In less than a day of searching, university graduates can find jobs teaching English overseas that will pay $35,000 a year. But how can they tell what jobs are really waiting for them?

Andrew Wiens got an unexpected phone call one day asking him if he wanted a job. Jocelyn McIntyre was offered a position within hours of sending a recruiter her resumé. Finding a job was never so effortless.

“It was dead easy,” says Pauline Tinka.

At a time when decent-paying professional jobs are few and far between for young Canadians just out of school, all three of these UBC grads—Wiens, McIntyre and Tinka—decided their solution was to go overseas as English teachers. Like thousands of other Canadians looking for an adventure or a speedy way to pay off student loans, they discovered those jobs are easy to find. As the recruitment posters plastered all across campus attest, all that’s needed is an undergraduate degree, English as a native language and a North American accent.

There’s a tired old adage, however, that says if it seems too good to be true it probably is. Korea alone issued almost 1900 Canadians with visas to teach English last year, but not all of those teachers will return happy: the Internet is full of horror stories of crummy accommodation, cruel directors and gruelling hours. With thousands of job applications just a point and a click away, job-seekers invariably find that the secret is learning to separate the schools that are excellent from those that are failing—before going overseas.

McIntyre, 22, learned this first-hand in January, just weeks after finishing her degree requirements at UBC. After being offered a job in Seoul, she asked to be put in touch with a teacher working at the school. She e-mailed the contact name she was given, and the teacher wrote back to say she didn’t want to talk because she was afraid she’d get in trouble with her boss or be fired if she spoke candidly.

“I was all ready to fax back my contract to her and everything, sign my life away,” says McIntyre. But, uncomfortable with the situation when the teacher wouldn’t talk to her, McIntyre told her recruiter she’d prefer to work at a different school. Her recruiter argued with her, calling her untrusting. Then the recruiter called the school’s director and the two of them fed McIntyre a story, saying the teacher who’d refused to talk was just jealous of prospective new teachers. McIntyre didn’t buy it.

“You’ve really got to do the research on your own as a job-seeker. You can’t believe anybody,” says Jim Russell, founder of Russell Recruiting, a Vancouver-based firm that sends teachers to schools in Korea and China. Russell and one other business partner also run an Internet job-posting board, www.ESLjobfind.com, which, launched last May, now receives roughly 25,000 hits a day from people looking for English as a Second Language (ESL) work across the globe. “You can’t believe the recruiter,” he says. “You can’t believe me. You can’t believe anybody except the actual teacher that’s [already] in that job at that particular time.”

The Russell Recruiting website warns against potential pitfalls for job-seekers. Steer clear of any recruiter who tries to charge you for services, it cautions, as all recruiters are paid by the employing schools. Also stay away from schools that offer to reimburse your airfare, rather than paying it upfront. Russell, himself a former teacher in Korea and Poland, describes this as a “luring tactic” for schools that will force staff to work unpaid overtime while they wait for their airfare to be refunded.

McIntyre still wants to go to Korea. She’s now considering going to Korea without a job and finding work once she’s able to inspect the schools herself. For those willing to go it alone, this can be a good way to glimpse beyond all the schools’ eerily similar online ads. Teachers already in the country can be more attractive to employers as well, says Russell, since the schools don’t need to pay to fly them in. The good jobs are definitely out there: it’s just a question of finding them.

“I wouldn’t work anywhere else,” Wiens says about his job, “because the environment at my school is like a family.”

At 26, Wiens is now senior teacher at Seoul Language Institute (SLI). His workday starts at 10:30am, six hours before classes begin. He answers students’ e-mail queries from the previous night before turning to work on course development: SLI offers several specialised courses including debate and creative writing, along with courses designed to prepare students for standardised English-language tests like the TOEFL exam and the American SATs.

This, however, is rare. Most hagwons—the private educational facilities where Korean children go after their public-school lessons are done for the day—stick to the standard grammar-plus-conversation formula. And the kids don’t always get much out of the equation.

