small or great travel times that have not been disclosed; extra circular work that was not mentioned or you may not have anticipated (but which you are expected to do nonetheless) from the mundane task of marking, exam proctoring, or perhaps playground duties, or, heaven forbid, there maybe a sudden influx of students that necessitate new classes—and you find your name next to their schedules. Again, this may not happen to you, but it might—I’ve been unfortunate enough to have experienced all of this possibilities and many more besides.

In this sense, the soundest advice is to think about what type of Eternal Student you are or might wish to be, and try to select a country/job that gives you the scope to pursue those ambitions. As ever, things might change or dramatically hit your research/reading/writing time, but as someone who completed a second masters degree whilst working in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as  working during the first two years of my PhD, all of which was tough, I genuinely couldn’t imagine having a full-time job in England (even the teaching profession) and study for a serious post-graduate degree. Teaching abroad does enable that, and that becomes even more viable if the subject of your post-graduate degree is in ESL/TESOL/TEFL teaching (which, as I understand from talking to friends and former colleagues, is providing increasingly popular). 

For me, the idea of going abroad for a few years, earning good money in a (generally fun job) and earning another degree is a very power motivator.

8. The Future Careerist: Most who enter the ESL profession, at least in the first year or two, have little intention, again, in my experience, of making English teaching abroad their career. ‘Winging it,’ is a common phrase to hear from new teachers. However, some do, and they stay in the job for decades, moving from place to place soaking up the sun, the new cultures, and getting pretty damned good that the job. Others still, while having little intention of staying in the TEFL world beyond a year or two, use their time abroad to then go back to their homelands to properly professionalise themselves and teach locally. Both ‘characters’ are to be found here and there.

My best advice if you fall into either sub-division is to aim for a country that rates professionals in high regard. Countries like South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand may demand certain accolades from their staff, but English teaching is more often a business rather than an educational enterprise focused on high-quality teaching. Often there is little motivation to professionalise their workforce as long as the money flows in. In my personal experience, and given the greater importance placed on learning English in Europe, standards are higher and therefore that teacher has to work at very high standards to (this is in part due to the prestigious Cambridge exams that Europe favours and employers look for in the candidates where English is a requirement). So, if you want to work at a high standard, you should aim for Spain, Italy, and Turkey that encourage these attitudes in their teachers (they usually have lots of available jobs for first-timers, too). Those positions will obviously be more challenging, but also more rewarding. Some of my former colleagues, as well as myself, in places like Saudi and Korea have often felt disenchanted over the lack of investment in teacher training or the low educational standards. In these situations, teaching can be demoralising if you feel your boss or owner doesn’t care. Conducting additional research of particular institutions and/or getting in contact with Facebook groups or former employees is a good strategy to insulate yourself from such future disappointments. 

9. The Chancer: The Chancer is that person that does the job-accepting equivalent of sticking a pin in a map and going there. I’ve done this in the past; applied for dozens of jobs and took the most interesting offer. It’s produced mixed results. As The Digital Traveller’s Staying Safe in Asia blogs should have made clear by now, there is a lot going on in many parts of the world right, and these incidents and happenings should be factored into to your thinking. As should be your character, hopes, and desires; a person with X, Y, Z characteristics might flourish in Vietnam, but become totally depressed working in Russia. Even if you do possess that ‘Screw it!’ attitude, you should still seriously contemplate doing the most basic research before you go. At the very least, buy yourself a coffee and read our security update before you book your ticket.

10. The Digital Traveller: The Digital Traveller is a combination of all these characters. Informed and knowledgeable, yet bold enough to take the plunge in a land that might put others off given the inherent risks. The Digital Traveller feels secure given the pre-departure reading conducted and preparations made beforehand. The Digital Traveller is a realist, and understands that money does make the world go round, and that travelling isn’t cheap. Despite this, DTs are not TEFL-mercenaries, and find the balance between immersing themselves in a foreign culture while earning a princely wage to visit others. The Digital Traveller makes themselves aware of the ways and means to professionalise, learning, study, but is never too busy to miss that big ex-pat party at some hip roof-top hangout. The Digital Traveller embraces culture and love with equal panache, though remembers, perhaps, the desperate, once seemingly hopeless future that they may have left behind. 

