The following is a guest post by Sasha and Rachel of Grateful Gypsies!
Many people dream of traveling long-term or even living abroad. Not so many actually make those dreams a reality. When it comes down to it, there’s always something holding you back. It often boils down to a lack of time or money, as one always seems to be missing when you have the other.
If only there were a way where you could earn a living, get more than two weeks of vacation a year, and travel to – or even live in – exotic locations. Welcome to the life of an ESL teacher. This is one of the best jobs for aspiring globetrotters, and these days you don’t even need to live in one place to do it. Get a pen and paper, because we’re going to show you how to live abroad and travel as an ESL teacher.
But first, let’s answer an important question.
What is ESL?
ESL stands for English as a Second Language. Around the world, there are billions and billions of ESL speakers and learners. There are several reasons for this high demand:
- English is the most commonly spoken language in the world.
- It’s the official language of 50+ countries.
- English is the language of business, technology, diplomacy, tourism, and more.
- About half of the internet is in English!
In short, studying English can open many doors by leading to better opportunities for education and employment. For many people, learning English is simply a way to understand American pop culture or to make independent travel easier. With so many people wanting to learn English around the world, the ESL industry is a massive one that only continues to grow. So where do you fit in?
As a native English speaker – or an ESL speaker yourself who has been trained – you have a skill that’s highly in demand. If you are fluent in English and understand how to teach it, job opportunities abound. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the most populous country on earth. That’s right, I’m talking about the land of kung pao chicken and Kung Fu Panda – China!
ESL in China
The booming middle class in China wants to learn English, and perhaps more importantly, want their kids to learn English. Children learn English in their local school and often attend lessons at private ESL centers in the evenings and on weekends. College students study English in an effort to pass an exam and get accepted into a Western university. Adults study it to get a promotion, land a new job, or to be able to travel without the infamous Chinese tour group. It seems like everyone wants to study English, and that’s good news for you.
As a qualified English teacher, you’ve already got millions upon millions of potential students. In today’s competitive world, it’s hard to find a field this easy to break into with immediate payoff. Forget that long and arduous job search, because a job is already waiting for you here. Right off the bat, you can enjoy a high standard of living thanks to your salary, benefits, and time off. Just look at our example for some living proof.
Our Experience in China
Back in 2009 during the Great Recession, my wife and I were struggling to find gainful employment. We both had degrees, plenty of experience, and several internships under our belts. We bought nice clothes, printed out our resumes, attended conferences and networking events, and hit the pavement looking for any sort of work. Months later, we were on food stamps, barely able to pay for our rented room in a friend’s place. Over the holidays, our house and car got broken into. Desperate for a change, we moved to Beijing to teach ESL.
Before we even landed in Beijing, Rachel landed a job as a tutor/babysitter for two young girls. Their family lived in a massive house in the suburbs and had their private driver come to the city to pick her up twice a week. She was paid around $20 an hour to teach the girls one-on-one for an hour or so each, fed a delicious local dinner, and driven home. By the end of our first year, I was teaching at a university and earning over $30 an hour for it. We were both doing some additional side hustles such as going to a kindergarten twice a week, tutoring private students, and recording our voices for ESL courses.
We arrived in Beijing pretty much broke, crashing with a friend until we found a room for rent we could afford. Within six months, we signed the lease to our own 3-bedroom place in a great part of the city, bought e-bikes to get around, and booked a month-long trip to Thailand and Laos. It was hard to imagine how far we had come from the depths of despair we had been in back in Middle Tennessee less than a year earlier.
By our second year in China, we landed jobs at a training center with working visas, benefits, and a solid salary, even though we were only part-time. We continued to do odd jobs on the side to fill in the schedule and save money.
Life was good in the big city – nice dinners, trips to the spa, wild nights out, weekend getaways, and longer trips during Chinese holidays. We managed to travel all over China and several countries in East and Southeast Asia and still put money away. When the desire to travel took over, we bid farewell to our cushy lives in Beijing and set out on a 14-month gap year trip.
Once our funds and energy ran out, we regrouped in Kunming – the Spring City in southwest China. Within days, we had an apartment and new teaching jobs. The year flew by as we explored stunning Yunnan province and enjoyed a fun life in this chilled out city.
After just a year of teaching in Kunming, we were able to head home for our wedding and then spend the next nine months living in Bali. None of this would have been possible had we not made that decision to take the risk and move to China to teach English. Just as learning the language opens doors for students, teaching it has opened more for us than we can count.
While teaching English in China is an incredible experience and one we highly recommend, you don’t even have to live in the country to do the job anymore. Why’s that? Because just like everything else, the world of ESL is moving online.
Teaching ESL Online
Just as many people prefer shopping online to actually going to a store, more and more people want to learn a language online. I bet several of you are on programs like Duolingo brushing up on your Spanish or French.
Nobody loves doing things online quite like China, though. In a country obsessed with apps such as WeChat and social media like Weibo, it should come as no surprise that people in China are happy to study English through a screen.
For one, the traffic and pollution of China’s megacities can be overwhelming. Rather than cram on the subway or ride the scooter across town, it’s so much easier to just sit down and have a class online. This convenience is especially great for parents looking to get their children to learn English. The demand has been there, and now there’s finally a supply.
