Robert Schrader in Shanghai

7 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Teaching ESL

Four years ago today I was walking, half-dead, through Shanghai’s Pudong International airport, searching for a woman named “Apple,” who was supposed to be holding a sign with my name on it. My name, and that of a certain private English education conglomerate: I’d arrived in China to teach English.

My legal immigration status notwithstanding, I was unprepared for what life in my strange new home would bring, woefully yet by design – you can’t make love to a metronome.

With this being said, there are a few things I wish I could’ve told my much younger self as he stepped out onto his swanky hotel balcony to greet China’s city above the sea. If you’re thinking of pursuing a job teaching English abroad, I suggest you read them as well.

Need help finding an ESL job abroad? Let me help.

1. Teaching English abroad is not going to make you rich

The classic narrative of teaching English overseas, in Asia especially, is that you’ll make a Western salary, with a significantly lower cost of living and, potentially, paid-for accommodation. All of these things are true to a certain degree, but the fact is that if you simply teach your required hours and collect your paycheck each week, there will be enough to save or enough to live it up – but not both.

2. But working on the side might

A couple weeks after I started my job, a sales associate at my school pulled me aside and asked me if I’d be interested in doing some one-on-one tutoring for a friend of hers, who was trying to get into an MBA program. I said “yes,” and it ended up being the second-best decision I ever made (the first being, of course, the one to teach abroad in the first place!).

Taking private ESL clients, who have the money to actually pay you what you’re worth, can double or even triple your ordinary salary in a fraction of the extra time. Is it legal? Of course not. But if you keep things on the DL and do a good job, you’ll evade detection and make a ton of extra money. Everyone does it, at least everyone who knows what’s good for himself.

3. Most expats are not worth your time

When you first arrive in your new country, the company of your English-native colleagues might seem comforting, but I urge you to (mostly) abandon them as soon as possible.

Not only will having a cocoon of people just like you insulate you from all the amazing local culture that’s right at your fingertips, but living la vida expatriada – i.e. drinking frequently, dining out frequently and generally being irresponsible – will bankrupt you, and prevent you from achieving any sort of financial goals, which for me anyway were at the forefront of why I moved abroad in the first place.

4. The earlier you build an exit strategy, the better

To be sure, I knew from the moment I arrived in China that I wanted to use teaching English abroad as springboard into what I’m doing now, which is why I not only accepted teaching jobs on the side, but began moonlighting in journalism as soon as I possibly could.

The sooner you know what you want to do when you finish teaching – for me, this was traveling extensively and building a popular Web publication – the more deliberately you can you use your time abroad to make money and hone your skills, a sort of practice run for the new, better life you’ll be leading when you finish.

5. Your contract is not life or death

The vast majority of English jobs abroad come with the stipulation that you must sign a contract of at least six months, and usually a year. What most ESL job hunters fail to realize – and almost no recruiter is going to mention – is that you can easily cancel your contract, typically by giving a month notice.

Canceling your ESL contract might involve forfeiting certain benefits, such as reimbursement of your flights or other expenses you incurred, but it is almost always possible, which is important to know when times get tough.

6. Replacement ESL jobs are a dime a dozen

And they probably will. Even if you work for a Western company, like I did, chances are it’s going to be run as if it were a local company. In my case, this was Chinese-style, which resulted in me working longer-than-contracted hours and being subject to extremely questionable management and supervisory techniques.

The great news is that once you’re in the country and have the legal authorization to work, finding a different job is easy, especially if you’re in North Asia like I was.

7. Your time abroad is going to fly right past you

Many aspects of my life in China were not what I imagined, from work conditions, to health issues that resulted from pollution and questionable nutrition, to general feelings of loneliness and isolation. Often times, the only thing that kept me going was being able to see my greater goal – which I did, of course, end up achieving – in my mind’s eye!

Looking back, however, I wish I could’ve slowed down and enjoyed even one percent more of my experience living in China. Teaching and living abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and although you can of course return to your host country after you’ve finished teaching, I urge you to savor it as much as you can while you’re in the thick of it.

About The Author

is the author of 1088 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


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kiran November 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm

tha’s trully well said!

Samiya March 12, 2014 at 11:13 pm

Hey I am in China right now, and absolutely agree with everything you said. If only China knew how to treat foreign teachers, it’s shame considering how much they are desperate for them. But you have to tell yourself, you are in China, smile and shrug off your worries.

Robert Schrader March 13, 2014 at 9:33 am

Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂 Check out the rest of my site for inspiration on what to do when you finish teaching.

Fran July 31, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Would you recommend being certified?

Sonia Sahni August 1, 2014 at 12:05 am

Great post….I am not sure if I will ever do something of this sort as I dread leaving the comfort of my 9-5 job…but I would love to do it sometime!

Marcell Claassen August 1, 2014 at 7:30 am

No 3 is especially true!! I’ve been on the road for 14 years now and everywhere the expats try and draw me in – sure, say hi and get to know them but stay out of reach and within the local community where you are…best experiences and time like that anyway!

Great Post!!

Robert Schrader August 2, 2014 at 7:40 am

Yes, number 3 is the one that gets most poeple, in my opinion.

Robert Schrader August 2, 2014 at 7:42 am

I think everyone should do it once!

Robert Schrader August 2, 2014 at 7:43 am

You must get certified, but thankfully you can do it online. For example, at

Rachele August 6, 2014 at 7:15 am

Thanks Robert for the insightful tips, I am moving to China in 3 days to teach English and I will follow your advice for sure 🙂

Robert Schrader August 6, 2014 at 9:08 am

OMG Rachel, good luck! Where are you going and with which company?

Katie Fagan October 2, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Hey great post! Right now I’m deciding between Korea, China or somewhere in South America for my placement. Any suggestions?

