Avoid The Pitfalls Of Living As An Expat Teacher

Living as an expat ESL teacher certainly has many positive aspects. However, one thing that few people will discuss are the downsides which come with expat living and especially with teaching English abroad. Not only are there downsides but they can be pretty significant and sometimes can have long-lasting consequences. I’m going to discuss some of these downsides that I have experienced and observed in other teachers during my years of living as an expat and working as a TEFL teacher.

What are some of the downsides?

The list of potential downsides to living as an expat is actually quite large. However, we’re going to focus on those that especially affect expat TEFL teachers.

There is a certain glow to the world that you see when you first move or travel abroad. This holds true if you are moving abroad to teach English. The potential for excitement and adventure and new experiences put you into a sort of euphoric state that makes everything seem wonderful. So, when you first move abroad it is very easy to overlook the pitfalls which are all around you or to write these things off as something you won’t experience. But, rest assured, the longer you spend living and teaching abroad the more likely you are to experience at least one of the following downsides of living as an expat TEFL teacher.

Culture Shock

The first is probably the most obvious and one that happens to many people but which can take a little while to set in. Many people think that culture shock is something that happens when you first arrive in a new destination. In many cases that can be true. However, I have found that when you move abroad you have already prepared yourself to accept a new culture. Instead, as an expat, culture shock seems to seep in slowly as you go about your day to day life.

As mentioned when you first move abroad you are feeling the rush that comes from new experience. However, little by little, that rush begins to fade away as the new becomes the routine. This is usually the point that most new TEFL teachers begin to really examine their surroundings and the new culture they now call home and will most likely begin to find things they don’t like or which they vehemently disagree with.

The problem doesn’t come from finding things you don’t like. Instead, it comes when you are unable to accept these things and move on. Every new expat is going to find something they don’t like. When I first moved to Thailand I found myself constantly frustrated with the poor service that was standard in restaurants and stores as well as other sectors of society. Coming from the United States, where service is usually good no matter where you go, it was both frustrating and oftentimes a point of stress.

However, what I had to eventually accept is that this was simply a part of my new reality. I wasn’t going to change people here as this is what they accept as their standards. The sooner I began to accept things as they were instead of what I wanted them to be or what I was used to, I began to have a much better experience in my new home.

The experience of culture shock will be different for each person. For some people, it can be having to get used to new foods. For others, it can be a standard of living which you are not used to. No matter what it is, most likely, TEFL teachers living as an expat will eventually find something which they will be forced to accept despite disagreeing with or not liking it.


Remember that feeling of burnout when you were in university and had a workload that was stressing you out? You could easily take a day off and retreat into your home and recuperate. Even if you were going to university in a different city than your hometown the culture was most likely familiar to you and everyone spoke the same language as you and your surroundings were familiar.

Most likely, you won’t have that living as an expat TEFL teacher. Especially as a new teacher everything will be foreign for the first few years. So, after a few months of living and teaching in your new home when the initial glow has worn off you will probably be craving a little retreat into comfort or familiarity.

The thing is, you probably won’t be able to find that comfort or familiarity. Especially if the country you are teaching in is completely opposite your own. Instead, even when you are in your home whether you are at a condo or an apartment building on the school, everything will be foreign to you. If you don’t speak the language then you will only be able to talk to other expats and if you are in a rural area where there are no other expats you are going to be on your own.

For many people, this is where burnout begins to set in. You are teaching five days a week and after you finish teaching you go home but everything is still foreign so that you never really feel at home. After a while, this feeling subsides as you become more accustomed to where you are living. However, this is the point where many new expat teachers give up and return home after only a year of teaching abroad.

Getting Stuck

Yes, I mean literally getting stuck in your new country. Most TEFL teachers living as an expat will never experience this. However, there are an unfortunate few that will find themselves stuck in the country they are teaching in without any options.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s look at an example from where I am currently living in Thailand where there are a number of teachers who have become stuck.

Twenty to thirty years ago Thailand was known as an easy place to get an English teaching job for anyone who was a native speaker. Many people came over who didn’t have bachelor’s degrees as it wasn’t something you really needed at the time and found jobs teaching English. Fast forward to 20 or 30 years later and these people are stuck here. They are making the same amount of money they were making when they first started only that money doesn’t have nearly as much purchasing power and the experience they have accumulated won’t transfer over into a teaching job in their home country or in a higher paying country where more paper qualifications are needed. Most likely these are great teachers and even better than a teacher with a degree but lacking experience. However, the world has changed and they are now stuck.

While this isn’t something that all expat ESL teachers will face it is in no way an isolated issue. There are teachers in countries all over the world who found themselves victim to the world changing around them.

Shady Employers

Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you. Every year there are stories of TEFL teachers who have moved abroad only to find out they have been scammed or lied to by their employer and are in a bad situation.

Issues that teachers can come across with shady employers can vary in type and severity. They can range from working illegally because the employer refuses to provide the proper visa which they had promised in the original contract to teachers who aren’t receiving pay. However, whether the issue is large or small, if you find yourself working for an unscrupulous employer you’re probably not going to have a great time living as an expat.

How can I avoid these downsides?

