After getting qualified, the next big question is WHERE should you go to teach? What if you were faced with the choice between Europe and Asia as teaching destinations? Our guest writer Jessica recounts her teaching experiences in Barcelona (Spain) and Seoul (Korea), two popular destinations at opposite ends of the culture spectrum.
So Jessica, how did your teaching journey begin?
My teaching journey began when I finished University. I had studied in Australia and returned to America after three years feeling somewhat like a foreigner and wasn’t ready to ‘enter the workforce’, mostly because this meant driving a car, wearing business attire and competing with other recent graduates who were most likely equipped with more practical degrees (I had studied Creative Writing).
I spent about a month searching the internet trying to find some opportunities abroad, but noticed that besides teaching English, it was nearly impossible to get out of the country without spending loads of money I didn’t have. Paid-volunteering seemed ridiculous and so did expensive language courses abroad. I was in huge debt and needed to start paying off my loans. After feeling a bit defeated, I decided to look up English teaching jobs as it was then the only feasible way I could resume living abroad.
Earning while you travel is the 'holy grail', how did you pull it off?
After I decided to pursue English teaching jobs, it didn’t take long to find out that South Korea was the way to go in terms of money and qualifications. The schools pay for your flight, accommodation and offer you about $1,500-$2,000USD a month, which goes a long way there and lets you save big time. I accepted the first job offered to me and was scheduled to leave about a month later.
That sounds like a pretty impulsive decision, did you know what you were getting into?
Well...no. In my haste to leave America again, I hadn’t really researched what teaching English to children in South Korea was actually like and assumed the gig would require as much effort as the babysitting jobs I breezed through as a teenager.
Reality hit when I got an email from the girl I’d be replacing at my English Institute in Seoul. She mentioned video cameras in the classroom for parent and boss monitoring, eight hour days, and the school being run like a business: basically a job I was nowhere near prepared or qualified for, let alone interested in. I was already locked in with a flight and visa.
Eek! So what did you do, take the plunge or get cold feet?
My ego wouldn’t let me back out, having already told friends and family of my plans, so I decided to do a TEFL course online to make the most of my situation. It was cheap, around $500 and gave me a well-needed brush-up on my grammar. It was also my first introduction to lesson planning and classroom management, skills I hadn’t even considered prior to committing myself to teaching for a year.
So with your new found skills how did you get on with your new job?
Well, to say I hated my job my first year in South Korea would be an understatement. If it wasn’t for the great people I befriended at work and the money I was saving, I would have jumped ship after the first few weeks.
At 21, I was way too immature and impatient to spend the majority of my day around small children who couldn’t understand me and bosses who would jump through flaming hoops to appease rich parents.
Private English Institutes in South Korea (or hagwons) are large-scale businesses and are run just like any other business: parents (customers) are always right, teachers are always wrong. This mentality didn’t go over well with my idealistic and naive world views at the time and caused me a lot of stress.
So, should we strike Korea off our list of places to get a teaching job?
No, I think it really depends on the individual, a lot of people I know have really enjoyed teaching there and had a totally different experience in the classroom. Bad job aside, I really enjoyed living in South Korea. It was an excellent place to party, shop and experience early adulthood with money in my pockets after being a broke university student for years. You will always find some English teachers in South Korea who drink a lot and for them, teaching in South Korea is an extension of university. For others, it’s a job and life to be taken seriously and some (mostly guys) end up there for years.
You hung on in there, did it pay off for you?
Definitely. After my year-contract was completed at the private school, I accepted a year position in a government-sponsored English program in a public elementary school.
The new job at the elementary school was light years better than my first job. I worked half as many hours, earned more money and since it was a brand new program, was left pretty much to my own devices in terms of curriculum. These factors made up for the fact that the students there were rather naughty and completely uninterested in learning English. At that point, I was in it for the money, not the ‘rewarding experience’.
When my two years were finished, I’d saved around $20,000USD, enough to pay off my student loans and that was after I’d been back and forth to Southeast Asia about five times during teaching holidays too!
Loans paid, experience gained, travelling done. Time to settle down then?
Not quite, after 5 years of being away from home, living abroad had become my new “normal”. I returned to America, realized I still wasn’t ready to settle back home and left for Spain to continue teaching English.
It was a bit tricky...I went without securing a job or accommodation beforehand. Finding a place was easy enough, but a job was a different story. Without proper working papers, finding a legitimate teaching job for Americans is extremely difficult. With next to no other options, many choose to teach private classes, which is the route I ended up on. Finding students was really challenging since I literally had no contacts in Barcelona, but after posting ads up on local websites, I started getting a steady stream of income through teaching private classes. Although it’s a great way to avoid taxes and make a lot of money in a short amount of time, relying on income from private classes to cover all your expenses is challenging. Students cancel, go on holiday and can drop you whenever they want, before you find a replacement to make up for the loss of a constantly variable weekly wage.
The perception tends to be that getting a teaching job in Barcelona is a done deal.
It is to some extent. If you are British or have working papers, you can probably sort out a job teaching English in Spain by having a bachelor degree and/or a TEFL qualification. Teaching here is very different from teaching in South Korea. You are usually not confined to work in one school and your position can be more like that of a freelancer. You pick up certain hours here and there at different locations and are lucky if you get around 20-25, which will be enough to make rent, pay bills and have some spending money. Don’t expect to save money or pay off your loans by teaching in Spain, the most you’ll probably earn is around 900-1300EU/month. However, that is still a very decent amount of cash to earn for a Spanish lifestyle, and more than the local average wage.
Would you go back to Korea for the cash?
So Barcelona is your preferred TEFL destination, ahead of Korea?
Definitely. With an excellent climate and geographical location, Barcelona is one of the best places I can think of to live if you aren’t earning that much money. World class beaches are a quick train ride away and going out can cost next to nothing (wine is sometimes cheaper than water!).
In South Korea I’d been teaching English to earn money, put off adulthood, and travel. It was a necessary evil and every morning, I dreaded going into work. But here, I’m actually enjoying my job as a teacher. I attribute this mostly to having adult students, at a conversational level, who have and continue to teach me a lot about the city and the country.
So what are your plans for the future, still have the itchy feet or has your heart been captured by the cultural paradise that is Spain?
For now I’m enjoying the laid back lifestyle and leisure time teaching has allowed me to have. When my Spanish is at a more advanced level, I might try getting a different job, just to try my hand at something new. I have no plans to go back home or leave in the near future.
Do you feel left behind when you see your old friends, married with kids, careers and mortgages?
Not at all, based on our varied experiences after high school, it’s nearly impossible to even compare each other’s current lives. I think in the end, everyone does what’s right for them and since marriage, children and a career were never top priorities on my life’s to-do list, I feel like I’ve done everything that’s made sense for me as an individual.
When I reflect on my experience, I feel really good about my idea to pursue teaching abroad. It’s allowed me to travel around the world, which has provided me with a unique education that I couldn’t get from a university course. I now feel comfortable and confident travelling just about anywhere and getting myself out of sticky situations involving different languages. As of right now, I’m not sure where or how, if ever, all of this international experience is going to pay off financially, but I know I’m a better, more well-rounded and culturally aware person because of it.
It might seem challenging, horrifying and stressful at first, but I can’t recommend living in foreign countries enough - a cliche perhaps, but in my experience, totally, totally worth it!!