“They’re more like glorified babysitting schools,” Russell says about the hagwons. “I always got the feeling when I was teaching there I wasn’t really making any kind of an educational difference. Kids have fun. They can interact with you and what have you, but the parents are kidding themselves if they think their kids are actually learning anything as far as English goes.”

The quality of the education depends largely on the quality of the teacher, however, especially in schools that do not provide teachers with curriculum material—and both Wiens and Russell are quick to point out that not all teachers in a foreign land have their students’ best interests at heart.

“Some teachers have even been known to teach drunk, or run away,” says Wiens. “Many of the teachers out here lack a sense of responsibility because they are not a part of the country and are only here for a short term.”

A modicum of cultural sensitivity is a must. Beyond that, while teaching experience and certification aren’t prerequisites for the job, they certainly make it easier. Courses in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and others like it are offered in private colleges all over Vancouver, and they come highly recommended by former students.

“I can’t stress how much a TEFL course will help,” says Tinka, who will be teaching adults in Japan starting in May. “It obviously didn’t show me all I need to know about teaching, but I learned a lot and it got me really excited about trying teaching overseas.” A TEFL certificate or similar credentials also give the teacher leverage in contract negotiations over pay or health benefits, regardless of country of employment.

Contracts do vary, but in Korea and Japan—countries with well-established ESL industries—there is a model that’s followed. A typical contract in Korea is 12 months long and includes free airfare and free accommodation, either in a small studio apartment or in a two-bedroom apartment shared with another employee.

It’s also standard for an employer to provide health insurance and pay 50 per cent of the teacher’s premiums. Teachers typically get two to three weeks of holiday every year and three to five paid sick days. Although getting a work visa is time-consuming, it’s straightforward and often the school will do the bulk of the paperwork.

The big draw for many aspiring teachers, unsurprisingly, is the money. Teachers in Korea can expect to make somewhere between 1.8 million and 2.2 million won per month, around $2000-$2500 at the current exchange rate. In Japan, wages are slightly higher: 250,000 yen per month, or roughly $3100, though employees are charged about 40,000 yen or $500 each month for accommodation. In both countries it is normal to receive an extra month’s salary as a bonus for completing a 12-month contract. Taiwanese salaries are lower at around $2000, and in China they’re about $1100 per month, though there is substantial variation in the pay scale.

The figures can be a bit misleading though. Costs also vary from country to country, and as exchange rates fluctuate, teachers can find their savings ballooning or shrivelling unpredictably. When Russell left Korea following the 1997 Asian crisis, he traded in his earnings at half the Canadian value he’d expected when signing on to the job. Such a crash is unlikely to occur again, but a recent graduate with student loans to pay back may still twinge with anxiety.

Japan, once a beacon of economic growth and opportunity, has been stagnating for the past several years. Korea bounced back quickly from the 1997 crisis, only to slip into recession again in 2002; it has yet to fully emerge. That also means jobs teaching English in both these countries are gradually becoming harder to find.

“I’m seeing a real slow-down in the market right now in Korea,” says Russell. “A lot of schools are either cutting back or closing just because there are so many schools out there now.”

In Japan, he adds, the decrease in job openings is more obvious. “The allure of learning English has lost its lustre a bit,” he says.

In China, in contrast, the opportunities for ESL teachers keep growing. But salaries are lower and, since the industry is less entrenched, there is greater variation in working conditions. Both these things help to keep Korea and Japan the preferred options for most teachers seeking work.

Still, for some, the bottom line is not always, well, the bottom line.

“I didn’t come for the money,” says Wiens. “I came for the experience and I’ve stayed for the students.”

An experience it is. The cultural differences between countries can be hard to grasp at times and even harder to accept, Wiens notes. Even the most visible differences in climate or cuisine can be cause for concern.

“To tell you the truth,” admits Tinka, “the thing I’m worried most about is not having the right clothes. Dress code is pretty strict and I’m 5’10” with size 11 feet, and that doesn’t go over so well in Japanese clothing stores.”

by Laura Blue

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