Yes, for now I have decided to move on from teaching English and pursue self-employment instead. But I want to make it clear that the four years I spent teaching English weren’t all bad, not at all. In fact, I’m extremely grateful for the experiences I had as an English teacher, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I might even recommend that people do what I did and get jobs teaching English in Asia. It’s not for everyone, but it could be for you.
Here’s the thing: I believe in taking advantage of opportunities. When I see a great opportunity that excites me, I drop any other plans I may have had and go after that opportunity with everything I have. That’s the method to my madness, and so far it has never led me wrong. So if the opportunity I’m about to describe in this article sounds exciting to you, maybe you should go for it (or at least consider it).
I wanted to make this post really comprehensive and informative, and as a result it is very long. But I’ve done my best to break it up with headlines to make it easier to find the information you’re looking for. And of course, you can always bookmark this post and come back to it later if you don’t have time to read it all now.
Please note that I’m only covering Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China specifically. Although there are certainly opportunities to teach English in other countries in Asia (and all around the world for that matter!), they are beyond the scope of this already extensive article.
It’s impossible to cover every aspect of this topic even in such a long post though, so if you have any further questions please feel free to ask (either in the comments or by contacting me directly) and I’ll be happy to help the best I can.
Now here goes!
First, about the requirements to get a job.
If you’re a native English speaker with a university degree of any kind, the fact is that you have an amazing opportunity to live in another country while basically getting paid to play with kids and talk to people. (Yes, of course it’s more complicated than that and I’ll get there in a moment. But much of working in ESL really is just playing with kids and talking to people! Sometimes I could hardly believe I was actually getting paid for what I was doing.)
The only real requirements to get a job as an English teacher in Japan, Korea, Taiwan or China are that you be a native English speaker with a bachelor’s degree in any subject. You don’t need to have studied Education, English, or the local language, though of course your application will be looked on more favorably if you have. Some employers do also ask for some sort of certification for teaching English to foreigners. There are several of these including TESOL, TEFL, TESL and CELTA. There are slight differences between these certificates (this article does a good job of explaining), but they are all more or less the same thing, and there are several institutions offering certification courses in locations around the world that can be completed in just one month. (Just search Google for something like “TEFL abroad” and you’ll find a bunch of them.) Many of these courses come with job placement services as well, so they could definitely be a good investment especially if you’re serious about teaching English and think you might want to do it for longer than a year.
The truth is, though, that I personally don’t have any kind of certification even though I taught English in Taiwan and Japan for a total of four years. I simply never needed it. I got my first job teaching in Taiwan by filling out a simple application form online, then doing an interview over the phone. And just like that, I was hired. It really was that easy! I had just graduated from college, and although I had previously spent two months teaching English in Japan on a summer internship, I’m sure I could have gotten the job even without any experience at all. I know many people who have done so.
Now about the benefits and conditions: the good and the bad.
During the year I lived in Taiwan and the subsequent three years I lived in Japan, I earned enough to live comfortably, make payments on my student loans, travel, and even save quite a bit. For anyone who wants specific numbers, when I left Japan in 2011 I was earning about $2800 US per month. So I’m not saying teaching made me rich, but as a single person who’s not a big spender I did very well on that salary.
Of course, it has to be said that such decent pay with such minimal requirements does attract a lot of people fresh out of college who couldn’t care less about teaching or even getting to know another culture, and just want to spend a year or two partying somewhere “exotic.” Generally speaking, the easiest jobs to get are at so-called “cram schools,” where both children and adults (but mostly children) go after school or work to study English. Although some cram schools are better than others, many of them are really just businesses whose owners care more about profits than actual teaching. The unfortunate truth is that many of these businesses just want teachers with the right look (young, attractive and caucasian) to draw in more students. And so they happily hire the fresh college graduates who couldn’t care less. These circumstances lead to a lot of flakiness and even deception from both the schools and the teachers. There are indeed horror stories about schools not following through on their contracts and fed-up teachers pulling disappearing acts.
