ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Career change | Tech | Teaching

How I Risked Everything to Fulfill my Dream of Living Overseas

US-based French Canadian IT Pro Turned English Teacher

Left-side photo — computer monitor with multiple program windows open, right-side photo — lesson plan excerpt
Left-side photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels (modified), right-side photo by author.

WHAT MY LIFE WAS LIKE BEFORE I MOVED OVERSEAS TO TEACH ENGLISH

I had so far experienced a somewhat successful IT career in the United States, having now worked in that field for around 10 years and earning a reasonably good middle-class income as a single man. I owned an average-size, comfortable house in the suburbs with a small yard, had a reliable car, and even a motorcycle. My mortgage was my only debt.

By any account, I had a fairly stable life with good job security and doing mostly intellectually-challenging work that required keeping my knowledge and skills up-to-date. The opportunity to evolve my role and keep the forward-momentum going where I was employed was on the horizon, too. All of this did, of course, come at a price: sometimes hectic, long hours, as well as more than a fair amount of daily stress surrounding my work responsibilities with clients. Like many people carrying out work duties in a 9 hours a day ‘ish office environment, or as some call it a “cubicle farm”, I couldn’t wait for the weekend to come around, and I was especially looking forward to enjoying my Paid Time Off (PTO) each year.

THE EXPERIENCE THAT PLANTED THE SEED

In 2007 I decided that I would be going to Japan later that year for vacation, and I spent a few months researching and preparing for that. I used up two out of my total available three weeks of PTO to do this, which broke down to 12 days visiting various cities, and 2 days flying to and from Japan. My trip ended up being so gratifying that upon returning home I was left feeling like it would be the greatest thing ever if I could somehow go live and work in Japan for a year or two and more fully and completely experience life there. And so it’s with that realization that I set out to find out how this could be done.

Photo of Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion in Kyoto. A Zen Buddhist temple.
Photo by author.

A CLEAR GOAL… BUT WHAT NOW?

After researching possible career choices that can allow one to move abroad to work, I settled on teaching English as being the most likely to yield success with that goal. In a broad sense, teaching English to non-native speakers can be broken down into two main categories.

1. Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), and also Teaching English to Speakers Of Other Languages (TESOL), which means to teach English in a country where the students are non-native speakers, and this is what I was aiming for

2. Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL), which refers to teaching pupils who are non-native speakers but live in a native-speaking English country

The following reasons led me to believe that this could be a good fit for me:

  • l Citizen of a native English-speaking country (Canada)
  • l My overall professional communication skills are recognized and valued by colleagues everywhere I’ve worked
  • l My English pronunciation is neutral and easily understood by all members of various multicultural teams
  • l Adept at understanding team members who are non-native English speakers regardless of accents and intonations
  • l I have taken part in a number of language exchange efforts over the years where I helped my partners with their English and was often told that I had a clear passion for doing this
  • l On an even more personal level, I come from a teaching family where everyone has a healthy dose of respect for that profession
Photo of two men studying together at an outdoor picnic table. One has a laptop, and the other one is writing in a notepad.
Photo by Armin Rimoldi from Pexels

Next came the research related to how one goes about getting a permit to work and reside in a foreign country. This part essentially boils down to obtaining a proper work visa which is also normally tied to some form of residence permit or card.

And when originally looking into Japan specifically, although this also tends to hold true in all western and other so-called “developed” countries, this required having a four-year Bachelor’s degree* in any major plus a minimum of an officially recognized “TEFL” certificate. Neither one of which I had at the time!

Note for the UK folks: three-year Bachelor’s degree + Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE).

An important note about TEFL certificates

Let me take a moment to cut through all of the low-quality and dubious information that surrounds the marketing of TEFL certificates, and tell you this: there are only two such certifications that are recognized worldwide. One is the CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) which is offered by the University of Cambridge (UK) through its official partner training centers, and the other is the CERTtesol which is offered by Trinity College (London) also through its official partner training centers. Both of these require substantial investments of money (~US$2000 at the time I did my CELTA at my particular training center in Canada) and time (varies based on in-person only vs blended learning course formats). (Note: this does not include the cost of traveling to and staying in a foreign country for the duration of the course in the case where someone chooses that option.)

