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teacher who quit working 9 to 5 on a laptop in front of a mountain view

Though travel had always been a passion of mine, I never would have considered moving abroad had I not taken a sabbatical from my 9 to 5 job back in the States. 

I’ve been teaching English in Asia for just over seven years now. Before venturing to a distant foreign land, I worked as a director of advocacy for survivors of violent crimes.  

It was an extremely supportive and healthy work environment with policies and practices in place that prevented staff burnout. Due to the sensitive nature of advocacy work, advocates are often at high risk of developing vicarious trauma. In order to protect and retain advocates, it was commonplace for workers to be granted time off from work when needed to prioritize their mental health. 

During an annual performance review, my boss pointed out that I had not taken any time off in over three years. Again, I loved my job and was dedicated to my work. 

Still, I was long overdue for some time off. It was under her recommendation that I take a one-year sabbatical. 

I took the opportunity to spend the next year traveling with intention. I became an ESL teacher to live an adventure-fueled lifestyle. Plus, I could earn money while exploring the world.

I excitedly signed my very first contract to teach ESL in South Korea with a clear understanding I would be returning to work after 12 months. After all, at 42 years old I “had” to be committed to my career. It seemed a life full of travel would only take place on vacation once or twice a year.  

Happily, my story has not ended. Seven years and several countries later, I am still creating new and fulfilling experiences traveling, meeting new people, and teaching ESL.  

One of the biggest obstacles in taking the first step will be fear.

That’s why you have to just do it! I certainly faced this fear when I considered what life would be like outside the US. You may be thinking: 

‘I can’t just uproot myself and move abroad.’ 

While most ESL contracts are a year, there are contracts that require as little as a 3-month commitment. Sounds like the perfect amount of time so you can test the waters. Whether you choose a short-term contract or a year, you can renew, return home, or choose an entirely new country once completed. 

‘I’m too old.’ 

I began an entirely new life in South Korea at 42 years old. Knowing there are countries that hire well after US retirement age allows you to have options of remaining abroad for many years to come.

‘I have a family.’ 

I’ve met so many people that have brought their families along to share in the adventure. There are just as many benefits to raising a child abroad as living abroad. Children do well picking up second languages. They learn resilience in adapting to a new environment, and most importantly, they experience the world instead of reading about it. 

This is the first thing you should do if you’re thinking about quitting your job to teach abroad.

Research, research, research!

ESL recruiters do a fantastic job selling you the ideal life of an ESL teacher, but there is more to being a successful ex-pat than what you see in the brochures. 

Finding a country that’s a right fit for you will require a realistic examination of the life you think you’re supposed to be living versus reality. You will need to be open-minded and flexible, but mostly you will need to be informed. 

  • Will you learn to ride a motorbike if that is your new home country’s primary means of transport?
  • What will you do the first time you are served a “strange” unknown food?
  • How will you cope if you are placed in a school that has no other ex-pats?
  • Can you comfortably live among the locals? None of these questions can be answered truly until you try.
  • When I am choosing a country, the two most important factors for me to consider are: (1) How are women treated? (2) How are POC received? 

I have lived in countries where dangerous criminals are never convicted and merely fined for their violent acts against women.

I’ve also experienced stereotypes associated with POC, which can result in hateful and ignorant comments while working in a foreign environment. 

Next, make yourself marketable. Here’s how.

You are competing in an industry that prefers younger employees and those that have degrees tailored to the ESL industry. Your age and lack of experience may be a deterrent for employment.  

Become certified in courses that specialize in the market you wish to teach in. A TEFL is a necessary certification in the ESL industry and a great way to get started.

In addition, concentrating your focus on targeted areas such as phonics, early learners, reading, IELTS, business English and grammar will help add relevant experience to your CV. There are many programs to choose from. 

Unexpected roadblocks as a POC teaching abroad

I was not prepared for the racism I experienced while interviewing and being employed abroad. 

Advertisements for “white skin only” were an industry standard and sometimes valued more than the education of an individual teachers.

I’ve worked in schools that have asked that I remain in the back classrooms during open houses so parents wouldn’t see they’ve hired a Black teacher. 

I’ve worked at language centers where parents enrolled their children solely because of the way I interacted with them during demos.

During registration, many requests were along the lines of, “Please place my child in the class with the white teacher that teaches the ways she does.” 

Even more frustrating was the ignorance of the owners who felt parents’ requests were okay and did not need to be challenged. 

Some of the best opportunities you’ll find as a teacher abroad

Opportunity to live a debt free life: 

One of the biggest impacts I’ve been able to experience is living a debt free life. Apart from student loans, I was able to pay off my debt with in my first year of teaching abroad.

Due to the low cost of living, I have been able to double my monthly contribution to my savings and retirement fund. I have also been able to travel extensively as there are significantly more holidays and lower work hours.

Opportunity to help others: 

Being an actual teacher in Vietnam was very short lived as I was promoted to managing an entire province within a year. I initially created a personalized program for my team that helped onboard and train new ESL teachers.

It also included a personal component to help deal with culture shock and how to navigate life in Vietnam (how to find an apartment, lists of stores that sold food from their home country, etc.). I’ve been told that my program has now been adopted company-wide. 

Opportunities to learn about culture: 

I have been welcomed into so many families, I’ve lost count. The cultural exchanges are one of the greatest gifts of living this lifestyle. Invitations to weddings, births, tomb cleaning ceremonies, holidays celebrations, dinner preparations, and learning how set up shrines to honor their ancestors are a few of the memories I have that I will treasure.  

Opportunity to encourage/empower others: 

Lastly, I was inspired to create a YouTube channel to encourage people to pursue their dreams and goals. My channel (leah_lives_abroad) shares what my life is like as an older Black female living and working abroad teaching ESL. It has brought me so much joy to assist people with information that moves their goals from dreams to reality. 

Making the choice to live and work abroad has been one of the best decisions of my life.

I am so grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to me and I look forward to continuing to learn, grow, and share.  The experiences and wisdom I’ve gained is invaluable.

Feel free to follow my YouTube and Instagram to stay connected!

Ready to travel and teach abroad?

Whether you’re ready to start teaching abroad and traveling solo, or traveling to teach abroad with a family, Teach Away is with you every step of the way. From inspiration and TEFL certification to finding a teaching job, sign up for a free account with Teach Away and start your teaching journey today.

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