You have just graduated with no real plans for the future.
All your friends have gone off into the corporate world after taking the time to join all those huge job fairs. Now they are on the first step of the company ladder.
It was never your thing. You wanted to do something a little different.
See the world. Experience foreign cultures.
Do something away from the rest of the rat race.
Or you are a little older. Late twenties or early thirties. You have experienced the corporate world. You wore the suit, you ate the tie.
And it just wasn’t for you.
The same boring commute every day. The same colleagues in the same rabbit hutch office spaces. The same lunch.
You want to escape. You want a small taste of the world before the years tick by and then you find yourself still doing the exact same commute. Filled with regret and the eternal question what if?
Maybe you are retired. You are finished working. Kids are all grown up, working and with families of their own. Now it’s time for a little adventure.
No matter what age you are — or who you are — teaching English offers a fantastic opportunity to combine work and travel. See parts of the world and experience the real culture that tourists never see.
You can have the kind of job where you talk to the local people every day. Live in a part of a town or city as one of the locals.
Teaching English would leave you with enough memories to fill an entire book.
Teaching English is Easy
Teaching English abroad is a surprisingly easy thing to do.
All you need is a degree certificate (although not every country demands this) and a TEFL certificate (more on this later) and the ability to get out of your comfort zone and you are well on your way.
And who knows? You may love it.
Many people sign up to work at an English school in China, Japan, Mexico or Hungary with the expectation that they will only do one year then go back home. Then they find they really love teaching or they have fallen in love with the country they are in and stay.
Teaching English provides the chance to work in one city for a whole year. Then you can move on to another. Many teachers become addicted to travelling the world.
A Nomadic Life
Teaching English is the original working-nomad lifestyle.
You may have a set clear path in front of you. Maybe teaching English for a year really is all you want to commit to, and that is fine. You will come back after one year with a thousand stories to tell and you will have grown a better person by being able to just pack up and move somewhere where few people go.
Teaching English abroad will teach you not only teaching skills but survival skills along with great patience and humility too.
Teaching English is the original working-nomad lifestyle.
Is this the life you are looking for? If so, then read on. In the following pages, I have outlined everything you need to know to begin your English teaching journey.
The First Step
You can easily buy a plane ticket and fly to any country in the world and start a new life.
I have met many people who have done exactly that.
You can do that. But it is advisable to ask yourself a few questions before packing your bags.
Take a few moments and find out if teaching English abroad is for you. It may not be. No shame in that.
Or it could be the very thing you need to do. That you must do. That one thing that takes you out of your comfort zone and into a whole new world.
Let’s do a little self-examination.
Are You Right for Teaching English Abroad?
Are you the right person to just leave your own country and go to another?
Many people are highly adaptable. But there are some unfortunates that are not.
You have to ask yourself if you are capable of doing this. Be brutally honest with yourself because it could lead to a period of great frustration and stress if you are not right for it.
I have met one or two teachers who I thought were just going through culture shock but in fact, were just not cut out for a life outside of their own hometown.
Then I have met others who took to their new life like the proverbial duck to water.
They arrived. And within a few weeks had learned some key phrases in a new language and could order their favourite dishes at the local restaurant. They settled into their new life.
If you have any sense of trepidation about going to live in another country now is the time to figure it out.
Nothing to be ashamed of but to know thyself if to love thyself and all that.
The question of if you are right for this new life is very difficult. Difficult to answer.
You can check all the information online. Check out all the ESL chat forums and ask all the right questions. You may be none the wiser by the end. So it could be a good idea to just dive in and see what happens.
But if you are feeling kind of uneasy at the thought of leaving your hometown, it might not be for you.
However, as the great George Bernard Shaw said: Progress is impossible without change.
Do You Like Change?
Do you find change too horrific to deal with? Or is it something you take in your stride?
Are you settled into a regular pattern of life? And are you comfortable with that?
For some people, the simple challenge of moving desks in the workplace is too much to deal with.
If you cannot accept small changes in your life, then maybe teaching English in another country is not for you. But then again, maybe it is just the thing you need. There could be a no bigger change than travelling to another country to start a new life.
If you regard yourself as a flexible person you should find working and living in a country with a different culture as a welcome challenge. Something you can take on and adapt to meet your new environment.
Are You a People Person?
Sorry to use that horrible phrase but teaching English requires you to spend a large part of your working day with people.
All kinds of people — children, teenagers, adults. And from varying walks of life.
Talking to them, helping them, maybe answering the same questions day in day out.
Being with people will be a very important part of your life as an English teacher in another country.
Sure, after a long day in front of huge classes of teenagers you may prefer nothing better than lounging around in your new home by yourself.
And why not?
But the next morning as soon as the bell rings for first class you need to be back on point.
Kind of like the stage actor who turns on the magic as soon as the curtain rises. That will be part of your life as an English teacher abroad.
You are the star attraction and you have to shine every day.
Can You Live Anywhere?
You go to live in another country and you will eat the local food, live in a neighbourhood with the local people, go to the same market to buy your fruit and vegetables.
Can you live in any city in the world? What kind of environment do you like to live in?
I met a guy in Hong Kong who could not stand any of the local food. And Hong Kong has a wide menu in its local cuisine.
I think it just comes down to the fact that I have never really liked Chinese food, he said.
Well, okay. It also begged the question what was he doing living in Hong Kong?
He went on to say that he didn’t like hot places and he felt uncomfortable in crowds.
