Disclaimer: This article was written in collaboration with The TEFL Academy. All experiences, opinions and outlandish claims are fully my own.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no idea that these six months would change the course of my life forever.
And it all started with a Facebook post from a friend.
With visa end dates coming to a close, I was frantically searching for my next move. I knew I didn’t want to go home yet—after two intoxicating years of traveling around Australia and New Zealand, that was the last place I wanted to go.
Not that I was running away from home. Rather, I was running towards something my home simply couldn’t provide: a life less ordinary. I wanted adventure, excitement, and freedom.
I wanted the world and everything in it.
You see, I’ve always been the “yes” guy. The guy who will try anything once. The guy who will fly halfway around the globe at the drop of a hat. The guy who is constantly seeking to explore the full range of the human experience.
So when a friend’s post appeared in my chronological 2013 Facebook newsfeed looking for English teachers in China, I dove in head first.
I hadn’t been to Asia before. And what better place to dip my toes than China? Amirite?
I had no idea it would be one of the best decisions I ever made. And I had no idea just how deeply it would change the course of my life—and the way I see the world—forever.
1. Teaching English Abroad Changed My Definition of Normal
To be fair, normal was never a regular word in my vocabulary. I was always a bit of a lone wolf—the guy who rejected the status quo. And yeah, in many cases, I was the guy who quite often didn’t fit in.
But by teaching English abroad, I learned that this was okay. It was more than okay, in fact! There were other people teaching English who also wanted to change their lives. Other people who also sought something different than the rest of the world.
The cubicle life was never for me. I tried it and, thankfully, failed. And that forced me to start looking elsewhere for opportunities. It forced me to think outside the box and the confines of my hometown, and to start looking for lucrative opportunities on a global scale.
My experience teaching English abroad validated that my desire for something different was, in fact, normal in a way. And that my dream to do something different with my life was attainable.
I realized, from that point on, that the standard definition of “normal” was never a thing to aspire to. What I aspired to was the abnormal, the exciting, and sometimes the weird and messy. And I loved every second of it.
2. I Realized How Little I Need to Be Happy
When I taught English in China, I lived minimally. My friends and I had our favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants, we went to the shop around the corner, and we didn’t take part in extravagances (except for big nights out at the club!).
In Asia, we didn’t have the luxury of choice—something with which America is rife. You buy the bread. You buy the milk. You buy the shampoo.
You just buy the thing you need.
Coming home, I nearly had a panic attack in aisle 29 at Walmart trying to pick out a tube of toothpaste.
Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.
Richard E. Byrd
Do I get the organic one? The one made from essential oils? The big name brand? Mint or cinnamon? Enamel protection? Whitening?
I just wanted the one that cleaned my teeth!
With teaching abroad as my platform for travel, I learned to survive without my home comforts and I learned how to be resourceful in situations that were sometimes far from ideal.
I slept on a “mattress” that was about as soft as a rock. If I was sick, I needed to get to a pharmacy and find myself some traditional Chinese medicine. I had to communication—somehow—with people using body language only. I became comfortable owning only what would fit into my carry-on backpack.
While I sometimes think about how nice it would be to have a comfortable apartment with all of the conveniences of home, I wouldn’t trade this lifestyle for the world. I learned that I don’t need a bunch of “stuff” to be happy. I only need the experience.
3. I Found Financial Independence and Security
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been good with money. I blew through $9,000 backpacking the East Coast of Australia in two months (that’s gotta be a record). But then I was broke, and real life hit me like an empty sack of money in the face.
I discovered that teaching abroad is an incredible way to both make money and see the world. I loved the financial independence and job security that teaching gave me, and I finally—for once—appreciated being on top of my finances.
It was here, in China, making a significantly lower salary—but with significantly lower expenses—that I was able to pay off my credit cards.
The fact is, depending on the country, teaching English abroad can be a great way to save money for the future. One of my friends actually saved $40,000 in just two years teaching abroad in China!
So whether it’s paying off your credit card debt or student loans, saving money to travel the world, or just escaping the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, teaching abroad is a very realistic way to have an adventure while also paying the bills.
4. I Learned a Life Skill—and Developed a Plan B
I didn’t know it at the time, but getting my TEFL actually provided me with job security for the rest of my life.
It can always be stressful to take a career risk, start a new business, or travel the world with no safety net. I traveled for years without a safety net and I look back on it now and can’t imagine doing it again.
Call it brave, call it stupid (that’s what I call it), but either way, it definitely wasn’t a good idea. Rewarding? Most definitely. Good idea? Absolutely not!
One great thing about having my TEFL certification is that I know I will always have a life skill to fall back on.
If for some reason my life implodes and I need to find a job, I know I can take the skills I have from teaching abroad—and my certification—to find a new job almost immediately and anywhere in the world.
