6 Lessons Learned from Teaching English Abroad

My main goal when coming to teach English in Korea was to save money for long-term travel. I also thought it would be a great way to get outside my comfort zone, discover myself, and encourage other people to go out and travel as well.

After a year, I thought it was time to take a moment to reflect and see what I have learned from this experience.

When I started, I romanticized that this opportunity was the perfect answer to accomplishing all of my goals. I believed that by coming to Korea I could leave my comfort zone, my friends and family and finally use all this time to get my life goals on track. I just assumed it would be easier without any of the comforts and support of home.

Which brings me to one of my first lessons.

Distractions and problems can travel, too

PHOTO 1

If you are like me, you might think that just coming out to Korea and being completely emerged in a different culture would force you to work on nothing but yourself.

When I started, I romanticized that this opportunity was the perfect answer to accomplishing all of my goals.

Fat chance buddy! After 6 months I had realized I had just about all the same habits, problems and distractions I had before. After the initial shock and getting used to living in a new country, I built a brand new comfort zone for myself right here in Korea. I didn’t know this, but it is extremely easy to do.

Granted I was doing some things better, but all in all the distractions and problems I thought I was leaving behind traveled with me to Korea. Not because they were external, but because they were internal, more self disciplined problems.

It’s up to ourselves to develop the habits that will change the course of our lives, for better or worse. A change of scenery won’t just magically make our problems go away.

For travelers like myself, Korea is a great stepping stone because it gets you out here, whets your appetite for travel, and allows you to save some serious money. (In 7 months we’ve accumulated over $17,000) Just keep in mind that just because you are coming out here doesn’t mean anything. Besides the language and customs, there won’t be anything different from what’s currently holding you back.

It goes by fast, so don’t sweat the small stuff

PHOTO 2

This isn’t only true for teachers. Just think of how fast any of your vacations go, or even high school and college. It flies by. Weeks seem to disappear in days, and as they have gone by, we are now feeling the pressure of seeing as much as we possible in our last six months here.

The fact that time literally flies by is all the more reason to have a sense of humor when things go wrong. More often than not, that awful moment will pass. But if you can’t laugh at it, that single moment can ruin the day and cut your epic journey even shorter.

Life is short, so don’t sweat the small stuff. Get out there and travel, eat, and repeat!

Having a sense of humor is clutch

Photo 3

Being in a strange land, not knowing the language, and trying to live your life is going to present tons of challenges. These challenges can be difficult and frustrating to deal with on a daily basis.

I’ve learned that the more I expect something to be or look a certain way, or to be just like home, I find myself disappointed, annoyed, or even angry. For example, having to ditch socks on hikes because bathrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap. Thinking buying KTX (high speed railway) tickets online would be easier, more convenient, and not make me miss my train. Accidentally buying the wrong thing, or getting wrong directions because of language barriers.

I’ve learned that if you let go of your attachment to what it should be like and have a sense of humor about it, you will…have an easier time dealing with things that go awry.

These are all examples of common, everyday frustrations that happen when living and traveling abroad, and many can easily ruin your mood. But I’ve learned that if you let go of your attachment to what it should be like and have a sense of humor about it, you will generally be happier and have an easier time dealing with things that go awry during traveling.

Easier said than done indeed, but being able to laugh at these bad situations really goes a long way.

Creating goals is important

PHOTO 4

Whether you come to another country to teach, save money, travel, or for personal growth, setting goals for yourself is going to make it a lot easier and more manageable for you. It’s even better if you write them down to remind yourself why you’re doing this in the first place.

By setting goals, you can actually pinpoint things that you really want to accomplish that will help you get the most out of your trip. Start with some of your bigger goals and then break them down into smaller, more manageable steps. For example my girlfriend and I want to save $30,000 in ONE full year teaching English in Korea. That means just over $2,500 a month (aout one of our paychecks a month). Knowing that goal ahead of time forced us to live off of one paycheck from the get-go.

