Teaching Abroad – In the Know Series: (No.6) Analysing Job Posts (Part Ci)

My first ESL paycheque

By this point, you should be familiar (or at least aware) that I’ve outlined and discussed (1) ‘the job’ as well as ‘qualifications and requirements‘ in regards to ESL/TEFL employment opportunities. Today, we look a little closer at the primary reasons most of us work: renumeration and benefits.

Disclaimer: At the risk of anyone hating me, I’ve further divided this part on ‘renumeration and benefits’ in three sections. Simply put, there is a huge amount to discuss when it comes to the pros and cons relating salary alone in the ESL world, and as the mandate of this blog series is to be as comprehensive and informative as possible, this act was a necessary reduction of speed. In the end, I thought it would be better and more manageable to break down renumeration and benefits even further, offering up three 2,500 word blogs on the subject that would be infinitely more digestible as opposed to a 7-8,000 word beast that is less likely to sink in. This way, prospective teachers have a week to really think about the many dimensions relating to salary that might not have occurred otherwise, but which can still have profound impacts on your take-home pay nonetheless.

It should probably go without saying that I never envisaged that ‘Analysing Job Posts’ would extend to some 14,000 words and the best part of six weeks, but as I’m fast discovering as I write these commentaries, there is a lot to think about, and I hope, I’m the one to help you think about it. That said, I do hope to finish analysing job posts by the end of October. Then we’ll move on to interviewing.


3. Renumeration and Benefits

OK, so in my view, there are three main things in this category to check and rationalise when considering job postings before applying: salary, accommodation, and flights. There are also several other important elements and benefits as well, which we’ll talk about afterwards. I’m sure I’ve probably forgotten or omitted something pertinent or otherwise relevant, and if I have, please do feel free to write in and inform The Digital Traveller Team.


When it comes to salary, needless to say, this varies enormously within the industry. To illustrate this point, I’ve included some examples of my monthly paycheques (before tax). It should be noted, prior to starting, that I’ve decided to use US dollars as a way of standardising the discussion on renumeration rather than my native British pound (or any other ‘native’ currency) as I feel that USD is more international. Additionally, all conversions come from http://www.convertmymoney.com, which I accessed on 30.09.2018 (I make this second point about the date precisely because the value of those currency conversions will likely change by the time you read this blog).

In Italy, I was paid 1000 Euros ($1162) for my labour, while my employer in Basque Country, Northern Spain, felt my services were worth 1400 ($1627). In the Middle East, my first contract in Saudi gave me a tax-free salary of 12000 Riyals ($3200), but the second stint was a lesser 11500 ($3066). In Kuwait, also tax-free, 1050 Kuwaiti Dinars ($3463) was mightily welcome, but Turkey only offered 4000TL (now only worth $700, more on why later). Over in South Korea, 2.1 million Won ($1891) was more than enough to entice me to leave the UK and start a TEFL pathway into travelling almost a decade ago. In contrast, Myanmar/Burma paid less than SK at £1600, but my wages were handed over in cash (crisp, brand new US banknotes, to be specific). And during those summers in the UK when I worked as an ESL teacher, my £2000 ($2600) for a 4-week contract paid for some fine English ales—well earned (trust me). Evidently, as these sums illustrate from my own work history, renumeration ranges considerably.

Now, depending on what your motivations are for working in the ESL/TEFL industry, these figures will either buoy you with enthusiasm or disappoint tremendously if you’re looking for good paying positions in Europe. Perhaps, when approached from another perspective, these salaries won’t make too much of a difference to you though if it’s culture and experience you’re after in Spain or Italy, rather than giving up such vices as alcohol and dating in Saudi Arabia in exchange for the Kingdom’s petrodollars. In my experience, there’s almost always a certain amount of off-setting between salary and lifestyle depending on where you go. For me, East Asia, inclusive of such ESL stomping-ground countries as Korea, Japan, and China (you could also add Taiwan and Vietnam, too), offer good (though not excellent) salaries, but certainly enable you to maintain a Western standard of living. But nowhere is perfect: China is not so hot on political discussions or external criticism; Japan hates tattoos and is worried over North Korea missiles flying over the holy islands; while South Korea retains an undercurrent of racism in some areas as the recent case of Yemeni refugees in Jeju reveals a foul—and sadly growing— Islamaphobia. Taiwan and Vietnam both have political (Chinese) swords of Damocles hanging over their heads, too.

My Best Advice is Don’t Just Think About the Salary: And I don’t mean this in relation to motivations, which I feel we’ve covered in sufficient depth. What I’m getting at is the true value of your wages and, importantly, take-home pay.

When we apply for jobs in our home countries, we know that our future paycheque of, let’s say, $2000 is already partitioned long before we get to the end of a hard month. This is because we know the variables involved: We know how much is going to be lost in tax, how much we need to keep back for rent and other utilities, for our phone, food, clothes, as well as things like personal debt and student loans. However, when you move abroad, many of these well-known features of your working life back home morph into unanswerable question marks or are things one tends to not think about until we are in the Arabic-signed supermarket, trying to pay a bill in Korean, or order a beer in rural Myanmar.

