Having spent the last three and a half years as and EFL teacher in Taiwan, and having seen an extremely wide variety of schools, I like to consider myself to knowledgeable about the English industry here. When I first arrived, I knew nothing. At my first job, I worked at a Sesame Street branch, and earned less than a sixth of what I had previously been making at home. I was paid $500NT per class hour with no raises in sight. In other words I did three paid hours per day at about $15USD, plus another hour of unpaid preparation work. Now, I’m making $1150NT (about $36USD), with more hours and a $50 raise every six months for as long as I stay. Admittedly, my prep-time has increased, but there are no two ways about it- I’m doing a heck of a lot better than I was a couple of years ago.

So, what’s changed? Well, I have gained teaching skills and language skills, but they aren’t the crucial element. The biggest change is just that I’ve changed my way of looking at employment in Taiwan (and in general). Rather than looking at employment as a situation where I hope a boss will give me what I deserve, I now look at it as a situation in which I’ll earn what I want.

Today, I saw a post on David’s blog, in which he wrote about how his pay as an English teacher since his recent return to Taiwan compares with what he made in 1999. Basically, in terms of Australian dollars, he’s only making 9% more now than he was then, despite the vast improvements in his Chinese speaking abilities and the extensive teaching experience he’s accumulated over the past 7 years. He says that employers find him an attractive candidate, but they just don’t offer him that much money.

I am sure there are some jobs out there which do actually reward people for their qualifications and experience, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Often jobs that require a B.Ed. or Master’s degree offer salaries that are little different from what an FOB gets paid for working in a kindergarten.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years, it’s that appealing to an employer’s sense of justice is a tough, tough way to go. While employers may feel, in an abstract sort of way, that somebody with a master’s degree is more deserving of a job, they won’t usually cough up much more than an extra 10% more money for it. It’s frustrating for the person who’s invested years of study and thousands of dollars to get the degree, but it is rational. How much benefit will a school, particularly a cram school or a high school, derive from having a teacher with a master’s degree?

The only effective way I’ve found of getting paid more, is to appeal to an employer’s greed. It’s only by acquiring the skills necessary to attract a large number of loyal customers that any employee can have much sway over his or her employer. In the software world, this isn’t so uncommon. Having a key skill that a company needs in order to make a certain product, is enough. As an EFL teacher, the task is more difficult, and the (monetary) rewards are usually much smaller. Still, there are customers. The students or, in the case of children, their parents are the customers. By providing something they really want, a teacher can make a lot of money for a school. In this sort of situation negotiating higher pay is very doable. Having a master’s degree in a related field isn’t a bad start, but in order to translate into a higher salary, it has to be leveraged into an educational experience that people want to pay for.

Obviously, not all employers are willing to pay more for an exceptional employee. Some may be so set in their ways that they’ll refuse to break the mold, even when they see an opportunity to make more money themselves. Many others will just be oblivious to those sorts of opportunities. Fortunately, there are many, many employers to chose from. In general, regardless of your job, the more individual accountability you have, the more opportunities you’ll have to differentiate yourself from your colleagues. A school in which each class is taught by one and only one teacher would be a good place to start looking. If there are no co-teachers, and your classes are consistently fuller than those of other teachers, your value to the school will increase. If your students acquire more fluent and more correct English than those in other classes or schools, and new students arrive specifically asking to join your classes, then your value will rise another notch.

Accountability does have a hard edge, though, as your shortcomings will be impossible to blame on others. Maybe the school I described above isn’t the best place for a teacher new in Taiwan to start. As Paul Graham said in his excellent essay titled , “How to make wealth“, you won’t get rich in a job that feels safe.

A good hint to the presence of leverage is the possibility of failure. Upside must be balanced by downside, so if there is big potential for gain there must also be a terrifying possibility of loss. CEOs, stars, fund managers, and athletes all live with the sword hanging over their heads; the moment they start to suck, they’re out. If you’re in a job that feels safe, you are not going to get rich, because if there is no danger there is almost certainly no leverage.

In short, if your school doesn’t fire non-performing teachers, you probably won’t ever make much there. Without the possibility to fail, there is no possibility to succeed, either.

Teachers new to Taiwan or new to teaching may just not be able to compete in terms of how much money they can bring their schools. While I wouldn’t underestimate the power of being conscientious and focused on self-improvement in a field full of so many teachers who aren’t, the best possible course of action is to focus on skill development at the beginning. If you’re a teacher who does so, you can climb the salary ladder quite quickly… if you really want to. It’s definitely possible to improve your Chinese skills through part time study at local language schools, and improve your teaching through observation of more skilled teachers enough to get a job at one of the “hardcore” buxibans within a single year of hard work. Most of them pay new teachers $900NT per class hour, and offer profit sharing bonuses later on. Far from being a year of sacrifice devoted to career building, most people would probably find the teaching and especially the Chinese skills worthy rewards in themselves.

How to make money teaching English

  • Learn how to be a be a better teacher
  • Learn Chinese
  • When negotiating salary, appeal to your boss’s own self-interest
  • Offer genuine value to your students
  • Take jobs in which you might fail
  • When one path is blocked, find an alternate one

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