I was travelling in the United States this summer and wherever I went, people would ask me where I come from. I told them, “I’m from Scotland but I’ve been living in Asia most of my life.” A decade ago, people would respond with something like, “Oh wow! What do you do out there?!” Nowadays, however, the typical response is: “Oh, so you teach ESL?”

Over the past ten to fifteen years, ESL teaching has become pretty common among young people from places where English is the first language. It has gone from being a weird and almost unheard of profession, to being a quite normal thing. “Oh, I have a friend who taught in South Korea a few years ago,” is now a really common thing to hear when you tell somebody that you live in Asia.

This all came about for a few reasons, including increased mobility and the rise of the internet, but it was sparked in particular by a downward turn in Western economies, epitomized by the 2008 financial crisis. With few jobs available at home, coupled with stagnating salaries and soaring costs of living, young people have been forced to look at alternatives, and the prospect of earning good money for doing a fun job in an interesting place suddenly arose for many people.

Playing games in ESL classroom
ESL can be a really fun job.

That’s all great, but of course it has made the ESL market a little more challenging for serious teachers. Most of these youngsters coming over to Asia to teach are likely to stay 1-2 years at most, and yet they are saturating the market. Salaries are starting to stagnate around Asia and the managers at the various schools are now able to be more picky in who they choose – and, sadly, a lot of them are more interested in blonde hair and blue eyes than actual qualifications.

So… back to the issue at hand: How do you find the best ESL jobs?

Find ESL Jobs Online

Well, I guess this was pretty obvious. Nowadays, everything is online and finding a job no longer requires walking from place to place or mailing out printed CVs. Now, you can just go to one of the big recruiters or job forums and see who’s hiring. It’s really very simple, and any idiot can do it.

Of course, the problem is that any idiot can do it… so many idiots do. If you look on the biggest of the ESL forums, such as Dave’s ESL Café, you will find a vast number of job postings, but you also have to consider that there are a vast number of applicants for these jobs. If you are experienced, maybe you will jump ahead a little in the queue, but there are likely to be dozens of experienced candidates going up for each job now. It can be startlingly competitive.

This is doubly true for lucrative jobs. Any job with a high salary, few working hours, or located in an attractive environment like Japan or Thailand is likely to attract huge numbers of applicants. Even if you are really qualified, you may have to jump through a lot of hoops to get the position.

Tips for Finding ESL Jobs Online

There are many things that you can do to increase your chance of getting a job by going the online route. The obvious ones, which really apply to getting any job through any channel, are:

  • Do some courses to gain a few extra certificates so that your CV really stands out
  • Spend some time rewriting or redesigning your CV so that it is attractive
  • Include a professional headshot on your CV (because sadly this is a superficial industry where looks really do matter)
  • Apply for a number of different positions and give each one your best effort

You can also consider the following. Most people want to work in interesting, beautiful, or exciting places. Jobs in Japan and Thailand, as I mentioned above, are in high demand, while places like China are a little less attractive due to their totalitarian government and horrendous air pollution. However, it is not all bad, and you will find that rural schools in China are willing to offer very generous packages to teachers because those people who do want to work in China are much more likely to go to Shanghai or Beijing.

Also, don’t just check the major recruitment listings online. You will often find that smaller recruiters or individual schools may post job listings on Facebook groups or smaller job boards. These will attract fewer applicants, and so the jobs might be easier to get. Just be careful and do due diligence before applying for anything.

Here is a list of ESL job sites you can check out:

The Personal Touch

While the easiest way to find ESL jobs is by looking online, perhaps the best way to find good ESL jobs is through personal networking. By this, I mean being referred to a school through an acquaintance, or at the very least having them give you the contact information of a school that is hiring.

This is generally how things work in Asia. Whilst there are of course official channels and online adverts, Asia still largely functions on what the Chinese call “quanxi.” This idiomatically translates into English as “who you know.” In other words, things work best on a personal level, and the people who have the most friends and acquaintances generally have an easier life.

You may be thinking right now, “I don’t know any ESL teachers. I just found this website by searching Google.” Well, that may be true, but it’s worth thinking for a moment – do you really not know a single person who is in ESL? What about a friend of a friend? What about a vague Facebook pal? What about that guy you met in the bar last week who said he’d been in Korea for a year?

It’s worthwhile digging up these contacts and asking them for some information. Although Google may seem like your best friend in this new century, the best jobs often don’t make it online. They get snapped up before they have the chance to be posted anywhere. The fact is that, in Asia, people still put a lot more faith in personal relationships than online ones, and so even having a reference from someone you barely know can be more helpful than e-mailing the perfect CV.

Here’s a personal story to illustrate this point:

Five years ago, I needed a job. Despite having many years of ESL experience already, I went on Google and found various job postings and applied for them. I did the interviews and got offered several jobs. The best one was a gig in southern China for 6,000rmb per month. It seemed good and I was about to accept it when…

I posted something on Facebook about moving back to China and a few friends came out of the woodwork: “My school is looking for a new teacher,” they all said. Actually, one of them wasn’t a teacher but rather a recruiter. He had a sweet job posting that he hadn’t yet put online. It was for a company run by his friend and they were figuring out how to find the perfect candidate. The salary was 12,000rmb per month.

Pretty soon, he had my CV and we had conducted a Skype interview. The most important thing, though, was getting the reference from my friend – not a formal, written reference, but a personal endorsement. It also helped that I got the job before they’d even had a single other applicant!

The “friend” who had referred me was someone I had known long ago and someone I barely even speak to today. We were Facebook buddies and he knew that I was an experienced teacher who could help out his friend. I mention that to illustrate the fact that you don’t need to have a close companion working in Japan or Korea or China or Taiwan. You just need that someone to tip you off so that you’re not chasing the same job that 150 others are chasing.