The Teacher Trap - Going Abroad and Getting Stuck as an ESL Teacher

The Teacher Trap - Going Abroad and Getting Stuck as an ESL Teacher

I've been on both sides of the coin, a broke English teacher in Thailand making $1K a month and now a a self employed guy making a very good income while living abroad. It took years to make it happen, it was stressful at times (at my worst I was $7K in credit card debt making $2k a month) but it's totally worth it if you can pull it off.

Going abroad and teaching English literally changed my life and for that I'm forever thankful. I used to work as an internal auditor for Price Waterhouse Coopers in Hartford Connecticut. It was your typical "good job" that you're supposed to want.

But all I ended up with was a high paying job working 12+ hour days, 2 weeks vacation and no time for myself at all. I was getting fat, did not have a GF and no real social life. Just work, work, work, sleep.

It was not uncommon to get to the client site at 8:15 am (waking up at 6:30 am to shower and put on my khakis, tie and dress shirt) and work till 8:30 pm. 12+ hours in an office room auditing documents and filling out spreadsheets - a personal hell for sure.

So I quit and eventually went abroad to teach English in Thailand which was a transformative experience. However, there is no denying what I call "the teacher trap." It's where you go from being 26 and "exploring the world" to all of a sudden you're 34 and you're still doing the same thing - no personal or professional growth, literally just bumming it in South East Asia.

Making a low salary as an under paid English teacher, drinking cheap beer, going out with 4/10 girls you think are 8's and in general having no options because you've been abroad so long you're now  stuck.

Lack of options as you stay abroad

I know I can be harsh, but I know people like this. The longer you stay abroad teaching the harder it is to adjust back to your home country because it becomes more and more difficult to land a job with a good income.

Maybe you're a creative guy like me with a degree in finance and accounting which I only got because I wanted to get a job. I hate numbers and have no real talent for math, but no one ever advised young me (I just followed the awful boomer advice that any degree is a good degree). So imagine yourself in my situation, I just spent the last 5 years as an English teacher in Thailand and I have a degree I have no real talent for an my previous work experience was years ago.

Literally what would someone like me do going back to the United States after being abroad for so long? No company would hire me for a reasonable wage because my work experience was in teaching, not finance.

So what? Work for minimum wage in a warehouse or go into massive debt to get a different degree while working a crap job again in the states so I can land another job I did not like or just stay abroad where things?

This is what I mean by stuck.

When your "ideal" self and "real" self are out of alignment

One cultural thing you need to know about ESL teachers in China, Thailand, Vietnam etc is that it's a stop gap for some, a trap for most and all are not particularly proud to be ESL teachers (unless you're employed by a prestigious international school - more on that later).

I have meet the odd couple genuinely traveling and teaching for a year or two. I've also meet the guys who do "export, import" or the young, wannabe digital nomad but really they have a low paying teaching job at a government school.

I know how painful it is to have an ideal version for your life but the reality you're in is totally different. I've been there so I can totally empathize.

Salaries for new English teachers

In most countries the starting wage for new English teachers is just enough to pay for your monthly living expenses. This is why I use the word stuck. Too many guys end up in the situation I just outlined where they have credit card debt because life happens, are just making ends meet abroad and the idea of flying back to America to "start over" is a financial inferno.

It's great if you still have your mom and dad to rely on, but even if you do people are not going to be too happy with you if you're 30+ and needing to live at home and start over. I get it though, bad things happen and you got to do what you need to do.

The solution is to have a plan

I know this is basic, but you have to live consciously. You're going to get older, time marches on and you need to have a plan for where you're steering the proverbial ship that is your life.

Anyone who meet me during this time knows that in my heart of hearts I was going to be self employed. I was going to figure it out and not have a job. It's crazy to look back on this but I put myself in a situation where I had no plan b.

Plan b was the teacher trap.

I was burned 2008. I had a corporate job that showed me how miserable life could be, then I quite at the worst time and the great financial crisis happened which made it impossible for me to find another job - I was stuck for 8 months doing temporary work. These two horrible experiences solidified me with wanting to be independent and free.

I wanted to be the guy I am now. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, low key rich, flying under the radar and free to do what I want.

So you don't understand, I had to figure it out. I went abroad with this intention. For everyone else however thinking of going abroad I would say do it, but have a plan for what happens next.

Go abroad for 2 years max

One year abroad in general is not enough. You'll probably have so much fun and have so many things you want to see and do that it is most likely best to plan for 2 years abroad. One year is enough to get settled in, the second year is when you'll start seeing new and interesting places.

After 2 years move on to something else. That something else could be doing what I did and building a business (took me 4 years all together) or doing what others have done and going back to America (or the UK, Canada, whatever) and getting the proper accreditation to secure a good job at an international school.