The biggest name in the online education game is VIPKID. Started just a few years ago in 2013, the company has already grown to 20,000 teachers and over 200,000 students and they’re showing no signs of slowing down. They’ve attracted lots of attention recently, having appeared in several media outlets such as Forbes and CNBC. China’s most famous billionaire – Jack Ma – has invested extensively, as has Kobe Bryant. In short, VIPKID is the real deal.
Our Experience With VIPKID
We’ve been teaching with VIPKID for over a year now and absolutely love it. First of all, the freedom is incredible. As an independent contractor and not an official employee, you are basically your own boss. You decide when you want to work and for how long. There are no minimum or maximum hours, so you’re in control of your day to day life.
Back when we taught in China, we usually spent several hours a week lesson planning. Since VIPKID makes its own curriculum, you simply have to upload the lesson and scroll through it. By cutting out the lesson planning and creation, we’ve saved ourselves tons of time and stress. The lessons are also one-on-one (hence the name), so it’s much easier than controlling a classroom full of children. Plus it’s online, so the kids can’t even sneeze on you!
In addition to teaching awesome little Chinese kids, you have the potential to take on other roles in the company. I spent a semester teaching classrooms full of underprivileged children in rural China through the Jack Ma Foundation and just started a position mentoring teacher applicants. The company is growing exponentially as well, so they’re always looking to bring on new staff at the HQ in Beijing. Moving back to Beijing isn’t exactly on our radar, as we’re enjoying the lifestyle that this job has allowed us to live.
With our newfound location independent jobs, we spent the first half of the year traveling and living in Mexico. We spent some time in the big cities and then settled in Puerto Vallarta for a while. After teaching for a few hours in the early morning, we had the rest of the day to hit the beach, eat all the tacos, and enjoy a sunset margarita. When retirees – who worked their whole adult lives to be able to live in PV – asked us how we were doing it at such a young age, we simply replied, “We teach English to Chinese kids!”
At the moment, we’re in another Spring City – Medellin, Colombia. We’ve been here over a month, working online, studying Spanish, and exploring. For the next half a year or so, we’re planning to visit Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. Once again, none of this would be possible without our jobs as ESL teachers.
Curious as to how you can get started? Keep on reading.
If you’re interested in teaching ESL, here are some important things to consider:
- The best jobs usually go to native speakers. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for non-native speakers because there are several. You just need the right qualifications.
- Regardless of where you’re from, having at least a Bachelor’s degree and a TEFL/TESL certificate of any kind will help you greatly in the job search.
- It pays to have any kind of experience in teaching/education or just working with children.
If you check all the boxes, you’ll have no trouble landing an ESL gig. One of the best websites to start looking for jobs is Dave’s ESL Cafe. In addition to China, you can find jobs in South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and more. We’ve only worked in China and are working for a Chinese company now, so we can’t say much about other countries when it comes to ESL teaching. There are certainly jobs out there, especially in South Korea, and we’ve had several friends work there.
One thing we will say regardless of where you want to teach is to be wary of any person or organization who wants you to pay them to get you placed in a job. You don’t need to pay anyone to find you an ESL job, as it’s really not that hard to find your own. Paying for a TEFL/TESL certificate is perfectly fine and actually encouraged. Just be sure to do some research to make sure it’s reputable.
If you just want to teach online, you should be aware that VIPKID has some pretty strict requirements:
- Only US and Canadians are hired.
- You must have a degree of some sort.
- You must have experience in education/with children.
For those who don’t qualify for VIPKID, there are several other online ESL companies with looser requirements where you can get started. You can become a teacher on iTalki, Live Lingua, or several other platforms of all shapes and sizes.
Teach Abroad or Teach Online?
Looking back, there’s nothing about our journey I would change. I’m glad we started off teaching in China for several years before the online craze started. It allowed us to live in a completely different culture and have an incredible experience. Living there and learning Chinese opened the door for me to work as a freelance writer and videographer for a language blog. That interest in languages and the experience of a friend in Beijing led us to move to Bali where I got a scholarship to study Indonesian. It’s amazing how many doors have opened for us as a result of our experience living in China.
Now that we teach Chinese children online as we move around the world, our jobs are much easier because we already understand them. Having taught classrooms full of Chinese kids, our current job is a breeze. Since we learned a lot about Chinese language and culture, we’re able to relate better to our students than teachers who have never been there and don’t speak a lick of the language.
While we’re still going strong as ESL teachers, many of our peers have moved on to bigger and better things as a result of their experience in China. Of my friends who taught there in my first year almost a decade ago, there’s a nurse, a diplomat, and a restaurant owner, to name a few. Whether you decide to make it your career or not, working as an ESL teacher for a few years will give you the experience of traveling and living abroad that so many of us desire but are not so sure how to achieve.
As for us, we see no end in sight. It’s a big world out there, and there are a lot of people who want to learn English!
Sasha is an English teacher, language student, blogger, and videographer from Michigan. He moved to China in 2008 and has also lived in Indonesia and Mexico. He and his wife Rachel run Grateful Gypsies, where they write about digital nomad life, teaching ESL, long-term travel, and live music. They’re currently backpacking through South America while working online.