Todd Squitieri gets down to the nitty-gritty of how to make a living as an EFL teacher
It used to be that you went to Asia for a while because of the generous compensation. Even as early as 2011, teachers were flocking to rural camps in South Korea where no U.S. citizen in their right mind would dream of going. As the economy slowed down, rural South Korea was not looking so bad.
Times are a-changin’, at least for the brick-and-mortar school. For brick-and-mortar, you should have at least a bachelor’s degree and some sort of teaching background or a TEFL certificate. Many people without a background in teaching often get that experience through TEFL programs or through volunteer teaching, like I did in New Jersey and New York.
Despite this, there are still places in the world where you can get by with no degree nor certification. But bear in mind that if you choose to go that route, it is not necessarily going to be the easier one. If you do not have certification and you are choosing to teach (legally or illegally) in some brick-and-mortar schools, you might also have to accept draconian employment conditions.
You should have some volunteer experience (more for yourself, unless you have no inhibitions) and a TEFL certificate, even though it may not be necessary where you are going. Also, having a bachelor’s degree is usually a great way of getting your foot in the door, no matter what the subject is.
My experience is mostly of Asia, so this is geared toward those who are interested in teaching there, but many of the strategies are effective wherever you want to teach, be it Eastern Europe or South America.
There are several ways to make a living out of teaching English overseas, so here is a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of each of them to give you a lay of the land—a map so that you know what to expect.
There are many people who get their English degrees and their TEFL certificates and then basically create their own businesses, or become freelancers. This is a way of using your degree about which few people think, because, if you are like me and you have graduated from a university or college and your whole mindset is “I need an employer,” then you probably will not even know what freelancing is, let alone know how to do it.
When I first graduated from ITTO in Guadalajara, Mexico, I was simply sending out resumes. Other people who had been in Mexico prior to me and who had also been in my program were doing something a little bit different: they were taking to the streets and going into restaurants, cafes, and concerts, handing out flyers or telling people that they had just gotten their teacher training certificates. They were in the streets running kind of de facto lessons right there, and Mexico is the kind of place where you can wing it like that, desperado style. Take to the streets and start doing lessons.
Within this freestyling market, there is plenty of room to develop a massive list of clients. It is not necessarily the easiest path if you are kind of shy or not used to putting yourself out there, but still viable. For the less outgoing type, you can do the exact same thing online, running Facebook ads, putting advertisements on different websites, putting out public notices using Craigslist, or sending out personal emails—all of which are great ways to get your name out there.
In Thailand, you are not really allowed to freelance with Thai citizens unless you have a work permit. This goes for some other countries as well—unless you are actually hired by a citizen to be an employee in that country, you are not officially allowed to work. However, in other countries, you can obtain your own work permit, so you need to check before you travel.
There are many advantages to freelancing—you can choose your own hours, work anywhere, and develop more meaningful relationships with the people you work with. Essentially, you are your own boss, which is a very attractive option.
You can also design your own service— what you are going to offer, how you are going to offer it, what contracts you are going to use, how they are going to be signed, and what happens with cancellations. You get to determine all of that because you are in control, and you pretty much get to design the life that you want based on the service you are providing.
The disadvantages you should consider are that it can be inefficient, meaning that if you are focused on one person at a time, then it is a very slow process, and you are putting yourself at financial risk if that one person gets sick or cannot make a lesson.
One way around this issue is to teach classes of students, but this often takes some time to arrange. It also means you may have to volunteer so that people can see the value they will get from you. Freelancing can be just as risky as running your own business.
The other thing to remember is that there is no safety net—if you are too sick to teach, your income will stop.
The obvious option after graduating from a TEFL course is to teach in a private school. Private schools are nearly always looking for English teachers, and they are also a good place to get experience not only in teaching but also in business. If you need some money straight away, they can also give you a good influx of immediate liquidity.
There are plenty of them all over the world. Some are part of major chains (e.g., Berlitz, English First, Wall Street English). These chains have their own curricula, their own programs, their own covenants, their own systems, and their own ways of doing things. These are all very well-oiled machines that can be places to build your skills. One bonus is that they offer opportunities for growth in different departments.
They are often very comfortable schools with the latest projectors and laser pointers. Internet access is excellent, and you get your own curriculum and your own syllabus. You could simply follow the rubric, read from it and then parrot it back to the students. Not a whole lot of thinking involved, but you sure do get to learn how a well-run system operates if you are thinking of someday running your own school.
Ultimately, you will be comfortable, physically speaking (we will get to the emotional part in a little bit). You will be able to teach at optimal capacity, and the lessons that you do teach will not necessarily have to involve you focusing on anything in particular. In other words, hardly any brainpower will be used. You simply deliver the lessons as they are. You will get bonafide training—but you have to be part of the system.
