Getting Paid While Traveling: The Low Down on Teaching English Abroad

Today’s article is a guest post from Danielle Koffler, who has taught English in northeastern Thailand, worked in eco-tourism on an island in Thailand, and backpacked solo around Asia. She is currently teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Danielle is also the author of Wake Up and Dance, and today she shares her experiences teaching English in Thailand and South Korea.

Danielle teaching school in Khon Kaen, Thailand

During my last few months in university, I was desperately trying to figure out what to do with myself after graduation. The idea of getting a “real” job right off the bat and getting sucked into the “real world” scared me. I wasn’t done exploring yet. My friend’s brother had been teaching English in Japan and he thought he could get me a job. Unfortunately at the same time he was trying to hook me up with a job, there was a massive surplus of experienced English teachers in Japan. So I switched my focus to Thailand.

The summer after graduation I worked two jobs until a school buddy said he might know of a teaching position available in northeastern Thailand. It was posted on www.idealist.org, a great website for volunteer and job opportunities worldwide. I applied for the job and found out I got it three weeks before I needed to leave. My plane ticket was not paid for, neither were my accommodations; but my salary covered the costs of a nice apartment, delicious Thai food and a little shopping.

A couple years later, I find myself teaching English again, but this time in Seoul, South Korea, which is a very different environment from Thailand. Thailand is a very relaxed place to work, so much so that the laid-back work ethic was almost stressful for me. I found myself constantly saying “Yes I would love to eat some yummy Thai food for the fourth time today, but can’t we get some things done first? Please?!” Korea is the opposite. It’s the second hardest working country in the world. It’s not just adults that work late into the night here, many young children here stay at various after school programs until after dark.

Seoul, South Korea

I came to Korea with my boyfriend to save money and live abroad at the same time. To get here, we found a couple of recruiters online and told them we wanted to teach in Seoul and live together. When we were offered a job to our liking, we did a phone interview with the school. A word to the wise, recruiters have been known to lie, so make sure you speak with or email a foreigner who is already teaching at your prospective school. Recruiters are paid by the schools to find you; some will lie to get you to accept. Unfortunately, we were lied to about our start date, which was inconvenient because we had already quit our jobs.

The costs of getting to Korea were significantly lower than to get to Thailand. We didn’t have to pay for our plane tickets here, but we did have to pay for our background checks, passport pictures, visa fees, and apostilles for various documents. All of the little things we had to pay for before leaving for Korea we made back quickly while working here. An average salary as an English teacher in Korea is somewhere around 2,000USD. Teachers also get their flights to Korea and home paid for, plus severance at the end of their contract. My salary in Thailand was 300USD and nothing extra was paid for. Quite a difference.

English teaching jobs in Thailand and Korea are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Thailand has a chill and happy attitude, which as I said earlier can make you go crazy if you want to feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of the day. In contrast, as a teacher in Korea you are worked hard and kept busy, and paid handsomely for it.

Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul

That being said, crazy directors and poor communication within the schools in Korea are certainly not unheard of. You never know what you are really going to get, so you must be ready to take anything that comes at you. It is important to ask as many questions as you can before you sign a contract. It should also be mentioned that even if you are in a good situation, things can change quickly here. Be prepared for anything.

Because I wasn’t busy in Thailand and I worked in an area where the foreign population was very small, I had a lot of time to learn about the culture. I was given thirty hours of free Thai language tutoring at the local university and I learned loads about Thai cuisine. The downside was that it was incredibly lonely sometimes. I am definitely not lonely in Seoul. I don’t have a problem finding people I can communicate and be friends with. Unlike my situation in Thailand, I am too busy in Korea to have energy at the end of the day or on the weekends to try learning the language and Korean cuisine hasn’t impressed me that much yet. I do love living in Seoul though. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world and I am happy to be able to save money for future travels here.

The past few years traveling and teaching has taught be how to roll with the punches and how to find my patience reserves in the toughest of times. The most interesting moments for me are when I learn about little cultural tidbits I wouldn’t find out about at home. Like that Koreans say that they are one year older than they are because they believe you are already one year old when you come out of the womb. Or that in Thailand if you eat the last piece of food on a plate shared with many people, you will find a handsome boyfriend or beautiful girlfriend; but in Nepal if you eat the last piece you will have a baby girl, not a boy. I collect these facts instead of souvenirs.

Danielle's classroom in Khon Kaen, Thailand

If you are looking to travel and need a way to pay for it, I highly recommend teaching English. You can make enough money to live off of, or even save while educating yourself about the actual real world. You don’t have to stop learning after university. Become a lifelong learner. Work and travel abroad and learn about how the rest of the world lives.

