The real heroes of the TEFL industry

I raise a glass to those teachers that simply keep on going

There is an old joke in the TEFL industry: "What's the difference between a school administrator and a brain surgeon? A brain surgeon doesn't walk around thinking he's a school administrator!"

I reserve this joke for most of the administrators slash English teachers; those who play a dual role, and those pompous fools who, with their fancy PowerPoint presentations at TESOL conferences, play the part of a brain surgeon. And, certainly, those administrators slash English teachers who scour the Internet in search of pedantic scholarly articles with such vomit-inducing titles like "Phonological Awareness in Differentiated Classrooms", "Using Psycholinguistics to Create Social Awareness in Students", "Inter-subjectivity in the Classroom and its Sociological Implications"... How I dread getting these useless articles in my email from pompous administrators slash English teachers slash pretend brain surgeons who have way too much time on their hands.

The 'foot soldiers'

Fortunately, these people are not the majority in the TEFL industry. They are not the heroes. The real heroes of the TEFL industry are not the sergeants, the corporals, the lieutenants, the captains, or the admirals. The real heroes of the TEFL industry are the foot soldiers; those who walk into the classroom every day and try to make a difference.

I say ‘try' because the odds are against them. In most schools, whether in China, Korea, Thailand or Canada, the U.S. or the UK, educational curricula are out of date or often non-applicable to the real world, textbooks are out of date or often non-applicable to the real world, and far too many administrators are in it simply for a pay check and to make it through the day without that dreaded phone call from a complaining parent.

Schools in every country across the world have set up their students to fail; and when students fail, teachers fail; administrators fail; everyone fails. This is what happens when school administrators are frightened by parents and students who might complain. This is what happens when real teaching is put on the back burner. This is what happens when school administrators are more concerned with how students feel rather than with what they need to know.

This writing deals with what I consider to be the real heroes of the TEFL industry.

What prompted this blog? Recently I came across a post on a friend's Facebook page. This friend is a recruiter in China who wrote about her ‘feelings on recruiting', commenting on the fact that many teachers from overseas are asking for salaries that, in her words, are "rare or unrealistic for teachers who can only teach [the] English language." On the same thread came a response from an Asian teacher. Let's call him Mr. Li.

"Those people looking for RMB 17 - 20 per month in China are just vain and greedy, plain and simple. They're just shooting themselves in the foot because by expecting such unrealistically high salaries they are missing out on a hell of a lot of good opportunities. I'm earning 5.5k and I'm saving at least 2k every month. Who needs such a high salary in China anyway, the cost of living is low and accommodation is free."

Seeing that vanity and greed are universal attributes, I will not comment on that. Instead, I will write about some of my experiences that help give more evidence to my premise that the foot soldiers of the TEFL industry are its real heroes.

It doesn't seem, Mr. Li that you understand what most English teachers go through in Asia. Maybe you do, but given your response to the recruiter's feelings on recruiting and my 18 years' experience living and teaching in five Asian countries, it doesn't look like you do. So I'm going to share some of my experiences with you. And the thing is, my experiences are not unique. We overseas English teachers share most of the same experiences whether we care to admit it.


I should say that your response to the recruiter's post is not nearly as negative as many of the others I have read over the years. In fact, it is refreshing that you have refrained from referring to foreigners in your country as drunks, drug-addicts, and unqualified fools. Having said that, there are misconceptions about the lives of foreign teachers and what they go through that should be cleared up and may be helpful to you and many others.

Spending five years or 10 years or 15 years teaching English in Asia is not something to brag about. While many foreign teachers enjoy the new experiences overseas living provide us, singing songs to four year olds, showing flash cards of animals to eight year olds, and trying to placate a bunch of rude and noisy 14 year olds who have just discovered the opposite sex is not something most of us dream about. But we do it because we have to. Why do many of us have to, Mr. Li? I'll tell you a bit later.

Let me now tell you about a couple of the teachers I met four years ago when I was teaching in Shenzhen. We were a varied bunch; young and old, professionals and professional wannabes. We had one thing in common: to teach to the best of our ability and make a positive difference in each of our classrooms.

There was a fifty-something year old grandmother, a professional primary school teacher from the United States. She taught magnificently during the day, and sometimes cried herself to sleep at night. She cried herself to sleep at night because she missed her children and her lovely granddaughter who had just been born. She showed me pictures of her lovely granddaughter when she spoke to her daughter on Skype.