In my experience with browsing job listings worldwide over the past few years, when it comes to which of the two you are the most likely to see listed on a minimum requirements job application page, it’s definitely the CELTA. It’s worth noting that this is a course focused on teaching adults. And while I don’t have personal experience with the CERTtesol, my understanding when I looked at that course’s syllabus is that it’s also focused on teaching adult learners.

And what about those who want to teach children?

In general, if you are looking to teach children (K-12) in a proper school such as a public school, international school, or university, and not an “English Training Center” or “Academy”, you will be expected to hold a B.Ed. in Early Childhood learning, in Secondary Education, or something similar. And many of those schools will also require you to hold a formal teaching license which includes a TESOL specialization from your native English — speaking home country.

Photo of primary school children studying in class.
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Disclaimer: The information I am presenting is based on both my own research over the years as well as the hands-on teaching experience I’ve accumulated which covers all of the aforementioned school environments. But it’s fair to say that your mileage will vary based on individual target school and grade(s), a country’s immigration requirements for work visas and residency papers, your nationality, your mother tongue (or English level as rated on the IELTS or CEFR scale) and so on. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

PUTTING THE RIGHT BUILDING BLOCKS IN PLACE TO ALLOW FOR MY CAREER CHANGE

Earlier in this section, I mentioned not having either a TEFL certificate or a bachelor’s degree at the time I conceived of moving abroad to teach English. This means that I now had to decide whether and if it would be possible for me to commit to 1) getting a Bachelor’s degree (and what major would be the most practical to get) and 2) Getting a CELTA. Both of these things would have to be accomplished while I was working full-time, and for an unknown cost at the time I was first considering it.

Photo of loose jigsaw puzzle pieces arranged in concentric circles. The top piece is labeled “solution” and all of the other pieces below it are labeled “problem”.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I eventually found a reputable (accredited and established) university that made it possible for me to complete a Bachelor of Science in IT. This took four years (~15–20 hours/week) and had to be paid for in recurring monthly payments taken out of a credit card and paid back each month. Along the way It also allowed me to obtain many useful IT certifications, which all together helped me to eventually secure a better full-time job that included responsibilities that I could carry out remotely.

Three years went by until I finally found myself in the position to sell my house and vehicles in the US and move back home to Canada for my final year of working in IT. During that time I completed the CELTA course while continuing to work full-time as always. That took 4.5 months online (~15 hours a week) plus two weeks full-time for the in-person requirements which included training and teaching practicum. I only had two weeks of PTO at that job and I saved it all for those two weeks at the end of the year. Everything during my study period, from finances to coursework, entailed extremely high pressure and was a make-or-break situation.

In the end, it took me around 7.5 years of unfaltering dedication and hard work, along with substantial financial investment to get to a point where I could consider applying for English teaching jobs abroad now that I finally met those minimum requirements. And all of this while still essentially having no formal teaching experience.

Image of a word cloud made up of the words Effort, Research, Perseverance, Results, Dedication, Dream, Organization, patience, and the phrase “Don’t give up”.
Word cloud generated using https://wordart.com/create.

JOB SEARCH AND TRANSITION

My extensive job search revealed that the best place for me to start would be in East Asia. Ultimately I ended up finding work in Shanghai to start my new career, almost exactly 8 years after setting my goal to move abroad to teach English. At that time, China only required having a Bachelor’s degree in any major. So having the CELTA already helped differentiate me from the crowds of applicants who didn’t have this, or simply had what can be described as a “generic online TEFL certificate”. Being well-versed in the use of computer and software technologies was certainly a great help on many levels too, as was being naturally highly analytical and organized, which both went a long way with me being successful at reaching the goals I described.

CONCLUSION

If, while considering everything as objectively as you can, you find that you do not feel sufficiently satisfied or otherwise fulfilled in your current career, or even job search, just remember that making a change is always possible. Success with such complex goals comes from an approach that includes careful planning and the willingness to make whatever sacrifices are required along the way, combined with being patient. And as long as you’re willing to put in the effort required, I believe that most goals are realistically achievable.

My hope is that this article can serve as a road map of sorts that contains relevant, practical, and actionable information for those who may be considering a switch to becoming an English teacher abroad.

All the best,

Pascal

PS: You can go here to read how I planned my trip to Japan and the helpful things I learned from accomplishing that, here for more travel articles and stories, here to read other personal growth and development-related articles and stories, or here to read more about me.

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