Teaching English Overseas | 4 Tips Before Signing The Contract

Teaching English Overseas: 4 Tips before signing the contract

Teaching English Overseas - 4 tips before signing the contract
Teaching English Overseas – 4 tips before signing the contract

I can still remember the over-mounting enthusiasm I felt when my recruiter suddenly mentioned over the phone, “You’ve got the job. How soon can you come?” I had just landed my first teaching assignment overseas in South Korea, mere days after completing my final university course. At the time, with enough probing, I had found exactly what I wanted in terms of working and living conditions. I had a strong desire to live in Seoul, have my own apartment & not work on the weekends. I was over the moon having landed these working conditions when I had been told – by several other recruiters – that a university graduate with no teaching experience would have a toilsome time finding such an assignment. Everything I had been told by the recruiter made the job sound like it was paved with gold; however, the reality of my first teaching assignment was far from ideal. I was given substandard housing and cheated on my health insurance, taxes and pension plan.

These are four tips that I recommend to other prospective teachers to avoid potential problems related to contract, housing and working conditions.

1) Don’t believe what your recruiter tells you

A recruiter is often the ‘bridge’ that connects foreign teachers with job placements overseas. Rarely do schools actively seek teachers on their own and instead hand over the process to a recruiter. The recruiter often tells the prospective teachers that he/she is working for them; however, the reality is that the school ends up paying the recruiter for the services of bringing in new teachers. The incentive for a recruiter to tell you anything & everything you want to hear in order for you to sign your life away (for a one year contract) is exactly what they are going to do – if they’re good at their job. Thus, any kind of concerns one has over their working and living condition needs to be confirmed by a current or former teacher, at that specific academy, via correspondence over the phone or by email.

My apartment on top of a roof teaching English abroad in South Korea
My apartment on top of a roof teaching English abroad in South Korea

2)  Confirm your living conditions with photographs

Housing conditions for a first year teacher are a major factor that can make or break the experience depending on whether basic necessities are provided. For my first teaching assignment, I was told I would have my own studio apartment. What I didn’t realize, at the time, was that my unit would be a temporary housing structure on top of a roof! At the best of times, I considered it to be an artist’s loft; at the worst of times, I was baring the elements of a bitterly cold winter and stifling summer. This could have easily been avoided had I requested to see several photos of my apartment before I signed the contract. In future years, I’ve ‘forced’ every school I worked for to take several pictures of my apartment – and sent them to me by email – before I would agree to sign anything.

View from the rooftop of my apartment in Seoul, South Korea while teaching English.

3)  Don’t settle of anything less than what is stated in your contract

Working hours, vacation period, salary, health insurance and taxes are all things that should be clearly outlined in your contract. Unfortunately, many schools do not follow what is in the fine print and often try to circumvent certain guaranteed conditions. The best approach to dealing with this kind of situation is to be extremely firm regarding everything promised within your contract. If the school tries to play hardball it’s best to be prepared to walk away. Often, you will call their bluff and in the odd case that a school is unprepared to offer you proper working conditions can end up being fatal There was an incident in Seoul where a young American man died from injuries he sustained in a house fire. The school he was working for had not provided him with any form of health insurance and he ended up perishing in the hospital.

4)  Have a back-up plan

Finally, have a back-up plan in place in case things don’t work out with your current teaching position. Firstly, scan all of your relevant documents such as your passport, sealed transcripts, cover letter, reference letters, teaching certificates and resume. Secondly, have all of these handy in hard-copy format. Thirdly, don’t go overseas with a completely depleted bank account. If you’ve followed these three steps you potentially have a lot more options to consider if you’re unhappy with your current situation. If you do decide to terminate a contract early you may have to leave your host country whereas in other cases you’re allowed to simply change employers. Regardless, having some savings and copies of your pertinent documents allows for flexibility and the opportunity to switch jobs locally or move to a neighboring country to resume teaching if things suddenly become sour. Finally, with enough savings you can always decide to pack everything up and head home on a red-eye flight.