The other problem that has to be acknowledged is that many of the students, especially the children, care even less about learning English than their teachers care about teaching it. Many Asian children are over-worked academically, and if you teach at a cram school, your English class will be just one of the many extra classes they go to after their regular school day. If you teach at a public or private school, you may find that your students have never been taught to see English as anything more than a dull academic subject they have to learn in order to pass exams to get into good high schools and universities. So a lot of the children just want to goof around in English class, and a lot of the foreign teachers oblige— because let’s face it, they don’t really know how to teach anyway.
I’m not saying all this to scare you, but to give you a balanced view of the realities of the Asian ESL industry. Like it or not, these negative aspects exist, and I think it’s good to be aware of them because they will affect you to at least some degree if you spend any amount of time in this industry. However, it is also a very large industry, and so of course there’s a lot of variation within it. There are actually good schools whose owners and/or administrators do care about teaching. There are honest schools that follow through on their contracts and take good care of their teachers. There are schools that hire teachers who don’t fit the “young, attractive and caucasian” profile. And there are some wonderful students, students who love to learn, who will make you want to stay up all night planning their lessons, who will make you wonder if maybe you really were meant to be a teacher, who will write you letters and give you cards that will make you cry.
And of course, you’ll be living in a foreign country, and you’ll have some unforgettable experiences. You’ll eat things you never knew were edible (or at least get the chance to try them!), see sights that take your breath away, meet all kinds of interesting people, and have the opportunity to practice the local language every day.  You’ll even be able to visit neighboring countries. And you’ll be able to do these things without ever having to worry about money.
In my opinion though, the most rewarding thing about teaching English in Asia is how the experience can help you grow as a person. When you’re immersed in another culture and getting to know people who live and think so differently from people in your own country, everything you once took for granted is thrown into perspective and you find yourself forced to question it. My experience living in Asia helped me let go of some limiting beliefs that weren’t working for me. For example, growing up in the US I’d come to see myself as shy and socially inadept, and to feel like my introverted personality made me inferior to people who were more outgoing. But three years living in Japan taught me that in some cultures, introverted personalities are actually the more socially accepted standard. This made me realize that no one personality type is actually superior, and it’s all a matter of perspective. This is just one example of the many things I learned while living abroad, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have the confidence I have today if it weren’t for that experience.
And now that I’ve given you an idea of what to expect, I’ll address some more practical matters.
First of all, which country should you go to?
If you already have a particular attachment to a certain country (because you really want to learn its language or are fascinated with some aspect of its culture, for instance), then of course your choice will be obvious. In case it’s up in the air for you though, here are my “down and dirty” guidelines to choosing amongst these four countries:
- If your main goal is to save money or pay off loans, go to Korea. It’s standard practice for Korean schools to provide their foreign teachers with roundtrip airfare to and from their home countries and fully-furnished apartments. Ranging from US $2000-2500 per month, the pay for teaching English in Korea is similar to what you’d get in Japan or Taiwan, but you can save a lot more in Korea because living expenses are much lower— and of course not having to pay rent is a huge help! Many teachers in Korea end up saving a good chunk of cash without even trying. And for those of you who like to go out often, there’s a lot of fun to be had especially in Seoul. From what I understand though, a lot of foreigners find Korean culture difficult to deal with. The Koreans are a very proud people, and their attitude can sometimes come across as abrasive or even rude. I’ve also heard a lot of horror stories about teachers being mistreated by their employers. That’s not to say people don’t have good experiences in Korea, but since both your visa and your housing are tied to the school you work at and you can’t just switch schools if you have a bad experience, I would say it’s especially important to be careful and do your research on the school before accepting any job in Korea. (This is all based on what I’ve heard and read from others, since I’ve never actually taught English in Korea myself. So it would be great to hear from anyone with first-hand experience in the comments!)