Robert Schrader October 6, 2014 at 6:07 am

If you value making money, definitely head to East Asia! South America is a lot of fun, but most gigs are volunteer. Some event require you to pay!

Ollie November 26, 2014 at 5:02 am

Hi there – great post! Considering teaching in China for 6 months from next September – have the option of a 6 month contract in Xi’an OR would you recommend choosing a 1 year contract in Shanghai (preferred location but do not offer 6 months) and leaving early by providing notice? Any other schools you would recommend to target? Thanks.

mesieu February 11, 2015 at 10:34 pm

Thanks for the article. I am currently enrolled in a teacher training program to teach English as a Second Language, a 4 years Bachelor’s degree allowing me to teach in Canada as well.

Sometimes I’m not sure it’s worth it and think about teaching without a working visa in China for a year and see if I really want to make a career out of it.

Do you a company named Best Learning..?


Robert Schrader February 16, 2015 at 7:06 am

I have never heard of that company before, I’m sorry.

Katrina of The Two Week Travel March 19, 2015 at 10:23 am

I agree with most of this except working on the side and new jobs being a dime a dozen. In China, yes I would agree with every point. However, if you’re teaching ESL in Korea it’s very different. Most people will be in Korea on an E2 visa which means your school owns your visa so you are not legally allowed to work for anyone else. Teaching private lessons on the side can get you fined and deported (although it’s commonly done). If you leave your job mid-contract the only way you can apply for a new job is if your school gives you a letter of release. If they won’t do that, you have to wait until your visa expires (the end of your original contract) and only then can you apply for a new job.

eduardo March 19, 2015 at 11:03 am

Hi, Robert. I was wondering if you knew something about ESL teaching for non-native speakers who are proficient in English.

The Blond travels March 20, 2015 at 12:43 am

I’m teaching in Thailand at the moment. I think you’re mostly right. It also depends on why the expat teachers come here. Quite a lot of us come here just to have fun, you know.

Eddie S March 27, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Your blog cuts right through to all the information I’m looking for. I’m in the midst of my TEFL certification. Like you, I want to use teaching abroad as a springboard, so I’m looking at China – lots of opportunities, help with travel/housing, a bit of savings. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can hack the extreme smog. Outdoor fitness keeps me sane. The idea of just ‘breaking even’ elsewhere affects my ability to buy equipment and build a site in the first place, though. So, I’m in a bit of a pickle. I’m now considering Medellin because it seems to be even cheaper than
Chaing Mai, Thailand. Whatever money I exact from blogging will go
further in Medellin than most any other place I’d find work &
possibly enjoy. Do you have any suggestions? Is it worth biting the bullet for a year and socking away the few extra pennies China provides? Should I just don my mask and suck it up?

Robert Schrader March 31, 2015 at 7:48 am

I think the one thing China guarantees is that you won’t want to stay, lol. A lot of people get stuck in Medellín.

Stephen Green August 3, 2015 at 2:48 am

I hate to say it, but so long as you’re white you’re in with a good chance in Asia. If you’re from the west of Europe, I doubt they’ll know the difference. There is a chance that you’ll get paid slightly less, but with good negotiation skills and a degree, you could get around that though.

Stephen Green August 3, 2015 at 2:50 am

My friend used to work for it and he said that it was good. They will only employ Americans or Canadians though.

Jake West August 14, 2015 at 2:00 pm

Hey Stephen, is it at all possible that I could get in contact with your friend who worked for Best Learning? I was looking into that company and would love to know what his experience was like!

Simone November 15, 2015 at 10:46 am

I wanted to enroll in a teaching training program to teach English as a Second Language, but figured I’d first get my TESL ceritifcate and teach overseas to see if it was something I would pursue at University and make it a career. May I ask, what program are you in? I live in Canada and have been doing research on which types of universities to go to and the program you’re in sounds right up my alley (if I do end up wanting to pursue it as a career).

mesieu November 15, 2015 at 11:02 am

Hi Simone,

My program was at McGill university and frankly, I wouldn’t highly recommend it. It’s going to look super good on your CV, everywhere in the world, but really the program sucked. I heard Concordia’s esl program is much better (also much harder to get into).

Anyways, my comment was from a while ago! Since then, I gave esl classes at a community center in Montréal and then, over the summer, I worked in a literacy camp up north in Nunavut. After these two real experiences I chose to drop the bachelor.

So your idea of trying teaching before enrolling in a 4 year program sounds like a fantastic idea to me!

Eric January 2, 2016 at 3:22 pm

I’m considering teaching ESL in China and want to know if most schools will accept an online degree. I have a bachelor’s degree from a college.

Chris Renwick July 27, 2016 at 9:59 am

Hi all!
Chris here. I’m working in China for a private centre and we’re looking for teachers. It’s actually my previous role. If you’re looking for a chance to teach in China, feel free to message me directly, or email me at [email protected] We reimburse flights, visa and provide you with accomm. Good luck with your search!

ItSu August 12, 2016 at 9:26 pm

Me and my husband is going to China. I am going as a teacher (I’ve got a job) and he as a Teacher Aid. I am moving out of my comfort zone and I am really scared. I don’t know what to pack, what to expect etc. I am really scared!

Ben Noon July 31, 2017 at 5:36 am

Haha Love how 1 is solved by 2. China taught me the value of its not what you know but who. Once you make the right connections as a TEFL teacher in China it can be really lucrative.

Carmen Franklin August 27, 2017 at 11:11 am

I am moving to Shanghai to teach and i am scared. I hear all bad stories. But i want to take a chance. Please advise on what to do? I am scared

Robert Schrader August 27, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Try and make your decisions based on facts, not emotions. If you got a job with reputable company and a good salary, I wouldn’t worry.

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