Whether it was at high school tabling events or college career fairs, we’ve all seen the offers to teach English overseas by our 21st birthdays. I give much of the credit for my choice to take the plunge right after college to a gentleman sitting outside the career center at my alma mater.
Richard (I never asked for his last name) majored in philosophy just as I did. He found the job market was limited to adjunct teaching if he wanted a job in the field. Socrates was his favorite philosopher because “the only thing [he] knew was what he didn’t know.” Socrates made it a point to talk to everyone he encountered to learn something new every day.
Richard told me that talking to random Americans would be beneficial to a certain extent, but conversations with those in other countries with different experiences would make him a complete person. His sales job after college paid well, but he quickly realized money and long hours did not bring him the joy he expected. The following year he took a job teaching English in South Korea and ended up staying there for the next 10 years. Richard taught another five years in China before returning to the United States as the philosopher, world traveler and all-around better human being according to his own words. His story inspired me to apply right at his table and begin working just a few months later.
I just completed my third contract (one year each) teaching in Taiwan. I went into this experience with only the expectations of saving money and adding some interesting experiences to my resume for future job opportunities, but I ended up getting much more out of it than I originally bargained for.
The following are three reasons I believe everyone should teach English abroad for at least one year:
1. Overcome Irrational Fears of Travel
I was guilty of possessing one or two of my own irrational fears… That is until I arrived in Taiwan for my first week of teaching.
My heart beat a little faster than normal the moment I stepped off the airplane. It became apparent that people were staring at me for no other reason than the fact I looked different from everyone else. Five minutes after stepping off the plane I wanted to get right back on and go back to the United States. But it was this type of discomfort that I knew was necessary for me to grow as a human being.
One thing I learned quickly in Taiwan was that basic cooking skills were a near necessity. I went out to eat a lot my first few weeks, as I’d never even cooked eggs before arriving there. Although I became frustrated with my poor attempts to speak the language, the local merchants were always very supportive of my efforts to communicate with them. Before long, I was not only able to communicate more efficiently with strangers (who only spoke Mandarin) but move past my irrational fears that had actually held me back for so many years.
I am a better English teacher because I overcame my own fears that I had subconsciously repressed but ultimately faced head on. I’m also a better communicator overall for discovering things about myself I would have never acknowledged without these experiences.
2. Enjoy a Rewarding Career
I decided on teaching English abroad for many reasons. The ability to travel and support myself while teaching English abroad was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Around the same time U.S. employment rates dropped, I was becoming a certified TESOL instructor. My first contract in Taiwan paid me $1,800 per month. That may not sound like much, but my housing was paid for as part of the contract, as was my medical coverage. The cost of living is a fraction of what it is in even the cheapest areas of the United States. Costs became even lower when I stopped eating out every day and started cooking for myself. By the time my second contract was completed, I had paid off my one student loan, two credit cards and had more than enough to pay for my wedding and honeymoon last year. I saved nearly 75% of my earnings from my third contract and will do the same on the fourth.
As alluded to earlier, the best part about being in Taiwan is my actual job. The smiles, laughs and elation my students display daily make this whole experience worthwhile. When I leave the classroom for the day I feel like I’ve made a difference in people’s lives. It is such a pleasure to actually speak simple sentences back-and-forth with my students who only eight months prior did not know a word of English. At the same time, I’m now debt-free and experienced in a field that continues to grow in demand.
3. Become a Cultured Individual
Culture shock is inevitable when you arrive in an unfamiliar country as an obvious minority and outsider. The best thing to do to alleviate the angst that comes with that is to become a part of your new culture.
When my parents took me to Yellowstone Park as a kid, the most fascinating attractions to me were the hot springs. I wanted to get much closer to them but they were all fenced in and/or had warning signs not to get close. But in Taiwan, soaking in natural hot springs is a common recreational and therapeutic activity. Many hotels and resorts have hot springs for people to take a dip in. My first experience was at the Beitou Hot Spring in Taipei City. It was much hotter than I thought it would be and I had to get out after only a few minutes. Regardless make sure you are respectful and know all the rules of the specific hot spring (i.e. wear shower cap and proper swim wear) before taking a dip.
I can now say I’ve eaten an oyster omelet and grilled squid because of my several trips to night markets. When I first heard about them I was a bit hesitant to go because they were described to me as chaotic and crowded. But once you get past the initial shock of the crowds, it feels like a carnival with merchants selling clothing, food and little knick-knacks. The Dragon Boat Race is a festival that happens every summer in Taipei City. To my understanding it has been in existence for at least 2,500 years. Teams construct boats with a dragon head up front and participate in fierce competition. I’m still not exactly sure what the participants were competing for other than pride. But the atmosphere felt like a baseball game with crowds cheering loud for their respective teams.
The only way to ever know if teaching English abroad is for you is by jumping right into it. One year, the standard length of a contract, goes by fast. Go for it. The life experiences and personal growth make becoming an ESL teacher one of the best decisions of my life.