Teaching English as a Foreign Language

When my partner and I decided to move to Barcelona many years ago, I spent some time planning what I was going to do with my time out there. He was a musician and travelled a lot. I needed something to make some income and also a way to meet people. My Spanish wasn’t that great at that stage, which limited what I could do, so teaching English seemed the perfect choice. I had done some teaching before, but it was one-on-one music lessons rather than a classroom situation. I had also studied languages myself (French and Italian) so had an idea of language structure and grammar.

So I decided to do a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course in Barcelona. I enrolled in a month long course at International House , one of the biggest English teacher training organisations in the world. The school in Barcelona is the largest in Europe and there are nine more in Spain alone.

The course was really good fun with excellent teachers and it really prepared you well for teaching English anywhere. I was lucky to be offered a job by International House themselves as soon as I finished and I worked for them for several years. As well as various other schools in Barcelona and in country towns.

Depending on how many hours you want or need to work, you may have to teach for more than one school. This may increase your travelling hours. Also, most classes take place in the evenings and Saturday mornings, so be prepared to do those hours unless you work online.

You can actually teach English as a foreign language without doing a TEFL course, but I wouldn’t recommend it. For one thing, you’ll get paid less and you’ll only be taken on by the second rung schools. These tend to be less well run, mess you about and expect you to work ridiculously long hours.

You’ll also do a far better job and enjoy the teaching more if you have had the training. What I found really interesting about the course was how they taught us how to teach without using the native language of the students at all. This is essential if you are going to teach in a country where you can’t speak the language.  The way they taught us how to do it was to give us lessons in Japanese in which they ONLY spoke Japanese. It was a real eye opener. They used a lot of mime, drawing on the blackboard and building up sentences bit by bit to demonstrate the structure.

Let’s face it, when you first start a new language and someone says, ‘This is a pencil’ you don’t know which word means ‘this’ and which word means ‘pencil’.  So it’s a matter of deconstructing and re-building.

You don’t have to have any teaching experience to do the course, though it helps if you have. It is a good idea to be reasonably good at English spelling and grammar, though they do give you an intensive grounding in grammar too. Having experience of learning a foreign language yourself is also an advantage. As you have more of an idea of how languages work and the structure, but that’s not essential either.

I have such happy memories of the month I spent on that course. It was enormous fun and I met a life-long friend. I worked teaching English for eight enjoyable years after that. Both in Barcelona and in smaller towns once we moved out to the country.

Teaching English is a skill you can take anywhere in the world with you and these days you can also teach online with the advent of video conferencing. There is a huge demand for native English teachers online, particularly from the Chinese. Although I haven’t done it myself, I have heard that teaching online can pay even better than in person at a school.

Teaching online can be a more lonely existence, but it can reward you with great flexibility and decreasing travelling time. It can also be a way to supplement a regular job too as you can choose your hours. Teaching people who are in a different time zone can expand the number of hours you could do in a week. Most English language schools operate in the evenings for those who are students or at work during the day.

When you start teaching, you are provided with books that the students follow, so you don’t have to create all your own lessons. The more you can embellish and enliven those standard texts the better. Though, and you will have a much more satisfying time and happier students. I used to use videos of Wallace and Gromit in some of my classes. That went down a treat! Laughter is a great learning tool.

Teaching English in Vietnam

By Sharyn Nilsen


I had no sooner provided my new phone number to the school when I got a call from an old contact. “Miss Sharyn, can you take a class for me tonight?” It was San, the scheduler from the campus I’d taught at the last time we were in Ho Chi Minh City—12 months and around 20 countries ago. “Sorry San,” I said, “We only just arrived and I’m not officially working yet. Maybe next week.”

It’s the same every time we return. Tim and I email the school we work for around a month before we get back to Ho Chi Minh City. Within a couple of weeks, we have as many teaching hours as we want. Plus our savings are up and running for our next adventure, 12 months down the track. The thirst to learn English in Vietnam means there are jobs aplenty for those who do the right thing. And have the right qualifications and behave professionally.

Before we left Australia in 2010, we both completed a teaching English course. And, our subsequent years of experience make us much sought-after commodities. Our age—I’m 53 and Tim’s 58—and maturity also give us an advantage. Parents are delighted to have their children taught by respected elders and our school is more than happy to give them what they want.

And it’s not just our school. As we moved into our new apartment a week later, we met our new neighbour and her three-year-old daughter. “You are teachers?” she asked. “I will pay you to teach my daughter.” We get offers like this several times a month. The rising middle-class are keen to ensure their children have the best possible opportunities in life and learning English is a crucial ingredient to their success.

I joined the local Toastmasters’ Club and within weeks I’d been approached to teach corporate English classes for another members. I know all I need to do is put the word out I’m looking for work and offers will come flooding in.

When one of Tim’s adult students was no longer able to attend school, she begged him to give private lessons to her and three friends. Two hours, twice a week in a coffee shop. Correcting pronunciation issues and facilitating conversation earns him over $400 a month—enough to cover our food budget.

Both Tim and I are happy to limit our school teaching hours to around 23 per week. We also have preparation time, but as we’ve grown more experienced and gathered a suite of resources, that time is minimal. For many of my classes I only need to find an old lesson plan from my files. Make copies of the additional activities, which takes less than 10 minutes. With these kinds of hours, we earn around $2,800 each per month. Our cost of living, including lots of social outings and activities, is much less than $2,000 a month, allowing us to save around $3,000 as a couple.