Here are some things, in my opinion, you should think about and be aware of. We’ll use our figure of $2000 to try and provide a solid benchmark for readers.

How Much is That in My Currency? This first point should go without saying, but I want to ensure that I’ve covered it with confidence: make sure you check the value of the quoted currency if it’s not one you are familiar with. The Kazakhstani tenge, Russian ruble, and the bolivar soberano of Venezuela all have lots of zeros (especially the bolivar soberano because it is currently experiencing hyperinflation!) and might sound like a Maharaja’s ransom, yet in reality, those grand figures might be worth only a few hundred dollars a month for all your hard labours. TEFL.com has a currency converter for just this reason. It is, of course, your responsibility to check this. And again, if you’re willing to sacrifice a good salary in a polluted urban setting for the open landscapes of Kyrgyzstan, that’s your right, too, but being informed is a powerful thing.

Value and Fluctuations: A job ad might say you’ll be paid $2,000 a month, but that’s almost certainly in the local currency, not US dollars (the exception in my experience, as mentioned above, was Myanmar/Burma, as the Kyat couldn’t be taken out the county, and to be honest, wasn’t worth a great deal on the outside anyway). This is important to recognise.

The value of currencies fluctuate for a variety of reasons. For example, the value of the Turkish Lira and the Indian Rupee dropped as a result of Trump’s trade disputes with China recently, as reported in Staying Safe (in Asia). As noted above, 4000TL is currently worth around $700, in 2013, when I worked there, it was closer to $1000. In Saudi, the Riyal’s value dropped when crude oil did, and in the UK, the ongoing saga that is Brexit has lowered the once constant pound. Depending on where you go, your money might be worth less than you think if there is instability, sudden or otherwise. Trade deficits, oil prices, famine, war, new governments, embargoes, and a thousand other potential happenings can all affect the value of your money.

For an easy fiction, let’s assume your $2000 wage is plenty. After tax, you’re left with something like $1800. This covers your food and clothing; outgoing expenses for your lingering university debt, as well as those living costs that include the twin demons of rent and utilities. You’re able to do all of this with surprising ease because the cost of living is low and because your salary is relatively high for the country you reside in. In fact, you’ve even been able to dedicated a good portion of your monthly income as ‘fun money,’ and you still have a nice $100 cushion after all those parties, nights out, mini-trips, and cultural engagements. Not bad at all, you might think.

But then a serious political problem between China and Vietnam over the South China Sea or the new silk road (Belt and Road Initiative) erupts, involving naval engagements and bellicose rhetoric. This then hits investor confidence over the fast-growing Viennese economy and results in a knock-on effect upon the Dong. A devastating tsunami in Japan might have a similar impact upon the Yen, while a political coup in Ukraine might make the money you’re paid worth much less. Suddenly, in the space of a few days (and months after that job post with its attractive salary), you’ve gone from having a $100 cushion, to realising that your salary (which hasn’t changed contractually) might no longer be enough to meet the expenses that you could cover easily the week prior. This is something that you may wish to consider because, to be perfectly honest, this potentiality is not talked about enough in the ESL industry.

The problem of currency valuation persists further when you want to either transfer money home, or are intending to take large amounts back in cash. When the currency value is suboptimal, you will get less money back in your home currency. Before the Brexit saga began in the UK, you may well have received 1.20 Euros for your £1. With uncertainty, that may have gone down to 0.95 Euros for the same £1. This might not seem like much, but when you have a £1000 pounds to exchange it becomes a problem. In the case of the Euro, if you are paid in this currency right now and then return home, you are likely to be better off as you’ll get more pounds for your Euros. But if you are paid in Turkish Lira and want to exchange them for UK pounds, you are going to be out of pocket as you will need to hand over many more of your Turkish Liras to earn back a pound. Currency fluctuations, as intimated, fluctuate, sometimes in your favour. So, it can literally pay to study the money you are going to receive every month in most circumstances (this is especially worth doing around payday and prior to sending money home).

These very real issues are seldom talked about in interviews or at any other time prior to starting or leaving a job once a salary is agreed and a contract signed, but are not only confined challenges to the aforementioned situations (though they do become more acute if you have regular bills to pay rather than just sending money home irregularly). However, money often—though not always—retains its local value. If you are paid 4000TL in Istanbul, it’s still worth 4000TL even if its value is deemed to now only be worth half as much in London. The price of a beer or a kebab is unlikely to be massively altered in Taksim Square or the main tourist districts around the Hagia Sophia, and devaluation shouldn’t have a big negative effect in-country. Travelling, eating, drinking, renting, transport etc. are unlikely to make you scream if you decide to take a trip to the Ionian coast.

Doom and gloom aside (even though it really should be discussed more often), there are positives, too. For example, if the value of crude oil increases, as it did do last week, so does the worth of the Saudi Riyal; if the electronics industry of Japan picks up, or a huge trade deal in China occurs, your wages might pick up as well; and no doubt, when the UK sorts out its current quagmire, Blighty’s coins will equate to more Euros during those summer camp teaching months as well.

