Real Life Teach Abroad Salary Negotiations & What You Can Learn From Them

by Suzanne Bhagan

While the opportunity to teach abroad may seem like a dream come true for many ESL teachers, that’s not the end of the story. Although some teaching programs leave no wiggle room for negotiations, in other circumstances you may be able to leverage your credentials and experience to receive a better offer. Many ESL teachers fail to realize that they don’t necessarily have to take the first offer on the table and that they can negotiate salary and other benefits.

Here are some real life stories about salary and ESL contract negotiations that can prep you for the big conversation before you start your new teaching job abroad:

You should find out the true cost of living.

Veteran ESL teacher Matthew Jellick, who has taught in Mexico, Ethiopia, South Korea and New Zealand, says that when he negotiates salary, he usually compares the offer to a salary in his home country, the U.S. He also considers the unique circumstances of his desired teaching location, specifically its cost of living. In order to get an unbiased opinion about the true cost of living, Matthew usually reaches out to teachers who have been living and teaching in the location for some time by searching for them in relevant expat forums. ESL teachers can also use Numbeo or check out teaching program reviews written by past teachers.

Similarly, Chad Buckwalter, who spent five years teaching in China, indicates that ESL teachers should know the real cost of living in a particular location in order to weed out bad contracts. Being armed with this knowledge will also ensure that teachers know how much they need to budget to maintain or improve their individual lifestyles. He explains that many teachers come to China thinking they will make a lot of money, but instead, just make enough to get by and do some traveling on the side. On the contrary, the higher salaries go to the teachers who are in the country for the long haul, are better qualified, and who have grown accustomed to living conditions in China.

Kimberly Griffin also taught English in China for four and a half years and states that lifestyle choices can affect how much you should negotiate. For example, she spent one year living and eating like a local and was able to save and send money home every month (great for chipping away at student debt). However, when she chose to live like an expat by living in a more expensive apartment, eating in more pricey restaurants, shopping in the malls and getting weekly massages and mani/pedis, the costs quickly grew and she wasn’t able to save as much.

International teachers during lesson planning

You must know the salary range for the position you want.

Chad says that many ESL teachers do not negotiate their first teaching positions in China because they don’t know that they have the power to do so. He suggests that one way ESL teachers can negotiate salary is by finding out the salary range for the city, country, and type of school they plan to teach in. One way teachers can do this is by checking out a salary expectation calculator.

Chad says that in China, salaries can vary significantly according to the size of the city, the type of school and even the school’s location. For example, regarding the type of school, international schools in China tend to offer the best pay and benefits while many Chinese public schools and training centers may offer lower salary offers that ESL teachers should negotiate. Chad advises that ESL teachers should talk to teachers that currently teach in the schools and in the cities or regions they wish to teach in.

Be sure to know your benefits.

ESL teachers should find out what the total contractual offer includes. Standard contracts will include salary, but better teaching contracts will cover other worthy benefits, such as health insurance, housing, traveling allowances, paid leave, and bonuses. If a school only offers a salary, ESL teachers should negotiate for a higher salary to offset other costs, such as health insurance, travel expenses, and rent.

Kimberly also remembers receiving her first teaching contract. Like many other first-time ESL teachers in China, she was not given the opportunity to negotiate any of her contractual terms, because the job was a mandatory requirement of her international studies master’s program. In spite of this, her initial contract included some important benefits, such as a sign on bonus to offset initial rent and moving costs, round trip airfare upon completion, a monthly housing stipend, visa and resident permit costs, pre-arrival medical exam costs, health insurance, and sick/vacation days.

Depending on the school’s resources and the length of your teaching contract (one to three years), teachers may be able to negotiate for small, but essential, benefits, such as airport pickup and transfers, accommodation costs while looking for an apartment, travel insurance, contract completion bonus, paid vacation days apart from national holidays and sick days, and the total number of teaching contact hours. Teachers should also look out for loopholes that require teachers to attend events and handle additional responsibilities outside of school hours.

Similarly, Jameela Rodriguez, who teaches English in Japan, with the JET Program, says that it leaves no room for negotiation, but the benefits are generous when compared to similar Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) positions in Japan. On average, JET participants receive subsidized housing, visa and resident card costs, round trip airfare, airport pickup and transfers, and health insurance, among others.

Teachers on their break abroad

Familiarize yourself with the work culture.

It’s always important for ESL teachers to research each country’s work culture before using Western standards of job etiquette during the interview process. In certain countries, it may not be considered culturally appropriate for first time teachers to negotiate items like salary. For example, if you plan to teach English in Japan, it may be deemed culturally insensitive to discuss salary before taking the job, especially if the market is competitive. However, this doesn’t mean that negotiation never happens. One teacher in Tokyo says that, although she was unable to negotiate salary before accepting the job, she was able to get a raise after working for a while and proving to her employers that she was worth more.

Fight for what you’re worth.

Chad advises that ESL teachers who have taught for many years should not settle for first and second offers that are not commensurate with their experience. If the offers are too low, teachers should reexamine whether the school or region can to afford to pay teachers a higher salary. In such a case, ESL teachers should seek better-paying opportunities. In spite of his loyalty to certain educational institutions, Chad himself had to move on when the cost of living kept increasing and his pay grade remained the same.

Similarly, when Kimberly completed her master’s degree, she returned to the school she had previously taught in to negotiate a second contract. However, they refused to budge, only offering her a small increase in salary. She suggests that ESL teachers actively look for companies that can complement and value their experience and expertise. This is important because hiring foreign teachers can sometimes cost three to ten times more than hiring a local ESL teacher. She explains that many foreign teachers who work for smaller schools are pressured by management to show their worth by working beyond the call of duty, in spite of stipulated contractual hours of work. Instead, she advises foreign teachers to seek jobs with large international corporations who can afford to negotiate contractual terms.

Other important tips to keep in mind when negotiating your teach abroad salary:

Kimberly advises that ESL teachers ensure that contracts are signed both in English and the language of the host country. For example, in China, teachers must often ask for this to be done if it is not the norm. Teachers should also review, sign, and return contracts to the employer before departing from their home countries; this ensures that schools and companies do not change terms after the teacher has already arrived in the foreign country.

International teachers during orientation

So, there you have it. When considering teaching in a foreign country, always remember to do your research regarding the cost of living of your chosen location, the salary range for the job you seek and the work culture.

Finally, remember that salary isn’t everything. If your employer isn’t prepared to negotiate pay, then don’t forget to consider negotiating other important benefits. Although teaching contract negotiations may seem intimidating at first, it’s an essential step to ensuring that you are compensated for what you are worth while teaching abroad