Interacting with my students in South Korea while teaching English overseas
Interacting with my students in South Korea while teaching English overseas
Join the Conversation


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. says: yasmin palmer

    Hello!!! i am seriously considering teaching abroad..however, i am an engineer…and the change is a big risk perhaps. any advice would be great. i am working with teachaway currently.


  2. says: Alexander Benedict

    Dear Nomadic Samuel and all,
    My name is Alexander Benedict and I am from Pennsylvania. I recently graduated from college and have always wanted the opportunity to teach English overseas, especially in East Asia with the convenience involved. I have read the comments here and appreciate the insight. For the time-being, I have a couple of questions:
    a. If I wanted to depart for South Korea by August 2015 (only if I am granted a teaching position, of course), what organizations could best accommodate for an application this far in advance?
    b. If chosen, what is the typical timeframe that program fees and airfare have to be paid prior to actual departure?
    c. Are there any legitimate TEFL programs in South Korea that provide airfare?
    d. Are there programs that allow teachers to stay beyond one year, granted renewal of the teaching contract?
    Those are just a few questions that I have to start off with. I will appreciate any advice or feedback.
    Best regards,
    – Alexander Benedict

    1. says: Reilly

      In answer to Mr.Alexander Benedict above

      I’m not Samuel but I have taught in South Korea for the past 13 years so I do have some notion on how to answer your questions.

      (a) Most private schools hire year around…but they tend to want someone more or less immediately. Public schools hire in March and September for the most part. So the answer to (a) is very few/none. Honestly I would not apply that early if you must leave in August. June/July would be fine though.

      (b) I’ve never had to pay any “program fees or airfare”. Your employer should shell out for those… at worse you should have a clause in your contract stating that if you do buy the airfare that your employer will reimburse you (either in six months or the end of the year). All you should be expected to pay is the visa fee ( less than 20 dollars or so depending on exchange rates.

      (c) There are no TEFL programs that offer airfare. There are plenty of schools both private and public that do however.

      (d) It is very easy to stay more than one year. All you need are a few documents (such as the new contract, the school’s business number…) and then you take a day off and go down to the local Immigration office and renew. Basically you can stay as long as your school want you. But you MUST renew once each year…or risk falling afoul of Immigration laws. Some schools will tell you “Oh no don’t worry…we have friends at Immigration.” Don’t listen, it is an Immigration requirement that you renew (typically a couple of weeks) before your current visa expires.

  3. says: Emily

    Hi Sam,

    I am about to sign a contract for a school in Weihai, China, but it is very vague and I am only offered 6500 RMB with 700 RMB to help with housing. I know you taught in Korea, but do you know anything about China?

  4. says: Tim

    For a first time teacher with college (masters) degree is it better to apply directly through EPIK or work through Teach Away? Great blog, thanks for the advice!

  5. says: robert sheil

    I recently in February went over to Beijing as I live in a small little town in Ireland and I couldnt wait to leave here and by god was I in for a shock…….the apartment was horrible,the food was horrible and the people were so rude all for a 250 euro a week pay ?? I was the only white man on the trains in the restaurants at the best of times and I felt very left out also be prepared for the shock of having 20 kids staring at you while you have to jump around like a clown for nearly an hour……….plus in china do not go there unless you have a z visa be very careful about this……tbh I will never set foot in Beijing again I can still hear the spitting

    1. It sounds like you had a rough experience Robert. ESL is really hit or miss. I know of people who have had nightmare situations in Korea as well. Considering the amount of time I’ve spent teaching abroad I’ve experienced some really rough gigs too.

  6. says: Megan

    Quick question about visas that I can’t seem to find an answer to online: I haven’t signed a contract, but a school in Taiwan mentioned that I would have to get a 90 day visa (they would pay me back), and then when I arrive they would start the process for a work visa. Is this normal? What are the risks involved in not having a work visa before arriving?