- If you really value your free time and want a lot of flexibility, go to Taiwan. Taiwanese culture is a little more friendly and relaxed compared to other East Asian countries, so it’s a good place to go if you really just want to make friends and chill out. (The friendliest people are in the east, west and south far away from Taipei, though of course Taipei is more convenient and has more things to do.) It’s something that’s difficult to describe, but this little island pulsates with a sort of quirky, raw energy that’s really unique and charming. Pay for English teachers tends to be a little lower than in Japan, and although Taiwan’s lower cost of living could make up for this in theory, the reality is that teachers in Taiwan often don’t get many hours. But this could be a positive thing for you if you care more about having free time (to study Chinese, travel, etc.) than saving money. In any case, you definitely shouldn’t have a problem earning enough to cover all your living expenses. It’s also possible to take on private students or even a second job if you do want to earn more money, so I think Taiwan offers the most flexibility in terms of the kind of lifestyle you want to live. Teachers in Taiwan are usually paid by the hour and make 600 NT (about US $20) per hour at the lowest. (If you’d like to read more about my experiences in Taiwan, see these posts: Things I Love About Taiwan; Attitude is Everything)
- If cleanliness and security are really important to you, go to Japan. Japan is the cleanest, safest, and most modern of all these countries, and the jobs in Japan are the most secure. The great thing about teaching in Japan is that the school you work for does not own your visa, so even if you have problems with the school, you can keep your visa and get another job. Japan also has a lot of things to do and a fascinating culture you can really get lost in, in a good way. Japanese people are generally very polite and kind to foreigners, but it can be difficult to develop close friendships with them because they also tend to be quite reserved. The general level of English ability in Japan is also lower than in the other countries, so this can be challenging for teachers. The other drawback of living in Japan is of course that it’s expensive, so it can be difficult to save money even though the pay is decent. Pay ranges from US $2000-3000 per month, but even as a new teacher I wouldn’t recommend accepting any jobs paying less than $2500 (or ￥250,000) per month, especially if you’re living in a big city. With all the cool gadgets to buy and fun things to do, Japan really has a way of draining your money away! (For more on my experiences in Japan, see these posts: (Real) Japanese Schoolgirls; Why I Love Japan; The Negative Side of Japan)
- If you just want to immerse yourself in an ancient culture, go to China. You won’t make quite as much money teaching in China as in the other countries, although salaries are still decent at an average of US $2,000 per month in larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai. You will make a little less if you live in a rural area, but lower costs of living will make up for the difference and you will be able to live quite comfortably. However, China is not really the place to go if you want to get rich. This is the place to go if… well, if you want to live in China! Although I’ve never taught English in China, I did spend a semester in Beijing as a student. So I can tell you from experience that Chinese people are very friendly to foreigners, and in fact they’re sometimes a little too friendly. People will call out to you in the street, usually hoping either to practice their English or to sell you something. I would say the mainland Chinese are as friendly as the Taiwanese, only less polite! Their culture is very “in your face.” Chinese people are not afraid to say exactly what they think and ask for anything they want. On the other hand, they are also very open, generous and quick to call you a friend. Of course the government censors everything, but the people themselves are not all blind to this, and they love to discuss things. China is an incredibly vast country with a lot of amazing sights to see, and once you’re within Chinese borders it’s quite cheap to get around. The food is also absolutely delicious, plentiful, and incredibly cheap as well!
The next thing you’ll have to decide is what type of school you want to teach at.
There are basically two choices here: a cram school, or a traditional public/private school. (I’m leaving out university positions, since they are generally not an option unless you have a master’s degree in ESL or education.)
Cram schools are also called eikaiwa or juku in Japan, hagwon in Korea, and buxiban in Taiwan and China. Since students come to learn English after work or their regular school classes, cram school schedules generally start in the afternoon and go until the evening. However, some schools will want you to teach some classes in the mornings as well, resulting in a split shift that can be very taxing. There are plenty of schools that don’t require split shifts though, so there is really no obligation to work one if you don’t want to. (I worked a split shift once, and I would not recommend it.) Many cram schools also have classes on Saturdays, though some of them will give you a weekday off to compensate for this.
