There are different ways to go about travelling the world as an ESL teacher, two of the most popular are to volunteer through a program or get a paying job. In this article I want to outline some of advantages and disadvantages of teaching ESL as a volunteer and as an employee.
By volunteering, future employers will view you as a helpful and caring person, willing to take time off from your work schedule to spend time with those less fortunate. Time spent volunteering will also look good on your resume. It shows you’re not simply motivated by money, but willing to help those in need and take yourself out of your comfort zone. Many volunteering positions will be in impoverished areas which will require you adapt to a different set of circumstances and people.
If you’re nervous about teaching ESL and don’t know if you’ll enjoy it, volunteering will let you try it out and give you a pretty good indication about whether or not you’ll enjoy the job. Performance reviews and well-intentioned, but persistent, parents aren’t usually a problem for a volunteer. When you go volunteering, teaching is often a secondary consideration while the primary consideration is whether or not you can work well with the kids and care for their needs. Your presence alone shows them that there are others out there that are aware of their problems and are willing to help. Further, volunteering doesn’t just reflect you as a person, but your country as well. This is important to bear in mind since your students will often have various ideas in mind about you and your country. Movies will often influence their ideas, but word of mouth and the news are among the other influences shaping their impression of foreigners. You’ll soon realize how your country and its people are perceived abroad simply by talking to the students.
As a volunteer, you’re often seen more as a caregiver than simply a teacher. Many places focus on your character and how you deal with people. Although the majority of your students will want to learn from you, some might not be interested. Difficult children or students may simply walk away from your class and you can’t, and probably won’t want to, do anything about it. You won’t be responsible for their educational needs or their future. As a volunteer, there aren’t as many expectations and pressures to discipline the students for not attending class. Of course they will want to have fun but, at the end of the day, English is just one of the tools they want in order to improve their livelihoods.
As a volunteer you are also given much more freedom in regard to what you teach and how. If you are a musician, most places would love for you to teach some music classes. Filmmaker or theatre major? Get the kids involved in a production. Sports enthusiast? Soccer/football is practically an international language itself. The gamut you can run as a volunteer is much more varied and open for interpretation than as a paid ESL teacher. The kids, and the organization, will be grateful that you have taken the time to teach and let them practice their language abilities with a native speaker.
This is by far the most popular option since, in many parts of the world, teaching ESL is well-paid. Some of the folks I met during my year in South Korea stayed and kept teaching, either at the same school or somewhere else. Getting paid as an ESL teacher offers you another career choice different from what you probably had back home. After all, you probably went abroad to teach looking “for something different” in the first place, right? Although volunteering can lead to work with NGOs or other such volunteer programs, finding a job as an ESL teacher in another country offers you a more immediate career choice. You get a job, do it well, renew your contract, and repeat.
There are a few different challenges as a paid ESL teacher. You will be expected to deal with difficult children and demanding parents. Further, you might be required to mark their English abilities which can have lasting consequences both personally and academically. Sometimes this means deciding whether or not a child can go study abroad in an English country. It can be a lot of pressure for some people. And as an employee you might find large differences between the work ethic of your home country and your new host country, particularly in regard to sick days and holidays. Often, your vacation days are limited and your sick days are monitored and must fall in line with the school’s policy on “being sick,” which is often much different from how it is in Europe, North America or Australia. Lastly, your job description may include having to participate in school functions on your own time or conducting summer or winter school programs.
And if you surpass all that, you may find that your boss himself may not speak English and has never met a foreign employee before!
There are benefits to both volunteering and getting paid so it really comes down to what you are willing to do and how you want your travels to take shape. Both offer great experiences and will no doubt expose you to a variety of work environments, people and cultures. If you’re concerned about your career, both will enhance your resume while broadening your mind. Do some research and understand what’s involved in either type of placement. But, after all that, don’t forget to just go!