    Thanks for any help,

  7. Thanks Samuel for sharing these! We at Silk Collar help Americans and other native English speakers get top notch jobs in Beijing and around. We’re American English teachers turned recruiters so we know what sucks about finding a job here in China and make sure you guys don’t have to go through it. Let us know if we can help you out.
    Joe from wwwsilkcollar.com

  8. says: Dustin H

    Hi Sam,

    I have obtained my Bachelor’s degree and am currently finishing my TEFL certification. I have been trying to find a solid job in China (as I have already travelled to China with my University in the past). I am skeptical of a lot of the recruiters that have been contacting me. I am not sure which recruiting companies are legit and which are scams? I want to take a reputable teaching position where the teacher is appreciated. Do you have any suggestions to certian recruiters for China?

  9. says: ryan

    Hi Amy and all. I just got accepted to teach aboard through TrueChina and I am looking over the contract right now. However, a few things in the contract doesn’t seemed right to me; but, then again I am not too sure if it is common term for such a contract, since I am new. Maybe you can help me? Here are the following area which appeared to be red flags to me:

    “1. Governing Language – The original language of this contract is English. Anywhere the English contract conflicts with the Chinese translation, the English clause shall prevail.”– I remember reading somewhere online that what is written in Chinese in the contract is consider to be legal by Chinese Judges. Is this true?

    “22. Breach – If either Party does not fulfill the obligations as laid forth in this contract, or violates this contract in any other way, they will be considered in breach of this agreement, and must pay the other party 50,000 RMB as a breach fee. If either Party feels a breach has occurred, they must notify the other party in writing, and give the other party ten working days to either rectify the situation, or to enter into arbitration if they wish to contest the fact that a breach has occurred.”– The only problem I have with this is the amount. It seems very high to me? When I start working there I will only be paid 3,000RMB per a month, room and board is included and free TELF certification/classes and Chinese Langue classes are too. Also, this contract is for 5 months. What worries me is either by accident I break the contract or they set it up for I own them 50,000RMB. Oh, by the way I live in the USA.

  10. says: Amy

    Hi Sam. My sister and I are most likely going to Incheon to work at a government school – exact same contract as EPIK. Generally speaking, it’s the private schools that are hit and miss, right? I’ve heard that the government public school posts are quite reliable and the standard is quite good. Were you working for a private school when you were put in that awful room on the rooftop?

    1. Hi Amy, it was when I was in a private school. Public schools are more reliable but you’re still rolling the dice a bit I suppose. The worst situation that can happen at a public school is if you have an interfering principle or lazy co-teachers.

  11. says: Hogga

    So basic, but things people don’t always think of when they sign up for teaching abroad. I’ve heard some pretty brutal horror stories. Better safe than sorry right?

  12. Great tips! I have a friend who taught drama in China and overall enjoyed the experience, but I recently found out that the company he worked with didn’t treat him very well and was not a place he would work with again. I’m sure it’s very difficult to find a reputable place since it’s so far away and you have to book everything without seeing it first. Thanks for helping other folks with this great info!

    1. Emily, that was also true of my first assignment; however, I was just so excited to be overseas that I just tried to make the best of it. I know now I would never accept such conditions 🙂

  13. says: ayngelina

    Really good tips, I have a friend who landed in Korea, saw the conditions and flew back to Canada.

    Okay a bit extreme but I guess it was all too overwhelming for him.

    1. Ayngelina, I can totally relate with what happened to your friend. The ESL industry is so hit and miss that I wish there were better universal standards all around to prevent these kinds of situations. For those who have an initial bad experience it is far less likely they’ll ever pursue something again which is a shame.

  14. says: Federico

    I have heard very good reviews from people teaching English in S. Korea, making good money and living well. In fact I once met a couple who were engineers in Chile, spent a year teaching English in S Korea, went back to Chile, realized that the stress did not mean more money, and headed back to Korea to continue teaching English!

    1. Federico, that’s very true! I’ve come back as often as I have because (for the most part) my experiences have been positive. I find I’m able to save well, enjoy good food and decent working conditions.

