Teaching English in Asia - Pros and Cons

ESL is great for both travelers and career English teachers

Causeway Bay

Teaching English in Asia is a great job for both travelers and professional teachers alike.  With the right ESL credentials, experience, and attitude, you can teach anywhere in Asia. Still there are some things that you should keep in mind - ranging from personal issues, to how teaching English overseas will affect your career.

Consider Your Long Term Plans

Teaching English in Asian countries, such as Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, is seen as more of a break from your real career, rather than a career in and of itself. This is changing, as standards increase and more people are working overseas. Still, while overseas experience can add to your soft skill set, if you want to return home from Asia you still need to consider your domestic career plans. Many employers back home will consider your Asian experience to be nothing more than an interesting novelty. Even worse, spending too much time abroad will make it harder to adjust to the domestic market. I think that working in Asia can be a valuable experience. But the harsh truth is - Asian experience alone won't get you a job back home. 

National Concert Hall

Even within the English teaching profession there is a glass ceiling for most of Asia. Having a highly specialized, well paying English teaching job is more of an exception than the rule. Even in popular ESL destinations like Korea, the kinds of teaching jobs available have real income limits (even in University jobs). Salaries do not increase significantly during the course of your English teaching career, in most cases. If you’re the sort of person who values free time and life experiences over advancing your career, then ESL may still be a good option for you,.

You can still find a well paying English teaching job in Asia - but you will be much more dependent on things like professional training and credentials (such as the CELTA, DELTA, and Masters Programs), and networking. Your lifestyle also depends on the cost of living where you decide to teach. Places like Taiwan and Korea are well known for their low cost of living. On the other hand, Hong  Kong and Japan are much more expensive, and ESL jobs more competitive.

Dealing With Culture Shock - Loneliness, Isolation, and Lack of Conveniences

Culture shock - or culture fatigue - is a phenomenon that affects all who teach English in Asia, as Eastern culture can differ radically from the West. If you’re in a larger Asian city like Tokyo you won’t want for modern conveniences and lifestyle. Many large Asian cities are very cosmopolitan, and even if you can’t find everything from back home, you can still meet English speaking locals and fellow Western expats to socialize with.

Culture shock in Asia has less to do with not being able to buy your favorite brand of hamburger or coffee - but rather dealing with a very different set of values and way of doing things, especially in the workplace. Asian workplace culture is more group based, hierarchical, and emphasizes harmony over practical concerns like productivity. English Teachers in Korea often have stories of being criticized more over personal matters - such as getting along with fellow teachers - rather than their teaching performance. Such aspects of workplaces in Asia often seem frustrating or illogical to Westerners. An ability to adapt and not take things too personally is essential.

Tokyo at night

Making matters worse is that in many English teaching jobs in Asia you are considered nothing more than a temporary, assistant worker. This is especially noticeable in entry level ESL jobs - like the JET Program in Japan. However, it’’s not unusual to find this attitude at higher level ESL jobs such as Universities. Non-contract English teaching jobs are almost unheard of, and most jobs will having you deal with yearly contracts. Along with the salary cap, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth enduring the lack of professional responsibility, considering the other benefits that English teaching in Asia offers - such as travel and lots of free time.

Upgrade Your ESL Credentials - Be Careful Not to Get Stuck

While there’s a definite glass ceiling for most ESL teaching jobs, upgrading your credentials can still give you more options. It may not increase your salary in all cases, but it will expand the kinds of English teaching jobs available to you, and the places in Asia - and other parts of the world - you’re eligible to teach in. ESL certificate programs like the CELTA and DELTA are a good place to start. If you’re serious about teaching in the long run, you may want to try a Master’s Program, either in person or a distance MA for TEFL or ESL. Do note that certain countries - such as Taiwan - do not recognize distance education.

English teaching jobs aren't the only ones available in Asia. If you want to be a career teacher, you can get certified in your home country. Try certification or an Education major (if you’re still in college), and get some experience at home. After that, you qualify for many international schools in Asia, many of which have significantly better salaries and benefits than your standard ESL teaching jobs. Teaching at international schools is a great way to experience life in Asia while still having something closer to a traditional career. It’s also an easy way to have a door back home should you ever wish to come back.

Now for the Good Stuff - What are the Pros of Teaching English in Asia?

This article sounds like a lot of doom and gloom, but that’s not what I intend. I just want to provide a balanced view of the realities of teaching ESL in Asia. That said, if you’re not a career minded person, and aren't concerned about money, there’s a lot to like about English teaching. As said before, with the right credentials and attitude, you can teach pretty much anywhere. It’s an excellent way to live a traveling lifestyle while still making a decent income. Many entry level jobs don’t require much in the way of credentials, so (assuming you have a college degree) you can try it for a few years to see if it’s right for you, without having too much of an impact on your career. If you can take some of the bad with the good, then teaching English in Asia can be an exciting way to make money. 

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