Chinese Halloween teaching ESL in China

Facing Your Fears: On Deciding to Teach English Abroad

Letting students paint your face is scary!

“People underestimate their capacity for change. There is never a right time to do a difficult thing.” ~John Porter

The conversation about how to make decisions has come up quite a lot in the last few weeks. Making big, life-changing choices is something I always struggle with initially, for fear of making the wrong one. But for some reason, others have come to me for advice on their own crossroads, as a result of reading this blog. I’m honored, flattered even, but afraid I don’t have easy answers to their questions.

I too still debate for weeks on end, like my recent tough choice to give up my summer dream of becoming a whitewater rafting guide, which wasn’t even a life-altering decision. However, I’ve received so many similar requests for advice — like this one from a reader who dreams of teaching abroad but fears taking the plunge — I decided to answer it for all:

“The problem is that even though thoughts of escaping the monotonous routine of daily life consume my mind every minute of the day, I am unbelievably scared to do it. I’m scared to live alone in a country where I don’t know the language, I’m scared to leave my boyfriend of seven years, I’m scared to run out of money, I’m scared to not find work when I come home…and the list goes on.

How did you first decide to just do it and teach abroad for the first time? Did you have any of the same fears? Was it hard doing this alone as a female? You seem so strong and sure of yourself and not afraid of anything. How can I be like that? Where do I begin, because I know that until I travel, I won’t be happy. How did you know that teaching abroad was the right thing to do?”

It IS scary to pack up your life and head off into the unknown. It’s terrifying to do it alone, as a female, and to believe that so many uncertain things will work out. Yes, I was scared as well. I didn’t know if teaching was the right thing, and in fact I was pretty sure early on that teaching wasn’t what I wanted to do; it was simply a way to fund my desires to travel and write. In the initial stages, I didn’t even know that I wanted to be a college professor, but somewhere in the process of studying for my online TEFL certification, I had the realization that I might actually enjoy teaching, and that teaching writing at the university level might just be the perfect career.

So I found Thailand.

Thailand offered a short-term contract (5 months) that wasn’t too scary of a commitment, and it offered a great way to test the waters of standing in a room full of eager students staring back. I decided it would be a trial run, to see if I even liked any part of teaching. And though the differences between teaching high schoolers in Thailand and university students in the States are massive, I discovered I liked the act of lesson planning, of imparting knowledge, and perhaps even more importantly, learning from my students, which isn’t too far off from what I hoped to do when I wrote my very first blog post, “Carving my Path.” 

teaching english in Thailand

My scooter while I was teaching abroad in Thailand

But back to the fear stuff.

Whenever I have a big, scary decision to make, I ask myself this: Will I regret this later? I choose to live my life with no regrets, and I’m doing pretty good so far. I think we know ourselves well enough to look at both sides of the spectrum and see which one we might regret later. If teaching abroad and seeing the world is a burning desire and it consumes all of your daily thoughts, I’m willing to bet NOT doing it will be a lifelong regret.

“If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.” ~ Seth Godin

Another thing that helps me make decisions is to tell myself that nothing is permanent. It seems to be the commitment factor that scares me so, and by telling myself that I can always come back home if I hate it, or I can always change plans if I decide to, whatever if may be, I feel so much better about ripping off the Band-Aid and just going for it. Don’t let the contractual commitment scare you. Tell yourself it’s only 5 months (and if it’s less, who cares?), and that if your boyfriend loves you, he’ll want you to follow your dreams. Believe that when you’re ready to come home, you’ll know what you want to do and how to do it and it will all work out. Everything works out how it should in the end. All those other things – like not knowing the language and doing it alone – they will work themselves out. The best part of traveling alone is the triumph when you succeed at having a conversation with hand signals, of getting on a bus and pointing to a map and actually arriving where you want to go, of making new friends in faraway places…

You’ll never know unless you go.


Need a little more inspiration? Click here to read my favorite travel quotes, like this one:

The scariest moment is always just before you start.” ~Stephen King


Facing Your Fears: On Deciding to Teach English Abroad
Written by:Jessica J. Hill


  1. I love your opening quote, it’s so true – there will never be the perfect time for anything, so you just have to take the leap and know everything will work out. And it really will. Things will happen that you’d never be able to predict, so just take it a day at a time.

    When I have a scary decision to make, I go with my gut and always remind myself that you only live once: This is it, right now. If you want to do something during your lifetime, do it now. Break it into small steps and take the first one today! Otherwise, chances are it’ll never happen – rather, it’ll turn into a regret as you said.

    Great post, and congratulations on your new job, Jessica!

    • jessicajhill says:

      I love that you always remind yourself that you only live once. My best friend tells me that every time I’m debating doing something big, and it works every time in her favor (and mine too!). It’s true, we only have one of this life, anyway, and we never know how long it will be so we have to make the best of it and enjoy every moment. I love meeting others who feel the same way. Welcome to the blog! Thanks for weighing in.