Then there was a 60 year old father and grandfather, another professional teacher; not only that, but a former principal of a primary school in the United States. One day he awoke with half his face contorted and paralyzed. He thought he had suffered a stroke.

He had no health insurance because the company in charge of sending teachers to schools told him that 60 year olds could not get public subsidized healthcare in China. And the company would not help him in trying to get healthcare through a private healthcare provider. It turned out that it was not a stroke; it was Bell's palsy, something far less serious. He paid for the treatment out-of-pocket. He left China with the proverbial bad taste in his mouth.

Then there are the countless 20 something's, recent college graduates $60,000 in student loan debt. Having to pack their bags after signing a contract with Happy Lucky Golden Dragon Language School in Beijing, these countless blond-haired blue-eyed Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie look-a-likes must now spend their days or evenings or weekends showing eight year olds flash cards with colorful animals on them. "This is a pig! It goes oink-oink!" This is not how many of us foreigners had envisioned our futures, Mr. Li.

How did this happen? Why are there now so many foreign English teachers in China, or for that matter, all over Asia? And back to the question, why do so many of us have to teach English in Asia?

Hard times

Well, Mr. Li, take a look at your Apple smart phone. That Apple smart phone you use is now made by thousands of factory workers just outside Shanghai and Shenzhen. So are lap tops and air conditioners and refrigerators and Nike running shoes and all sorts of sportswear. These recent college graduates cannot find work in their area of study in their own country. Also, wages in so-called developed western nations have not risen in almost three decades.

A recent job description online here in Canada offered $14.00 an hour for warehouse work. I was making that 27 years ago working in a warehouse of a pharmaceutical company. I can assure you that rent, electricity, and food prices in Canada has not remained the same as it was 27 years earlier.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Li, in Canada, a $14.00 an hour job over a 35 hour work week places us Canadians at about the same pay scale as a 20 something recent college graduate playing hangman at the Happy Lucky Golden Dragon Language School in Beijing. Now subtract about 20-40 percent (depending on income) for taxes, (Federal, provincial, sales tax, etc.,) and $600.00-$700.00 a month for a one-room apartment, (perhaps the Happy Lucky Golden Dragon offers free housing), and suddenly singing ‘Itsy-bitsy Spider' to six year olds doesn't sound that bad.

I remember talking to a recruiter in Korea in 2010 who told me that he was receiving hundreds of resumes from people with Master's Degrees in business or the sciences looking to teach in Korean language schools because "there is nothing back home." And that's just one recruiter!

Listen up Mr Li

The reasons for the stagnant economies in the west are complex and well beyond the limited scope of this blog, but this reality has not changed. In fact, it has gotten worse.

So if some of us want to make as much money as we can, what's it to you? If we want to make a few thousand more RMBs a month just to make our lives in China a bit more tolerable; so what?

In what is supposedly the richest country on earth, why would a grandmother have to leave her children and grandchildren to find work in China? Why would anyone have to tear themselves away from their mother, father, brother, sister, children, or grandchildren so that they could spend their time in a foreign country with people that do not respect their efforts and think them vain and greedy?

Why would anyone from the great, rich, prosperous West have to pack their bags and take a 17,000 - 20,000 RMB teaching position when there are perfectly good burger-flipping, muffin-serving, and grave-digging jobs right here at home? After 18 years in this industry, it would seem to me that this whole teaching English overseas business would work somewhat better if it were something all of us would want to do rather than something that, because of poor economic and social conditions in our own country, have to do.

A little understanding and gratitude, Mr. Li, is what is appropriate here. If a group of English teachers yearn to get together on a Friday evening and drink a little more than what is considered normal by Chinese standards, then perhaps a little understanding is what is needed.

There are only so many animal flash cards we can tolerate. There are only so many crying children we can take. There are only so many young and uncouth adolescents who ‘flip the bird' at us we can handle. There is only so much conflict and abuse from school administrators we will tolerate. And there are only so many times we can be called ‘vain' and ‘greedy' before some of us will tell you to bugger off!