Another thing you should know about cram schools is that there’s quite a difference between the big chain schools (which have branches all over their respective countries) and small, privately owned schools. The big chain schools generally have very established curriculums and fool-proof lesson plans that are all laid out for you, and many of them also provide fairly extensive training. They also tend to be very reliable when it comes to payment and taking care of your visa, insurance, etc., and since most of these schools are happy to hire first-timers, they can be a good choice for people just starting out. If you’re the sort of person who really cares about teaching and wants to have flexibility in planning your lessons, however, working at a school like this could be demoralizing for you.
When it comes to the small cram schools though, they’re like a box of chocolates— you never know what you’re gonna get! Some of them provide established curriculums and training, others will simply throw you in a classroom and expect you to come up with something on your own, and most of them are probably somewhere in between those two extremes. The most rewarding teaching job I had was at a school like this. I put a lot of work into designing materials and planning lessons, because the school owners gave me next to no guidance at all. It was worth it to see the progress of my students though, and I found I much preferred this to the cookie-cutter system of the chain school I’d taught at previously.
Although there are a few cram schools catering specifically to adult students, the majority of students at the majority of schools are children. So it is possible to get a job teaching only adults if that’s really what you want, but you will have a lot less options.
If you decide to get a job at a cram school, I would recommend knowing exactly what kind of situation you’re looking for, asking a lot of questions and researching the schools you apply to very thoroughly.
Most foreign teachers who teach at public or private schools are what’s called ALTs, or Assistant Language Teachers. This means they don’t teach classes on their own, but act as assistants to local English teachers. Usually ALTs work with their co-teachers to develop lesson plans based on the school curriculum, and their main role in class is to demonstrate correct pronunciation and interact with students in English while the local teacher explains things in their native language.
Besides teaching, ALTs are also often expected to help students outside class with things like English proficiency exams and speech contests. They may be asked to participate in staff meetings, field trips, assemblies, and other school activities.
ALTs usually enjoy long summer, winter and spring vacations and regular 9-5 schedules.
During the year I spent teaching at a private girls’ high school in Japan, I was not an ALT but a full member of the teaching staff expected to teach classes on my own and take on other responsibilities not normally given to ALTs. So such opportunities are available if you really want to immerse yourself in local school life, but they usually require some knowledge of the local language.
So when should you apply? And should you get a job before you leave, or just show up?
If you want to go to Japan, you should be aware that the Japanese academic and fiscal year starts in April instead of September. Many schools (especially the good ones!) start recruiting teachers several months in advance, so it’s a good idea to start looking in late fall or early winter. There are always some openings year-round, but since an opening at an odd time of year often means that another teacher bailed on the school, the jobs that start in April tend to be the best ones.
It is definitely possible to just show up in Japan and find a job, and in fact you would have more options this way since some schools will only hire people they can interview in person. It’s very common for people to arrive on a tourist visa and later get it changed to a work visa, and it’s not necessary to leave the country to do this. If you’re going to go jobless, the best time to arrive would probably be sometime in February. Of course, since you might not be able to find a job right away, you’ll need to have some money saved up if you’re going to take this approach. I would recommend having enough to last you at least two months to be safe.
If you want to go to Korea, it’s probably best not to show up there without a job. It’s very easy to find a job from outside the country, and once you’re accepted, the school will take care of your visa for you and pay for your plane ticket to Korea (though they will probably have you pay for it up front and reimburse you after you arrive). From what I understand, the Korean school year starts in March, but many schools also hire teachers to start in September. It’s best to apply as soon in advance as possible, especially if you want to teach at a public or private school instead of a cram school. (Once again, I’m just basing this off what I’ve heard and read because I’ve never actually taught in Korea myself, so please let me know in the comments if I’m mistaken or missing something important.)
