I was on the computer when the phone rang and within 6 months I was on the plane to Japan. I was ecstatic and incredibly nervous at the same time. And it didn’t help that I had to run through the airport in San Francisco to catch my next flight. I ended up teaching ESL for 3 years. Having enjoyed the experience I went to teachers college and then worked at an International School for another 3 years. Below I assess the pros and cons of both routes.
1. Free time
Lets face it, as much as you may like teaching, usually people teach abroad in order to travel. And both types of teaching have their benefits and drawbacks.
If you get a good ESL job you can end up with a lot of free time but it is chancy. Usually ESL jobs require you to work in the evening when everyone is done school/work. Depending on the school, you may work 25-35 hours per week and usually you don’t take any work home with you. In my experience I knew very few people who got weekends off. Usually one is required to work either Saturday or Sunday and you typically get one day off during the week. Working in the evening is especially good if you’re a night owl. One caveat is the split shift. Your school may require you to work in the morning and evening with a lengthy break in between. I had to do this for a few months at one school I worked at and I dreaded it every day.
Working at an international school is just like working at an elementary school in your home country. Classes for example are from 9am -3:30pm with recess and lunch in between. Now of course you have to get there early enough to prepare your lessons and the time you leave depends on what the school requires and how ready you feel you are for the next day/ week. I usually got to school at 8am and was required to stay until 4:30pm. I made full use of my time and usually left at 4:30pm. Though on occasion (like when report cards are due), I stayed later. The benefit is you get weekends off (there could be some exceptions).
I thought to include this with free time but decided to make it a separate point. ESL schools are a business so they are often open in the summer time. Not all schools are but there is usually the option to stay and teach one of their summer programs. In other words, if you like working and want a consistent cash flow through the summer than ESL teaching might be the place for you, otherwise the lack of vacation time is definitely a turn off. You will usually get government holidays and a select number of vacation days that may have stipulations attached. One school I worked at I could use vacation days whenever I wanted provided I gave advanced notice. The other school I worked at was reluctant to give vacation time other than in the summer.
Including summer holidays I had 16 weeks paid vacation at the International School I worked at. There is no way to even compare ESL schools to this though I doubt every International School gives you this much time off. The only drawback is that we didn’t get to choose the time off that we wanted, there were assigned weeks off. Besides summer and Christmas holidays, there was 1 week off in the autumn and 3 one-week vacation periods during winter/spring (after Christmas). I’m sure this differs depending on the school but if you want to teach and travel then the best way to do so, as far as I’m concerned, is to teach at an International School.
3. BENEFITS AND SUPPORT
Most of the benefits and support you will receive from an ESL school come in the way of relationships. If you have a good boss or coworkers they will be more than willing to assist you with things like doctor visits but usually the organization itself will leave this up to you to take care of. That also goes for benefits. I don’t recall ever having a benefit package from an ESL school, especially if you’re able to get medical insurance from the government. Where the organization itself will help is getting you settled in. At every school I worked at anyways, the organization helped us find a place to stay. At some schools they will even pay for accommodations. In either case, schools don’t want you to be overburdened when you arrive. They just expect you to be own your own after that.
At the International School I worked at they provided a very good benefit package through one of the top insurance companies in the country. Like ESL schools, they help you find accommodations (some pay for them) and your colleagues will be supportive and help you in time of need. Administration will get involved if need be too because the parents are paying good money in the first place and they want a good product, YOU.
Be careful with ESL schools for a couple of reasons. Some schools do not pay you on time which could mean laziness/poor management or that they are having financial difficulties. Also be careful of Gross salary as opposed to Net salary. Gross salary is your salary before taxes, net is after. The one ESL school I worked at said I would get paid $2000/month but that was the gross amount. After paying for taxes and accommodations I was only getting $800/ month, which is not very much money if you want to save for something or pay off student debt. The other schools I worked at were much better in this regard. I got between $2100 – $2700 / month and that was after taxes. The other thing to consider is teaching on the side provided your company allows it.
International Schools also vary in terms of salary, though they are typically much better than ESL schools. We were always paid on time and we were getting around $1000/week. At the school I worked at there were also salary increases each subsequent year that I was there, as well as bonuses, flight allowance (which covered 1.5 round trips to Canada), and a monthly accommodation allowance. On top of that, many teachers tutor students on the side earning between $50 – $100/ hr. Needless to say, in this regard International School teaching is the way to go.
Have you ever had to make your own curriculum from scratch? I have and it is something you have to be careful with when looking for an ESL job. It has its own rewards. It’s an accomplishment but it can also be stressful especially if you have no idea what you are doing (I had to create a curriculum to teach a Journalism class and I’ve never studied journalism). Fortunately this was only at one school, the other schools had their own curriculums that they used and usually provided the materials needed for each lesson.
International Schools are more open-ended in this regard but they also require you to be a qualified teacher which means you should know how to prepare lessons from scratch in the first place. Typically, the school will use an established curriculum with its own set of expectations. I taught at a British School and thus taught the British National Curriculum. Most International Schools will have textbooks to assist you but the most important thing is to cover the curriculum’s expectations so you can do your own thing (most of the time). One must remember that a lot of International Schools are also a business since parents have to pay a tuition and therefore the expectations could be much different from what you’re used to in your own country. Trust me, I say this from experience. The school I worked for had all the materials needed to teach but I have heard of schools that are lacking in this department. Make sure to do your research before flying around the world to teach at a school that might have nothing. It is not necessarily a bad thing, I’m just saying to pack accordingly.
6. TEACHING IS ITS OWN REWARD
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase and I can attest to its authenticity but I will say it varies significantly depending on if you teach ESL or teach at an International School.
I worked at 3 different ESL schools and my experience at each was very different. At the first school I taught at I primarily taught adults and the typical method of teaching was based on a first come first serve basis. That means I didn’t see the same students all the time and as a result I didn’t necessarily get to see them progress. I felt this type of teaching to be rather lacking. I enjoyed it but I didn’t experience ‘teaching is its own reward’. At the other two schools I worked at I had the same students every week BUT they typically only came once a week which is better than almost never seeing students but it isn’t enough to really learn English well. I saw improvements but they were only marginal at best.
International School teaching was completely different. It was tough work but I truly felt that I made a difference in my student’s lives. It might be that I taught them a variety of subject material or it could be that my students matured so much throughout the year. Either way, I found it so much more fulfilling working at an International School than teaching ESL. Yes, I had to work a lot harder but it was worth it and I would do it all over again.
If you made up your mind about which route to take then check out tips on moving abroad.