We rent a comfortable, air-conditioned, furnished, two-bedroom apartment close to the city and our school campus. There are plenty available and we lease a new one each time we go back. That way we don’t need to store much while we’re on the road. Most come with linen, crockery and all the other basics.

We rarely cook at home because eating at the local cafes and restaurants is so cheap and convenient. At around $2 for barbecued pork, rice and vegetables or 75 cents for a delicious roast pork baguette, why would I bother to cook?


Many of our fellow teachers work two jobs and teach over 40 hours a week. Allowing them to save even more. A lot of the younger teachers are paying off their college debts. While still keeping enough to travel around the region extensively, something they could never do at home.

For us, teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City is one of the key ingredients to our roving retirement. By stopping to teach on alternate years, we’re able to regroup, plan and fund our 12-month adventures. Without using our savings and investment income back home. When we’re in Vietnam, those investments add up and when added to the savings from teaching, amount to around $50,000 per year. More than enough to keep us happy on the road…

Teaching English Online

By Sharyn Nilsen


In 2017, 61-year-old Sydneysider, Jane Wilson, visited Chang Mai in Thailand on holidays and immediately knew it was a place she and her partner, Paula, could happily retire to.

Within a few months, she finished work, collected her superannuation and moved over long-term.

“Chang Mai ticked all the boxes for a place to move,” she says. “The laidback, happy Thai people, combined with incredible food and a low cost of living all add up to a comfortable life for a fraction of the cost of living in Australia.”

Soon after moving to Chiang Mai, Jane met a fellow expat who was teaching English online with one of the largest online teaching companies in the Asian market. The idea of earning enough to cover her living expenses through a few hours’ work a week a was enticing.

Things moved quickly from there. “I put in an application, went through the interview process, was accepted for a position straight away and was working within a week,” she says.

“I originally applied for and received 15 hours a week. Each lesson is 30 minutes and I get paid around $22.50 per hour. I also have to submit a lesson review, but that only takes me around five minutes,” Jane explains.

“Teaching 15 hours a week nets about $1,400 per month, which is more than enough to live comfortably in Chang Mai. It would cost more than three times what we spend here to live the same lifestyle in Australia. Now I’ve found my feet I’m looking to fill another four slots.  Once I fill those extra slots, I’ll bring in around $2,000 per month.”

Jane loves the flexibility that online teaching affords.

“I teach 14 students and have classes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., which are the hours that they teach in China. That means the whole of my day is free to enjoy our new home.

“We love to jump in the car and explore the countryside in Thailand and, unlike Australia, we don’t have to drive for hours to commune with nature. A short drive up into the mountains is perfect to escape the heat in the summer months.”

“There are day and night markets where the shopping is a delight. The Thais have a gift for creating exquisite and inexpensive products.  We can purchase amazing local produce, furnishings, gifts and household goods that just aren’t affordable in Australia.

“The lifestyle is so conducive to good health. I’ve lost 20 kilograms since arriving and my diabetes is now non-existent. We also like to swim daily. There is a pool on the property where we live which is a great way to cool down and keep fit.”

Jane says that while a significant factor in taking on online teaching was the flexibility, it’s now become a passion. “The freedom during the day is fabulous, but the job has become much more to me than just that. I get a real joy out of teaching the kids. I absolutely love each and every one of my students. You get to know them so well. They are such beautiful little humans, they really are intent on learning, and that’s a pleasure.”

“Teaching online has allowed us to move to this beautiful part of the world and live comfortably. If I weren’t teaching, we’d probably have to move back to Australia. I love living here and I love online teaching as a way to support my life here,”

Jane says. “It’s fun and the kids are great. I don’t want to go home ever.”

The only equipment needed to teach online is a computer or laptop and a decent headset, fast and reliable internet service.

“Initially I would spend about 10-15 minutes before a 30-minute lesson working out what props I needed and how to teach the lesson. Now that I’m used to the materials and course work I don’t need to spend any time at all.”

The online teaching scene is changing all the time and the difference between what each school requires varies enormously.

Many schools require a degree, formal English teaching qualifications and background checks, others are happy to hire you if you perform well at an interview and fulfil their idea of what a popular teacher looks and acts like.

Jane was involved in adult training in Australia but only recently completed her TESOL qualification in Thailand. Her 120-hour online course took her just a few days to complete, for a minimal cost. Many schools are much more concerned with the satisfaction of students and the performance of the teacher as opposed to the qualifications you produce.

While some companies prefer North American accents, others love Australian teachers. “We have a reputation for complaining less and are easier to work with. If you have a fairly neutral accent you’re looked on favourably as well,” she says.

Her age hasn’t proved a problem either. In fact, the respect placed on age and experience in Asian countries is a benefit.

“Many teachers lose students when they go on leave. I took two weeks off at Christmas and came back to all 14. They hadn’t bothered with substitute classes at all and were all happy to wait for me to get back. Teachers earn a great deal of respect in Asian culture. If you’re older it suggests to them you have more experience and are maybe better at the job than a younger person. Being older commands their respect, unless you do something to lose that.”

Jane advises other older Australians who are thinking of supplementing their retirement income with online teaching is to do your research. “Know what you’re looking for before you start applying to schools. Things like the number of hours you want to work, when you want to be available and the type of student you want to teach will guide you to the schools that cater for those things.

“The sky’s the limit really with online teaching…if you’re willing to do the research.”

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