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Pipe Dream or Possibility? Moving Abroad to Teach English During the Pandemic

An ESL teacher works with students abroad

Missouri resident, English teacher, and blogger, Kristin Blake, has wanted to move to France since high school when her French teacher introduced her to French language and culture. She made good on that plan in January 2020 by applying for an English teaching program in the South of France and expected to hear if she had been accepted by April. Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, countries closed their borders, and her plans seemed to have been thwarted.

“This desire to teach English abroad has been quite the adventure. I started my application last October, pressed ‘submit’ in January, and was supposed to hear back in early April. But of course, the virus delayed acceptance results,” Kristin told BridgeUniverse in an interview. “Even when I was accepted to the program in June, the email included the fact that Americans still weren’t allowed to travel to the European Union and that under current restrictions, we still couldn’t enter.”

Take a look at this teach abroad timeline to prepare yourself for teaching abroad during COVID-19.

Kristin is not the only English language teacher whose plans to teach abroad were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Bridge survey of English language teachers found that 33.3% of respondents had either postponed or canceled plans to move abroad to teach in 2020 (figure 1), with 71% of those citing the pandemic as a reason for their change of plan (figure 2).

teaching abroad during covid

Figure 1

teaching English abroad during covid

Figure 2

Anxieties about health and safety in a foreign country when teaching abroad during COVID-19 are understandable. On top of that, some countries, such as China, are currently not allowing foreigners other than those with a previous residency permit into the country at all. Many European Union nations have tight restrictions, including COVID testing and lists of green- and red-lighted countries from which they will or will not accept travelers. Others still are more open but include stipulations on testing before travel and buying health insurance that includes COVID-19 coverage. All of this leads to higher travel costs. Additionally, keeping abreast of constantly changing travel requirements and restrictions is a stressor that many prospective international teachers may not want to deal with.

“Teaching English abroad can be stressful in any given year, but with COVID in the mix, it only complicated things. The actual process of applying was fairly simple, as was being assigned to my schools. But the most stressful part of the process was living in limbo,” Blake says.

And yet, the desire and drive to move abroad to teach English remains strong, despite the risks posed by the new coronavirus. Some 57% of teachers surveyed by Bridge want to start teaching abroad within the next year (figure 3), and 79% said they would consider teaching abroad even before a vaccine for COVID-19 was introduced and the pandemic was considered to be officially under control (figure 4).

teaching abroad during covid stats

Figure 3

teaching abroad during covid-19

Figure 4

Uncertainty, health worries, lockdowns, COVID-19 tests, costly travel, and constantly changing goalposts may seem to have halted the movement of ESL teachers abroad, but BridgeUniverse has investigated if it is possible to move to a new country to teach during the pandemic and, if so, where, and what hurdles need to be overcome to get there.

See how coronavirus has impacted TEFL teachers’ careers.

China closed but other Asian markets are open for business

China, which has become the world’s biggest English language teaching (ELT) market, with huge demand for teachers from English-speaking countries, at the time of writing still had heavy restrictions in place for non-resident foreigners entering the country.

“There is definitely a long-term impact on the recruitment process. It will really depend on the countries where the candidates are from.”

Chinease LTD, an international education recruitment company based in Manchester, England has felt the effects of the prolonged Chinese border closure acutely. “There is definitely a long-term impact on the recruitment process. It will really depend on the countries where the candidates are from. […] the situation in the UK is worse now. It will take more time to get back to normal. There will be a new normal as schools and businesses reopen,” Yawar Ur Rahman, Business Development Manager at Chinease, told BridgeUniverse.

“Since our positions are only in China with the focus on EFL teachers from the UK, we are not aware of other countries that are completely closed for foreign EFL teachers. China has put forward strict restrictions for candidates who can enter, and only teachers who have valid residency permits can enter China at the moment,” he says. The recruitment process for positions opening in the future continues, however.

