I once read a post on a well-known travel forum from someone who wanted to not just travel but live abroad, and wanted to know how people actually went about doing that. Someone commented that there are many different ways – some go to travel, find an opportunity and stay. Others are able to find jobs on their own due to their skills – often IT professionals, doctors of some sort, teachers or people with various other qualifying jobs. Still others join the foreign service or are sent abroad with their companies. They finished with “for those with talent, there will always be opportunities”.
This was a long time ago – possibly several years – but that memory, combined with my recent trip back to the USA and catching up with friends there, got me thinking about “success” as it exists within the expat life.
Let’s be honest: most young folks from English-speaking countries who go abroad do so by teaching English. It’s pretty much the only language teaching field where one can get a job without a certification or experience, which has (somewhat deservedly) earned it a dodgy reputation as a job type and even dodgier as a career move. Who would move abroad to teach English if they had any other talents or skills? Who would do it as a career other than the sketchiest of guys (and yes, this reputation by and large attaches itself to men. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m saying it happens)? How could anyone do that and actually be considered successful? With low salaries, few worker rights, few worker perks – how many of you English teachers in Taiwan have ever gotten a paid vacation, an annual bonus, extra pay for overtime work or any of the other perks one would otherwise expect from any other job? – is it a field that anyone who actually desires professional success would ever go into?
On the surface, no. All of my friends back home have gone into more typical “information economy” jobs: office work, professional work, business, graphic design, public health, one lawyer who is having a tough go of it. And yet, I desire professional success, and I went into English teaching. I suppose I could have become a right proper “teacher”, the kind who need Master’s degrees and have unions representing them, but while I love teaching (and am good at it!), I don’t particularly relish or dream of spending my entire working day with children. I like them, but not enough to make them central to my career.
It is true among travellers that “English teaching” has a bad rap – and often for good reason. In many cases it’s the ultimate minimum wage job abroad (in many others, English teachers earn well above local salaries, but rarely do they earn anything approaching traditional expat salaries), akin to immigrating to the USA and working as a takeout delivery guy. In many ways it’s more challenging than that, but let’s be honest, if you don’t need experience or training to do a passable job at something, it’s not that hard a job. And I say this as someone who’s done it. So when talking to people who know a few things about international living and travel, you can almost hear the disdain in their voices: “Oh, you’re an English teacher? Well, I guess that’s one way to do it.” Foreign service officers, journalists, students, expat business owners and company-based expats don’t get the same sneering tone – even if the traveller herself couldn’t hope to land such a job, nor might she want to: I know I wouldn’t want to go abroad only to work long hours in an office doing managerial work, nor would I want to work towards upholding US foreign policy in the foreigner service. I respect people who do it, but it’s not for me.
That tone says: “you chose the easiest possible route to living abroad”. It’s a hard thing to fight back against. Note as well that it generally comes from other expats and travellers, rarely if ever do you hear it on the lips of locals.
Now, I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who has since become a career teacher, or “corporate trainer” if I want to be pretentious about it. There are plenty of young, upwardly mobile types who go abroad, teach for a year or two and then go home to pursue other fabulous careers (or they just start the slow slog into the morass of middle management), just as it’s popular to go abroad and work as an au pair for a few years, do Peace Corps or study abroad. They only prove my point: that ambitious people mostly leave English teaching for other pursuits.
And yet I say all this not to dump on English teachers abroad – heck, it’s my own job, and it’s one I’ve chosen purposefully. I was once a newbie with no experience, too.
I used to work in finance. Granted I was in my early 20s so I wasn’t exactly scaling the corporate heights, but the heights were there to scale and I had the potential to make it happen, but I left that more lucrative field to do this. I’m good at it in a way I was never good at office work, or at least the sort of office work I did in my previous incarnation. Clearly I believe there is merit to it, and while I’m not too worried about the salaries of inexperienced young kids who show up and are shoved in a classroom, I do feel that people who are trained, experienced, know the language in and out and kick ass at teaching English deserve to be compensated fairly. More fairly than many of them are. I can name more than one trained, talented and competent teacher who was willing to work for less than NT$700 an hour. It sounds arrogant but it’s true: I wouldn’t get out of bed for that, and they shouldn’t have either. I won’t say what my bottom line is because I don’t wish to discuss salary, but let’s just say that it’s more than NT$700. Both of them worked for Kojen, both regularly worked 6-day weeks and both felt they were getting a fair deal. They weren’t.
I realize I’ve just made a case for “English teaching” not being a job that offers professional success, but honestly, I do consider myself successful. My husband and I have a pretty comfortable lifestyle, comparable to what reasonably successful early-thirtysomethings in the USA might enjoy. We’ve swung some sweet vacations, and we don’t travel “on a budget” (no hostels, no self-catering with the exception of our month in Istanbul). We’re about to move to a very comfortable and well-appointed apartment that is well within our means. I work with businesspeople and my salary could compete well against theirs – from what I know of average salaries in Taiwan. I teach and earn the respect of CEOs, vice presidents, executives and senior managers and I’ve brought in business on more than one occasion, from companies you’ve heard of. I’m looking at starting a Master’s program next year. I do all this while working a job I genuinely love, that I do well. Note that I love my line of work and the students I work with – my actual company is hot and cold at best. I recently negotiated a very good raise. I took it upon myself to get certified once I decided that this was the right path, and I’ll certainly go on to higher qualifications in the future. What I do now is related to what I did when I was a newbie, but comes with challenges I hadn’t imagined facing, and that I couldn’t have overcome five years ago. Who wouldn’t call that successful?
I don’t mean to imply that I, self-satisfied as I might sound, am the only one to accomplish this. I’m not as far as I’d like to be, and I have plenty of peers who have also gone far in the field.
So here’s where I confess. I do hold prejudices. Well, duh, Jenna, we all do. Yes, yes we do. Here’s one of mine: I do have less respect for the long-termers at the lower end of the market – the ones who showed up with no experience or training (nothing wrong with that - I was there once too, and I do feel ) and have stuck around for years, if not decades, working for peanuts at a lackluster buxiban for lack of another clear path, and have made no attempt to either find another path or work to become better teachers who demand better treatment and better pay. I confess that some of them rub me the wrong way. I try not to take the few bad eggs and judge the whole lot of ‘em, but I can’t help but wonder: if you’re still working at the ghetto end of the market after however many years, maybe it’s because that’s what you’re worth?
I’m sure I’m going to get dumped on in comments for that, so I’ll admit it now: yes, it’s a prejudice and yes, it’s unfair, even if there’s a kernel of truth in it. People end up where they do thanks to a combination of personality traits, random circumstance and socioeconomic opportunity and yes, I know, if someone ends up at the lower end of career English teaching abroad, it would be better to look at the whole person. But I’d rather be forthright about my prejudices rather than pretending I don’t have them.
I occasionally hear complaints that restrictions for teaching English in various countries have become tighter: now you can’t hope to get much of a job in China without a certification (for awhile the government wouldn’t even give you a visa to work as a teacher without one, I’m not sure if that’s still in effect) and you can’t hope to get much of a decent job in other countries without one. My sister is one of those “no experience, got a job teaching kids” types – but she has talent and she’ll do well no matter where she ultimately ends up – and she’s in Taiwan working for less than I earned when I started. In Turkey, well-paid jobs abound for those with training and experience, but even in Istanbul you can’t hope to make much more than US$12 an hour without those things: even with a CELTA and no experience you might not start out much higher than that.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: yes, teaching English can be a low paid dead end job, and it attracts its fair share of dodgy people. That said, it can also be a real occupation and provide true professional paths, if you’ve got the drive and talent to make it happen.