It’s a great life skill to have in your pocket. Even if you don’t plan on working as a teacher forever, your TEFL certification literally never expires, and you always have that to fall back on, no matter where this crazy life ends up taking you.
5. I Met People from All Around the World
In addition to meeting locals, one thing that I love about teaching abroad is the ability to foster friendships with people from all around the world. I’ve become friends with people from Australia, the Philippines, Israel, Russia, China, the UK, France and more.
When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, I remember marveling at the fact that I, as an American, was sitting in a restaurant eating Chinese food with both Russians and Ukrainians on either side of me. I talked with Chinese people on their view of internet censorship and became friends with Nigerians who hadn’t been home in over five years.
I learned German drinking games and watched the World Cup with people from all 32 nations.
I loved the ability to learn from other people and cultures, and when you teach abroad you will undoubtedly meet not only locals but expats from all over the world.
I’ve learned so much about the world from connecting with people who live across the far reaches of it, which is something I never expected to happen when I moved to China to teach English
6. I Learned What it Means to Live Like a Local
One of my favorite things about living in China was running errands on my busy neighborhood street. I’d grab noodles from my favorite noodle lady, who knows I like them spicy.
I’d stop by my vegetable lady who sold the cheapest produce out of the front of her house. She’d always give me free cilantro and chili peppers with a smile while encouraging me to stock up on extra potatoes or garlic.
I remember learning that Chinese people randomly bring fruit to the office as a kind gesture, so I started stopping by my local fruit shop on the way to work to pick up something seasonal.
And that’s when I learned that yangmei, otherwise known as Chinese bayberries, is literally the world’s best fruit (if you haven’t tried them you’re missing out).
I have such fond memories of walking along my street, waving hi to all the vendors on the way to work. The feeling of immersing yourself in a foreign yet local neighborhood is something you can’t get from going on a two-week vacation.
Teaching abroad allows you to become a part of the community. It’s the ultimate form of slow travel, and the best way to get to know a place. Experience the charm of a country outside of its tourist hotspots and venture to places that few others aside from locals ever visit.
Take local transportation, find your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, make local friends, and celebrate unique holidays and festivals. Teaching abroad gives you the unique opportunity to spend a full year (or more) really learning about and understanding a new culture.
If you’re looking to challenge yourself, push your boundaries, experience culture shock, and live a life outside of your comfort zone, teaching abroad is the perfect way to do it.
While living and teaching in China, I actually became conversational in Mandarin in just three months! I took a few casual lessons, but I mostly picked it up from everyday use.
I was forced to learn some basic Chinese so that I could survive living in Xi’an where almost no one is comfortable speaking English.
I’m reminded of that day I asked for noodles without soup. Since Mandarin is a tonal language, the exact same word can mean something different if you use the wrong intonation. So, because I used the wrong tone, the restaurant thought I wanted them without sugar.
Who puts sugar in spicy noodles?!
When I received my plastic bag of noodle soup to go, the entire restaurant laughed at my confusion. “We thought it was so weird you didn’t want sugar in your soup!” they exclaimed while an 80-year-old man with no teeth cackled in the corner.
That’s fine. It’s not like I’m trying my best over here or anything.
Despite the ups and downs of living in another country, learning a language abroad is a valuable skill you can use for the rest of your life. Not only does it come in handy while living and working abroad, but it’s also a bonus for your resume when you head back home.
Who doesn’t want to put “Fluency in Mandarin Chinese” on a job application!?
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to learn to speak a second language. While there are plenty of incredible online courses out there, the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in another country.
Teaching abroad gives you the opportunity to use the language in a practical setting, whether it’s hailing a cab, ordering dinner, or asking for directions. It’s easy to pick up a new language when you have to use it 24-7.
8. I Learned What’s Important in Life (to Me)
When I returned home after teaching abroad, I realized I’d lost patience for shallow and frivolous conversations. Sure, the new countertops in your apartment are cool, and, oh my God, I can’t believe his boyfriend did that!
Or we could talk about cultural differences, love, climate change, or the meaning of life.
I now care more about your dreams, goals and passions than your job title or what type of car you drive. What does someone’s apartment or steady job mean on a real-world global scale?
Like, I’m sorry that the dryer ruined your sweater, but what about the protests in Spain and Hong Kong? What about the earthquake in Albania?
To be honest, teaching abroad impacted my outlook on life so much that it was a bit hard to relate to people back home. What do you say when your family asks you “So, how was China?” after you’ve just had one of the most life-changing experiences of your existence.
How do you sum up a decade worth of life experience packed into a single year?
Teaching abroad made me realize that I don’t really miss the options, brands, and amenities. I can live without all the “stuff,” but it’s the people I left behind that truly matter.