In other Asian markets, restrictions have eased following successful measures to contain the virus and life is now going on almost as normal, which is good news for any teacher set on making the move to teach in Asia before the COVID-19 crisis is resolved.

“Things haven’t changed much for us. We’re connected with hundreds of university career centers in seven countries and have continued working with them as usual,” says Carrie Kellenberger, Co-President of Reach to Teach, an ESL teacher placement service with offices in Taiwan, South Korea, and the US, that mainly helps teachers find positions in Asia. “Right now, we are full steam ahead for Taiwan and South Korea. I’d say we have more teachers than ever because we’ve been able to work with them throughout the placement process and they’ve all arrived safe and sound,” Kellenberger adds.

Since the start of the pandemic in March, Kellenberger’s company has hired teachers for jobs in South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, and recruiting continues. “We are always looking for more schools and we’re ready to assist schools as needed. […] we still have over 30 positions available in Taiwan [for qualified teachers] between now and December,” she says, adding that Reach to Teach is still looking to fill those roles.

Despite both Taiwan and South Korea being open to teachers, there are factors that still need to be taken into consideration, and flexibility is key. “Prepping teachers for quarantine has been the most challenging aspect,” Kellenberger says. “We’re also extremely grateful to our teachers for rolling with all the changes. Governments change the rules frequently as they receive new information about the pandemic. We ask that teachers be flexible and adaptable […]. It’s stressful for them, especially with last-minute changes, but they all get through it and we’re with them every step of the way.”

Teachers in Asia share what it was like returning to the classroom during coronavirus.

Teachers moving to the Middle East and Europe face distancing measures

Recruitment of teachers for positions in the Middle East and Europe has also been increasing, according to recruiters contacted by BridgeUniverse. “Fifty-seven teachers have moved [through us] from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to UAE, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Germany,” says Arsalan Mureed, Managing Director of TESOLHOME, an ESL teacher recruitment agency that also runs a popular job vacancy board. He adds that the process of recruiting has become more complex because of border restrictions and candidates having to take COVID-19 PCR tests ahead of travel.

EFL teacher working abroad with children.

An EFL teacher, Nancy Gbongbon from Africa, teaching abroad in Turkey last year.

Teachers in these markets face a different kind of classroom than before the pandemic. According to Mureed, students and teachers must keep a physical distance of at least one meter from each other, desks in schools must also be spaced out to at least one meter apart, there are staggered start and end times for classes to avoid potential cross-contamination, and there are significant restrictions on mixing students from regular class and after-school activities. These measures make for a very different day-to-day experience for teachers choosing to move abroad as the COVID crisis continues.

Mureed is optimistic, however, that things will eventually get back to normal, despite the current obstacles. “I mainly recruit for UAE, KSA, Qatar, Oman, and European countries. Some teachers are still waiting for border restrictions to be lifted, however. We have more than 50 teachers who have signed the contract for China,” Mureed says, confirming that China remains closed to new hires and adding that he believes the recruitment process may go back to normal “in July 2021.”

The courageous few going it alone

Using recruiters is one way of ensuring you have solid information about current travel restrictions and requirements before traveling, but some intrepid teachers BridgeUniverse spoke to are even making the move abroad without securing jobs ahead of time.

Chinju Ravi, an ESL teacher originally from Kerala in India, but currently teaching in Mauritius, plans to move to Ukraine in October. He has yet to line up a job there but is confident he will. “I haven’t secured any job yet; I will go and find out. I can get a job easily. Ukraine is welcoming expats and I’m grateful for that,” he tells BridgeUniverse. Chinju, who taught in Thailand and Armenia before moving to Mauritius, took just 15 days to secure a D-type working visa for Ukraine. “I can’t say for now that I won’t have to quarantine when I arrive,” he says, but at the time of the interview both Mauritius and India were what Ukraine calls Green Zone countries whose citizens do not have to self-isolate on arrival in the country.

“I have a job lined up working for an online platform that allows me to work with any schedule I prefer. This new opportunity to work from anywhere and keep myself safe helped me confidently move to Mexico and not feel worried about finding a job or covering expenses.”