Danielle, a Los Angeles native, has been passionate about travel since she went around the world on Semester at Sea in 2006. In the last three years, she has taught English in northeastern Thailand, worked in eco-tourism on an island in Thailand, and backpacked solo around Asia. She is currently teaching English in Seoul, South Korea while planning her future adventures.  Keep up with her via her blog, Wake Up and Dance.

About Shelley Seale

I'm Shelley, a journeyer and learner of the world, freelance journalist and author, yoga chick and dog lover. I pound the keyboard from home barefoot every day, and while my boss is demanding she also occasionally lets me have the early afternoon cocktail. I think not going into an office or collecting corporate paychecks are very good ideas, though not always profitable. I have written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, Texas Monthly and CNN, among others. Neither the New York Times nor Johnny Depp have answered my letters yet. I love yoga, indie movies, wine, and books, though not necessarily in that order. I believe in karma. Mean people suck. If I could have any dream job I would like to be a superhero. I have performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano and was once robbed by a monkey in Nepal. But, I don't know how to whistle. My mantra is "travel with a purpose."
This entry was posted in Asia, Guest Posts, Korea, Money Tips, Teaching Abroad, Thailand and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Getting Paid While Traveling: The Low Down on Teaching English Abroad

  1. Pingback: Getting Paid While Traveling: The Low Down on Teaching English … | TEFL Japan

  2. Turner says:

    Yep, that’s a good summary. I considered working in Thailand after I had finished two years in Japan, but I would have needed to send money home, and a Thai salary is… well… next to nothing. Certainly enough to live well in the country, but not when you want to pay off debt. For that, South Korea is the way to go.

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    • Keith Hajovsky says:

      Turner, yes I have heard the same, i.e. that it’s kind of hard to make enough money in Thailand to save much. I never taught in S Korea, but when I did in Japan I was able to save quite a bit as long as I didn’t spend too much time in the bars. I remember drinking in bars being a very expensive habit!

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      • I think I would like the Thai lifestyle a lot better than Korea or Japan myself – although I’d like to visit both places, but for long term I’d pick Thailand!

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    • turner says:

      wow. First Turner I have ever seen. I heard Thailand is more fun, but Japan is an amazing experience. Have you broken the bank living there though? I hear unless you get a post outside of major cities, the cost is so high that you pretty much break even, even with a high pay (unless you do a lot of side work). Have you found this to be true?

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  3. Liz says:

    Hi! I travelled Asia and Oceania last year and am now studying in Toronto to become a secondary school teacher in my home country (England). I am really interested in teaching abroad after I complete my degree. I loved your blog and it has really inspired me! I was just wondering how much Thai you knew before starting teaching out there? I speak only few colloquial terms- no where near enough to understand a full sentence in Thai! Just wondered whether it is possible to teach with very little knowledge of the native language.

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    • Hi Liz! I never taught in Thailand, but I did teach in Japan and have spoken to many people who have taught in different countries around the world. Basically you really don’t need to speak the native language at all when teaching English abroad. And if you do speak the local language the schools really prefer that you only speak English while teaching. They feel (and I agree) that the best way to learn the language is to be as immersed in it as possible. Of course, for your own personal experience, it is always best to be able to speak as much of the local language as possible. That helps makes your travel experience that much more rewarding. But as far as teaching English there really is no need for it. Good luck!

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    • P.S. Liz – also wanted to let you know that this guest post from Danielle is about her experiences, so perhaps you would want to contact her through her blog as well to ask her your questions!

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  4. turner says:

    Hey Danielle,

    I am an ’05 SAS alum. Good info on teaching english in Asia. I will do that for one of my 80 travel jobs for sure. If you are interested in long-term travel I have found you need a job that you can do in a lot of different locations, so most people might travel blogging or some other kind of job that makes money online, but if you want to try something different, Timeshare sales are everywhere.

    I have been selling timeshares for the past few months, and you can also do that long term and actually make money at it. Timeshares are in 100 different countries and it is fairly seasonal, so you could do 4 months in one beautiful spot in high season then go to another for their high season when the season ends. Here is my latest blog post on how to get a timeshare sales job if you are so inclined. good luck.

    http://aroundtheworldin80jobs.com/how-to-find-a-timeshares-job/

    best,
    Turner

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  5. Pingback: How to Travel the World on Zero Dollars a Day | How To Travel For Free (or pretty damn near it!)

  6. kru says:

    I heard Japan is a good spot for teaching. I met a guy that said he was taking home $5k a month after tutoring. Not bad for teaching and having fun in another country.

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  7. Jamie says:

    Where you work in Asia, really defines the experience you have. I’ve personally worked in China (for 4 months) and South Korea (for 2 years). It is a really good way to make extra cash, but there is literally no future in these jobs, it feels like. I’m off to Hong Kong next, to teach for a little bit, and try break into the business sector there!

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