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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

How to Avoid a Terrible Work Situation as an English Teacher Abroad

(Web Editor's Note: The author has worked extensively across Asia and directs many of his practical warnings and precautions to those seeking work in countries such as Korea and China where new schools spring up daily. We have reports of many very positive experiences on our site, including the author's own in Thailand, but wish to present another perspective which could prove useful in avoiding possible scams or bad work situations.)

"We're not teaching another class until we get paid." The teachers room boiled with angry foreigners. Korean staff ran to and fro in a panicked frenzy. Underlings scurried between the owner's office and the break room.

Our pay checks were late again...four weeks late at this point. Finally, we'd had enough: enough insults, enough threats, enough broken promises.

Each time a Korean staff member entered the room, an angry chorus of English shouted them down. "Tell him we aren't teaching until we get everything he owes us." "Tell him no more cameras in the classroom." We were mad as hell and we weren't gonna take it anymore.

Unfortunately, teaching abroad isn't always pretty. There are a lot of sleazy employers. A lot of broken promises.

Most teachers are lured abroad by visions of exotic travel, exploration, and lucrative contracts. But more often than not, things end badly. Most teachers leave with a bad taste in their mouth not only for the job, but for the country. A bad job quickly sours the entire experience.

Some teachers stick out their contract and grow increasingly bitter. They vent their frustrations on web boards... or in bars. Others break contract and leave -- often in a flurry of conflict and argument.

Can the bad and ugly be avoided? Is it possible to find a good English teaching position?

It certainly is, but it's not easy. Employers do their best to paint a good picture. They rarely volunteer unflattering information. Some blatantly lie. If you are applying from your home country, it is very difficult to screen the truth from the lies. But there are some basic precautions.

The best strategy is to ask a lot of questions. The following are essential:

  1. How many hours will I be in the classroom per week (exactly)?
  2. How many hours will I be expected to be on location (office, school) per week?
  3. Are there any required extracurricular activities? (Many schools host mandatory parties, summer camps, winter camps, etc.)
  4. What percentage of teachers typically complete their contract? (High turnover is a very bad sign.)
  5. Have you had any conflicts or arguments with teachers? (Most have. Beware schools that try to paint a perfect picture.)
  6. Have pay checks ever been late (obviously a very bad sign)?
  7. Are teachers observed? (Many schools constantly observe teachers and create a very tense working environment.)
  8. Do you have cameras in the halls or classrooms? (A sign of paranoia and a controlling management style).
  9. Do you have split shifts? How much will I travel each week? (You may "only" be teaching 20 hours per week, but if the first class is at 9 a.m. and the last ends at 9 p.m., it feels like you are working much more.)
  10. What days will I have off?
  11. What teaching methods do you use? (Beware any school that claims to have a "secret" or "special" curriculum, as this is often a sign of a get-rich-quick mentality. Also beware rigid guidelines and formulas.)
  12. What kinds of materials are available to teachers?
  13. What kind of educational background do the management and owner have? (Usually they are businessmen with no background in education whatsoever -- not a good situation.)
  14. Do you provide any orientation or training? (Beware schools that do not. Will you be thrown into a class, jet-lagged and clueless, two days after you arrive?)
  15. Can I have the email addresses and phone numbers of three of your current teachers? (The more the better, as it gives you a more honest picture of the school.)

The last question is absolutely essential. You must talk to foreigners who are currently teaching at the school. Any school that refuses this request should instantly be crossed off. Some schools may give contact information for foreign managers. Do not accept these. You must contact teachers, not managers.

Obviously, shady school management will not answer questions honestly. It is vital to contact several current teachers and ask all of the questions above. They too may fudge, but if you read between the lines a clearer picture will emerge.

Another strategy is to check blacklists and grey lists. These are web boards that list disreputable schools in various countries. Korea, in particular, has a large number of dedicated blacklists. So many, in fact, that the best advice may be to avoid working in Korea completely. Search the lists for schools you are considering. Post a question to the board... ask if anyone has had problems with the school you are considering. While this may yield results, blacklists are notoriously unreliable. Just because a school is not on the list does not mean it is a good one. Most bad schools, in fact, will not be found on any of the blacklists.

Also, for an overview of a particular country, including common problems, see the teachers' forums at Dave's ESL Cafe.

Once you receive a contract, examine it carefully. Does it carry complicated and detailed restrictions? Does it carry built-in punishments for "misbehavior?" This is a sign of past conflicts at the school. It is a sign of a hostile working environment. Be wary of such contracts.

Another important part of the contract is the section on sick leave and vacation. Read this very carefully. Does the school offer several days of sick leave outright? They should. Do they require a doctor's note for every day missed? They should not. Is sick leave paid? It should be.

Regarding vacation: can you take vacation when you choose or are vacation days predetermined by the school? Are meetings and training days scheduled on holidays? Scour the contract for these details and ask more questions if necessary.

Working abroad is difficult. It's never easy to adjust to a new culture, new job, new social environment, and new home all at the same time. It's difficult to leave behind friends and family. These adjustments are hard enough with even the best job. However, they are next to impossible when compounded by an ugly employment situation.

Do not jump at the first job offered. Take your time. Ask questions. Compare job offers. Research. Be especially careful about Korean positions.

The English teaching industry is full of cheats, opportunists, petty dictators, and outright liars. Always be wary. Always be skeptical.

Good jobs do exist. But in many countries (Korea, China) the bad and ugly are the majority. Do your homework.

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