Tiers of teaching English

One thing most beginners don't understand is that there are tiers to teaching English. So let me break down the reality of your options.

Government schools

In some countries it's possible to work at a public school as a foreign English teacher. I did this in Thailand. The benefits are that you have a normal job where you work Monday to Friday, have weekends and all public holidays off.

What I enjoyed most about my time teaching was that it was my "edge" for building my business because no longer was I slaving away working 12-14 hour days. I was finished with teaching at 3pm or so and was then able to work on other things.

I also lived in Thailand which has a low cost of living. So all I needed to live in Ratcahburi was literally just $1000 USD a month. Government schools are a good entry point into the world of ESL, but expect a low paying position as they are the easiest job to get.

I would not work for a governemnt school for more than 2 years unless you have some sort of specific plan or goal as I previously mentioned.

Language centers

In some countries like Vietnam, Korea and Japan, private language centers are the primary employer. These are private companies, teachers often have an issue with getting paid on time and the hours are awful in that you'll work weekends and nights.

Last, the pay is by the hour instead of a salary like a public school.  Language centers are alright in Vietnam as that country has a low cost of living but I've never meet anyone who has a good experience for at these centers in Korea or Japan (get a position at a public school instead).

International schools (great option)

These are well paying, proper teaching positions. You can expect to work at the same school for 10+ years if you like and build a home abroad or bounce around to different countries every few years like Spain, Germany or Asia.

I have a few friends from Ratchaburi who did the low paying government school thing, decided they liked being teachers and went home to the UK to get the proper accredidation. This combined with thier previous teaching experience allowed them to get high paying positions at top tier international schools in Thailand.

Pivot into education

Maybe teaching is not for you, there are other aspects than being in the classroom. I have one good friend that got a masters in "instructional design" which is the study on how to build out meaningful, effective courses.

He was able to land a job at an online teaching startup where he built out course materials, lesson plans and managed a team of teachers.

Pros  teaching abroad

There are quite a few pros and cons to being a teacher that you may not realize. Let's get started with the pros of being an English teacher abroad.

See the world

Cliche I know, but getting out of America and going somewhere else will expand you in ways you don't understand. I think of my niece in Connecticut, she wants to live in CT, get a job in CT and stay in CT.

There is a whole big world out there beyond Connecticut. But I've noticed this is an issue with Americans in general. We all want to stay where we are from. I get it, but this is one helpful benefit of going abroad because it breaks this limiting belief into a million little pieces.

Once you get out of your proverbial bubble, you won't think it to be a big deal to move to Texas, Florida or Montana for work.

Develop helpful soft skills

Teaching a will make you a master of public speaking. You'll know how to command a room, you'll be comfortable being in front of people and you'll understand how to structure a 30 minute+ presentation.

All these skills will prove helpful in ways you may not even see. When I'm on camera some say I'm a bit of a natural at it and I do think I have an aptitute that others don't have. But my time teaching definitely made me better on camera than I would have been otherwise.

Transform your life for the better

Going abroad can help lay the foundation to piviot into something else much better. Be that an online business, a masters degree and working a cool job at a company or landing a position at a great international school.

It all starts with taking that risk and going abroad for the first time. I can't say it will be easy. Maybe you're a goofy, socially awkward guy (many of which I meet). Like the old saying goes:

Wherever you go, there you are.

That means if you're a goofy guy in America, you'll still be that way in Thailand. However, you now have an opportunity to grow and change for the better.

Cons of teaching abroad

You probably already know what I'm going to emphasize, but let's get to the cons of teaching abroad.

Being a bum ESL teacher

Some guys are fine with a life with barely making ends meet each month, having no savings, going out with some farm girl and drinking cheap beer. However, this reality is scary to me to and it's why I worked so hard to get away from teaching.

Poverty

If you choose just to keep working at your government school in Thailand (or language center elsewhere), long term you will become poor. Life happens and when you're making just enough to get by your one paycheck away from disaster.

Your laptop broke? Need to fly home for some reason? Maybe you will start to want a change? Too bad, you have not cash and no flexibility. Just put it on the credit card and slowly seep into debt and poverty.

The teacher trap conclusion

In short, have a plan. Teaching abroad is a wonderful opportunity and if you're thinking about doing it, do it. But have a plan for what comes next. Drew Binsky taught in Korea and built his travel business. Others use it as a way to see the world for a bit, then get a masters degree and a proper teaching job at an international school.

Some just do it for a gap year for fun and then return to live back in the US (totally fine). Others however get stuck abroad and put themselves in a perilous finaical situation where they have no choice.