There’s nothing like missing a few holidays and birthdays to make you realize who is truly important in your life.
Through teaching abroad I also realized who my true friends are, which has been invaluable. The people who stuck by me despite how much I changed and grew, are the people who will be in my life forever. Sure, not everyone appreciated the new and improved me, but those aren’t really the people you want in your life anyway.
Teaching abroad changes your values and what you deem important, and sometimes the reverse culture shock makes it a little hard to adjust back to your normal life when you come home.
But maybe that’s a good thing?
9. I Learned How to Make a Difference—In My Own Life and Others’
I was under the impression that teaching English in China was going to be, somehow, globally significant. I pictured myself as an international philanthropist, making a significant and worthy contribution to the world.
But what I didn’t realize is that I was actually going to be the selfish party walking away with yet another incredible, meaningful experience under my belt.
For six months I lived in central China and taught English to 140 three-to-13 year-olds. Being so deeply present in that experience put a particular emphasis on each one’s personalities, their idiosyncrasies, and their distinct individualities.
Walking into my first class, I was bombarded by 16 strange children who couldn’t understand a single word out of my mouth. When I walked out of my last class, six months later, I had made a personal connection with each and every one of them.
Some of my students could barely speak Chinese, much less a lick of English. But somehow, through determination and force, we connected.
Every class was not only a lesson in English, but a lesson in camaraderie, being a role model, being a parent, and being a friend. I became a father to some, an older brother to others.
I was loved and adored, feared and hated. I had to learn discipline, and not only how to dole it out, but how to discipline and conduct myself as a role model, teacher and as a full-fledged adult.
But in between the discipline, I had to make learning a fun experience, and I had to create a nurturing classroom environment for my little ones.
Between the dance parties, the games, the tickling and the singing, I had to make teaching the words “fox” and “zipper” somehow dramatic and stimulating for two full hours.
They stood by me as I fumbled through lesson plans and the child psyche, and they forgave me when I yelled or got upset. And when they threw tantrums or bruised their knee or missed their mommy, I forgave them, kissed their bruises better, and gave them a shoulder to cry on.
It’s what they needed, and unbeknownst to me, it’s what I needed as well.
Over the course of six months, these children became my entire life. They became my outlet and they stuck to my heart. They looked up to me, truly loved me, and they cried when I left.
And I loved them right back and cried just as hard.
How to Get Started Teaching Abroad
So if this sounds like the experience you’ve been looking for, it’s incredibly easy to get started. The first thing you need to do is get TEFL certified. All teaching positions will require a TEFL certification and some will require a degree from college/university (more on that shortly).
So it’s best to get your certification done first before you even start looking at jobs.
When it comes to online TEFL certifications, The TEFL Academy offers a Level 5 certification (168-hour equivalent) which goes above and beyond all of the legal requirements to teach abroad in most countries.
That means you’ll have the highest qualification possible, putting you at the top of any and every job list. With a Level 5 certification, you have the highest chance of finding a job compared to most other teachers who are not as highly qualified.
And the extra qualification really isn’t all that hard.
Not only is The TEFL Academy accredited for use all over the world (so you can teach in Vietnam and use that same TEFL in Istanbul), they also offer lifetime job search assistance. This means that even if you’re on your third year of teaching abroad, The TEFL Academy will still help you find a quality position teaching abroad.
Teach English Abroad Without a Degree
So you don’t have a degree, huh? No worries! There are still a ton of countries that don’t require a diploma. So if you haven’t graduated from college, you can still go on the teach abroad adventure of a lifetime as long as you have your TEFL certification.
Argentina, Spain, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Greece, Turkey, India, Egypt and even Russia are just a few of the countries that hire teachers without college/university degrees. There’s no need to let the lack of a diploma prevent you from embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
If you’re at that age, I don’t recommend skipping school just so you can do this, but if you’re past that age and don’t plan on going back to school, this is a brilliant opportunity.
It’s the ultimate Plan B. Or even Plan A in some cases! No matter how old you are or what your life circumstance may be, as long as you’re a native English speaker with a TEFL certification, there is a long list of countries that are more than happy to hire you (check them out here).
Teaching English in China was, by far, the most emotionally rewarding and fulfilling thing I’ve ever challenged myself to do. I walked away from this job with a softened heart, knowing that I made a difference in so many lives.
Sure, they might not remember me in ten years, but I know that I made an impact on them. Hopefully, one that will stick with them for the rest of their life.
And I want that, more than anything, because of the profound effect that they’ve had on my life. I want my teachings to be reciprocal because they taught me how to unconditionally open my heart and how to be a more loving and patient person.
Because, really, no person is perfect, and our days are far more meaningful when we have someone to share our lives with.