Welcome back to ESL Around the World – the interview series created to help people decide if and where they want to teach English abroad. Today’s interview is a special one as it’s about teaching English on a military base in Afghanistan. Plus, the interviewee is one of our good friends from Sasha’s hometown. Teaching English in Afghanistan can be an intense but lucrative experience. Read on to see just how much you can make!
Hi! My name is Peter and I manage an English program in Kandahar, Afghanistan! I am originally from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, but I have been living, working and studying overseas for the past eight years.
I started my overseas experience in Beijing, China, teaching English and hanging out with Sasha and Rachel. Then, I got a job with an automotive company in Bangkok and spent a little over a year there before coming out to Afghanistan the first time. I lived and worked in Kabul for two years helping a company set up a GMC and Chevrolet dealership.
I saved up some money from that job and went and did my MBA at the University of Surrey in the UK. After I finished my Master’s degree, I went to work for a company in Myanmar opening pizza restaurants and ice cream parlors. After a year and a half in Myanmar, I was asked to come help expand an English Training Program in Afghanistan – and here I am!
Teaching English in Afghanistan
Where do you teach and what is your position?
I am currently working at the Kandahar Airfield (KAF) in Kandahar, Afghanistan for a company called Raytheon. Raytheon is the prime contractor for an $11 billion US Government program called, “Warfighter FOCUS” where the primary mission is to train, assist, and advise foreign militaries.
This program includes everything from tactical weapons training, intelligence gathering, flight schools, a lot of other pieces, and, of course, English Language Training. I am the site manager at KAF for our ELT and Dari Literacy program. I am responsible for seven ELT instructors and two Dari Literacy instructors.
What are the hours and pay like?
We have multiple training sites across Afghanistan and our hours will be different from site to site. However, here at KAF we train from Saturday to Thursday and start at 0730 and finish the morning session at 1000. Our afternoon session starts at 1300 and finishes at 1600.
The entry pay for our ELT instructors is now at around $160,000 per year. Team leaders are paid around $175,000 and site manager’s pay is around $220,000 per year. We are paid every two weeks and Raytheon provides medical insurance, 401k with employer matching contributions up to 3%, a $2,500 annual travel allowance, annual raises, and some other benefits like discounts on hotels, rental cars, and some online retailers.
What is a typical day like?
My typical day starts at about 0530, I shower and get ready for breakfast at the chow hall. I am usually in one of the classrooms by 0715 where I oversee a training session or meet with Afghan or US Military counterparts about upcoming needs and schedules. At 1000, I head back to my barracks and I get ready for the gym. I work out from about 1030-1200, shower, have a quick lunch and I’m back out to the work site from 1300-1600. To finish the day, I go for my evening run around the base, shower, have a light dinner and watch movies, read, or FaceTime home for a few hours before I go to bed.
In terms of our curriculum, we use the US Air Force Defense Language Institute’s American Language Course material. Our primary focus is aviation based ELT to help Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) Pilots and Ground and Air Crew teams, but we also work with ANSF senior officers to improve their general English abilities to effectively communicate with their NATO counterparts. Finally, since Afghanistan has about a 70% illiteracy rate, we also work with Afghan soldiers to teach them to read and write in their own language, Dari.
What are the pros and cons of your job?
Obviously, I think the biggest pro is the pay. In terms of the ELT world, I have to imagine this is the highest paying job.
The next biggest pro is the vacation time. It isn’t the best rotation in Afghanistan (a lot of other programs do a 90 day on 30 day off rotation, and I have even heard of a 60 on 60 off rotation as well), but it is a lot better than your 10 days vacation in the US. I generally take two weeks off every three months, but some people do a different schedule. It is flexible, so you have a lot of freedom to choose when you want to take your vacation time.
Finally, I think the last biggest pro is the fact that once you are on the ground in Afghanistan you have no expenses. Housing is provided and all the meals at the dining facilities on camp are free. There are multiple gyms, which are all free to use, and they have yoga classes, spin classes, abs classes, and a whole lot more – all free. There is free internet to use and you can get the American Forces Network in your room to watch TV.
I guess the cons are pretty obvious, too. Living in Afghanistan on a military base can be tough. Your biggest enemy in Afghanistan is yourself. You have to always try and maintain a positive attitude and find ways to occupy your time, otherwise, you’ll get burned out pretty quickly. I think it’s important to come into a place like this with a mentality that, “One, this isn’t forever, and two, I have personal and financial goals I want to meet.”
