Living in Cambodia and China: Interview With An English Teacher Abroad
If you’re considering teaching abroad in Asia, this post is for you. Good friends of ours that we met while living in China, Jen and Stevo, have taught English abroad in China, Cambodia, and online for a total of 7 years!
They definitely know the ins and outs of this type of job.
Read on to learn what it’s like to live in China and Cambodia, what an English teacher can expect to get paid, what qualifications you’ll need and more. Plus, they share what it’s like to teach English online.
Here we go!
Thanks for chatting with us! Please tell everyone a bit about yourselves.
Hey, we’re Jen and Stevo! We’re originally from southern California in the US, but we’ve been living abroad in Asia since 2011.
We had always wanted to travel together, but at the time we were both living with our families and we didn’t have much money saved yet to do it. So we decided to move abroad to teach English so we could work, travel, and save.
We had planned to go abroad for a year and travel for a few months when we finished our teaching contracts. After that first year, we realized we loved living abroad and enjoyed teaching.
We were also excited about the possibilities of carving our own path. So we kept going!
We taught in schools for seven years in China and Cambodia.
We traveled as much as possible between our teaching contracts and during school holidays. Now we teach English online so we can travel full-time!
Right now we’re in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We arrived just before the country shut their borders and have been quarantined at a house sit here since mid-March 2020. Before Malaysia, we were in Thailand for two months.
What made you decide to become teachers? Did you have any prior experience?
Teaching was a means for us to go abroad and have new experiences, so that’s what drew us to it. Both of us had prior experience working with kids and teaching a bit.
I had volunteered as a teacher in the Cambodian countryside for six months after graduating from university in 2009. Stevo had been a swimming instructor for many years and also worked with special needs and at-risk kids in California.
So while neither of us had ever taught ESL in a formal classroom setting, we did have some experience.
We did a TESOL certification (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course in California before we left for China. But honestly, nothing truly prepares you for teaching in a classroom like just doing it and learning through experience!
Where in the world have you taught English? How did you find your teaching jobs?
We’ve found teaching jobs in several different ways.
In 2011, the company we got our TESOL certificates through offered job placement and connected us to recruiters, which is how we found our first job.
To find our next teaching jobs in China, we used websites like Dave’s ESL Cafe and TeachAway. We got connected to more recruiters through those job posting sites and they frequently messaged us about job openings.
We had a Skype interview for the job we took in Yangzhou, China while we were traveling in Cambodia.
For the job in Shanghai, while we were living in Yangzhou, we went to the school twice for in-person interviews.
When we moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2015, we didn’t have teaching jobs lined up.
Cambodia doesn’t have anywhere near the teacher recruiting systems set up for schools like China does. So we went around to schools to drop off resumes in person and contacted schools directly through their websites and by phone.
We also utilized contacts we had made on previous trips to Cambodia who were very generous to connect us to people. We both found jobs in Phnom Penh within a couple of months.
What was your experience like teaching English in China and Cambodia?!
We’ve had a really mixed bag of experiences teaching in China and Cambodia.
Our first job in Mudanjiang, China was at a language center for kids ages 4-16. We were the only two foreign teachers at our school and we both taught hundreds of students every week, moving from classroom to classroom.
In fact, we didn’t see another foreigner in that city at all for the first two months that we lived there!
Honestly, we hadn’t looked too closely at where Mudanjiang was on a map before signing our contracts. It turned out that it’s in the northeast pocket of China, sandwiched between Russia and North Korea.
The city had below 0° temperatures for 6 months out of the year. We got icicles on our eyelashes walking to work!
Being in such a remote part of China meant that we needed to learn Chinese to survive. We ended up learning quite a bit just through living there.
We got close with some of our students’ families and ended up making some good friends. One of our students eventually moved to the US for college and he even spent a couple of Christmases with our families in California!
Living in Mudanjiang was quite an experience, one we are glad we had but wouldn’t repeat.
After that year in the middle of nowhere, we were ready to be somewhere with more going on and a bigger expat community.
