Benefits and dangers of teaching ESL in another country

By Lisa Gardner
Special to

A popular choice among young university graduates following their graduation is teaching English as a second language in a country overseas. Teaching ESL in Asia, Africa or Europe has its own set of rewards and drawbacks.

Jenni Jenkins, a sociology and business graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University, made the decision to teach English in Japan just over a year following her graduation.

"Asia is gigantic and so diverse, so I would recommend that if you are someone who is considering this, to pick what you want in a place that geographically appeals to you. I picked the city and understood where it was I was going to be. It's very different once you're there," says Jenkins who went directly through The Nova Group, a Japanese English language school with a recruitment office in Toronto.

According to Jenkins, who is now an employment counsellor, The Nova Group and JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching program) are the two biggest employers for Westerners.

Two weeks after Jenkins applied, the process was well underway and the contract was signed.

"I did not intend on remaining in Japan for a full year and that's why I chose Nova," she says. "I was responsible for my own flight, but I was able to break my contract anytime with no repercussions. With other companies - who pay for your flight, which is usually four times the cost of a regular priced ticket - you're not given the option to leave unless you repay them."

Collette Neville, manager of The Nova Group's Toronto office, says all contracts with them are for a full year. When they hire people, they do count on a commitment for the entire duration.

"We expect people to be professional and dedicated. We promise a full year of work with the best remuneration and if a person cannot commit, we won't even consider them. If, once they get (overseas) they decide to leave we don't penalize them per-se. But if they were to consider applying to us again they would absolutely not be hired unless the case was that they were granted compassionate leave due to an emergency at home," Neville says. She adds that it is the responsibility of the individual to ensure all of their expenses, including rent, are covered prior to leaving.

It was far more complicated for University of Toronto English graduate and current travel consultant Michelle Farris.

Farris left her placement at the Hwang Institute in Korea, where she was placed by a now defunct Toronto-based company. In doing so, she was breaking her contract.

"We had to sneak out of our apartment at 5 a.m. while our roommates were asleep. Once at the airport we had to promise not to return to Korea for a year," she recalls.

Farris, excited to gain teaching experience, answered an ad in a local Toronto newspaper just a few weeks after the completing her studies. Her plan was to teach abroad for a year and then apply to teacher's college upon her return home. The $40,000 Cdn per year salary, an option to work overtime if she desired, and 10-day paid vacation the agency promised made the position extremely appealing.

"I knew it was unlikely that I would make that kind of money right out of university (in Toronto)," she says.

In hindsight, Farris remembers the recruiting process as being suspicious and said that after reviewing her photo and speaking with her for only a few moments over the telephone, the agency representative seemed ready and willing to hire her.

"I believe they wanted to make sure I had a 'North American' accent and looked 'North American'. It was strange that they moved so quickly on me. It was like 'Oh, you have a degree and no accent, no problem.' One of our friends actually had a hard time because she didn't have blonde hair and blue eyes. They seemed to scrutinize her more and ask her more questions," she says.

Farris's problems began almost as soon as she stepped off the plane.

When she arrived at the two-bedroom apartment that had been rented for her as part of her contract, Farris found that, aside from beds, it was unfurnished. She discovered that she and the friend she traveled with were to share a bedroom and live with two other girls sharing the other room.

"There was also no TV or VCR, which were promised to us in our contract," says Farris.

In fact, there were three more major discrepancies in their contracts, according to Farris, including a $12,000 Cdn pay cut, half the paid vacation time allotted to them, and no option to work overtime.

Farris says the school "had my signature on the bottom of a contract that I didn't sign. The contract I had signed in Toronto was completely different. Part of me wanted to turn around and board the plane home."

However, Farris stayed for two months and left with a small savings and just enough to pay for a ticket home.

She admits that despite everything she really did enjoy teaching and insists that the contract mishap went on unbeknownst to the Hwang Institute.

"We weren't overworked or treated badly by the school.

Dave Sperling, the founder of Dave's ESL Café, a North American resource dedicated to providing information to new and experienced teachers, says that obstacles are to be expected when one travels to a foreign country, and stresses the importance of flexibility.

"Somebody that's not going to get bent all out of shape if things don't go exactly as planned (is ideal). Because that's just not the way it happens when you're living and teaching abroad. Nothing ever goes as planned. Whether it's the house you're living in, or the kids you're going to be teaching or whatever," he says.

Sperling recommends extensive preliminary research and believes that terrible situations usually occur when teachers don't know enough about where they're going.

Jenkins also felt some culture shock when she informed that she was not allowed to befriend or speak with anyone that she taught outside of the classroom.

"If we were caught, we were fired and it was taken very seriously. It was hard to find Japanese friends outside of storeowners, who didn't speak any English. I also went (to Japan) alone, so I found it very tough at times."

Sperling believes that teaching abroad is not just about travel, but is more of an opportunity to experience another culture.

"I spent my college years traveling all over the world - backpacking in Europe and Africa. But it's completely different just stopping in a place for six months or a year and actually living, and working, and eating, and being in one particular place," he says.

"I found great information on Dave (Sperling)'s Web site and especially found the section on blacklisted agencies and schools helpful," says Michael Barrett, a marketing representative. Barrett taught in Taiwan for a year after graduating from the University of Toronto and says that his experience was so fulfilling that he found it difficult emotionally when it came time for his departure.

"I think that's a part of the success. The more it hurts when you leave, the more success you had," says Sperling.

Modified on April 23, 2009