The Ultimate Guide to Teaching English Locally or While Living Abroad
Does long-term travel or teaching English inspire you? If so, welcome to the life of an ESL teacher! Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) or Foreign Language (EFL) is a fun and challenging way to find work in your home country or while living abroad.
Though the ESL acronym is broadly used, ESL actually refers to teaching English to non-native speakers within an English language-dominant country such as the US or UK.
By contrast, EFL refers to teaching English in a non-English-speaking country (aka “abroad” or “overseas”).
There are teaching opportunities all over the world with an estimated 1.5 billion1 English language learners out there waiting for you.
What Is Teaching ESL/EFL?
What, specifically, is teaching English as a second or foreign language? It’s about as straightforward as it sounds. There are people all over the world who want to learn English, but they need trained teachers to help them learn the language.
Immigrants from a non-English speaking country to a primarily English-speaking country can significantly benefit from picking up English as a second (or third or fourth) language. They simply need an English teacher.
Meanwhile, those living outside of a non-English speaking country (i.e., “abroad” or “overseas”) might also want to study English as a foreign language, either as a hobby or as part of their academic education or career development.
As the world becomes increasingly globalized, English continues to dominate as a universal language of choice in both business and academia. The demand for ESL/EFL teachers remains high, with many schools willing to pay a decent salary and basic living expenses. It’s an incredible opportunity for anyone who loves to travel but needs a job to make living abroad possible.
What Does a Travel ESL Teacher Do?
Teaching English literature and rules of grammar to students who already know English might be challenging work, but teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language can be even more difficult. To be a successful EFL teacher, expect to start with the basics in your lesson plans, especially if teaching ESL abroad.
Here are some general daily duties of an EFL/ESL teacher:
- Assess current proficiency levels of students or general classrooms
- Create lesson plans
- Develop customized curriculum for students (For instance, young students may need general grammar and reading/writing skills, while business students may need to focus on verbal negotiations and professional vocabulary.)
- Teach lessons via one-on-one or group sessions
- Ensure classes cover all areas required for language acquisition, such as reading, writing, listening, and speaking
- Arrange fun breakout activities for students to practice together
- Listen and guide students as they practice
- Ask concept checking questions to ensure students understand lesson material
- Monitor for signs of unique learning obstacles, which can be harder to detect when when living abroad and teaching ESL or EFL to speakers of other languages
- Keep classrooms lively and engaged so students stay focused
- Teach good study techniques so students are empowered to work on their own
How Much Does an ESL Teacher Living and Teaching Abroad Make?
When it comes to salary, there are so many variables, so the income range is very wide. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for “Adult Basic and Secondary Education and ESL Teachers” is $55,350 (as of 2020), ranging from under $32,120 to over $95,630.2
Keep in mind, “ESL” typically refers to teaching in an English-speaking nation. So, an ESL teacher’s salary probably won’t be consistent with someone teaching abroad, who might make considerably less than even the lowest salary listed by BLS.
When teaching ESL abroad, you may earn wages in the local currency. And though it may seem like a low salary compared to peers in the US, your living costs while living and teaching abroad will likely be much lower. Let’s look at an example.
How do you know how much is “enough?” There are many sites like Expatistan3 that break down the cost of living in various countries and cities.
As with any country, big cities can be vastly more expensive to live in than small towns. So when teaching overseas, it is critical to determine how much your salary would be worth in that country as well as the specific city, instead of comparing the salary to any US dollar standard.
Employers will consider many factors when it comes to salary, such as qualifications and years of experience. However, smaller schools might not be able to afford to pay over a certain amount regardless of education or experience. So, their offered salary is what it is, take it or leave it. Some jobs pay monthly salaries, while others offer hourly wages. Teaching young children might pay less than teaching older kids or adults, and classroom sizes can also impact your pay.
Steps to Becoming an ESL Teacher Abroad
Teaching ESL in the US may have very different requirements than teaching ESL/EFL abroad. For example, if you want to be an American K-12 public school ESL teacher, you’ll most likely need at least a bachelor’s degree and certification or licensure.
However, teaching EFL in a foreign country can be done in small private schools. Many of these employers only require an applicable Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification as a minimum to apply!
To teach outside of the United States, most ESL/EFL teachers obtain a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification. Numerous programs offer these TEFL/TESOL certifications, from community colleges, private companies in the US and abroad, and even universities.
Some offer fully online certificates,4 while others require live, in-person teaching practice. Prices for certifications range from hundreds to over $2,000.
Many teachers opt to complete the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA), offered by Cambridge English (part of Cambridge Assessment, a non-teaching department of England’s University of Cambridge).5 As noted on their website,
“CELTA is the most widely recognised English teaching qualification in the world. It’s the qualification most often requested by employers; three out of four English language teaching jobs require a CELTA qualification.”
CELTA is arguably the hardest and perhaps most expensive TEFL/TESOL certification to obtain. For instance, one teacher completed their CELTA via a hybrid method through the International Training Institute in Istanbul, Turkey, one of the authorized CELTA training centers. First, they did the instructor-led online coursework at home then flew from Washington D.C. to Istanbul to complete the live teaching practice and assessment with students in the target country.
Please don’t skip these next two steps!
Sometimes ESL teachers are so eager to get overseas that they don’t care where they go or don’t do enough research. Read official travel advisories and ask questions from ESL groups on sites like Quora, Reddit, Facebook, or ESL job board threads. Learn from those with boots on the ground in the countries you want to go to, and talk to them about the pros and cons of living and teaching abroad.
