Quit Your Shit Job and... Teach English Abroad

Katherine Skelly ditched a soul-destroying job in office admin to qualify as a TEFL instructor and travel around the world teaching English.
Katherine Skelly
Photo: Katherine Skelly
Quit Your Shit Job is a column that interviews people who left their totally average jobs to do something they actually like.

If you've ever gazed out of your window on a rainy day and fantasised about being anywhere but the office, you've probably considered quitting your job to teach English overseas. That's what Plymouth admin worker Katherine Skelly, 36, did – she ditched her high-pressure job to get a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) qualification and travel around the world.

VICE: Hi Katherine! What did you do previously?
I studied psychology and neuroscience at uni but decided against going into that profession. When I graduated, I started working temp jobs in Liverpool, mainly doing admin – writing up meeting notes, filing, replying to emails, that sort of thing. It was only ever meant to be a stopgap, but I ended up doing it for over two years.


Why did it suck?
I wanted to use my brain more – that’s no shade to people who do admin roles and enjoy them, it just wasn’t for me. I knew I loved education and learning, but I was under so much pressure to earn I felt trapped and totally suffocated.

What did you switch to instead?
I teach English as a foreign language (TEFL) all over the world. I have also recently launched my own online business that focuses specifically on empowering women through learning English.

Was there a lightbulb moment?
Yes – one day I was in a meeting and the senior managers were talking about something I strongly disagreed with on a moral level. I have really strong principles and don’t like cheating or deceiving people at all – or endorsing anyone who does. I walked straight into my boss’s office afterwards and said “I don’t want to be part of this anymore,” and left.

At uni, I volunteered helping disabled students take notes in lectures, which for one student meant attending a few TEFL lectures a week. I’d found it really interesting – so it was already in the back of my mind. I’d been so miserable in that job that I’d been instinctively putting money away for a rainy day, and I decided that the day had come. I got a train to my parents’ house, where I was luckily able to stay, and spent all my money on a month-long course to gain the internationally recognised CELTA qualification that would enable me to teach English abroad. Once I had that under my belt, I was off! First stop was Singapore, where I stayed for six months.


What do you love most about your job?
I love travelling! I was sick of England and hungry for new experiences – TEFL opened the door to all of that. I’ve lived in Costa Rica, Saudi Arabia, Spain and China, and have plans to go to more places. I also love learning other languages and meeting people from different cultures, so this job is ideal. And finally, I love helping people – many of my students need a good level of English to be able to pursue their dreams, so I love supporting them in their journey to get there.

Are there any downsides?
In my experience, the salary isn’t great, and hasn’t been in any country I’ve worked in. You certainly won’t be a millionaire, but for me, freedom, travel and experience are just as valuable – or even more so – than money, which makes it easier. I’ve definitely undersold myself on a few occasions and would encourage people to research the cost of living extensively before accepting a salary – and always ask for more!

Where has been your favourite place to live so far?
I loved Singapore! The living situation wasn’t the best, but if I could find a way to make it work, I’d happily live there again. I also have a real soft spot for Costa Rica.

What do you wish you'd known about your new job before you started?
How much energy it takes to do it. People think teachers have loads of holidays, and that we’re always taking time off. But if you care about your students and your job, you have to spend a lot of time preparing, and it takes a lot of emotional energy, too. I didn’t get taught any English grammar to speak of at school, so it has been extra tough to get up to speed. Also, as anyone who’s ever done it knows, working with kids is exhausting – a mix between crowd control and teaching. These days I prefer to work with adults!


What was the single worst moment of your dull job?
I can’t pinpoint one single moment, but there was just an ongoing sense of ennui – that feeling when you’re just stuck somewhere because you have to pay a bill. It was pretty depressing and I knew I wanted more out of life.

Rate your life out of 10 before, and now:
Honestly, it sounds dramatic, but zero back then. I had no life to speak of and was completely unfulfilled. These days it’s more like an eight. I love everything I do and what I’m studying (I’m doing the equivalent of a PGCE in Spain at the moment), but I’m not quite where I want to be just yet. Aspiration and ambition are good though, right?

How smug do you feel when you talk to your mates in shit jobs?
I’m not sure “smug” is the right word. I want them to be happy! But I’d always say, “if you’re not happy – take action!” I genuinely believe it’s never too late to start again, and what could be more important than your happiness?

What advice would you give other people who hate their jobs?
Be brave, because otherwise nothing is going to change. It’s a cliché, but I take the view that it’s now or never. I didn’t have anything handed to me on a plate – I worked and saved and chased, but I’d do it again! People say we only live once, but that’s not true. We get up every day and live again. We only die once – so make that change.