How I netted $70K per year teaching abroad.

Steven Happel

Steven Happel

Steven Happel has been teaching English in Vietnam for 14 years. A South Dakota native — he always (and never) thought he'd stay this long.

I’m going to have to apologize in advance for the life story I’m about to unfurl because I have to relate some boring backstory and at times it may come across as not merely just humble bragging, but rather straight up bragging.

I assure you there’s no way around it. It’s part and parcel of making a lot of money teaching abroad. So first thing’s first. My lowly beginnings.

This story takes place in Vietnam, the place I’ve called home for the last 14 years (man, that makes me feel old!) I never came here to teach, but knew within a week that I’d be staying for quite a while.

The food. The people. The landscapes. Don’t get me started.

Anyway, the only real way to live abroad as a fresh college graduate with a useless degree (still love ya, philosophy), is to teach English. I met some other expatriates who had been living and teaching here and pumped them full of questions, then finally decided to take the plunge.

I applied to the biggest language centers in the city and got hired in no time. Schools always need more teachers — and better ones! This was my first lesson, one I didn’t realize until much later, but an important one because it helped me later leverage my position.

At the time, you didn’t need any kind of certification other than a college degree. No TEFL, TESOL, or CELTA required. I started at $12 an hour net, a seeming paltry amount. Back then, though, $12 an hour went quite far – much farther than you’d imagine if you’re used to thinking in American prices, never mind Australian or European prices.

In 2005, the exchange rate worked out to roughly 16,000 dong (the Vietnamese currency) to the US dollar. A bowl of phở, perhaps the most famous Vietnamese dish (and for good reason), could be had for 10,000 dong on the street – about 60 cents. A bánh mì with all the fixings was 3,000 dong – not even 20 cents. But I digress…

To be perfectly honest, I knew very little about teaching when I started out. What I lacked in experience I made up for in raw energy, enthusiasm, amicability and a modicum of charisma, four qualities that can carry you quite far in this business.

The most immediate challenges I faced in the classroom were (and for new teachers, still are) twofold. The first was learning how to make myself understood to people who speak very little English. When I first got in the classroom, I started speaking to the students as if they were Americans. This led to a lot of unanswered questions, awkward silences and eyes as wide as a deer’s in headlights. It took some time for me to even be aware that this was my fault. I had assumed the students were simply shy. When I learned the words for ‘I don’t understand’ in Vietnamese, I started hearing it all the time in my class. At that point, I realized my students had no idea what I was talking about. (How I overcame this is worth a whole other blog post.)

The second challenge was what to do with the students in class. I was given a book to teach, but the books were never enough to fill up a two-hour class, and I had little idea how to exploit the books for activities. The Internet, while not exactly in its infancy, had few of the resources it does today, and the only games I did learn came from more experienced colleagues kind enough to impart their wisdom to me.

Over time, by overcoming these two challenges, I discovered I had a knack for teaching. Students seemed to respond to my lessons and laugh at my stupid jokes. At the end of my lessons, students went away with a positive experience. This was my second important lesson — students in language centers are customers, and happy customers are good for business. If you can make customers happy, you will make your school (i.e. company) happy, and at that point, you are a valuable asset for the company.

The school I was teaching at had campuses all around the city. Eventually, other campuses started calling me to come teach, and my schedule soon become chock full of classes. I had to start turning down classes. Some other teachers, when they saw my schedule, were shocked to discover how sparse their own schedules were in comparison. Another important lesson — popular teachers get more hours.

My first year as a teacher, to be perfectly frank, wasn’t spent seriously. I never thought I’d pursue it as a career and thus never truly took it very seriously. I turned down tons of classes because I simply didn’t want to teach full time. I was more interested in living an exciting expat life of eating, partying and traveling.

I shared a beautiful house complete with pool table and hot tub with an Englishman and two Scots. Some days were spent poolside with a book or perhaps playing tennis. Other days were spent exploring and eating our way through the city. There were weekend trips to be had. Still, at the end of a year, I had saved $8,000 without even trying.

With that $8,000, I spent a year traveling from Vietnam to India overland — a once in a lifetime trip. Hitchhiking through Tibet. Trekking in Nepal. Riding a motorcycle around India. At the end of a year, it was either go back to the States and figure out a career, or head back to Vietnam for another go of teaching. I chose the latter.

This time, however, I decided to take things seriously. I was determined to translate my experience and lessons learned into success. I knew there was money to be had if the game was played just right.

Ready to explore the rest of my journey? Click through to read part 2.

"To be perfectly honest, I knew very little about teaching when I started out. What I lacked in
experience I made up for in raw
energy, enthusiasm, amicability and a modicum of
charisma, four
qualities that can carry you quite far in this business."