Remember, teaching ESL abroad isn’t a short vacation; it is a months-long commitment, at least! The better you prepare and the more carefully you choose your country (and city), the more likely you’ll have an enjoyable experience and want to continue with your newfound teaching career.
It isn’t enough to just research the country. Look into the employer, too, especially if they aren’t a school. It’s important to note that since these are not jobs in the US, you should do your research into any company listing a job you’re thinking about applying for.
There should be a website listed, which you’ll want to visit and look for any signs of unprofessionalism. Not every company can afford a high-end website, so don’t just judge based on that. But ideally, they should include photos of their building and classrooms so you can get an idea of the working environment. You can also use Google Maps to zoom in for a street level view of the surrounding area.
Look closely at their location. Look up the physical street address to see exactly where the school is located. Don’t take it for granted that the building is easy to get to just because it is in a big city. Also, read any Google or Facebook reviews about the employer, if you can find them.
A Day in the Life Teaching ESL Abroad
To gain some insights from someone who has “been there, done that,” here is an interview with John Cates, a certified ESL teacher who formally taught abroad.
John, which country did you teach ESL abroad in?
Were you a teacher before that?
John: I wasn’t, no. Well, in a way I was, because I taught various topics in missionary situations to students.
What did you do before you started teaching ESL in Colombia?
John: I was doing missionary work, and I moved to Colombia when I was getting married. While I was there, I ended up teaching for extra income at the same time I was doing my work with the church. Started part-time, later full-time.
How long did you teach English in Colombia?
John: About five or six years!
Did you teach any other subjects, or just English?
John: Just English. And a little Spanish later, actually.
Where’d you teach in Colombia?
John: I worked at a high school named Winston Salem High School and also at Colegio Luz a Las Naciones.
And did you have a TEFL/TESOL certification?
John: Yes. I did it in Colombia.
How long did it take to become certified?
John: Oh, it was only a few weeks, maybe six weeks there? I don’t recall exactly. It went by fast.
What did you think about ESL teaching? Was your experience what you thought it would be like?
John: Yes, it was very pleasant and everything I expected. I loved the children and enjoyed working with them. I liked making new friends with staff, too. It was an adventure in a foreign country, very interesting. Not your ordinary job!
How many other English-speaking teachers did you work with?
John: One of the schools was huge, but we probably only had four English-speaking teachers. Some of the students spoke English already, though.
Did you need to learn Spanish to teach there?
John: Well, I’d already studied a bit of Spanish in high school and college, plus I’d worked in other parts of South America. My future mother-in-law requested I learn more Spanish. Being married and immersed in the culture, I learned a lot. Knowing the native language can be useful when students have problems they can only express in their native language.
What do you think are the top 3 best things about teaching ESL abroad?
John: Number one, learning the history and enjoying the culture. Number two, getting to know the students and staff and their perspectives on life. Maybe that’s all tied together. The third thing, in my opinion, is getting to eat different types of cuisine!
What are the three worst things about teaching ESL abroad?
John: Where I was? Security issues, basically. Some drug trafficking and high risk of theft in some areas. Plus some medical issues, like sicknesses that might be less common in the US. The quality of medical care isn’t always the best in many situations.
How much did you earn per month in relation to your actual living costs in Colombia?
John: My income covered my living costs, but you won’t get rich teaching ESL! You should be able to earn enough to pay your bills. Do your homework on the country to find out about the cost of living. And if you have some side income coming in from the States, that always helps, too!
Do you have any other recommendations for someone wanting to teach ESL abroad?
John: Of course! First make sure you’re fluent in English! You must be able to read, write, listen and speak, and be understood by the listener. Those are the core components. Otherwise, it’ll be a disaster. If you’ve never been overseas, expect culture shock. It’s an adventure, living overseas, getting accustomed to the local manners and food. That might take 2 or 3 years.
Thanks for sharing your stories and advice with us, John!
John: Thanks to you, too, and I hope it’s useful!
Is ESL teaching a good career?
- Teaching English as a second or foreign language can be a lot of fun but comes with unique challenges, especially when teaching outside the US. It can be tough for teachers with families, but it’s a rewarding career for those who love traveling or working abroad or can communicate well with non-native speakers.
Do ESL teachers need to be bilingual?
- It can help to know your target students’ language, but being bilingual is not a requirement. If you don’t know the students’ first language, your classroom will be more of a full immersion environment where students only learn English. This is often not required by schools but may be helpful in corporate educational situations.
What degree do you need to teach ESL?
- If you plan to teach ESL in a public K-12 environment, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and probably certification or licensure, depending on your state. If you want to teach EFL abroad, you may only need a TEFL/TESOL certificate.
Are ESL teachers in demand?
- Yes, both in America and worldwide, students are striving to learn English as a second or foreign language, so teachers are in demand!
Is teaching ESL hard?
- It can be very challenging but also extremely rewarding. Teaching ESL is unlike teaching many other subjects, as educators have a lot of freedom to be creative with curriculum and lesson planning. In other words, you can make your classes as fun as you want, but it takes a lot of upfront planning.
Can I teach ESL without a degree?
- Yes, if you are planning to teach ESL/EFL abroad, most likely, you’ll only need a TEFL/TESOL certificate to get started.
How long does it take to become an ESL teacher?
- That depends on where you plan to teach! If you want to teach ESL in the US in a public K-12 setting, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree that takes four years (or more, if attending school part-time). If teaching abroad, you can finish a TEFL/TESOL certificate in as little as a few weeks, depending on which route you take and how many hours a day you can devote.