If you want to go to Taiwan, you really can just show up in the country at any time of the year and find a job. Taiwanese cram schools (a.k.a. buxiban) are always looking for new teachers, and it’s quite feasible to simply show up in Taipei or Kaohsiung, take a walk around and find several schools to drop into with your resume. Seriously, they’re everywhere!
Public or private school jobs in Taiwan are actually more difficult to come by, and unlike Japanese and Korean schools, most of them seem to require you to be certified as a teacher in your home country. If you come across a public or private school job in Taiwan that doesn’t require teaching certification, it may not be exactly legal, so be careful! That said though, laws in Taiwan are generally seen more as guidelines than rules. It’s also technically illegal for foreigners to teach at kindergartens, but there are tons of kindergarten jobs available. (I actually taught at a kindergarten for my first six months in Taiwan. Shh!) This issue is too complicated to cover thoroughly here, but feel free to ask any questions in the comments section at the end of this article.
If you want to go to China, it seems to be safest to apply for and secure a job (and a work visa) before arriving in the country. Jobs seem to be available year-round. Since I’ve only been to China as a student, I honestly don’t know much about the technicalities of teaching English there, but here are some useful links I’ve found on the subject: How to Approach Your Job Search; Z Visas and Residence Permits; Teaching English in China (summary from the US embassy). Also, here’s a quick summary left by ESLInsider in the comments (thank you!): You can get a job “in China”. I’d say most schools will prefer you come on an “L” visa (tourist) too. You can expect to pay for a visa run or two and if you are American that’s a chunk of money for a new visa.
Finally, here are some specific places you can go to apply for jobs.
- The JET Program: This government-sponsored program places young people in ALT positions with excellent benefits. It’s quite competitive and has a long application process, but many participants say it’s worth it.
- Ohayo Sensei: I found both of my jobs in Japan through this bi-monthly online newsletter, which advertises a wide variety of positions all over the country.
- The EPIK Program: This is basically the Korean equivalent of the above-mentioned JET Program.
- Tealit: Here you can find not only job openings, but also ads for housing, Chinese tutors, and just about anything else you might need in Taiwan.
In all countries:
- Dave’s ESL Cafe: This monstrous website has classified ads for teaching jobs all over the world, as well as forums full of ESL teachers and hopefuls asking for advice. Besides looking for jobs to apply to, Dave’s is also a good place to go to check up on any specific schools you might be interested in. I have to warn you, though, that there is a lot of negativity in these forums. Please be aware that the perspective you’ll find here is unbalanced, because the people having positive experiences teaching in Asia tend to be out enjoying themselves instead of spending their time complaining on forums!
If anyone knows of any other (preferably unbiased) websites where people can find teaching jobs in Japan, Korea, Taiwan or China, please let me know in the comments and I will add them to this list.
Since I published this article, some people have contacted me asking me to share links to their own websites containing further information. If you know of another resource that may be helpful to readers of this article, send it to me and I’ll look it over. If I feel it’s worth sharing, I’ll add it to the list below.
- Move to Taiwan: More information about Taiwan specifically.
The ESL chapter of my life is one I’ve chosen to close for now, mostly because I want to prove to myself that I can find other ways to make a living on my own. Working as an English teacher was difficult and frustrating at times, but overall it was a positive experience for me and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to do it. I have said that I don’t want to do it again, but who knows? I should probably never say never.
Update (January 2015): I guess it’s a good thing I never said never, because I’m back to teaching in Japan again! (Kindergarten this time, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that I absolutely love it. Who’d have known?)
Thanks to anyone who’s taken the time to read this whole gigantic post, and I hope it’s been helpful to you! Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below. 🙂
 Yes, you can master the local language even while working as an English teacher. I know, because I did it with Japanese. It’s all a matter of taking the initiative to speak the language as much as possible! For more on this, see my guest post on Luca Lampariello’s blog. (Back to the article)