You have to remember it isn’t like teaching in Bangkok where Friday after work you can head over to Thong Lor and have a beer with your friends. There isn’t much to do in terms of socializing and alcohol is strictly forbidden on base. And let’s not forget the most obvious, it’s a war zone!
What do you need to teach in Afghanistan?
To work for Raytheon in Afghanistan you must be an American Citizen. Raytheon only hires Americans because all employees must go through a background investigation and qualify for a DoD Secret Clearance.
ELT instructors must have a four-year college degree, a TEFL certificate, and five years teaching experience. However, they are willing to be flexible on the teaching experience part if you have other overseas/military/training experience.
The onboarding process is pretty long. It took me three months from the time I got the job offer to the time I went to the HQ office in Orlando, Florida, for induction. The onboarding process will include a police background check, a physical evaluation with a drug test, and a verification of all of the experience listed on your resume. Raytheon will provide all the material and schedule all the appointments you need to complete the onboarding process, and they will also obtain your visa and any other documents you need to travel to Afghanistan.
What’s the best way to find a teaching job in Afghanistan?
Simply check out Raytheon’s career page on their website. There are always ELT jobs listed. Raytheon also does ELT in Saudi Arabia. I believe Dyncorp International does the ELT program in Iraq and the pay there should be comparable.
Why did you choose to live and teach in Afghanistan? What do you like and dislike about it?
I chose to come back out to Afghanistan to pay off my student loan debt. I landed on June 1, 2016 with about $35,000 of student loans. When I was working in Myanmar, I was on a schedule to pay $500 a month over seven years. Once I got to Afghanistan I was able to pay those loans off in five months, and still, make the maximum 401k contribution, and take an awesome trip to Norway.
I really like the fact that I have the time and money to take trips that I’ve always wanted to do. I went to the Vatican for Easter, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, I drove a BMW through the Swiss and Italian Alps, I went to Oktoberfest in Munich, and in April I will spend a few days in Istanbul and Paris.
I dislike the isolation. It is tough being away from friends and family and you miss out on a lot of important events like weddings, birthdays, and holidays. I spent Christmas in Kandahar this year and it might have been the most depressing moment of my life.
What is the cost of living like compared to your earnings? Are you able to save money?
Like I said earlier, one of the pros about being here is that you have no expenses! I choose to buy my own internet so I can watch Netflix and I take pretty extravagant vacations, but other than that I save just about every penny I make. Americans can also exercise the overseas tax haven benefit, so your first $103,000 per year is tax-free.
My personal financial goal is to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2018 with $100,000 in my 401k and IRA retirement accounts, and another $200,000 cash to go into business for myself.
Have you taught in another city or country before?
I taught English in Beijing. In China, I was teaching mostly children, whereas here in Afghanistan the students are adult learners. I think it depends a bit on your personality, but I really enjoy working with the Afghans and my US military advisors. Everyone is very professional and the students are super engaged because most of the time their jobs or next promotion depend on them succeeding in the English program.
What advice do you have for people considering moving abroad to teach English?
Do it. I think taking Sasha and Rachel’s advice back in 2010 to move to Beijing and teach English was one of the best decisions I have ever made. My overseas experience has opened up so many doors and experiences that I never thought were possible.
There you have it! I think Peter included some great advice for people considering a position like this. Is it easy? No. Is it fun? No. However, for those who have some big debts they want to pay off or if you want to have a healthy retirement fund, this could be a great way to ensure that it happens quickly. If you think you have the mental capacity to live in a war zone and if you’re able to get a security clearance, this could be a great option for you.
Fun fact: Sasha and I actually applied for teaching positions in this program. They were ready to offer me a job but they said Sasha and I couldn’t go together, which was a deal breaker for me. So we went to Mexico instead! I’m pretty happy with the way things worked out, to be completely honest.
Maybe you’re thinking that you’d like to teach English abroad but this position isn’t for you. Not to worry! We also have interviews about teaching in Oman, Cambodia, Thailand, South Korea, Mexico, and Kazakhstan.
As Peter mentioned, one of the requirements for this position is having a TEFL certificate. There are many types of certificates out there and we have an article that goes into detail about all of them. You can click here to read all about it. Getting certified will not only make you qualified for this position, but it will also teach you classroom management, how to plan a lesson, be entertaining while teaching, and help you teach with confidence.
We got our TEFL certificates with BridgeTEFL and would highly recommend them. They provide a stellar course and will pair you with an online mentor to grade your assignments and help you as you progress.
Stay tuned for the next interview in our ESL Around the World Series!
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