This question keeps arising from pre-training or recent graduates from training courses, and it is really like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’.
As in any industry, there are situations where you can work very hard for very little return, and there are the golden opportunities that payout for specialist work.
I will take you through a range of different scenarios in this article, and think about different kinds of work in TESOL in terms of financial reward.
Qualifications and access to jobs
The first issue you need to think about when considering payment in the TESOL industry is: how can I get access to the jobs that pay?
As a general rule, payment is based on qualifications, experience and location.
As a disclaimer, many people fall into very well-paid positions without being highly qualified or experienced. Still, if you want to play the averages and have a better chance of securing a higher-paid position, then an internationally-recognized TESOL qualification such as a Trinity CertTESOL or Cambridge CELTA will be more likely to open doors for you.
The cold truth is that with a totally online training course, or a weekend TEFL, much of the industry in many countries, and at many levels of school, will be closed to you.
This is either due to visa restrictions, or simply because employers seek graduates of training courses which are quality-assured through face-to-face classroom observations and externally-assessed work.
Location, location, location
For obvious economic reasons, some countries have the financial resources to pay more than others in any job.
In Middle-eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, salaries will, on average, be much more attractive than those in South-east Asia.
This is not to say that the work or conditions are any better or worse, simply that salaries are higher in those places.
A quick search on a TEFL job database will show that salaries of US$3000 to US$ 4000 are not uncommon in Saudi Arabia (for teachers with 1-2 years of experience).
In contrast, teachers with any TEFL certificate can teach online for Chinese schools for as little as US$10 to US$15 per hour, and a typical salary in a Chinese university as a visiting English teacher will earn you around US$1180 (or GB£900) per month in a starting position.
Two things are worth considering when looking at salaries overseas:
Firstly, what is the cost of living? This will affect how much of your income is left after you have paid for the necessities and had a beer after a week at work.
In China, the cost of living can be negligible, whereas Hong Kong has some of the highest prices in the world, so check your facts about the country you are traveling to, and you will get a more realistic idea of what a high salary really means.
A line I often use when telling people about life/work in China is that I spent my first three years there earning half what I would have if I’d stayed in the UK, and saving double, so it made sense for me.
The second consideration is the benefits that your employer is offering. Of these, the most attractive is the relocation allowance (paid return airfare, sometimes more than once per year, to your home country), and accommodation allowance.
Rent can put a significant dent in your finances, so find out how many extra incentives the company is offering, do the maths and work out what that means for your real salary.
The value of experience
Yes, as you can see from the quick examples above, your first couple of years teaching will most likely be spent ‘paying your dues’; working for a very little left over out of your pay package, but probably loving traveling to new places and having fantastic experiences along the way.
Two years of experience in the field, however, is what will often give you access to better-paid positions, either in more renowned schools or universities or with employers who value staff retention more than some others.
Again, a quick search on the job sites reveals that the phrase ‘minimum two years experience’ often comes together with ‘CertTESOL or CELTA necessary’, and a significantly higher pay bracket for better working terms.
Stick out the first year or two, gain experience, find out your strengths, and it will pay off if you look in the right places.
After four or five years, especially with an added TESOL qualification such as the Trinity DipTESOL, Cambridge DELTA or a post-graduate Diploma in TESOL from a university, you will be able to aim for more job security and even better conditions along the way.
English for Academic Purposes positions in international universities, teacher training and management positions often pay a more standardized rate of around US$26,200 to US$39,320 (or GB£20,000 to GB£30,000), more in some regions of the world.
Conclusion: As a final note, although this article is primarily about the financial benefits of different positions, it is important to remember that most people do not go into the TESOL business for money for good reason: it is not a lucrative pursuit until you gain the qualifications and experience you need to pick and choose a little more.
However, it is a truly rewarding experience in terms of the places you can see, the people you can meet, and the help that you can give to a large number of people wanting to make a difference in their lives.
These things will far outweigh the financial rewards of the job for the first few years of teaching, and you will get an idea of whether you want to make a future career out of it. Overall, if you go into the job with your eyes open and work out what you want to get from your time as a teacher, you will be rewarded in kind.