Teaching Traveling: Is it financially wise to teach abroad? Read how Emily Gibson left her U.S. teaching job to teach English in Hong Kong… for double the salary!
Emily, tell us about your background.
Emily: I was born in the quiet suburbs of Southern California, but from the time I was young I yearned to see the world, like my adventurous grandfather.
When I was in college, I majored in English and Spanish and had the opportunity to study for a semester in Spain. The experience was life-changing. I loved seeing the world from another perspective.
After graduating, I moved to San Francisco and became a primary school teacher at a public school serving mostly Latino and Chinese immigrants. I spent my summers traveling as far and wide as possible, to Western Europe, Southeast Asia, Central America and Australia.
Last year, I pursued my longtime dream of teaching abroad by becoming an English and Spanish teacher at a school in Hong Kong. I’m having such a great time that I’ve decided to stay for a second year.
TT: Wow! What made you decide to leave your teaching job in San Francisco and move to Asia?
E: After teaching the same grade at the same school for 8 years, I was facing burnout. The heartbreaking budget cuts to public education in California in general and to my school in particular added to a feeling that I just couldn’t continue on the same path anymore.
I knew I needed to make a big change in my personal and professional life or I’d risk leaving education altogether.
TT: Understood. Where do you teach now? How did you find this teaching opportunity?
E: I got a job as a Native English Teacher at a private school in Hong Kong. I found the opportunity through my former roommate in San Francisco who grew up in Hong Kong and had since moved back.
Through my friend, I learned about schools in Hong Kong and about the Native English Teacher Scheme, a government-sponsored program to bring experienced teachers who are native English speakers to local schools in Hong Kong.
Strangely, I got the position at my school in part because of my degree in Spanish. The school had been contracting with outside companies to offer Spanish classes as an elective, so they asked me to take over the Spanish elective courses in addition to teaching my English classes. I never imagined that my Spanish degree would give me an edge in Asia!
TT: Fascinating! How did you find the money to fund this travel?
E: I initially took an unpaid leave of absence from my job in San Francisco so I could keep my position at home while living abroad. (I have since resigned from my U.S. school.) The Hong Kong tax code works out favorably for teachers, so I actually make about double my U.S. salary here.
Through the Native English Teacher Scheme, I receive a monthly housing stipend to offset the high rental prices in Hong Kong. I had to pay for my flight from the U.S. and to live off my savings for my first month in Hong Kong, but since then it’s been easy to cover my living expenses and save money for travel using my monthly earnings.
TT: Wonderful! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.
E: One of the best parts about living in Hong Kong is that it’s a travel hub for Asia. In 3-5 hours, you could be traveling in Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, or just about anywhere in Southeast Asia.
I’ve gotten to travel to places I’ve always dreamed of visiting but wasn’t ever sure I’d be able to afford to see. I spent Christmas 2011 in Bali with one of my best friends from home. Waking up on Christmas morning in a thatched-roof hut hearing the sounds of birds and monkeys in the surrounding rainforest was truly unforgettable!
I’ve also gotten paid to travel as part of my teaching job. As a chaperone on a school trip to Italy during Easter holidays last year, I went on a fully-funded 12-day art tour of Italy with 28 students from Hong Kong. Now that was something I never expected from moving to Asia!
TT: Love it! How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?
E: Getting out of my teaching comfort zone was the best thing I could’ve done for my career. I had to learn how to work with many different age levels, how to use the latest classroom technology, and how to collaborate with colleagues to a greater degree than I’d ever done before.
Seeing education from an Asian perspective has also been a fascinating– and at times challenging– experience. I realized how much I appreciate creating a hands-on, cooperative learning environment in part because I now teach in a system focused on whole group, rote learning.
I also see how much the U.S. lags behind in terms of foreign language education. Children in Hong Kong are fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and often one or 2 other languages, by the time they finish primary school. That’s amazing! In the future I’ll definitely seek to work at schools that place bilingualism as a priority.
TT: So interesting. How have your travels impacted you as a person?
E: I’ve always loved travel because it forces me to be more flexible and open-minded. Living abroad has increased that feeling. Even though Hong Kong considers itself to be Asia’s “global city,” it still feels very Chinese.
I’ve had plenty of moments when I didn’t understand a situation and wasn’t able to communicate. The only way to survive was by judging less, observing more, and rolling with the punches. I think I’m better able to handle life’s unexpected situations after living in Hong Kong.
TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
E: My advice to anyone who’s dreamed of living abroad would be to just go for it. There’s always a way to make it happen if you start talking to others about your intentions. Teaching in Hong Kong started off as my “crazy Plan B” idea, but once I started speaking to friends and family about it, all the pieces fell into place quickly. International schools are always looking for experienced teachers, and many Asian countries are specifically looking for native English speakers.
My other piece of advice to teachers who are at all struggling in the tough economic climate in the U.S. and Europe is to be open to opportunities abroad. My adventures in Hong Kong would not have happened had the budget crisis not decimated my school.
Now I’m not only having the time of my life teaching in Asia, but I’m also able to fund travel to exotic places while saving a nice nest egg to take back to the U.S. My worst school year led to my best opportunity yet.