Manchester, England-based ESL teacher Sarah Kowash decided to move to teach abroad soon after lockdown was imposed in the UK at the end of March. “I moved from Manchester to Dubai and then to Barcelona and it was all during the quarantine,” she told BridgeUniverse.

As her regular teaching job moved entirely online, the pandemic actually gave her greater freedom to move from home. “If it wasn’t for my job moving online in March, I couldn’t have left Manchester until September, so I wouldn’t have had the freedom to get the support of my family and the freedom to start my new life in a new country,” she explains. “I flew out on the first available flight to Dubai to stay with my parents for a few months, all while teaching online, and then I moved to Barcelona [in August] to find a job on the ground while I still had a month left on my fixed-term contract,” she says.

On the other side of the Atlantic, and despite major restrictions on Americans traveling around the globe, newly certified ESL teacher Canyon Zody plans to move to Mexico to teach at the end of October, albeit online. He decided to make the move to Mexico after he lost his job managing a nightclub in San Francisco due to the pandemic.

“I have a job lined up working for an online platform that allows me to work with any schedule I prefer,” he says, adding, “This new opportunity to work from anywhere and keep myself safe helped me confidently move to Mexico and not feel worried about finding a job or covering expenses.” His reasons for moving will be familiar to anyone who has ever wanted to work abroad, pandemic or not. “The benefits to living in Mexico are the culture, weather, people, an increased sense of adventure, and independence,” he says.

Take a look at 7 reasons to teach online now before going abroad.

Persistence pays off, but it is not for the faint of heart

BridgeUniverse has found that teaching abroad during COVID-19 is possible. Teachers should, however, be prepared to go through a potentially fraught and complex process to achieve that goal. In this respect, Kristin Blake’s move to France can serve as both inspiration and a cautionary tale.

Kristin arrived in Marseille in late September. She is very happy that she persisted and made the move to France, but there were many obstacles to getting there, and keeping on top of very specific travel restrictions and rules, as well as finding creative ways to solve logistical problems, were key to her success.

ESL teacher in France

ESL teacher, Kristin Blake, in Marseille, France.

Before being allowed to travel, she had to fly to Los Angeles for a visa appointment. “The offices that were closer to me (D.C., New York, Chicago, and Boston) all required a 14-day quarantine for people from my state. And I did not have time to spare, as my contract date did not change. I messaged with a woman in my program who didn’t realize she was from a high-risk state by Chicago’s guidelines, and the visa office sent her home,” she explains.

“France requires several additional documents about not having COVID symptoms as well as a negative PCR COVID test taken no more than 72 hours before international departure,” she says. Getting the test within the time limit was a test in itself, “My flight was on a Tuesday, and I asked my doctor for a script to get a COVID test. She told me that with labs being closed on the weekend, it would not be possible to get my test taken and results back within the time frame. […] Eventually, I took a gamble with an urgent care center that had a 7-day lab, and insurance covered the whole cost. My results came in a little over 48 hours later, the night before my flight.”

Kristin’s trip from Missouri to France, via New Jersey, also involved convincing airport staff that her French travel visa was legitimate, that her COVID-19 test taken almost exactly 72 hours ahead of her flight was still valid, and that she would be allowed into the country at all. In the end, she was allowed to travel at the risk of being turned back on arrival.

“There have been so many hurdles to my arrival in France, but I’m a go-getter. And living in France has been my dream for a long time, and I wasn’t about to let it go too easily,” Kristin says. “The world is topsy-turvy right now, but it’s that way just about everywhere. Part of the reason I moved here was for cultural immersion, and sure, there are still barriers, but I don’t regret my decision one bit.”

Catarina is a content writer, journalist, and translator based in Portugal. She started her professional journey as an ESL teacher and later transitioned to writing. She is bilingual in Portuguese and English and loves to discover new places and experience different ways of life.