Scott Hipsher

Pros and cons of teaching English

It's all about the trade-offs


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.

Pros

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,

The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective,

Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries

as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.




Comments

I agree on some benefits that you mentioned.
Being able to travel and easily find a job sounds great. Nowadays, with all the technology, you can easily teach online and travel. There is no need to find a job in the country or place that you are travelling to. All you need is a laptop and internet connection.
Teaching English is, like you said, not very stressful. Everything is repetitive and it might sometimes get a little boring if you don't change up things.
One of the challenges that you mentioned is the ''low pay.''
Like I mentioned earlier, If you can find a good online company to work for and you're happy with the pay then it shouldn't be a problem. You can travel, have your online job and make decent money while living in a foreign country.

By Ricardo Alonso, Mexico (23rd August 2019)

Thanks for sharing that Ian. I had interviewed for jobs as tech writer and other 'skills transferable' jobs in Bangkok. I thought the salary offered was amazingly low, especially since I had done similar jobs in the US. Considering that reality, I decided to continue teaching since that was more enjoyable than being a cube slave, Thai style.

Honestly, I don't believe Thailand is a decent place to launch a work career in any field for a foreigner, UNLESS that foreigner has been sent to Thailand by a Western/Asian country where that foreigner is being paid a salary in his/her native country's currency. Now, that makes sense.

By Guy, USA (5th August 2010)

Who cares about ‘Status’? If that’s important to your friends or ‘acquaintances’ then find new ones...After 20 years of sweating, I like to think that I know what a ‘real’ teacher is and I’m damn sure that Thai students are aware of this important factor as well. To me it’s about respect and devotion, although it may seem tough at the time. If you want to be a teacher then prepare to give a lot and expect little in return in the way of material gain. What about the satisfaction in the fact that you are working in a foreign country and have made one more admirable step forward as opposed to working in your home town supermarket? I’ve been on Ajarn on a regular basis, and have heard all the negative ‘jive’ about the schools, the students and Thai academic colleges from frustrated ‘Teachers’ that can’t even spell or use correct grammar on this discussion board as they express their grievances...Where’s the airport? Do us all a favour..

With respect to all my ‘colleges’ out there.

By Phil Lane, Chaing Mai (5th August 2010)

I work in an executive position in Thailand and the pay is the same or less than you can make teaching here. So, internationally the pay is low but locally teaching pay can be quite high.

Lack of transferable skills can be compensated for by doing broader thinking when writing your resume. Also, there are plenty of leadership/management roles in the TEFL field if you want to pursue them.

I would say another con in staying in the TEFL field for a long time are the opportunities you may be giving up by not pushing yourself further. This is what makes people look down on you. There are lots of opportunities outside of the TEFL field here that long-term residents should pursue to help themselves as well as Thailand.

Yes, you should definitely invest in a TEFL or CELTA course before doing TEFL work.

By Ian, Bangkae (4th August 2010)

Barbara, your comments are spot on. The increased working hours/workload at most Thai schools will quickly weed out bored sexpats who think having a white face and mumbling some version of English qualify them to be employed as teachers in Thailand.

I sincerely believe the learning curve is 3-5 years to learn to teach in your content area and develop both a teaching 'style' and classroom management skills. Teaching isn't for everyone, but it is a very personally rewarding profession.

By Guy, USA (4th August 2010)

Having the good fortune to "land a job" doesn't instantly make you a teacher, let alone a good one. Being trained specifically in education or taking a course related to the teaching of English doesn't make you a teacher or someone able to teach at all. These courses only provide the materials, some insights, knowledge and information to have before you approach the class situation.

The skill and art of teaching are acquired later through experience which usually involve blood, sweat and tears.No-one enters teaching for the money. And anyone who has no love of teaching and learning or children sticks out like a sore thumb.

By Barbara, Thailand (4th August 2010)

Teaching English as a career..especially in Thailand...will most certainly lead to an early heart attack and poverty stricken death!

By John Camel, Vietnam (3rd August 2010)

Martin
I am not taking sides on the teacher training issue here, but even with a four week course, this "requirement" does not make the change to this profession impossible for most.

Guy
No problem, if "status" is not important to a person than this con would not be an obstacle to moving into this profession.

By Scott, Seoul Airport awaiting a flight (3rd August 2010)

No special training required?

When I first came to Thailand 5 years ago, this is what I wanted to do. However my big question was, how do I get all this English in my head, into their heads? I decided to do a TEFL.

My opinion is, WOW!!! you really must do a TEFL. First hurdle was. My Instructor said we are going to do the past perfect. What the hell was that, I can speak it, but what were the rules, I had forgotten.

There really is a logical process of getting vocab and sentence structure accross to your students in a easy to understand way.

Please, if you want to be respected and be a professional teacher. Do some sort of teacher training course.

Saying that, I do hope I learnt something and have not made any stupid grammar errors or spelling mistakes here. hehehehe

By Martin Fells, Bangkok (3rd August 2010)

I'm not sure who you hang with, but if people want to look down on my 'status' as a teacher, I don't waste too much time worrying about their opinion of me. The same goes for 'lack of intellectual stimulation.' Perhaps you burned out/discovered that teaching wasn't your cup of tea. Most teachers don't remain in the profession. Those folks can go back to their boiler rooms and sell timeshares in Las Vegas or mortgage-backed securities, nobler and higher-paying professions by far.

By Guy, USA (3rd August 2010)

Guy

I showed up in BKK without any teaching qualification or experience. Within a week I landed a job at one of the better known and respected three letter language schools and after a week’s training and being assigned a mentor I was in the class room teaching English. Although I have since moved on, my experience would not appear to be atypical.

How many others professions can one move into so quickly?

I am not stating an opinion on whether this is “right” or not, I am just stating the way it is.

Becoming an airline pilot, engineer or other “profession” normally requires years of training and experience. Becoming an English teacher in a foreign country does not.

Having the ability to land a job without having to go through years of training makes teaching English an attractive proposition for someone thinking about becoming an English teacher. Do you disagree?

By Scott, BKK (Today anyway) (2nd August 2010)

Good blog Scott. One thing I would also add to the 'pros' is the opportunity to make contacts, especially if you are teaching adults or even if you are teaching kids and regularly conversing with their middle-class parents. When you face one of those irritating little obstacles in your adopted country, a good list of contacts means there is often a person to gladly hep you out.

By philip, (2nd August 2010)

No special skills or training required? I never thought of teaching as unskilled labor before. Thanks a mill.

By Guy, USA (2nd August 2010)

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