On thing that life teaches us is the need for tradeoffs. Choosing one path to follow requires rejecting others. In economics it is often called opportunity costs, and the "real" cost of something is what one gives up to get it.
When thinking about starting a career as an overseas English teacher, one should look at the opportunity costs and weigh the benefits against the costs. There are many upsides of becoming an English teacher, and there are a number of downsides as well. The following is a subjective list of some of the pros and cons of choosing to teach English in foreign lands.
1. Feasible. There are no special skills or training required. For native English speakers, it is a fairly easy profession to move into. For non-native speakers, having the ability to speak, read and write a foreign language to the level needed to teach it requires a very special skill, but for the native English speaker having a good understanding of one's own mother tongue is the primary requirement. Having a higher educational degree is often desired, but there are many people teaching English both inside and outside of Thailand without this or any other real qualification.
To get started there is no long apprenticeship or lengthy training involved (although there is a continuous debate about the effectiveness of a teacher with little or no training). Even becoming a "qualified" teacher generally requires only a few weeks of training. Midlife career changers do not have unlimited options. Changing from one's existing career to becoming a medical doctor, airline pilot or professional athlete is very difficult or nearly impossible, yet the option to become an English teacher after being laid off or just being fed up with one's existing profession is a real possibility.
2. Mobility. If one has a strong case of wanderlust, teaching English can be your ticket to getting paid to travel to world, or it can allow one to follow one's significant other to different locations and still find work. One can move from Brazil one year to China the next and still make a living. And there is not just geographic mobility, there is also job mobility. If one is living in a major city there are usually many employment options available for English teachers and one does not have to put up with poor working conditions for long as new opportunities arise rather frequently.
3. Low stress. I realize "low" is a relative term, but compared to working in the corporate world, teaching English normally doesn't put on one the same pressure to perform. One is expected to do a "good" job, but there are few mistakes an English teacher can make that will cause any serious harm or can not be fixed. Once one has the basics of the job down and is considered competent, one does not have to be overly concerned with having a single bad lesson or making a mistake or two.
4. Independence. I know there are exceptions, but in many (most?) cases English teachers have quite a bit of freedom in designing and delivering lessons. This can really make the job more interesting and one can often put some of one's own ideas and personality into the job.
5. Feel good factor. There are few people in the world who would question the value of education. Being a teacher, usually in a very small way, is about helping people to grow and gain useful skills and knowledge. There is nothing ever to be ashamed of in telling others one is a teacher. Being an educator does not generally bother one's conscience. Compare being an educator to working in a boiler room attempting to cheat little old ladies out of their life savings; a person in which job is likely to sleep better at night?
But of course, there are downsides as well.
1. Low pay. Being in education as a whole is not a path to riches, and this is especially true in teaching English in developing or middle income economies such as Thailand. In choosing this career path one should be aware of the limited income potential.
2. Low status. A least in the ex-pat community, being an English teacher is generally not considered a professional position. Whether this is a fair assessment or just a reflection of human nature which makes us seek out people to look down upon to make ourselves feel better is open to debate. However the fact remains being an English teacher is unlikely to impress many people.
3. Lack of opportunities for career growth. Although there are a few Head Teacher or DOS positions available, in general an English teacher with one year experience and one with 20 years experience are treated more or less the same with little difference in pay scales.
4. Lack of intellectual stimulation. While the job can be quite exciting at first, soon it may become routine. Although there are individuals who find obscure grammar questions exciting, for most people the subject matter being taught is not all that fascinating. Although there are always opportunities to learn new presentation techniques, most people can only get excited and come up with a new way to explain went is the past tense of go so many times.
5. Lack of transferable skills. Having 2 or 3 years of English teaching on your CV in your early 20s before landing one's first entry level job is unlikely to be looked down upon, in fact it could be considered an advantage, especially if the teacher takes advantage of the opportunity to learn to local language. Or a person who worked as an English teacher for a few years while accompanying a spouse on a foreign assignment might be demonstrating a strong work ethic. However, 10 to 15 years of recent English teaching experience is unlikely to be the background most corporations will be looking for when selecting middle managers. There are some soft skills gained from teaching English, such as improved writing skills, increased self-confidence and presentation skills, but these soft skills without specific professional skills and recent specific experience are usually not enough to land another type of professional position.
While teaching English with the type of salary that comes with it might satisfy ones need at a certain time of life, it might not satisfy one's needs later in life. It has been observed many people who have been teaching English for many years get caught in a trap where the only choices are to continue teaching English or completely start over in mid-life. There is a big difference between teaching English for a year or two in one's youth or doing it during semi-retirement and attempting to make a career out of teaching English. The disgruntled and disillusioned middle aged English teacher with few career options is a bit of a stereotype, but these types of individual are not impossible to locate.
Choosing to or not to teach English in foreign lands requires trade-offs, and it will be the right decision for some and the wrong one for others. But before one makes the decision, one should weigh the pros and cons and probable outcomes that will come with the decision.
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.