There really is no foolproof way to avoid all of the downsides of living as an expat teacher. While it is possible to avoid many of the major issues, there is always going to be something that doesn’t sit right with you. That being said, there are some things you can do to help prepare yourself for living as an expat TEFL teacher so that you can avoid the major pitfalls and alleviate the minor ones.

Accept What You Can’t Change

You may be thinking that this is obvious. It’s a generic piece of advice that has been told to you more times than you can remember. However, it is probably the most important thing as far as getting along when you are living as an expat.

Many of the problems you are going to face as a new expat are going to be completely out of your control. Most likely there are going to be cultural factors that don’t work in your favor. Don’t let anyone kid you not all cultures are created equal. Some cultures suck. In some countries doing things such as handling your visa, opening a bank account, or renting an apartment can be an absolute nightmare.

What makes this worse is that there is absolutely nothing you can do about this. This is how the culture has operated for probably hundreds if not thousands of years. People may lie to you daily, cheat you, and attempt to rip you off without shame. Things that would normally be considered abhorrent where you are from might be the norm where you are now living.

There is nothing you can do about this. The only thing within your power is your ability to accept the situation for what it is and learn to work around it. Many expats fall into the trap of becoming bitter about where they are living. It is natural. However, don’t let that bitterness build up and cause you problems. Learn to accept what you can’t change and you will be much happier living as an expat TEFL teacher.

Value Your Time

In a previous article, I discussed why you should value your time and limit what you are doing for your school and your students outside of what your contract states. This is going to be extremely important not just for making the most of your time but also for avoiding burnout.

There are many places in the world where contracts aren’t even worth the paper they are written on. Here in Asia, especially, contracts are often seen as something to get people into the door and hired on and then they begin to pile extra work on you. The thing is, you don’t have to accept this.

You are going to be required to fulfill the teaching hours you have agreed to and any extra administrative work that was discussed before you accepted the job. Outside of this, however, you don’t have to do anything that wasn’t in the original description.

So if your employer tells you that you will only be required to 25 hours each week but you find they are giving you 35 hours worth of classes you can tell them no. The worst that they can do is fire you and if you did your due diligence in understanding your contract before signing it then you should be protected against this. Even in countries where contracts are not really upheld there are often solid protections for workers against wrongful termination or refusal to pay.

Don’t tutor students privately for free. Don’t accept extra work from your school because they ask. Don’t let them guilt you into doing extra work because you are supposedly “helping the children”. Your employer isn’t going to value your time so it is up for you to do so. If you manage your time properly and learn to say no when your time is not being valued properly you can more easily avoid the burnout that many expat TEFL teachers experience.

Have A Plan

For many TEFL teachers moving abroad, the plan is to work for a year or two after finishing university before they return to their home country to pursue a career. That is awesome. Teaching abroad is a great way to experience another culture and to fund your travels while you take a gap year between university and work.

If this is not you, however, and you are planning on traveling abroad for a long-term period then you need to have a plan. Whether that is to start a business outside of teaching or to advance as a TEFL teacher it doesn’t matter. But, having a plan is going to keep you from getting stuck at a low paying level in the ESL industry into your later years.

As I mentioned above, there are a large number of teachers who are stuck in various countries throughout the world because they began teaching without an exit plan or a plan to move up. If what you want to do is teach then you need to plan on getting higher level qualifications so you can command more money. Also, figure out countries that are high paying so that after you have a few years of experience you can leverage that experience for a job that pays double or triple what you are making currently.

Having to teach kids English for a little over a thousand dollars a month with little to no savings in your later years isn’t on the list of things to do for most people. However, if you fail to plan and just move abroad with no direction to move towards then it is a possibility you could face if you stay long enough.

Do Your Research

You will want to research the country you are moving too but most importantly research the employer you are looking to work for. It is up to you to do your due diligence to make sure you aren’t accepting a job offer with a sketchy employer. They aren’t going to come out and say it.

There are many resources available where prior teachers have reviewed schools including various social media groups. Make sure to look at everything before you accept a position.

Look at whether the school has a history of not paying their teachers or whether a number of teachers have complained about not receiving the benefits promised to them. Especially look out for complaints that the employer failed to take care of the work permit or proper visa as working illegally is something that can land you in jail and blacklisted from a country.

Also, don’t just assume that because the employer is a large company or school that they won’t do shady things. There are many teachers who have found out the hard way the employers both large and small and recruiters in this industry can be shady. Do your due diligence and save yourself the trouble of getting stuck with a bad employer.

What are some final thoughts?

It is going to be impossible to avoid all of the downsides of living as an expat ESL teacher. At some point, you are going to come across something or some situation or somebody that you don’t agree with. The trick is learning how to minimize these problems so that you can enjoy your life as an expat to the fullest. There are many people in countries around the world who end up being a talking head on a barstool complaining about the country they are living in. They are probably right about most things too. But, that doesn’t make them any less miserable and it doesn’t change anything about their situation or where they are living. As I have said before you are going to have to learn how to accept things you can’t change and learn to limit the impact of negative situations on your life. If you can do this then you are sure to have more upsides than downsides living as an expat TEFL teacher.