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Teaching Abroad After Age 50: Sri Lanka and China University!

Ruth on a rope bridge in Laos during her travels.
Ruth on a rope bridge in Laos during her travels.

Whether you’re a retired veteran teacher, or a young and aspiring Teacher-Traveler, get ready to be inspired by the story of a woman whose travels took off after age 50.

Teaching Traveling: Ruth Sheffer, tell us more about your travels!

Ruth: Ever since I was a child I have had the travel bug. Maybe because my mum was a French teacher and took us every year to France on holiday. Maybe because of the “Wandering Jew” syndrome. Anyway I was born in London, UK and first went to teach abroad at age 19 as part of my BA studies in French and Spanish.

I was a foreign assistant in a junior school in France for a year. It was NOT a wonderful experience, but nevertheless I had my first taste of the EFL classroom. I then travelled to Israel to do my Masters in Literature, where I fell in love, married and got “stuck” as a high school teacher for the next 30 years!

I fell in love with a man, but also with another culture, with all that it entails: language, music, weather, and being an expat. I have now lived in Israel longer than I lived in my home country.

I taught English to high school students and adults until my retirement in 2011. Over the years my family and I travelled every summer holidays but it was never enough for me. (My husband would always ask me “DO you want to go abroad or do house renovations?

You can guess what I answered him!) Today, I do a little online teaching but basically am free to travel anywhere I find a good ESL teaching job or volunteering opportunity.

With students while teaching in China.
With students while teaching in China.

TT: Wow! Tell us more about your travels after retirement!

R: Post retirement, my husband and I traveled to China where we taught English to University students for 3 wonderful years. We were able to make side trips to Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Laos. We then returned home, thinking the travel bug was conquered.

But last month we had the amazing opportunity to go to Sri Lanka for a month to teach Buddhist monks, and of course that was something we had to try. It was very exciting and different, despite rather tough physical conditions.

The monks were actually all graduates, and lecturers at the Bhiksu university in Anuradhapura, which is the spiritual centre of Sri Lanka, full of amazing temples and holy places.

The monks lecture in ancient languages like Sanskrit and Pali and also in Buddhist history and philosophy. So they were pretty interesting guys. If you are interested in doing this you can contact my friend Paul Ellmes at Give a Fig Volunteering.

A beautiful street in Chengdu, China.
A beautiful street in Chengdu, China.

TT: How did you find this travel opportunity after retiring, and how did you fund it?

R: It was advertised on Dave’s ESL cafe and luckily for me we were accepted to do it. As for funding, the trip was paid for entirely by the Bhiksu University, who also took us on trips to temples and to a Safari Park. At the end of our trip we also went to relax on the beach, and that was also paid for by the monks!

Side note about the English language: If you’re American and reading this interview, you may be confused about my spelling of traveling or travelling. Click that link to understand why I spell it “Travelling!”

TT: Love it! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly interesting.

R: It’s so hard to pick one thing, since our time in China was so life-changing. One of the best things that we did in China was to prepare our students (one team of 4) for a debating competition in another city. We did it twice actually — once voluntarily and once for payment.

We worked intensively with the team on their speeches, diction, pronunciation etc., and then accompanied them to the competition in another city. It was a very special experience and those kids became our “adopted Chinese sons and daughters” and we are still very close with them and in contact with them by internet. We miss them a lot. Of course we did very well in the competition! It was all a lot of fun.

With a monk in Sri Lanka, getting certificates at the end of the teaching course
With a monk in Sri Lanka, getting certificates at the end of teaching.

TT: Nice! How have your travels impacted you as a retired British teacher, and in your current career teaching abroad in Asia?

R: I think that when I travel in Asia I discover that the way teachers are looked upon in the East is very different from in the West, where kids really have little respect for their elders. There is something endearing about the way we were received, both as foreigners and elder persons but also as teachers in China and also in Sri Lanka. We were almost revered.

In the West students take it for granted that they go to school. In China we found students were grateful for the opportunity to get an education, and were motivated to do well. This meant that they looked up to us, and hung on our every word. I found this very inspiring, and it made me feel that my ideas were valued.

Giant Buddha in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
Giant Buddha in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

TT: So powerful! How have your travels impacted you as a person over 50?

R: First, I don’t see my age as a barrier. In fact it was seen as a positive thing in the East, where age is revered. I met other travellers my age and older, and so I don’t see why I should stop travelling as long as my health allows it. I think travel makes you flexible, adaptable, and less prone to worry about things you can’t control.

I used to stress about missing flights or terrible things that might happen, and being on time for everything. I have missed flights and found solutions. I have had emergency surgery in Hong Kong and got through it. Things happen in life and you just deal with them and move on. It has opened my mind to new ways of looking at things, new ideas and new cultures.

TT: What advice do you have for retired teachers who want to travel, or older travelers wanting to teach abroad?

Beautiful scenery in China.
Beautiful scenery in China.

R: Just do it! Before I went to China my friends asked me why I was going and I said, “Because I want to.” I don’t want to reach 85 or 90 and regret not following my heart.

Anyone who wants to go to China should first research thoroughly and not go to any school without talking to a current or past teacher there. I also highly recommend Raoul’s China Saloon which was my “go to” resource. Dave’s ESL cafe is of course also very useful, and also to a lesser extent ESL Teachers’ Board.

Each city should have an expats’ forum and these are particularly useful for information once you know where you are going. Inside information is great. I also belong to, which is an international hosting organization, kind of like couchsurfing for oldies (mostly) and that is great fun too.

If you want to hear more about any of my experiences you can drop by my blog.

TT: Thanks so much, Ruth! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?


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Helen Broadway

Monday 12th of February 2018

My husband and I ate both nearing 50. I have my honours in educational support and he is an excellent hair stylist. We had our children quite young and we both want to see the world. We are doing a TEFL course to start the ball rolling but would love to start teaching in China. I want to teach in the classroom and he would prefer teaching adults. Any advice? Thanks in advance. Helen


Monday 12th of February 2018

So exciting! I hope Ruth or other readers can provide some insight. You can also feel free to browse other China articles here: Best of luck!


Thursday 17th of August 2017

I am 62. I have worked in IT my entire life, but I got a master's in TESOL a few years ago. I have only taught once, for a few weeks in Liberia, West Africa. However, I am now ready to finally leave my IT job, but when I look at jobs on Dave's ESL Café, most of them have age restrictions. They say that you cannot get a working visa for China due to age, and the same is said about the Middle East and other places. I am wondering how you bypassed this restriction...


Thursday 17th of August 2017

Great question! Ruth, what are your insights?

Gloria TR

Monday 29th of May 2017

I would like to contact Ruthi to find out more about how to work at the University. Thanks


Tuesday 30th of May 2017

Hi Gloria, Thanks for your interest. If Ruthi agrees, I can connect you two by email, or you could discuss in this comment section. Best of luck!

Pauline Mckenna

Wednesday 29th of March 2017

could you send me teaching info

Debbie Lahav

Friday 3rd of February 2017

Sounds amazing. I volunteered in Sri Lanka teching young monks and village kids. I was 61 at the time, by far the oldest of the volunteers. Age was irrlevant, and perhaps an advantage.


Friday 3rd of February 2017

Yes Debbie I agree with you , the age is an advantage in Asia. Glad you also enjoyed your volunteering experience.

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