Sometimes, teachers find themselves in repetitive, monotonous situations, doing the same thing over and over and over again. And it becomes kind of a drag and people get depressed.
This might not be so fun if you are in class 40+ hours a week, and these schools demand many hours—many more than public schools—60 to 80 a week, maybe even more. You will probably get two weeks of vacation, but you will not even see much of the country you came to visit because you will be working so hard.
Some of these schools also flip schedules around so that every week you get your weekend on a different day. This point is for those in the Western countries mostly who are used to having what we would define as weekends: Saturday and Sunday. Many countries do not recognize “weekend.” It is not really in their vocabulary.
The politics of these chain schools can become pretty intense, especially if there is a reward system, a bonus system, or some kind of commission system, which can breed an atmosphere of negativity. This happens often in Asia, particularly in the hagwons of South Korea.
Some work at private schools in Korea, and Asia generally, just to make quick money, often working hard for a few months and then leaving with a lump sum, but I do not recommend that, because you want to be able to foster relationships that you can hold on to for the long haul, especially with people who you consider your customers. You want to be able to build equity and wealth, and the way you do that is by fostering relationships with the people who believe in you enough to pay you.
Your Own School
The next thing I want to talk about is running your own business, which is possibly the step after freelancing. This is what many English teachers do after they have had experience teaching. Sometimes, teachers will partner with local citizens because they cannot run a business without a partner who is a local citizen, and they start their own schools or teach their own programs under their own profiles. They do their own marketing and advertising, and they run their own shows.
You get to be your own boss. You get to have your own rules, you get to decide your own schedule. Also, you get your own real estate, your own property. It is something that you can touch, you can hold. It is a school, it is a building. You own it, it is yours. It is land. It is wealth that accrues, potentially, and you could eventually sell it to somebody else for more money if you end up doing well, so that it grows into something that is an asset for you. Not to mention the fact that you can be acquired or merge with other businesses.
Starting your own school is no easy feat. It takes a lot of networking. It takes a lot of upfront interaction with other people if you are planning to start something overseas, because you cannot simply do it alone like in the U.S. You are required to get a partner in most countries if that is where you are starting, unless you start a company in the States and then grow it overseas. You might have an easier time doing this, actually.
It requires you to be social and for you to make demands of others, even though you cannot control other people, while also managing employees. As an employer myself at times, I can honestly say that if you are not deeply involved with your employees, you are subject to getting into deep trouble.
Running a business is very hard work, and it is only right for certain people with a certain mindset.
Odds and Ends
If you are a new graduate with no idea what you want to do and literally any job that comes your way would be a good fit while you attempt to figure out reality, then I have some resources for you to check out:
The one website I used when I was first looking for employment as an English teacher was obviously the most famous one of all, Dave’s ESL Cafe. It still has an active community, and there are many job postings, all the time.
My school, ITTO, claims automatic job placement. Whether you get a good job or bad job is a different story (and obviously entirely dependent on your needs), but they did have the automatic guarantee that you would be placed and start working right away after graduation. I found this to be true. Many people did end up working at schools and getting the experience that they needed. So, keep this in mind if you go the TEFL-training route.
Also, look at the online schools, like Verbling, italki, Upwork, and Fiverr. There are a lot of people hiring on these and other platforms, and they are great for freelancers who want to be able to bank clients from one platform to another and string together a series of clients they can work with regularly and create their own kind of flexible lifestyle for themselves.
The most important advice is to know your own worth and not settle for less. Know that there are plenty of opportunities, which might not even be in English teaching, but do not simply go for any job merely because it is a job and you can get money. Life is too short to be doing jobs you hate, or to be in a system that you despise, or to be doing stuff that you simply do not want to be doing. Do not forget, we are living in a world where there are people who have millions of dollars, hundreds of billions, and you can get more than enough money being a butler in a mansion in Malibu rather than being an English teacher working 80 hours a week.
I am of the firm belief that there is an opportunity for everyone everywhere. There are people for places and places for people, and part of the game of life is finding that place that you feel comfortable being in in the moment.
If you are forcing yourself into teaching English, you have a mandate not to be taking any job where you are required to teach English. I am not saying that all jobs are supposed to be fun all the time, but I am saying that having a work ethic while also believing in what you are doing, enjoying what you are doing, and being satisfied with what you are doing while in service to others is a different story. Don’t let life be a drag, man. Just look at all of these opportunities.
Todd Squitieri holds a BFA from New School University and an MA in Applied Sociology from William Paterson University. He has taught in five countries and currently resides in Da Nang, Vietnam where he is writing a book about his experiences. He may be reached at www.ToddSquitieri.com.