Our next jobs were at an IELTS training center in Yangzhou, China. We were teaching students who were preparing to take their IELTS exams so they could continue their studies abroad in English-speaking countries.
Our students were in high school, university, and adults, so it was very different from our first job. We enjoyed having more in-depth conversations with older students.
The community of other teachers and expats in Yangzhou was so much fun! There were always things going on, and we have such good memories with the people we met there, including Nick and Dariece!
We also continued studying Chinese through websites like Memrise and ended up getting certified for HSK level 2 Chinese language proficiency during our time there.
We traveled to Shanghai several times while living in Yangzhou since it was just a four-hour train ride away. We loved the city and decided we wanted to move there next to teach.
In the 2013-2014 school year we got jobs as homeroom teachers at a big international school about an hour outside the city center. I taught first grade and Stevo taught third grade.
We really liked being homeroom teachers and having our own classes, but the school itself was a miserable place to be in a lot of ways.
Stevo and I are very positive and hardworking teachers, but the environment there was wearing on us. We tried to improve things and stick it out, but in the end we broke our contracts and left that job.
We were the 9th and 10th teachers to quit the school that year.
While working at that school wasn’t a great experience, we met so many awesome people in Shanghai and loved living in the city.
While we were there, Stevo started doing stand up comedy at the Kung Fu Komedy Club. His comedy has since become a big part of our travels!
Did you need to have any qualifications to get a job teaching in China and Cambodia?
To get a teaching job in China, you usually need a university degree and at least a 120-hour TEFL, TESOL, or CELTA certificate. Prior teaching experience isn’t always necessary, but you can earn more money if you have teaching experience.
In Cambodia, it’s easier to find a job at the bigger international schools if you have a degree, a TEFL or similar certification, and teaching experience.
It is possible to find a job at an English language school if you don’t have a degree, and we met many teachers in that position.
As I mentioned earlier, when finding a teaching job in Cambodia it can be easier to apply once you are actually in the country and can visit schools yourself.
The exception to this is if you are a very experienced and qualified teacher and are applying to work at a big international school.
In that case, it is better to apply from abroad because you will usually be offered more benefits in your contract, such as flights. It’s always a good idea to check out school websites ahead of time to see what their requirements are and what their teacher hiring process entails.
How much does an English teacher in China and Cambodia earn per month?
I’ll split them up into the different jobs we had:
At our first jobs in Mudanjiang, China we were teaching about 30 hours per week, six days a week and made about $1200 USD per month.
The school was an extracurricular program for students so we mainly taught in the afternoons, early evenings and on weekends.
The school provided us with a two-bedroom apartment that was about a 10-minute walk from the school. We also got compensation for our flights to and from China, four weeks paid leave, and medical insurance.
Our next jobs in Yangzhou paid about $1600 USD per month, and we worked five days a week. We never had weekends off since those were the busiest times for students, so our off days were always mid-week.
Housing wasn’t included in our contract, but we found a great apartment for $400 a month and bought bicycles so we could ride to school and get around the city easily.
Medical insurance was covered through that job, and they paid for our flights to and from China. They also covered a trip for us to Hong Kong when we needed to renew our visas!
Our jobs in Shanghai paid about $2200 USD per month.
Housing wasn’t included, but we had top tier medical insurance and they paid for our flights to and from China. The school offered bus pickup for teachers who lived in the city to get to and from school, which took a little over an hour each way.
We got a couple of weeks of paid vacation during the Chinese New Year holiday, but otherwise got very little time off. We even had to work on Christmas, which felt so strange!
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
In Cambodia, I worked at a small international school all three years we were there teaching first grade. I made between $1700-1800 per month.
My school offered some medical compensation, and we had a three-week paid winter holiday.
One unfortunate part was that my contracts were 10 months long, so I wasn’t paid for the summer holidays. Though I did really appreciate that time off so we could travel!
Stevo worked at several different schools in Phnom Penh as a teacher and administrator, and even as an IT specialist and swimming teacher. He made anywhere from $1300-$1800 per month. We had bicycles to get around the city, or took tuk-tuks.
