What are some of the best places to teach ESL in Asia?

Every year, thousands of people come to Asia to work as ESL teachers, and I’m guessing that if you’re reading this article, then you might also be planning to do just that. Well, it’s important to do your research before making a huge choice like moving around the world, so in this article I’m going to tell you a little about some of the places you can teach ESL in Asia.

If you want to know more about teaching ESL, including information about certificates and career development, then you should definitely check out my book: A Beginner’s Guide to ESL Teaching.

South Korea

I’m starting with South Korea because it is perhaps the most popular destination for ESL teaching, and certainly was the most popular a few years ago. Over the past fifteen or more years, South Korea has been paying high salaries to relatively unqualified young people from western countries, tempting them to move to the Far East. The lure of good pay, an exciting new life, and being surrounded by awesome Korean food has drawn countless people into the ESL world, including yours truly. Yes, that’s right, long ago in another lifetime, I was tempted out to South Korea to work for a few years in Daegu.

south korea temple
Photo by David S. Wills.

In South Korea, most teachers work in “hagwons”, little privately-run cram schools. Here, they usually teach small children English in colourful classrooms. The quality of these schools varies tremendously, as do the working conditions.

In addition, there are some government programs and it is technically possible – although rather difficult – to get a job teaching at a university.

China

The new boy on the scene is China, but in ESL teaching as in everything else, China is growing very quickly. Ten years ago, few people were moving to China to teach, but nowadays it is a major destination, and the number of teachers is soaring. Salaries, too, are increasing, whereas in South Korea they plateaued some time ago.

In China, the opportunities are vast. In the first tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, you can earn lots of money, but the cost of living is also high. In lower tier cities, your salary will usually be much lower, but the cost of living is a fraction of what you find in the capital. As for schools, you could be in a private academy, a public school, or a university. Getting a university job in China is very easy, but they don’t usually pay as much as private schools. The perk here, though, is having three or four months’ paid holiday each year!

the forbidden city in beijing
Photo by David S. Wills

Teaching in China comes with its difficulties. It is not as clean as its neighbours, and of course you will be living in a totalitarian regime, where the internet is censored and your activities will be closely monitored.

Japan

The Land of the Rising Sun used to be the number one destination for ESL teachers because it was the first of the Asian countries to really experience major economic boom. In the 1990s, loads of people moved to Japan to teach English. Salaries skyrocketed and times were good… until the market crashed. Nowadays, teaching in Japan has its appeal… but it’s not as attractive a prospect as it used to be. Teachers who move there will be faced with salaries approximately the same as in Korea or China, but with a cost of living that is vastly higher. In other words, saving money here is very, very hard.

mount fuji from lake yamanakako
Photo by David S. Wills

Still, Japan is a very different society to Korea or China. It is a friendlier, cleaner, more advanced society, with a culture that has global appeal. As a foreigner, you will likely be treated with a lot more respect than you would in those other countries, and if you are genuinely qualified and hard-working, you will more than likely be recognized for that, unlike in Korea or China, where ESL teachers are often viewed as an expendable commodity.

Thailand

Thailand is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world right now, with tens of millions of people each year flooding into the Land of Smiles. Because of this, the interest in learning English is high. After all, speaking English well can lead people to all kinds of economic prospects.

coastline north of ao nang, in thailand
Photo by David S. Wills

Unfortunately, the job market in Thailand is pretty saturated. You can find some jobs, but because so many people are so eager to come to Thailand for work, the salaries can be quite underwhelming. Still, money isn’t everything! I’m sure there are plenty of people who would be happy to live in this beautiful country even if they are making relatively little.

Vietnam

Vietnam is the upcoming destination in Asia for ESL, following hot on the heels of Korea and China. Business is booming and teachers are needed, just like in China. Salaries aren’t bad, either. In fact, the going rate for an ESL teacher is more than US$20 per hour, which is great considering that the cost of living is pretty low.

Others

Other countries to look out for include Burma, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Each of these has its benefits and problems in terms of teaching ESL, but they certainly have some opportunities for interested teachers. Burma is definitely one to watch for the next few years as the country develops and its education system evolves.

Teaching Online

Many people now choose to teach online instead of going to another country. This has the obvious advantage of letting you make good money from the comfort of your own home (or, if you prefer, you can live the digital nomad lifestyle). However, for many of us the fun of being an ESL teacher is in actually going to other countries and experiencing the lifestyle.

If you do want to move into online teaching, there are lots of different companies currently hiring. It seems very easy to get hired, so shop around first and see what sort of payment you get from each place. Also watch out for little tricks like deductions from your salary. Some of these companies can be quite unscrupulous.

Head Teacher
I'm the founder and editor of Beatdom Literary Journal, author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. I'm also a teacher and operate the popular website, TED-IELTS.

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