  2. Liz Farrar says:

    Great advice in the piece and in the comments. I think there are two kinds of fear. There’s the kind that’s intuitive; the feeling in your gut that something’s not right, there’s danger ahead. It’s the one we’ve been perfecting since the Stone Age, central to our survival, and should be listened to carefully. Then there’s the kind that’s based on our own insecurities or misconceptions. This kind of fear is something we’ve created in our own minds and is often not even remotely tied to reality. It’s built of our own insecurities, bad advice, and our perceptions of others’ expectations of us.

    Whenever I feel fearful about a big decision, I try to pinpoint which kind of fear I’m dealing with. If it’s a gut feeling that something isn’t right, I listen very carefully. But if it’s a series of questions/what ifs, a little nagging voice in my head, then I challenge it by doing the thing I fear.

    • jessicajhill says:

      Very well said, Liz. I agree with you. The trick is learning how/when to listen to your gut instinct, and being able to decipher between the two. Great advice on how to decide, but I’m guessing this is something that takes a lot of practice! You sound like you have it down 😉

  3. Jada says:


    I love your post! I can one hundred percent relate to everything you have written. I graduated from University in 2013 and have since been since working at my worthless high school job ever since to attempt to pay down my student loans. I noticed so many friends from uni taking the leap and teaching abroad but as you describe above, I am terrified. I too have a boyfriend of 8 years and the idea of leaving him, let alone my home is a scary and nerve wracking thought. However, reading your post and knowing that you’ve experienced something very similar to what I am battling right now, almost sets my mind completely at ease. I have enrolled for an upcoming tesol- tefl course and would like to start out with a short trip, that the 5 month contract you did. Could you please forward the company or organization that you used. Any and all help would be greatly appreciated.

    Cheers Jada

    • jessicajhill says:

      Hi, Jada!

      This warms my heart to think I could have inspired you in this way! I sincerely hope you’ll follow through on your passion. You won’t regret it. I’m going to send you an email with more information regarding the 5-month contract in Thailand.


  4. Hey Jessica!

    Great article! I think that you have definitely adopted the right attitude about making big life decisions. Most importantly, when deciding to leave home to live abroad for the first time, you should remember that nothing is permanent. No matter whether you have a contract for 5 months or a year, you can always jump ship if the going gets too tough. That being said, you soon realize one year abroad goes super fast!

    Inspiring article for those thinking about thinking about trying something new!

    • jessicajhill says:

      Thanks so much! You’re right — that non permanence thing really helps when making tough decisions. Most often, contracts aren’t binding (and there’s always a way to buy oneself out if it is), so what do you have to lose?

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


  5. Ian Leahy says:

    I have taught in China, Korea and Taiwan. The regret question is a good one and one I say sometimes. Seth Godin’s stuff is cool. You don’t have much to lose by trying it.

    Most contracts are for a year, but there are ways to test it out first. I started off substituting in Taiwan. It gave me a taste and a little experience bit by bit. Another way to find short term work is during the summer break. There are winter breaks too and you can find work for a month or two in China, Korea and Taiwan. Other places too.

    There are always part time jobs too. I did find one job on a 6 month contract in Taiwan. If you break a contract you usually have to give them a one month notice and there can be penalties which is usually a cash one.

    Schools have to get you a visa which is why they make you sign a contract. It’s an expense to them.

  6. Agness says:

    Jessica, for me going to China was one of the best decisions I could make! I spent there 3 years and I loved teaching my little monsters. Now I really miss it!

  7. Laura says:

    I’ve come across your blog as I’ve been looking into teaching English in Thailand and wanted to read peoples blogs on this! Did you do your TEFL course online or in-class? I’m quite tempted by the in-class course in Thailand.

    I agree that it is very scary making such a big life decision; I am currently working full time in a good job but I am debating if I should give it up to teach in Thailand – I won’t know if it is the right decision until I’ve tried it!

    Could you send me more information on the 5 month contract? Any help would be greatly appreciated 🙂

  8. Mary Sarah says:

    Hello! Thank you for the incredible advice.

    I am looking to go teach abroad this Summer, but can only go for a month, as I am still in grad school. Is it even possible to find a program for just one month? Is it worth it?

    Thank you 🙂

    • jessicajhill says:

      Hi, Mary!

      It’s difficult to find a paid position for only one month because, in terms of “worth it”, it’s not really worth it for the students. However, there are volunteer opportunities for a month, or you could spend your month getting TEFL certified somewhere cool and teach abroad after school!

      Alternatively, if you could spend two months of your summer abroad, I do have a live-in language exchange program in China with only a 2-month commitment!

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