In a sense, The Digital Traveller can feel confident of making it anywhere: knowledge, information, WiFi are the modern equivalents of the arcane blunderbuss, quinine bark, and sherpas (unless you are heading to Mt. Everest). 

The Digital Traveller knows the sea might get rough before it goes calm, but boards the ship nonetheless. Ultimately, “He who feared the world, sat still (Horace)."


Where to Start Looking 

The point (hopefully self-evident), of working through some of the ‘characters’ one meets abroad is to guide you, or rather, to help you ask the right questions of yourself when looking and applying for jobs. For example, if your not so inclined toward Islam, the Middle East is not for you; if you are against the cold, Russia is probably off the table; if you want to work near a beach with a vibrant bar, rural China is not gonna be a fun commute, Comrade. So, ask yourself what your drivers and motivations are before you start applying for jobs. 

Perhaps the best advice is this: be honest with yourself. If it’s money your after, make your peace with that. If it’s carnal pleasures, do the same. The point is, only you know the best places for you, and that should be your guiding compass.

With that out of the way, there are two main websites that I’ve used almost exclusively throughout my TEFL career. The first one is Dave’s ESL Cafe. In the industry, it borders on the verge of semi-legend; most have heard of it, most use it. It’s broken down into three main job pages (International, China, Korea), and one simply clicks on the links, checks out the job specification, and contacts the appropriate person. Alternatively, one can upload their resume/CV. Aside from the expansive global job marketplace, the site is replete with teaching ideas, forums, and a host of other interesting things. This is a great place to start.

Secondly, and I think as I’ve got older and more familiar with the industry, I used tefl.com more. You’ll need to fill out the online CV, which while cumbersome, really does help your employability potential. I like this site for a few reasons. One, it sends regular email updates about jobs, and the other feature I think is the compartmentalisation of it. For example, I can choose to search new jobs in the last 24 hours, the previous week, or last month; if I want to look for a job in France, or for the summer, I can easily locate them too by either searching or clicking on the appropriate links. Easy.

I’ve also used seriousteachers.com, in the past, but I’ve been less impressed by the rigamarole involved. That said, it often posted jobs that seemed to be unique to this site. However, I’ve never accepted a job through site.

LinkedIn, like tefl.com, has become more of a mainstay of late when looking for jobs. The platform enables a greater, more expansive, accessible, and visually pleasing introduction to you and your professional history, and you’ll start to notice jobs suggested that more closely match your preferences than you yourself can find - welcome to the world of the all knowing AI universe (seriously check out Yuval Noah Harari’s books)! If you are not currently on LinkedIn, I strongly encourage you to sign-up and develop yours as soon as you can. Furthermore, it gives members a platform to publish. This, for many employers considering new teachers that don’t have experience or extra qualifications could be the showcase that lands you a job: writing, lexis, and grammar, are all important elements to teaching a language and will certainly go in your favour over another candidate that has a cover letter littered with spelling mistakes, poor punctuation, and inappropriate word choices. 

Next Time, Monday 17th, we’ll be talking about what to look for and the questions to think about and ask recruiters/employers when looking for your first ESL job abroad. Your homework, should you chose to accept it, is to take a look at the sites mentioned above and to become familiar with them. This will be helpful in moving forward and helping you to land that dream job.

Editorial: Thomas Dowling has worked in the ESL industry for over 7 years, having lived and worked in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Myanmar, Kuwait, and the UK. His work experience has included an international school, a university, private academies, and summer camps. Currently, Thomas is a full-time PhD Student studying Environmental Security at the University of Leicester. He has previously studied degrees in Ancient History (BA; MA: Bristol), and International Security Studies (MA: Leicester). In 2014, he earned his CELTA qualification (ITI: Istanbul, Turkey), complementing previous TEFL certificates acquired in England. Thomas is also the Co-Founder of The Digital Traveller, focusing upon content and content management. Thomas presently lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife, Jack Russell Terrier, and newborn  baby, Zeno.

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