Teaching English as a Second Language: Your Travel Super-Power!

Make new friends and travel during your time off, teaching English as a second language to executives and children around the world.

by NEA Member Benefits

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Key takeaways

  • Teaching English as a Second Language is an economical way to see the world.
  • New teachers and retired educators alike may have an opportunity to teach English abroad.
  • Enroll in a certificate program that will train you on the finer points of teaching a language.
  • Many government programs offset costs and reward educators with bonuses like free airfare and accommodations.

Those who have taught English as a Second Language (ESL) overseas rave about the experience—even before acknowledging the considerable travel perks it offers. Travel is clearly part of the package, however, not only to the country where you will teach but also to points beyond. The salary you earn can sweeten budgeted funds or perhaps finance your wanderlust entirely. Either way, accepting an ESL teaching assignment abroad is an economical way to see the world.

The candidates

Age is no obstacle. New teachers starting out might find the idea intriguing before they settle into a stateside classroom. A job overseas might appeal to midcareer teachers who are in between jobs, depending on their obligations at home. Finally, the situation could be ideal for retired educators who needn’t fear age discrimination. In fact, some destinations like the Middle East only want experienced educators and pay top dollar to attract them.

Required qualifications

Don’t worry if you aren’t a language teacher. Your teaching credential already gives you an edge. However, you will need to enroll in a certificate program—several options exist—that will train you on the finer points of teaching a language. CELTA, TESOL, TESL and TEFL are examples of programs and are among the many acronyms used in the business of teaching English abroad. Get used to hearing the acronym EFL, too, because only in the U.S. is the practice of teaching English referred to as a Second Language (ESL). In overseas countries where English isn’t considered the first language, the practice is referred to as EFL: English as a Foreign Language.

Photo courtesy of Alison Wofford

The University of Cambridge CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is very well regarded. “It’s the most widely accepted, the most internationally recognized—it’s kind of a golden ticket if you want to teach anywhere abroad,” says Alison Wofford, Associate Director of Academics at Pace University, an English Language Institute in New York City. Wofford also spent several years teaching overseas in both Zimbabwe and Italy. 

For the lowdown on certificate program offerings, visit TEFL.com. It’s an excellent resource for teaching abroad and features a comprehensive and regularly updated job board. Other sites like Teach Away, Reach to Teach and Dave’s ESL Café are also good starting points. Think you might like to teach in a leading international school? Recruiters like Search Associates and International Schools Services (ISS) are available to assist.

Diverse options

A smorgasbord of countries recruit English teachers. The locales are as varied as the types of teaching positions available. You might find yourself teaching English to adults in a business setting as Wofford did in Milan, or heading up a middle school classroom in Beijing. Some positions entail signing a year-long contract (usually with a completion bonus) while others can be more freelance in nature, enabling you to take on as little or much work as you like. In this scenario, it would be wise to sync your vacation time with your country of employment. In many European countries, for example, there is likely to be no work at all during the months of August and December. “Figuring out the vacation culture is key because you have to plan for that in terms of your income,” cautions Wofford.

Quality of life should definitely factor into your decision regarding where to ply your English-teaching skills. However, don’t balk at a middling salary before examining the cost of living in certain countries. You’ll discover you get a lot for your money in places like Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam, to name a few. You’ll live comfortably, experience a unique culture and still be able to save plenty for extracurricular travel.

Additional perks

Photo courtesy of Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET)

If you’ve got your heart set on a country with a high cost of living, don’t dismay. Many have government programs in place that offset costs and reward educators with bonuses like free airfare and accommodations. Consider the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program—yes, more acronyms!—or the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF). Even countries that boast a lower cost of living have government programs to entice teachers. There’s Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA) in Columbia, for example, and the English Program in Korea (EPIK). Most of these programs will also assist with the visa acquisition process, an area of utmost consideration. It may be the most important question to ask an employer if you’re hired: Can you help me with the visa? 

Final advice

“There’s a fear of hiring the backpacker teacher,” cautions Wofford. Employers are wary of people who sign up to teach and then jet off to points unknown before completing an assignment. Saying you want to travel can be a deterrent in an interview situation. “It’s obvious you like to travel if you’re willing to pull up stakes and head over there, but you want to make sure to convey the impression that you’re serious about making a commitment,” Wofford concludes.

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