I am reminded of several other friends and former colleagues in Korea and Cambodia who are emotionally torn and conflicted because they are currently not at home helping to take care of sick or ageing parents. I am continually haunted by the personal stories they have shared with me; teachers who have received that 2:00 a.m. phone call telling them that their mother had passed away; teachers who have received that dreaded email from their sister telling them that their father has cancer, or is now on dialysis, or their brother died in an car accident.

And these are the foreign teachers who are close to their families. There are foreign teachers who are not. A little secret, Mr. Li: Many parents of foreign teachers hate the fact that their sons or daughter are travelling halfway around the world to find work. Many siblings are not talking to their brother or sister any longer simply because they are not at home where they believe they belong. I realize this may be news to you. Admittedly, this is not something that we foreigners talk about openly or often.

A little heads-up, Mr. Li, and thousands like you, when talking about foreign teachers in your country; a little ‘FYI': We foreign teachers don't like to be reminded of what losers we are. We don't like to be reminded that good, decent paying jobs are now a scarcity in our respective countries of birth. We don't like to be reminded of how far our lives have sunk that we must now take jobs in China singing songs to four year olds who pee and poop in their pants. Many of us are sick and tired of pretending we actually enjoy that.

We don't like to be accused of being vain and greedy. So if a bottle or two of your traditional rice wine or an occasional Asian woman in our bed in a futile attempt to get through another tough work week bothers you, feel free to turn a blind eye.

A little gratitude and understanding about what we go through will go a long way. And along with that gratitude and understanding, a simple and sincere thank you would also be nice. "Thank you for teaching here in China. Thank you for teaching our sons and our daughters, our brothers and our sisters. Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for caring. We understand what you do is not easy. You are away from home, away from your family and loved ones. You think of them often, especially on holidays. You talk to them on Skype. You are homesick. Sometimes you are lonely; so thank you, teachers." Now was that so hard, Mr. Li?

The real heroes

So these are my heroes, the real heroes of TEFL. Call them unsung heroes, if you want because that's what they are.

Heroes that have come home from Asia or the Middle East after serving others only to return to Korea or China or Saudi Arabia because of a lack of opportunity and jobs back home; heroes who have come home only to be told that their experiences overseas are non-transferable and count for practically nothing.

It burns my guts to hear over and over again how our experiences overseas are often not recognized back home and are considered non-transferable to other work places. In a justifiable and robust defense of overseas workers who have returned to their homeland, a teacher who has commanded a classroom of 35 Asian or Middle-Eastern students who speak little English, deserves respect and have his or her experiences count.

Those who have learned a foreign language, lived in another culture, interacted with the local people, and studied their history have unique skills and knowledge that is not only transferable, but also beneficial to colleagues and superiors across various workplaces of their respective nations.

Here are to the teachers who have had to leave their families and their homeland behind, not just native English speakers, but Filipino teachers, European teachers, South African teachers, and dedicated teachers from around the world because their respective governments and politicians are too stupid to build or maintain an efficient, effective, and prosperous economy that would benefit their citizens.

Here are to the teachers who have had to endure, and continue to endure, abuse, misinformation, and ignorance on both sides of the world along with broken social contracts between themselves and their country.

Here are to the dedicated teachers I see in teacher's rooms everyday who yearn for a simple thank you for their effort.

I clink my glass with awe and amazement at how many of these teachers keep going.

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Who are the real TEFL heroes? - My vote and support goes to the Thai English teachers


What a fantastic article!

I return to Thailand next week, after I returned to the UK to get a degree in Education (BA non-QTS). My folks are getting on and I worry about my mum caring for my disabled step dad. I don't want to leave her like that, but I have a wife out in Thailand and obviously need to be with her too. It breaks my heart that I can't bring wifey here for us to live a decent life here. But even if I teach here, £22,000 p.a. (after tax about 63,000 baht a month) is not enough for me to rent a home and for us both and for us to live well in such an expensive country as the UK. I would also need to take another year or so out for the PGCE. I don't have the time really anyway, as I'm in my 40s now.

My experiences of teaching in Asia were worth so much, that the only work I can really find in the UK is shop work or call centre work. So, I get everything this article says. Yeah, we made our own choices and made mistakes (and I'm not crying about it either), but we don't have much choice if we want our own place and a reasonable income.

To make sure my wife and I can stay together, I'm probably going to have to do a stint in Saudi Arabia (something I dread, to be honest...Sharia Law...what's not to like?). I had one pal tell me that if I go to Saudi, that I'm "selling my soul to the devil". Not at all. I have little choice if I want to be with my wife in retirement. It is likely that I will be there within 18 months.

