Study Abroad

Teaching English Abroad: What to Know Before You Go

It’s not uncommon for a travel-minded college student’s eyes to light up at the thought of packing his bags and heading out of the country on a one-way ticket to teach English. Teaching English is indeed a great way to fund travel and studies abroad, and there are several ways to become certified and qualified to do so.

Despite the many positive aspects of teaching English abroad, there are a number of challenges English teachers can face. If you’re interested in teaching English, this article will provide insight into a few of these issues, and help you plan ahead.

Madrid:Rick Ligthelm

Legal Matters

Many English teachers go abroad under a simple tourist visa and get paid under the table without first obtaining proper authorization to work in their host country. Although it may seem like an easier solution than going through the lengthy immigration process, performing unauthorized work and overstaying a tourist visa can be met with severe penalties by immigration officials. Simply put: don’t do it.

Aside from potential fines and restrictions on future travel into the country, it’s important to note that working under the table does not legally guarantee worker’s rights or compensation from the employer. If you don’t get paid on time (or paid at all), there will be no one to turn to for help. Although it isn’t always the case, some employers may take advantage of such English teachers through compensation or unfair expectations.

If you’re thinking about teaching English abroad, familiarize yourself with the visa requirements of the country you are interested in, and go the safe legal route to earning income and funding your experience abroad.

Keeping a steady income

Teaching English can provide a relatively decent hourly wage, but once a teacher has picked up a private lesson or class, there’s no guarantee the work will be consistent or reliable. A class or lesson might be cancelled or postponed with short notice to the teacher. As discussed in the article Teaching English Abroad: What to Expect, one of the best ways to have a better chance of constant work is to seek employment through an English academy that contracts out teachers for private lessons and classes through their organization. If a class is cancelled an academy can usually find another class for the teacher to pick up.

Another aspect about teaching in a foreign country to consider is that in many parts of the world vacation time is taken seriously—very seriously. It’s not uncommon for businesses to shut down and classes to be postponed during the holiday or summer seasons. In my experience teaching English in Madrid, I had hardly any work from mid-December through mid-January. Classes were irregular and difficult to pick up during the summer months, when many Spaniards escape the heat and go on extended vacations to cooler climates.

The solution? Be sure to have extra money saved up before you arrive in the country. Expect work to be slow during certain times of the year. Don’t let a temporary halt of income catch you off guard! If you’re prepared, you can take advantage of the lull, and travel during the slow season to different regions or to neighboring countries.

Maintaining Student Interest

It’s easy to get caught up in an idealized version of what teaching English abroad is like — you show up to class and earn easy money by speaking your native language to students who are captivated and eager to learn. Though you might have some classes where you’ll have less trouble engaging students in your lessons, there are bound to be other classes where students are less enthusiastic about learning. Some will be there simply because a parent or their job is forcing them to be. In these cases, it’s your job to figure out a way to engage these students, prevent them from holding the rest of the class back, and from turning the classroom environment into a negative one.

When I had a student in class that had no desire to learn English, I tried to find out as much as I could about that student’s personal interests. For future lessons, I would plan a way to incorporate some of those topics into activities, readings, or discussions. When I did this, there was typically a change in the student’s interest and engagement in class, though it was still a challenge to keep the conversation and discussion strictly in English.

Although this method worked for me, it won’t work in every case. Fortunately, there are many strategies, solutions, and resources out there for dealing with this unmotivated students. Here are just a few:

Photo: Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain. Credit: Rick Ligthelm / Flickr

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.