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Teach and travel: Instructors packing up and spreading English around the globe

Have a yearn to learn, teach and travel?

Teaching English overseas provides a viable way to travel the globe while getting paid.

Globally, almost 1 billion people enroll in English classes annually. In 2015, China education employers sought 100,000 Western English teachers to meet market demands.

It’s called TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), and the numerous acronyms that dot the industry mean essentially the same thing. TEFL certifications of varying hours (with 100 plus hours typically preferred) are available online or offered at some universities/colleges like Carnegie Mellon, University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, Slippery Rock, Chatham and La Roche College.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree (required in most countries) and their TEFL certificates (that never expire), passports and visas, English teachers can job hunt in more than 50 countries and find a locale that beckons.

Kayla Robinson, 27, and Lori DeChellis, 41, both Kiski Area High School alumni, currently teach English overseas, in Hungary and Peru, respectively. Both say they have no plans to move back to the U.S. anytime soon. Robinson adores Budapest, where she teaches children at a private school, while DeChellis teaches adults.

“I was restless after graduating college,” says Robinson on her decision to move from Pittsburgh to Shanghai, China, her initial English teaching gig. “The thought of putting down roots somewhere in the states wasn’t appealing to me right after college.

“(China) was fantastic. I had free housing, no rent or utilities, and I traveled to Athens, Greece, for a summer, teaching adults there,” Robinson says.

DeChellis was hired in India after university.

“I was interested in learning about the culture there,” she says.

Next up was a few months in Tunisia. “I didn’t like it there as much,” she says.

She landed in Peru, loves the country and distinctly non-American cultural aspects, such as seeing guinea pig on the menu and donning yellow underwear for good luck on New Year’s.

Jen Donehoo, 33, of Bellevue always wanted to live in another country.

“I want to live in Japan forever,” she says. Donehoo lives in Nagoya with her husband.

She offers advice for prospective teachers in choosing a country — “Be flexible. Try new things even if you feel uncomfortable.”

Not just for recent college grads

Data from Language Corps reflect a changing TEFL teacher demographic, with working adults over age 30 comprising the larger percentage of those earning certificates.

David Cutler, TESOL International Association policy and communications manager, says there isn’t a reporting tool available to track the number of English teachers from the U.S.

“People are teaching full time, part time or tutoring individual students,” Cutler says.

Countries recruit English teachers of all ages. Some countries have age minimums and maximums, but there are no age restrictions in Russia, Turkey, India and Uganda.

Rob McCurdy, 58 and single, of Encinitas, Calif., is no stranger to travel, having traversed the globe, and says teaching English will likely be a “semi-retirement vocation for me. It’s something I enjoy, is worthwhile and I’m good at it.”

McCurdy’s first English teaching job, a part-time summer stint, took him to areas of Russia — Saratov and Kuznetsk — not frequented by foreigners.

“I took a couple of Frisbees (they’d never seen one) and American footballs,” McCurdy says.

His Russian teaching highlight? A surprise from his students in Kuznetsk that left him humbled.

“I walked into a surprise party (for his 58th birthday) that was beyond what my words can describe. There were well-rehearsed songs, dance, homemade foods, gifts, the school dance team performed, a teacher played guitar and a classic folk song was sung. It was an unbelievable and genuine display of love. From then on, everywhere I went in Russia, I could see them treating each other, consistently, with kindness and affection.”

Perks and pay

Countries sweeten their teacher contracts (usually one or two years in duration) with teacher perks such as free housing, tax-free monthly pay and bonuses.

Robinson received an annual teaching bonus in the $7,000 to $9,000 range while she was in China. “That is really nice,” Robinson says. “Monthly salaries depends on where you are living.”

According to the International TEFL Academy website, English teachers rake in bigger bucks in South Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan and the Persian Gulf region, where tax-free monthly salaries range from $2,000 to $5,000.

South American countries offer the lowest pay, averaging $900 to $1,500 per month.

Additional perks may include airfare reimbursement, furnished housing and free health insurance.

“China and many countries in the Middle East have both the money to market, hire, house and often train teachers, as well as large populations eager to learn English in-country or abroad in order to make themselves more marketable,” says Eleanor Henning, project manager at TESOL International Association.

Chase Zelechowski, 22 and single, of Beaver County, moved to Cucuta, Columbia, at age 19, teaching English to “about 30 students that had basically failed English already,” he says.

Zelechowski lived in a basic cinderblock house and notes it was “the most exposure to poverty I’ve had.” Fluent in Spanish, Zelechowski says the students respected him more because he knew their language while trying to teach his native English. English teachers aren’t required to speak other languages, one misconception many teachers want to clarify.

Zelechowski embraced Western music as a teaching tool. “We would rap the alphabet, songs and vocab lists. It’s an experience I wouldn’t change for the world,” he says.

Shea O’Rourke, 31, of Brookline currently lives in Shanghai, China, and says she stumbled into teaching.

“I never thought in a million years I would enjoy teaching,” O’Rourke says. “I have a newfound respect for teachers. It can be overwhelming at times and you need to have a lot of patience working with children that have absolutely no idea what you are saying at times.”

O’Rourke teaches many children who hail from wealthy families and are often unfiltered in their conversations.

“Kids will tell you anything,” O’Rourke says. “A girl’s grandfather dropped her off at class one day and when I asked her where her mother was, she replied her mom was getting a facelift.”

Robinson’s mom, Lisa, plans to visit Hungary, her first trip abroad, this summer.

“If it weren’t for Kayla teaching abroad, I would probably never leave the U.S.,” Lisa says. “She loves Europe, and over time I have slowly come to realize that she isn’t coming back anytime soon. Thank goodness for modern technology and the Internet, so we can stay connected easily.”

Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.


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Chase Zelechowski (holding sign) of Beaver County taught English at a private high school to about 30 students for a year in the jungle town of Cucuta, Columbia in 2015. He currently resides in the Pittsburgh region and plans to travel abroad again.
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Kiski Area High School alumnus Kayla Robinson of Washington Township currently teaches English abroad at The English School of Budapest in Hungary. She has previously taught in Shanghai, China and Athens, Greece. Here, a student practices her English during a classroom visit from Santa.
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Kayla Robinson of Washington Township began her teaching English abroad career in Shanghai, China. Here, she is pictured with her ninth-grade English Literature students at Shanghai High School International Division.
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A view of Budapest’s parliament along the Danube River. Kayla Robinson notes the Parliament and castle across the river are illuminated nightly.
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Shea O'Rourke volunteered to take kids from the Hunan Province to Shanghai's Wild Animal Park. They come from very poor villages and are victims of HIV. She is 31 years old and currently living in host housing in Shanghai, China. She is from Brookline and says teaching English abroad is one of the best decisions she has ever made.
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Shea O'Rourke and one of her students shortly after she arrived in China.
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TEFL teacher Rob McCurdy, 58, of Encinitas, Calif., poses with Russian students during a tour of “Hill of Glory,” a WW II monument in Kuznetsk, Russia, during his 2017 summer job.
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Lori Dechellis,41, Kiski Area High School alumnus living in Peru for almost four years. She teaches English to adults and plans to stay in Peru longer. She is shown with her students during a graduation ceremony.
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