Our countries, as you state, have been royally effed up for many of us. We have little choice and would like a bit of understanding once in a while. Fortunately though, many of us do love teaching and that just about makes the experience of being a 'refugee' of sorts, bearable.

By Neil, UK (1 year ago)

This is the best article I've seen written about the "real world" of ESL teaching in Asia over the 10 years I've been over here. I'd like to think I'm one of the "foot soldiers" the writer is referring to and he hit it on the nail over, and over again in regards to the challenges that we NES teachers face everyday over here. Mr. Li and all the others like him are really the "greedy" money hungry people who use something like education to fill their pockets with as much cash as possible.

By AHuston, Phnom Penh (1 year ago)

One thing we be sure of when reading an article written by Steve is that we will be seeing things from the glass is half empty perspective.

By Jack, Next to a cup of coffee in front of my computer (1 year ago)

An excellent article from a man who knows what he's talking about.

By Neil Smith, UK (1 year ago)

Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Your article touched a very deep nerve in me personally. After spending 5 years teaching abroad I finally made the decision to return home to South Africa. To say the re-entry process was easy, would be a gross falsehood. It cost me about 4 times as much to re-settle in a city where I had lived for 10 years previously than it did to settle into an Asian city where I'd never set foot before. Finding a job took over 3 months with far too many potential employers raising their eyebrows and scratching their heads over my 5 year "holiday" - because that's how it was viewed. Cost of living here vs. salary is laughable, but after toughing it out for a year and scraping by I have managed to secure enough of a salary raise to make life more comfortable, though not nearly as comfortable as it was in Asia.
Regarding the administrators/recruiters: I was once in an awkward "joint" interview with another job-seeker because the "boss" could not schedule worth a damn. The "boss" - who made sure we knew he was the "boss" - thought nothing of insulting me and all my countrymen right in front of the other candidate. His words were: "I don't like to hire South Africans because you all come here (looking for jobs), but you don't really want to be here, and that makes you very difficult."
Needless to say I never replied back on his ridiculously low offer of selling my soul while working in his teaching sweatshop!
We're all just human, we all come from countries where the economy is in the trash, opportunities are non-existent, and the future looks very bleak. I am lucky though in that, personally, I just wanted to get out of a 10-year corporate rut and travel while making some kind of money on the side. I didn't Need to go look for work abroad. And everything worked out well enough for me in the end and the savings I accumulated allowed me to experience a lot and still return successfully.
For all those still out there because you have to be, I wish only the best of luck. If I can offer one piece of advice it's this: While you're there, look at online courses and educational certifications (Coursera is a good start), upskill yourself, learn new things - this will go a long way into helping you return to your homeland (if that's what you want). I regret the amount of free time I had in Asia that I could have used to earn a few extra good qualifications in my area of expertise but instead was wasted with way too much beer! :D

By H Jacobs, South Africa (1 year ago)

This article certainly made for interesting reading this morning. I have to say I only agree with parts of it. It is true that the arrogance and presumption of some recruiters beggars’ belief. I would also agree that a simple ‘thank-you’ would go a long way.

However, I got the impression that this chap isn’t really happy with the situation that he finds himself in. The writer starts by rubbishing the ‘ivory tower’ element of educational articles. While I would agree that I lot of rubbish has been written over the years there is also some rather good stuff out there! Certainly, every teacher should be looking at differentiating the activities in their lessons to make them accessible for all learners. It is also not all that unreasonable to expect a teacher to consider the culture of the students.

There is also a lot more to teaching than simply showing flashcards, I’m sure the writer does more than this, but for some reason they chose to omit it. I must say, the way the writer referred to his students was rather distasteful and unprofessional. What you get out of like depends on what you put in; with such negativity perhaps you should expect negativity in return. Having spent almost 7 years teaching young learners it’s rare that I haven’t been surrounded by happy and enthusiastic kids. Put the flash cards away and give them a hands on group learning activity.

The situation about those older teachers is sad but it’s their own problem. I can’t help it if some dude old enough to be my father decides against getting private health insurance. It’s not the schools responsibility to hold his hand and baby him.

By George in Thailand, Planet Earth (1 year ago)

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