Teaching ESL in Asia

Teaching ESL in Asia

Whether it’s due to the Great Financial Debacle, reluctance to plunge into the monotony of a 9 to 5 job or simply a case of the travel bug, you find yourself speculating on a world and a journey far away. If you can’t take six months off to see Asia but you can uproot yourself, you could consider teaching English as a second language in the region.

Planning categories

I’m a 26 year old American who found myself in need of a transformation. With a degree in corporate finance, decent grades and two relevant internships, I thought the copiousness of my experience would take me far in life. I did go far... nearly every day for two years I drove far to work, walked far from the parking garage to my cubicle, and dreamt about far away places that I didn’t have the time to visit.

Do you know a little too much about what I am talking about? Even with the economy in shambles, an English-crazy culture has swept through Asia and the package of benefits, both financial and adventure-related, may be enough to lure you in.

The benefits?

For starters, fully grasping an Asian culture isn’t ever attained by simply showing up with a backpack and bidding farewell a few days or weeks later. Living and teaching in Korea, not only have I had the opportunity to learn so much about this country, but I am in an excellent position to explore all that Asia has to offer as great travel opportunities are at most a cheap flight away.

Another excellent perk is that I have grown to find myself with an international pool of friends. Not only do I have a chance to make friends with the locals but with other teachers from around the English-speaking world: the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.

Financially, I am quite well off teaching English in Asia. In most if not all Asian countries, English teachers earn a higher salary than the local average. Would you believe that I make more money teaching English in Korea than I did in the financial industry in the USA? It’s true once you take into account the free apartment, decent salary and much lower tax rate. Whether you are able to save money or not, in most cases you will enjoy a comfortable standard of living.

Working with children can be a real challenge that requires great patience. They are cute angels at times who can make me laugh and have the time of my life but other times I find them to be rambunctious, out of control and a headache. Take my advice and at least learn how to say "BE QUIET" in the local language. It is much more effective than saying it in English!

Being a graduate of business with no formal training in the education field, I have made more mistakes than I can count. A big mistake that I made in the beginning was trying to be friends with the students... the “cool teacher”. This only resulted in frustration as the children didn’t take my classes seriously and often misbehaved.

I once made a huge mistake by coming to work hung over. That’s right, in an employer sanctioned event, my boss took all of us out to dinner and wouldn’t stop pouring shots of Korean rice whiskey—a peculiar example of Korean culture, in which such behaviour is condoned. Whether it’s acceptable or not, nothing was worse than being surrounded by screaming kids during my initial rendezvous with a Korean hangover. Being a bit more seasoned and wise, I have learned ways to prevent this from happening again without insulting my host—not drinking the entire shot.

As you consider making the big move to Asia, understand that it is an adventure and not always a smooth sailing one. Huge cultural differences exist that can result in anguish, confusion or misunderstandings. For instance, in many Asian countries bosses and business owners aren’t used to hearing the word “no” from their employees—in fact, any type of criticism or even improvement suggestions by subordinates are rare.

In Korean culture it is okay for others, including your boss, to pry into your personal life. In Japan you might be expected to stay at work late, not because you have a lot of work to finish, but out of respect to your boss and co-workers.

If you are considering making the move, be certain that you meet the basic requirements. You need to decide which country is best for you. Then you need to ensure that you are getting an acceptable offer from a good school. Start by asking yourself why you want to teach English in Asia and consider what goals you have and what you want to get out of it.

Basic requirements

Usually, you must be a native citizen of an English-speaking country. In most cases, to get a working visa you will need a recognised three or four year university degree.

TEFL certification is required in some, but not all, countries. In countries where it is not required, you can sometimes receive a higher salary for having one. Two reputable certifications are CELTA and TEFL International. Online certifications usually aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on unless the course included some on-site, in-the-classroom training sessions.

Experience will get you better job offers and higher pay in most cases, but it definitely is not required to find a job in Asia.

A clean background check.

Countries and facts to consider

South Korea

Expect standard pay of 2.1 to 2.3 million won (US$1,800 to $1,970) per month, plus a completion bonus equal to one month’s salary. Apartment should be paid by your employer, along with a round-trip airfare and health insurance. Most contracts are based on a 30-hour work week.

As the most popular nation to teach in, countless other foreigners are around to befriend. It is very easy to find employment in Korea, so do be picky during your job search.

The US military presence stokes some animosity toward Westerners from some locals, especially in and around Seoul. Often only a little vacation time is offered. Few Koreans are fluent in English.


Expect pay of Y230,000-280,000 ($2500-$3,100) per month, depending upon whether you’re in an urban or rural location. Housing is not usually paid by employers.

Arguably the best food in the world, cleanliness and a futuristic urban setting.

A ridiculously high cost of living, housing is usually not provided (and is expensive), and a lack of English spoken by the locals (a plus of course if you’re looking to immerse yourself in Japanese).


Expect pay of NT$50,000-$60,000 ($1,550-$1,850) per month, Housing is usually not included. Bonuses may be offered throughout the year.

Offers a heavily influenced taste of Chinese culture but with better paying teaching jobs. It’s also an opportunity to learn Chinese in a tropical climate.

Pay is usually based on an hourly rate which can affect your wallet if the school’s business slows down. The tax rate can be up to 20% and you may be required to teach on Saturdays.


The usual pay range is RMB4,000-8,000 (US$580-$1,200), with salary variations greatly depending on whether you are in a rural or urban setting. A free apartment or housing allowance is sometimes included.

The opportunity to learn one of the world’s most important languages. The cost of living is very low outside major cities.

While the pay is enough to live on comfortably, you probably won’t save a lot of money. Not a lot of English is spoken outside major cities.


A typical salary is B30,000 ($900) per month.

As Thailand is the Mecca of backpacking, expect limitless possibilities for cheap travel. Many locals are able to speak and understand English.

ESL certification is usually required. Not much chance to save money.


Expect to earn US$12-$14 dollars an hour.

High pay for Southeast Asia, usually in US dollars, coupled with a very low cost of living, make this a good spot to save money. It’s also a great location to be based to enjoy cheap Southeast Asian travel.

ESL certification is usually required. In most cases, housing is not provided by the school.


Most English teaching jobs are volunteer positions but some NGOs and private institutions offer paid positions, most if not all, for under $10 an hour. You might find it to be very culturally enriching to give something back.

The cost of living is very low and you’ll have an opportunity to travel in the region cheaply.

See pay above!

Tips for choosing a good school

Ask for contact information of former and current teachers of the school. This is a very common practice and the school should be happy to provide it.

Google the school to see if you can find information related to the school’s reputation.

If possible, visit the school in person before signing the contract.

General advice

Ensure there will be no split shifts (this would mean working for instance, 8am to 12pm and 6pm to 9pm).

Research the city/area where your potential job is located to get an idea of costs.

Learn the lingo or else simple tasks such as going to the bank or the markets will cause headache.

Take the job seriously if you expect to be treated with respect by your boss, co-workers and students.

Online resources

Dave’s ESL Cafe has hundreds of new job listings each week.

Tefl.com is an established web site with a wealth of information related to planning a teaching career overseas. New job listings are regularly posted.

Ajarn is dedicated to providing information about teaching in Thailand.

Transitions Abroad has informative articles about living and working abroad.

Further reading

Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.

Get an idea

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Get some money

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Get your documents

Get your gear

Get packing

Get the most out of your trip

Get talking

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Get out alive

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