The problem is most of us don’t spend the time to figure out what our goals are, so we keep our default patterns and habits for weeks, months, and years.

Figuring out these more digestible chunks make your goals easier to achieve.  Don’t worry if you can’t achieve your goal right away. Set an achievable goal in your comfort zone, and expand it over time.

The risk you take by not setting goals is living your life in default and not taking control of what you want. It’s extremely easy to wake up one day down the line and wonder what the hell happened to all your money, plans, or goals. The problem is most of us don’t spend the time to figure out what our goals are, so we keep our default patterns and habits for weeks, months, and years. But, if we just veered ever so slightly to the right years ago, we may be headed in a completely different, and better, direction now.

It makes you appreciate home

PHOTO 5

I feel extremely lucky to have grown up in America. I am afforded some serious advantages because I am American and speak English.

I never truly realized how much freedom I had being a kid growing up in America until I left it. In Asia, I have constantly been amazed at how much these kids study. From chats amongst other teachers in different Asian countries, and talks with my own students I’ve learned that these kids are averaging 12 hours of school a day while going to school 6 days a week. They also get ridiculous amounts of homework and pressure from their parents to be the top student in their class.

Your money goes a lot further in (most of) Asia

PHOTO 6

This is something that I already knew having spent 6 months backpacking in SE Asia, but living here made it glaringly obvious.

Back when I lived in California I made about $2,300 a month working 40 hours a week (about $14 an hour). I was lucky enough to live with my girlfriend and was able to save roughly $500 a month having an active lifestyle. But gas, car insurance, phone bills, groceries, and going out with friends really puts a damper on the amount you can save. Plus at this time I wasn’t writing down my goals!

We’re still able to afford most things we want with room to spare, living just as comfortably as we did in Laguna Beach while saving one entire paycheck each month.

In Korea I make over $2,600 a month with less tax taken, while working only 24 hours a week. I’m able to pay for my own apartment, eat out 2-3 times a week, buy things when I want, and most importantly, go on trips across the country on an almost a weekly basis. I was able to save $4,000 in 3 months by myself before my girlfriend came to join me. That’s almost half of my money per paycheck, which would have come out to $12,000 in a year if I stayed by myself. Certainly more than I could have saved in Huntington Beach.

If that wasn’t good enough, I am also working about half as much time – 24 hours a week – life is good! Work is short, and I’m able to live comfortably and save some serious cash. But it’s also important to use that extra time to focus on our goals.

Now that Megan is here we have adjusted to living off of just one paycheck. We’re still able to afford most things we want with room to spare, living just as comfortably as we did in Laguna Beach while saving one entire paycheck each month. 

What really drove this point home for me was when we looked at the numbers and realized that together we make $62,400 a year but are on track to save $30,000. Whereas when we lived in California I made $30,000, Megan $50,000, and together we were having a hard time saving $1,000 a month together.

Teaching English in Korea has clearly shown me that although together we are earning less money, we are able to afford just as much, and save even more. It may not be as beautiful as Laguna Beach, but our lifestyles are definitely richer.


It has been a crazy, exciting, roller-coaster of a year teaching English in Korea. Overall I have truly loved my experience and feel extremely fortunate to be here.

While not every goal has been met, it is nice to be able to look back and see what fell through the cracks and make adjustments. All in all I have made some pretty nice steps towards growing as a person and am excited to keep expanding my goals as they develop into habits.

Just coming out here won’t answer all your problems; you need to define what you want, and go for it.

I hope to encourage those of you on the fence to make the plunge and pursue your goals and dreams. If you’re stuck in a rut trying to save money for world travel, this might be a great career move. Not only will you be able to save money, but your standard of living will most likely be higher than you’re used to.

Just coming out here won’t answer all your problems; you need to define what you want, and go for it.

Read more about teaching English abroad:

Photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

Featured


Leave a Comment