How to Survive as an ESL Teacher When You’re Not a Teacher

May 23, 2017

A lifestyle hack..

So, you’re telling me they pay for your flights there, and back.  They give you an apartment, pay you handsomely.. All for playing with some kids?


Sort of.


Years ago when I was first introduced to the idea of teaching English As a Second Language [ESL], I saw it as a bit of a life hack to be honest.  Live abroad, get taken care of financially, all for some minor work.  It seemed too good to be true.  Thinking back on this, I can’t believe it took so long for me to finally take the plunge.


I also remember thinking, despite hearing that it’s not an intensive job, I’m not a teacher.  By any stretch of the imagination.

Yet years later, and no further formal education training.. Here I am.


Notice due..

I’ll address right up front, each and every gig isn’t simply just playing with kids.  Though in many cases it doesn’t end up being too far from that.  Some schools are more concerned with performance than others.  My current school is particularly fussy with preparation, testing and learning/comprehension from the students.

But there are also many days where if I don’t feel like stretching myself, class turns into recess real quick.


I think it also depends whether you treat ESL as a gap year, or a potential long term career.  If you’re not planning on staying in a given country for an extended period of time, you can probably fuck around all year without much repercussion.  Besides giving children less of an opportunity to learn than possible weighing on your consciences, I suppose.

After a day of messing around, I sleep fine, personally.


If you want this to become your career, it’s probably best to build your skills and reputation to rise in the ranks.  Though the entry level is pretty cushy, all things considered.


Whether you plan on living the expat life or, in particular, you’re here for a good time and not a long time, there are a few qualities that you’ll need to thrive as an ESL teacher.


Commit a bit..

So you got your – paid for, or soon to be compensated – flight to some exotic country, you’ve settled into your – paid for – apartment and now head a class full of children, or young adults in any sort of number from 1-30 generally.  Congratulations.


Regardless if this is a paid vacation, or the start of your new life, you’ve got to commit to what you’ve undertaken.  Especially if this is just a one year experience to see a foreign land, pay off a student loan, and you have no plans to ever be in charge of educating a sole after the next 365 days.  You’ve got to commit to educating them now.


Look up games.  Google supplemental material – the worksheets out there are endless.  Research and learn some classroom management.  Just because you didn’t study education formally, doesn’t mean you can’t do a marginal level of self study now that you’re here.


Honestly, when you fully commit to it you’ll enjoy the experience of teaching much more.  Classes are more interesting when you are fully present and prepared.


Plus, you don’t have to ever feel like a piece of shit for wasting some hard working korean parents money and actually helping their kid in the process of learning a new language.


The art of bullshittery..

When I say ‘bullshittery’ I refer to the ability to think on your toes and come up with ideas on the spot.  Regardless of whether you actually spend your desk warming hours prepping – and even some time as home.. – or you just show up to class (hey, it happens).  You’re going to need to be able to think on your toes.


You never know when a lessons worth of material isn’t going to make it through an entire class.  Or when you’re kids need a break from the learning to move around and regroup through a game or activity.  Not to mention, you never know what a children will or won’t understand.  You’ve got to be able to handle the curve ball from your students.


When working with adults, you can usually structure encounters to flow in a certain direction.  But with kids, man anything can happen.  Be able to maneuver on a whim.


This is a particularly valuable asset if you are only teaching short term and not overly invested in going the extra mile – see ‘commit’ above.  No judgement, we aren’t all Darrell-do-right’s.



Patience is a virtue..

I personally attribute my ability to maintain a smile and cool collective, when I feel like smacking someone across the face or throwing them out a window – an exaggeration.. Most days – to my time spent in sales roles.


Regardless whether you have these skills or not.  You need them.  I’ve worked with children between 4 and 15 years old, and each age group carries its own benefits and challenges.  But with all, you need different levels and types of patience.

Whether it’s with a child who is struggling to comprehend the material, dealing with a kid who is over educated for the class material or simply dealing with a 9 year old energetic boy who’s being forced to sit at a desk for 40 minutes.. Patience is truly a virtue.


Specifically in Korea, to my knowledge they physically reprimanded the kids up until a few years ago.  It’s now frowned upon, but they don’t have any detention or much of a punishment system – especially Hagwons.  So the kids can be quite misbehaved.  It could be because they literally spend their childhood between various schools and classes.  Leading them to be crazy, wild, and stressed.  Who knows.


But you need to ability to smile, and not strike them with their textbooks.  I promise you, there will be days where it crosses your mind.


All flex zone..

Being flexible.  This applies not only in the classroom, but living in a foreign country in general. Things are almost guaranteed to operate in different fashions than back home.  


In my situation in particular, I am not given much notice at my school for coming events or if systems are changing.  It’s kind of like “oh yeah.. This is tonight” or “Surprise!  All that prepping you did is worthless as we changed the curriculum over the weekend”.


I routinely have to deal with children inappropriately placed in levels of classrooms to be with their friends, so I have to teach material to many different levels of English.


Additionally, and this goes back to ‘bullshittery’ you may have material for a lesson that is way above or below the level of your class and have to improvise.  


It can be a real beautiful mess at times.  Be flexible.


Why so serious?..

Don’t forget to bring a sense of humor to every class.  Seriously, if you get caught up trying too hard to be a teacher you’re going to get a lot more pushback from the students.  Like I mentioned, these kids are in class for so much schooling in Asia.  In Korea it seems like they are learning for 10-12 hours a day in some cases.  They are going to be wound up some days.


Plus, they’re kids.


Learn to laugh at some of the dumb and silly stuff they come out with.  Have fun with them and joke back.  All parties involved will be better off for it.


And ironically, when they kids are laughing and having a good time, they are more receptive to learning.


Get away from that textbook and play games.


I know when I first started I was way to bent on filling them with knowledge and not in the funnest of ways.  I’ve eased up, started building relationships with the students and playing more games.  I think they are coming farther along because of it.


Also, don’t be afraid to blow of a class now and again to just have fun.  Reward them for working hard with some games or off time.


Office politics..

Just as with any job, there’s a company culture and office politics.  Understand who’s got the power at your school and play according.  Asian’s for example are very particular about respect for elders.  Younger employees/co teachers usually do not speak against the word of the Director or managers.  They can be very loyal to their masters unlike some employees in North America.


Get to understand the culture, how the flow of everything works, and the material or books they use. That will all help.


Also, stand strong with what you were promised in your contract and upon signing.  It’s very common for some schools and directors to manipulate and strong arm foreigners into giving more than they promised or for free.  

All of this is the same stuff you might encounter in your home country.  Just that you’re playing in a totally foreign arena.  And one that operates in a different language.


All in all..

I hope I haven’t turned you off in taking the plunge if you’ve been thinking about teaching overseas.  After 8 months of doing it, I still think it is a life hack.


One friend toted to me “ESL is the rig’s of the academic world’  That’s a Canadian joke.  Where the blue collar folks go work up north or on an oil rig to make real big bucks.


Whether for one year, or 25.  It’s definitely an interesting experience.

Are you currently teaching ESL?  I would love to hear what you think of what I’ve written.  If you are interested in teaching ESL or teaching ESL ONLINE..  Please contact me, I can help!

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  • Currently located in China, teaching English and working towards Financial Freedom. I write about money, travel, personal development and more!

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