Tax: Tax is something one might not think of immediately, but it is often a boon when abroad. Tax is usually much lower than in the West. Korea is around 5%, while most Middle Eastern countries are tax-free. This is evidently a big bonus. Again, check the tax in the country you are heading to. Some nationalities, like US citizens, can even claim the tax they pay in Korea back when they get home. This, however, is not the same for Brits as London and Seoul do not have the same trade agreements as the Whitehouse and the Bluehouse.

Probation Periods: As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I hate the term and imposition of a probation period. This is likely to be an issue in the first few months when you are being paid less, but will be a boon once you get your ‘normal’ salary. This issue becomes such if you need the full salary that’s quoted, you may well be living in a deficit until that time—and all this assumes, of course, that your job is going to keep you on after those initial couple of months. This is an assumption that should not be made if you are already living close to the bread line.

Cost of Living: In addition to these aspects talked about above, the cost of living should be taken into account. This will help you decide whether a salary is (relatively) good or not. In every place I have worked, the amount it costs to live is much cheaper than the UK, or in the US (where I increasingly spend more of my vacation time theses days). This means that your money goes further as you have to spend less of it on mundane things like sandwiches and toilet rolls. Various websites will have information about the local economy that you can consult, with rough figures for common commodities. Sometimes, when you accept a job, employers like to provide handouts/welcome packs that give a break down of a variety of goods from a bottle of beer to an average meal out. This, for me, is one sign of a good employer.

Sending Money Home: Initially, I was unsure whether to include this point here, but upon reflection, I think it’s an appropriate place as it’s a hidden cost that you might not expect, but it can be a drain on your salary and thus affect your take-home pay. I’ve sent money home in every country I’ve work in (which I personally find super stressful as I hate not knowing exactly where my hard-earned cash is for those three or four days it’s in the ether), so I do feel well versed in discussing this. Here’s the lowdown: to send money home as either a bank transfer or through a Western Union branch, for example, it costs money. In Saudi, and everywhere as far as I know, you have to pay a fee to the bank for sending the money back to your UK/US/Australia bank etc., and then, oftentimes, your bank will also charge a fee for converting/receiving your money in a foreign currency. In the case of Saudi, I was charged around 25 dollars to send my withdrawn cash, and about that again for my bank to process it in the UK. Evidently, this amounts to $50. That’s not a problem when you’re earning in excess of $3200 a month, tax-free, but if you’re making $2000 dollars before tax (or much less), it’s going to affect your take-home pay. And if you have to use Western Union to send money back because you have bills you must pay and still, as yet, have no bank account in the country you’re working in, you may have to pay as much as 5% of the value of what your sending home. All this is worth considering (I will be discussing banking and related issues in much more detail in future blogs).

Moonlighting: Sometimes it’s tempting to moonlight. This is an obvious means of bringing in more cash, but also brings risks as it’s largely illegal. This includes private tuition. Patently, the risk is yours if you are intending to supplement your income. There are, however, ways and means in some countries, like Korea, that have mechanisms in place for private teaching licences. Equally, your current employer may not mind you signing a perfectly legitimate second contract that doesn’t overlap with your original agreements. Again, more on this in the coming months.

Salary Negations: In a similar vein to the ‘wiggle-room’ I talked about last week, some salaries can be negotiated higher. Obviously, companies and employers would prefer to pay what they advertise, but highlighting a particular skill (perhaps a language), or years of experience in a related field (Business to business sales, for example), might give you the momentum to ask for more—you might just get it if you don’t ask for too much. I would like to make it clear that I am pretty terrible myself at successful negotiating better pay packets, and have yet to be awarded more than an ad originally stated, but I know people who have. Personally, I apply for jobs whereby I am already satisfied with the stated salary for the job and location. If I want more money, I accordingly apply for those jobs that advertise as such. That said, here’s no harm in trying. And, no, I have zero tips to give (but that’s probably for the best, right?)

A Final Word

As ever, this blog is not intended to scare readers of the potentialities, remote or otherwise. What it has sought hard to do is to empower the prospective teacher with knowledge and insight on these very pertinent aspects of working abroad. However, answers to most of the issues, and, let’s not forget, boons to your paycheque, are not really questions you would ask recruiters (who may not know) or future bosses (who don’t see it as their job to do your research). Go online and do some basic, contemporary research for yourself. Look up currency values, current politics, and peruse local newspapers in an attempt to stay ahead of the curve if salary is either the primary reason for jumping on a plane to Vietnam or a lesser, but still important factor in selecting a Freelancer gig in Germany. At the very least, the study you conduct, may well impress the person interviewing you with the knowledge you possess and the effort you put in to learn it.

Ultimately, some countries like Saudi Arabia are always likely to retain a certain degree of inherent turmoil that will cause salary fluctuations. This is something you must be prepared to accept in order to get access to some of the highest paying jobs in ESL. But again, if the money is not the issue, or if you are wanting to a embrace a country in transition and all that brings (like Myanmar, or Timor Leste), then money is less of an issue. Either way, the smart money should always encourage you to invest some of your time studying the place you are intending to head for.

Next time on Teaching Abroad – In the Know: ‘Analysing Job Posts (Part Cii),’ we’ll be getting to grips with the benefits that revolve around accommodation.

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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