Foreign ESL teachers in Thailand or other parts in Asia are a diverse lot and have many different motivations for teaching abroad.
For many younger teachers the expectation is to enjoy living overseas for a few years before going back home and starting one's real adult life and career.
For others it is an opportunity to escape and start over, the 21st century version of running off and joining the circus.
And no doubt one could come up with many other motivations to go to the other side of the world into a foreign culture to teach, for native speakers, one's native language.
Some who come to teach become perfectly satisfied and settle in to teach English as one's life work. Others return home after a year or two usually greatly enriched by the experience. Both of these can be good choices for many individuals.
However there are those who originally come to teach English and later find they don't want to give up the expatriate lifestyle but also don't want to teach English as a career. Are there options for these individuals other than keep teaching ESL or going home and starting over again? Can ESL teachers make transitions to other types of international work?
As this writer began his work-life in Thailand as an English teacher who has gone on to work in the export business, NGOs, and academia it would seem from the writer's viewpoint the answer is obviously yes, but personal experience also indicates it is not an easy transition. For most, making the transition usually requires the attainment of a new set of skills, education and experiences. Also one needs to overcome a stigma some international employers attach to the words "English teacher" on a resume.
Those with an entrepreneurial streak and a little capital might be able to create a business overseas and there are many examples of individuals doing so successfully, although one can also find plenty of cases of failure as well. Getting hired into a professional position is always possible, although it normally requires very strong language skills and with the steady improvements in educational systems in Thailand and around Asia it is becoming increasingly rare that a native English speaker has a skill set that could not be found in the local workforce. There are NGO jobs, although not so many in Thailand as is found in neighboring countries, but often these types of jobs require specialized experience, training and/or education. Also it is not uncommon to hear of local ESL teachers pursuing qualifications needed to become teachers at "international schools" although I am not sure how many of these local ESL teachers have successfully made this transition.
An option that seems to be usually overlooked is to make the transition from ESL teacher to an academic member of a university. In fact, we have seem a huge increase in the internationalization of high education with many British, Canadian, European, American and Australian Universities offering programs in foreign countries where professors and instructors can often get paid on the wage skills of the home country of the university and not local pay scales. There are also local universities throughout Asia that have international programs where academic subjects are taught in English, teachers in these programs are generally paid at local levels although these levels are usually higher than those paid for teaching in English language programs. Furthermore, as distance education spreads and becomes more acceptable there are opportunities to teach in programs, or act as academic advisor for theses and dissertations, around the world regardless of the physical location of the instructor/professor. I spend many hours each week working with students who are physically in different continents from where I am physically at.
In many ways the transition from ESL teacher to academic teacher/lecturer, and eventually to "professor" would seem to be one of the easier transition paths available to the average ESL teacher. A conscientious ESL teacher should have already developed teaching and classroom management skills, and only needs to gain the professional education or qualifications needed for an academic position. Obviously one can pursue a career in academia as a linguist or in other types of language instruction, but one should not think one is limited to these areas. One could gain further education in a number of fields such as psychology, history, or the social sciences. However it should be acknowledged the vast majority of international university programs in Thailand and around the world are in the fields of business and economics and one would increase employment opportunities to study in these areas.
While ideally if one wanted to have a career in academia it would be best to return to the west and get a PhD at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard or Columbia. However even those without the means to pursue this optimal course of action can make the transition, even without leaving Thailand or other parts of Asia and giving up their current ESL teaching jobs. There are a number of universities in Thailand and other parts of Asia (much like the universities one making this transition would expect to work for) which have graduate level programs in English, both masters and doctoral, designed for working adults which provide opportunities for gaining the qualifications needed for the transition.
While there are those who will tell you a degree from a Thai or other Asian university is nearly useless, this has not been my experience. This prejudice against Asian education may be more pronounced in the ESL communities than it is in other academic fields. In fact I know of a number of graduates of Thai universities (myself included) who have worked for universities accredited in the US, UK and Australia.
Another option to gain the qualifications necessary to make the transition necessary is through distance learning. While distance learning is still not completely understood or respected everywhere in the world, an accredited distance education degree is accepted by universities accredited in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries (personal experience here as well). In fact having studied through distance education might help one become an adjunct professor for a western university's online program. While being an online adjunct might not be the road to riches, one can make working a few hours a week what a full time ESL teacher generally makes. Instead of posting a few hours on Ajarnforum, one who is qualified can post a few hours a day on a classroom forum and get paid for it. Not the worst deal in the world.
Making the transition from ESL teacher to living in Asia on expatriate/western wages is not an easy one, but one that is possible if one is willing to be focused and spend the time and effort to make this transition a reality. There are a number of areas one can transition into from ESL teaching if one is so inclined, but moving into academia shouldn't be overlooked as a possibility for those seeking the best of both the western and eastern worlds.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,
as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics. One of his latest works can be found at this link.