Teaching Traveling: Want concrete examples of how to find a teaching job abroad that helps you travel the world? Read this interview with Elaine Thatcher, the “Runaway Brit!”
Elaine, tell us about your background.
Elaine: I’m from the UK and I have been teaching since I qualified in 2002. When I was studying for my PGCE I had no idea that I would end up teaching in Japan, Vietnam, and Sweden during my career. I teach High school English so term time is very busy and I work a lot of hours, but the holidays are definitely worth it if you like to travel. When I worked in the UK I visited China, India, Tunisia and Greece in the holidays but it was teaching internationally that really allowed me to see the world.
I started a teaching post at an International school in Vietnam in 2007 and spent the next three years travelling around South East Asia, an area of the world I had long wanted to explore. What’s more, I had the money to travel exactly the way I wanted to. Even though I remained a strict budget traveller, it was nice not having to worry about running out of money.
TT: Brilliant! Tell us more about your travels.
E: After teaching in Stockholm for a year, I decided to take a year out to travel around South America. This was pretty exciting for me as, up until then, I had only travelled during school holidays, meaning the longest trip I had taken was 7 weeks in India. This time it was just me, my boyfriend, our backpacks, and no fixed itinerary.
Our trip was amazing: we visited Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Panama and New York. Unfortunately, without money coming in, I started to panic about decreasing funds. So we went to Tenerife in the Canary Islands to find work! We’ve been here for three months now while we plan our next move. This year has allowed me to reflect on the way I like to travel; although I have enjoyed the freedom of unlimited travel, I like the stability that teaching gives me. There are not many careers that give you 15 weeks to travel!
Tell us how you found your travel opportunities.
E: I have many friends who have travelled in South America, they were full of advice about where to go and what to do, and of course there are plenty of travel bloggers out there who I talk to regularly using the #TTOT twitter hash tag. We booked a one-way ticket to Montevideo, Uruguay, and just worked the rest out from there.
TT: I love it! How did you find the money to fund this travel?
E: All my travels are funded by savings. I was given a healthy bonus at the end of my contract in Vietnam and then I saved during my year in Sweden. I try to save half of my salary every month, it’s not easy but it is possible. When I am saving, I cook at home and avoid alcohol completely. For me, the prospect of travelling is far more appealing than a fancy dinner or a night of cocktails— especially in Sweden, which is expensive.
During my year teaching in Sweden I saved half of my teaching salary and still managed to visit Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Saint Petersburg, and the Arctic Circle. If you prioritise travel, you can make it happen.
TT: So true! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.
E: There are so many moments when you travel that are powerful but the best ones are in the generosity of strangers, like the man who shared his oranges with me on a train in China that turned out to be a 30 hour ride when I was expecting 17, or the lady in Japan who saw me standing at the bus stop during a Typhoon and stopped to give me a ride to the train station and then insisted I take her umbrella. I sometimes wonder if visitors to the UK have similar stories about the kindness of strangers in my country.
TT: Beautiful. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher (if you went back to teaching) or in your current career?
E: Travel is an ideal companion to teaching English, particularly Literature. As a teacher, I draw on my travels in the classroom all the time as travelling opens the mind and introduces new ideas— just as reading does. When I teach ‘The Merchant of Venice’ I show my photographs of the Jewish ghetto in Venice, or I can talk from experience about how communism affects a country after visiting China and living in Vietnam.
I love it when a student is inspired by my travels; I was recently mentioned in a Tweet by a former student which said: “I’m am proud to say that @RunawayBrit is my old English teacher! One day, I will travel as much as she’s doing right now, I hope! :)” It made my day!
TT: So wonderful. How have your travels impacted you as a person?
E: In so many ways, you don’t always realise. I have a greater awareness of different cultures, values and opinions, and I try to be aware of what is going on politically in other parts of the world. Travelling makes you appreciate what you have; such as health, wealth, education, and good job opportunities as huge parts of the world are not lucky enough to have the experiences that I have. Being able to quit a stable job to travel is a luxury that many people can’t afford.
In my day-to-day life I tend to weigh up the cost of things against what I could do with that money overseas, so a night out in Stockholm might cost £100, which would easily pay for a few week’s accommodation, travel, food and drinks in Cambodia, or a flight to a European city… This helps hugely with saving!
TT: What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
E: Teaching is the perfect vehicle for travelling as you can either utilise the holidays for your trips or you can teach overseas. If you are a qualified teacher then you can work in an International school. I always find my placements on the teaching website www.tes.co.uk which also has a useful overseas forum. Another good place to look is www.cois.org which has information about recruitment fairs that take place in London and the states. Teaching internationally is very rewarding and there are some great incentives. There are some amazing schools out there, but there are also some pretty bad ones so always use the forum to ask questions from the people already out in the country.
If you are not a qualified teacher then you can take the TEFL/ESL route, but I would always advise that you complete a CELTA training qualification beforehand. It’s not cheap but it has more credibility overseas than other ESL/TEFL qualifications. Don’t even think about doing a course online; you need classroom experience. Teaching is not as easy as people think! With a CELTA you will get work in better schools with better conditions and pay. Some positions don’t require any qualifications other than a degree certificate (in any subject) and that you are a native English speaker. And www.daveseslcafe.com is a great resource for ESL teachers.
Above all, don’t be afraid. There are many other teachers out there already doing it and by taking an overseas position you will have an immediate social circle so you will not be alone. Trust me; you will have the time of your life!
TT: Thanks so much for this fabulous advice, Elaine! For more about her, check out her website, www.RunawayBrit.com. Readers, what questions or comments do you have for this teacher-traveler?