Negotiate Your Rate!
One thing to know is that you can always negotiate your contract before you sign. State your case for why you want higher pay or more benefits based on your experience, work ethic, and what you can bring to the job. The worst they can say is no.
What are the pros and cons of teaching abroad in China and Cambodia?
We are so glad that we had both experiences working and living in China and Cambodia.
China is a very exciting place to be. The culture, the food, the language, the scenery, it’s all so diverse and different from anywhere we had lived before.
Every day felt like an adventure. As far as teaching goes, the pay in China tends to be higher, so that is a definite pro.
There were frustrations at times living in China. When we first moved there, every day was challenging since we didn’t speak the language and literally nothing in that city was in English.
We found out several months in that the restaurant across the street from our apartment building was called “Dog Meat Restaurant.” Thankfully it was expensive, so we had never eaten there!
When we were in a bad situation with our jobs in Shanghai, life was not-so-fun.
By the time we left China in 2014, we were more than ready to go. But we learned a lot through all of our different experiences teaching in China about what we wanted and didn’t want for our work/life balance.
When we moved to Cambodia, we knew we wanted to live close to where we worked to cut down on our commute time. We also loved the free feeling of living in Southeast Asia, and really appreciated the weather!
Cambodia is a beautiful country with such friendly people. Although we made less money than in China, our expenses were also lower, and our overall happiness was much higher.
It’s important to nail down what the priorities are in your life, and to know when something isn’t working and make a change.
There are so many pros to teaching in schools. Connecting with co-workers, students, and their families is probably the best part.
The cons, as many teachers can attest to, are dealing with administration and school owners whose focus is on the money coming into the school.
It can be frustrating knowing changes need to be made to help your students, but not having much control to make those changes. At the end of the day, unless you are at a public school, most schools are run as businesses first.
You now teach English online with VIPKID! Would you recommend online teaching?
Our only regret with online teaching is that we didn’t start doing it sooner! We had no idea how great it would be, and how much freedom it would give us!
We have been teaching online with VIPKID since May 2019. We love the company because you can design your own schedule, there is minimal lesson prep, and it’s honestly really fun!
Working with students is the best part of teaching, and we get to focus on that.
So far we’ve taught online from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, and the USA.
Since we design our own schedules we can take time off when we want to. This past year we took a month off from teaching to travel in Bali. We also spent two months in the US with our families over the holiday season and barely taught during that time.
Teaching online also frees us up to work on other projects and things we are passionate about.
I’ve started coaching other aspiring online teachers through the hiring process with VIPKID. That has been really fun and rewarding since I know firsthand how life-changing online teaching can be!
VIPKID only hires teachers from the USA and Canada. You need to have a Bachelor’s degree and at least one year of experience working with kids, whether that’s as a teacher, a tutor, a mentor, a babysitter, etc.
If you don’t meet these qualifications (such as not having a university degree), there are plenty of other online teaching platforms out there that hire English teachers from lots of different backgrounds.
Click here to learn more about becoming an English teacher with VIPKID and working anywhere in the world!
Any final advice for an aspiring English teacher?
Teaching abroad is an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture.
Getting to work with local people and with your students and their families gives you a chance to get to know a place much better than you likely could as a tourist.
The friends you make while living abroad may become lifelong pals. The experiences you share at that unique point in your lives can really bond you.
Teaching, if you enjoy it, is very rewarding. Learning a new language is a skill that can serve your students for their whole lives, so it’s awesome to help motivate them and see their progress.
Teaching online is amazing for different reasons. We have so much freedom now to travel when we want to, design our own schedules, and spend more time on other projects and activities that we couldn’t fit into our schedules before.
If you are pursuing the digital nomad lifestyle, teaching online is a great way to make money while you build up other streams of income.
Many online teachers use it to fully fund their travels. The important thing is to figure out a balance between teaching and traveling that works for you.
If you have any questions about teaching abroad in China or Cambodia or teaching online, check out our website.
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