English Teaching Abroad: Avoiding Becoming an English “Lifer”

Teaching English abroad is tricky business. Used correctly, it can be a great way to fund an on-the -ground job search in the country in which you want to live. Used incorrectly, and you can end up an English “lifer”– lulled by making enough money and having a good life, you forgo building professional value until it is too late, leaving you stuck teaching English forever.

The key is to use teaching English as a springboard to other opportunities abroad without falling into the trap of becoming a “lifer.” It isn’t as difficult as it may seem at first as long as you know a few things before you make the leap.

The Danger

CEO of Braingain.co Troy Ertstling described the danger of the perpetual English teaching cycle perfectly in our interview. If you don’t remember, when talking about his time in South Korea, he said:  

“I met a lot of people who struggled to transition out of teaching English. I met a lot of people who came there [South Korea] for one year, but one year turned into two, turned into five, turned into marrying a Korean woman and now they were there for the foreseeable future.”

Anyone living abroad has met people living this scenario. Personally, living in Vietnam, I see it all the time. People get comfortable teaching English. They are making decent money, the work is easy, the lifestyle is laid back, and their life is just good enough to make it hard to peel away from.

Teaching English to children at a foreign language center doesn’t demonstrate many skills that could transfer to a real job.

And that would be fine, except, done right out of college, it can leave you boxed in to teaching English forever. Consider your situation two or three years down the English teaching road: you have no real post-university work experience (teaching English to children at a foreign language center doesn’t demonstrate many skills that could transfer to a real job) and your age vs. experience is awkward for employers because you are not a recent graduate but you essentially never entered the job market.

You now exist in a work-experience purgatory, older than recent grads, but with no concrete examples of developed professional skills.

This happens not just to people in their late 20’s who are having a hard time transitioning out, but people in their 40’s and 50’s who have been forced into English teaching as a career.

If this is the life you are interested in, by all means, there are worse things to do than travel the world and teach English. But 12HourDifference is about professional work opportunities and how to work abroad while gaining professional experience.

Luckily, you can use English teaching as a jumping off point to find a real job in your desired country.

Using English Teaching as a Springboard

You made it to your new country, you are teaching English during the day at a school, making decent money to fund your day to day life, and you want to make the leap to a resume-building job. There will be variations in how to do this depending on the country, but below are a few good ways to get started.

Infiltrate The Expat Communities

In any country that you end up in, there is going to be a tight knit, or several tight knit, expat communities already established in your area. And much like your middle school lunchroom, they are likely segregated based on different factors. There may be an English teacher group, a digital nomad group, groups based on country of origin, industry-specific groups (technology, hospitality), etc.

There is a kinship among expats that can be very useful to take advantage of when you are looking for work in a new city.

Once in your new country, your job will be to research these groups (Facebook is always a great place to start for this) and figure out when they meet up and where. For example, when I first moved to Hanoi, I was involved in the hospitality industry, and the hospitality expats held monthly networking events. The great thing was people from all industries would come, allowing me to meet people across a number of different industries in a single night. A few handshakes, a few card exchanges, some tapas, and a little chit chat made for a productive networking night.

Admittedly, as an introvert, these nights were somewhat mortifying to me. But it wasn’t as scary as the idea of teaching English forever. And it was a good resource for networking, so I did it. And if I needed to, I would do it again.

Use Your Expatness to Your Advantage

There is a kinship among expats that can be very useful to take advantage of when you are looking for work in a new city. Using some of the tips from my Dispatches from Abroad post, you can begin reaching out to local managers in your area at companies you are interested in.

Ask managers if they would be willing to meet up for a beer and chat and use these opportunities to discuss with them your intentions, your story, previous experience, life in your new city, etc. Being willing to meet in person and showing that initiative can go a long way in them taking you seriously and being willing to help you out.

Remember, as we heard from Angie, most jobs aren’t posted, so by being proactive and trying to network with hiring managers of Western companies in your new city, you may find there are more opportunities made available to you just by virtue of being a westerner already abroad. These companies need people on the ground at their foreign office, helping with English related tasks (writing, creating marketing materials, English training, etc.) that local staff may be less apt at handling.

But you can only find out what is out there by asking, and taking the initiative to meet people in person is a great way to do that.  

Start Early

English work contracts are typically for one year. And even if one year seems like a long time, that first year abroad flys by, and you will be sent scrambling to figure out your next move sooner than you expect.

That is why it is imperative to start looking for your next move almost immediately upon hitting the ground in your new country. For a number of reasons, things abroad always take a painfully long time, so taking into account you only have a year on your English contract and the process of locking down your next job could take a while, it is best to get an early start.

Have a Business Card

Coming out of college, I never even considered having a business card because I figured they were for people who had…business. What I learned, especially in other cultures, is that business cards are a big deal, even if they aren’t ever used as actual means of contact. There is a professionalism that goes with exchanging business cards (especially at networking events) that can help you separate yourself from English teachers and backpackers. And, they are usually inexpensive to have made locally, and you can design pretty cool ones with tools like Canva. Having a proper business card is just one more feather in your cap to help differentiate you from others and help people take you more seriously.

In Summary

You don’t want to end up as a “lifer” English teacher, or at least, you don’t want to end up without the option of getting out if you want to. To avoid the trap, keep your eye on the prize: getting out of English teaching and landing a real job abroad. This means ferocious networking, being proactive in meeting professionals in your city, and presenting yourself as a professional yourself, and not just an English-teacher/backpacker.  

Have you used English as a foundation for your job search in another country? Let me know your story on Twitter at @12hrdifference.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.