  15. says: Laurie

    Thanks for the helpful article. I’ve wanted to teach in South Korea for so long, but something always seems to pop up in my life here in the U.S. that prevents me from going. Maybe someday. I’ll keep your tips in mind if I ever get the chance! 🙂

  16. I’ve a friend who went to China to teach. The recruitment agency told her a bunch of things and it was stated in the contract (own car, lodging, etc…) but when she was finally there in China, she and the rest of the teachers were given another contract to sign! without the other benefits. Luckily she had a little bit of savings and proceeded to Bangkok where she had friends around and found a job there! Unfortunately for the rest of the teachers, they just signed the new contract in order to move on and get by…

    Thanks for sharing these tips!

    1. Ed, I’m not surprised to hear about your friends story. Unfortunately, shady business practices are quite prevalent throughout the ESL industry. She was really wise to have enough money for a back-up plan. I can’t imagine anything worse than having to accept a low-ball contract under false pretences.

  17. says: Annie

    So true Samuel. I had a pretty bad teaching experience, and most of these tips would have helped me out!

    My job didn’t even offer insurance (or a visa) and both were things I had to get on my own at my own expense. Then my contract was in Italian! Thankfully, I was there with my Italian boyfriend but what if I hadn’t been? Lastly, the ‘promised hours’ and promised ‘increase in hours’ were never followed through on!

    In the end it worked out okay for me but it definitely taught me to be wary when it comes to teaching, especially in Europe, it seems like often school think that can treat you however they want to just because you want to be there.

    1. Annie, I’m sorry to hear about your experience. I can’t think of many teachers who have not had at least something ‘disappointing’ happen during their first contract. I have noticed that with more experience and connections the chances of that happening again are reduced.

  18. says: Dean

    Great tips. Have heard great things about teaching in South Korea. Wouldn’t mind giving English teaching a go, it’s sounds like a great experience. Not having a degree makes it pretty hard though… Impossible in places like South Korea.

  19. Great tips Samuel. I have been considering doing this myself in the next couple of years if things do not work out well here. I might be coming back to this post soon for reference.

    1. Ted, It would be awesome to see you somewhere in Asia teaching someday 🙂 That’s actually how I’ve funded all of my backpacking adventures over the years. The perks in Korea are quite nice (free return airfare, free apartment, decent salary, low taxes, etc).

  20. says: prebble

    Great points Samuel…I guess having a checkpoint list and when to ask about certain conditions would be useful….sometimes timing of appropriate questions is important as well.

    1. That’s another great tip! I’ve known lots of teachers who have worked illegally but I’ve yet to try that. A lot of people get away with it but for those who get caught the consequences aren’t pretty.

  21. Very informative post! I’ve heard a lot of stories wherein they end up being disappointed upon moving since their expectations are not met. In any job offer, we need to check and re-check everything.

  22. says: Andrea

    Great tips – I’ve never taught English overseas but I know it’s good to learn from others who have been there before entering into any employment contract.

  23. says: Steven

    Good advice for those starting out. The government programs are pretty good, EPIK, JET and I think China has one too. It’s the private institutes that have the potential to cause you some trouble. I went through Teach Away, Inc. out of Toronto in order to apply for the EPIK program in Korea. I had no problems with them.

    1. Hey Steven, I’ve taught under EPIK before in Daejeon. The program is really solid and I’m in negotiations now to head back this fall to teach with EPIK in Incheon. Where are you going?

      1. says: Steven

        Currently? Probably to go work on a farm in Canada. Just came back from teaching in Ukraine. Still debating where to go next, back to Ukraine, Africa, Australia maybe even back to Korea since I believe that cash cow will be drying up shortly.

        1. Steven, best wishes with whatever you do. I’ve at times thought the cash cow in Korea would dry up but I haven’t seen too many indications of it happening & my first stint there was in 2005; however, it certainly could happen. There was a lot of talk about it even 5-6 years ago.

  24. says: Leif

    Hey Samuel, these are some great tips. Really valuable information I think. I would love it if you could do a guest post on How To Teach English is Korea.