How To Teach English Abroad: Getting Started

The number one question I’m asked most often on my social media is how to teach English abroad, or more specifically, Japan. I hope that by sharing my experiences teaching and hiring teachers, I can offer some insights into the process.

So, you want to go abroad…

First of all, congrats! Teaching abroad is something I suspect many people think about but never really pull the trigger on. If you’ve made the decision to push forward and try your hand at it, you’ve already made it further than most. Teaching itself is an incredibly rewarding experience but doing it abroad will expose you to everyday culture the way traveling really can’t. When we travel, we’re really only seeing snippets of people’s lives. When you teach in a country, you really get a chance to dig into daily life and more fully absorb the little things that make a place special. 

Not to mention, learning your student’s language at the same time you’re teaching them yours, creates such a special and unique bond. Let me be the first to applaud you in your decision and reassure you that you’re making a good one.

These girls are writing “Happy Birthday Michelle Sensei!”

Picking a country and when to go

As someone who speaks English fluently or is a native speaker, we have the incredible luxury of being able to teach in just about every non-English speaking country in the world. It’s an amazing privilege so the first step is to take a second to appreciate it. Next, where do you want to go?! The world is your oyster! Pick a country or even a few and start thinking about what your daily life might look like. 

These students skipped pool time and opted for some R&R with Ponyo.

Once you’ve decided where you’ll be going, you should look up when their school year begins and ends. Many countries follow their own school schedule. For example, in Japan, the school year runs from the second week of April to the third week of March. This is important because when you’re looking for a teaching job, you’ll typically be hired in tandem with the school year. So if you graduate from college in May and want a job teaching afterwards, you’re going to want to start applying around January or February. That is when the company I worked for would post our job listings for the season.

You’ll also need to wait to book your flights until you get your work visa. This is another BIG reason to start applying early. From the time you apply to the time you board your plane can be several months. Plan ahead and keep the school year in mind!

Getting a job 

After you’ve chosen your country, consider your lifestyle. Are you someone that loves the hustle and bustle of a big city or the peace of the countryside. For me, I chose a very small city in central Japan. I lived downtown but drove into the countryside to teach in remote mountain towns for my job. I was very happy with this blend, it was perfect for my husband and me. 

The city of Gifu! I can see my house from here!

You’ll likely see more positions available in big cities but they’ll be more competitive. In the countryside, they might be harder to find but they’ll be fewer applicants. Think about what type of lifestyle you’re hoping for before starting your search.

Specifically for Japan, my top recommendation for resources is a site called GaijinPot. Whether it’s moving, studying, or working in Japan, GaijinPot has really got you covered. This is where I found my job when I moved to Japan and where we continued to hire from when I started hiring for my company.

If you’re interested in teaching in Japan, chances are that you’ve heard of programs like JET and other big companies like Aeon. I’m not going to go into too much detail about them because frankly, I don’t recommend them. These programs have the most funding which is why you tend to hear about them the most. However, these companies/programs are huge and you don’t get the same level of interaction with your coworkers or students that you do in smaller companies. Programs might settle you in one prefecture for a few months and then suddenly move you to another without much explanation. 

This was summertime in Hiragano, just a short drive north from our place!

Working for a smaller company will help you create a sense of community in your new home. There are THOUSANDS of English schools all over Japan and other countries. Sometimes the smaller ones might be harder to find, but don’t worry, they’re there!

Whether you are looking to go to Japan or another country, my number one advice is to use your own network. If you know anyone who has done anything remotely similar, reach out and see if they have any tips for you. Tell as many people who will listen. You never know who knows who. Your cousin’s friend’s mom might have the connection that makes all the difference for you.

But wait, I don’t speak the language…

It’s ok! SERIOUSLY. I hear this all the time as a huge fear from people. What if I can’t get hired because I don’t speak Japanese/Spanish/French/Korean/Chinese? It might seem counterintuitive but it can actually be a huge PLUS if you don’t speak the language! These companies are hiring you to speak English and will therefore speak English themselves. They also want their students exposed to as much English as possible. So even if you do speak the language, you’ll typically be asked to ONLY speak English with your students even if it confuses them. It’s great exposure for them to start learning how to problem solve with only snippets of the language. More than likely, you’ll need to hone this same skill as you live in your chosen country. Not speaking the local language but expressing a genuine interest in learning it is all you need! 

Work visas and other documents

I was heading to Paris here to study French. Again. C’est difficile.

These companies will typically specify visa requirements on their job listing. Usually, they’ll help you file your visa paperwork because it’s in their best interest to get you to their country with the proper paperwork in time for their new school year to start. For Japan, in order to get a work visa you need to have a bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t need to be in anything specific, just a degree. My degree is in marketing, my husband’s is in sound engineering, and we met many teachers with degrees in things from history to labor economics. 

You’ll need things like your birth certificate, passport photos (Japanese passport photos are actually a different size so you may need to ask your company for advice on how they want to handle it), and a copy of your degree. It’s in your best interest to get the visa process rolling ASAP. The faster you can submit your paperwork, the faster you’ll get your visa. Typically, your work visa will take a month or more. Once you get your visa, you’ll probably need to pick it up at your closest destination country’s embassy. 

Some schools also have special requirements. For example, at my school, I needed to have a driver’s license and to get an international driver’s license. Getting an international driver’s license is something I’d recommend whether you need it or not. It’s a great thing to have if you ever decide to rent a car for a weekend trip and they’re very easy to get. They cost $25 and you can get them at any AAA in the US. For non-US citizens I know it’s equally easy but I don’t know the process.

Moving abroad

Driving on the opposite side of the road was way easier than I thought it’d be!

When you move to teach abroad, it’s very typical that your company will help you set up your apartment, your bills, your phone, and anything else you’ll need for daily life. Companies who do this are used to foreigners being clueless about these things. They’ve hired foreigners before and they know the drill. They’ll work together with you on this or at least point you in the right direction.

If you take any medications, this is something you want to figure out before you leave. Talk to your doctor and see if they can help you find an equivalent medication in your destination country. You may need to speak with your new employer to see if they can connect you with a local doctor to make sure you can get your medication safely on arrival. People take medication all over the world, you’ll be able to get what you need for your health. You just want to make sure you’ve done all you can before you leave to make the process as smooth as possible.

And you’re off!

We originally moved to Japan with just these backpacks!

You’re about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Although getting started can seem intimidating, try to enjoy it! This is an exciting time and a new chapter of your life. Know that things will go wrong and that you will figure them out. The confidence I gained problem-solving in other countries where I didn’t speak the language and had no clue what was going on has really shaped me to be the person I am today. The absolute best thing you can do for yourself is to trust that you can do it and allow everything else to fall into place.

Safe Travels!

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