Hong Kong is hot and sticky most of the year. With temperatures rising to the late thirties in the summer and humidity up to 85%.
And Hong Kong gets pretty damn crowded. Causeway Bay, a centralised district in the city, was considered the most crowded place on the planet in the 1990s.
And guess where our friend lived?
Think before deciding where to go. Some people hate the cold. Others love lounging around in the heat. Some love the pace and energy of a huge city. For others, they relish the quiet of a small town.
You know what kind of places, food, and environment you like. Do some research and find out where might be the best place for you to live.
Are You an Outgoing Person?
Teaching English requires you to be something of an extrovert. You don’t need to be an actor or entertainer. But if you are a shy, retiring type it may not be the best job for you.
I have met many teachers who were very quiet but to be honest the students don’t really engage that well with these teachers. Especially in large classes. Go to any Asian city and the classrooms have 40 to 50 students.
The school — and the students — want someone with a spark. Someone capable of bringing fun into the class.
Often, in a normal public school, the foreign English teacher is there to help the students open their mouths and get them to speak English. A successful class finishes with the students speaking some new phrases or sentences with confidence and ease.
If the English teacher can do that each time he is doing a great job.
The students learn all the grammar, the vocabulary, the verbs and nouns and all the other boring stuff from the local teachers.
Your job is to teach all of that stuff to the students via some interesting activities. To make them speak English if only for a couple of minutes.
Often you are required to be something of a live wire.
There is a lot of criticism centred on this. That the teacher is there to teach, not entertain. And that is absolutely true.
But you have to engage with the students and be a showman in class. It has to be fun for them or they switch off.
Are You a Loner?
Another thing you need to consider is that when you arrive at your new destination, you will be alone.
Are you the kind of person that likes to stay shut off from the world?
Because in a new environment, a new country with a strange culture, this may not be a good idea.
Are you going to stay isolated? (Not healthy). Or are you going to make efforts to get to know other people where you live?
Are You a Native-English Speaker?
I know this may sound privileged here but most English schools around the world are looking for native English speakers.
That means someone from the UK, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland or South Africa.
Your future place of employment may require evidence of this in the form of your passport. Some countries have very strict visa regulations about English teachers working in their country. These countries demand that you be a native English teacher or you will not get a working visa.
Training centres often use this in their advertising.
All our teachers are native English speakers!
Their customers usually prefer that all the teachers are native English speakers.
That said, I have met many non-native English speakers working as teachers and doing just great at it. I have also met many native English speakers who cannot string a sentence together without mashing up all the grammar and pronunciation and have a very limited vocabulary.
I have seen teachers from Russia, many African countries and The Philippines working in schools and doing just fine at it.
But you will need to remember most countries — and certainly most schools — will prefer it if you are a native English speaker.
The English teacher is there to teach the students English and who better than someone born in an English-speaking country?
A few things to think about.
Mainly, are you the kind of person that just move to another country and live there? Or are you going to flip out and lose your mind?
And are you able to stand up in front of a class filled full of 50 teenagers and maintain a sense of order while helping them with their English in a fun and interesting way?
If you tick most of the boxes, then it’s time to move on to the next stage.
Certificates and Training
When you begin your search for a job as an English teacher abroad you find that most recruiters demand to see a degree and a teaching certificate.
The degree can be in any subject for most purposes.
For the teaching certificate, the most common type they ask for is a 120-hour TEFL certificate to prove that you are qualified to teach English in their school.
Sometimes the school may ask for a certificate.
But more commonly it is part of the visa process. China is such a country that demands that all teachers have a TEFL.
There is no real escaping this so in this case, you must have one.
The legitimacy of TEFL certificates comes under a lot of scrutiny. Many people think they are next to useless while others extol their many merits.
But if you are just beginning in the world of ESL, it might be a good idea to get a TEFL. At least that way you would know what a gerund is and the difference between past simple and past continuous.
ESL and EFL
There are basically two kinds of English class; ESL and EFL.
ESL means English as a Second Language while EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. The former is primarily used in an English-speaking country. The latter for use in other countries.
There are courses available for both kinds of class.
You can choose either one of these courses as any of the certificates will give you a strong foothold on the ladder. If your resume shows you are qualified and in possession of a certificate then you are more likely to get job offers.
The Different Certificates
- TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language
- TESL – Teaching English as a Second Language
- TESOL — Teachers of English to Speakers of another language
- CELTA – Certificate in English Language Training to Adults
To the average English teacher abroad there is little difference between any of the first three courses.
If you own a TEFL, TESL or TESOL you’re good to go.
To be honest, I would recommend that you do the TEFL course if you do a course at all as it is the most widely recognised by recruiters and the most widely available in terms of courses found.
Most recruiters ask for the TEFL so stick to that.
The CELTA is the big daddy of all the certificates. Some countries demand to see this — especially in Western Europe and the Middle East.
It takes four weeks to complete the course full time. Or three months part-time.
It is also the most expensive running between $1200 to $2800, depending on where you do the course and whether that included accommodation or not.
Should you wish to become an IELTS examiner, you will need a CELTA.
But for the sake of simplicity, we will only discuss the TEFL course here as it is the one that the large majority of English schools ask for. It is also the one that may be required for visa purposes and it is certainly the one that most English teachers have.
I have met teachers who have a CELTA, but we were all doing the same job in the same school.
What is the TEFL Course?
TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
The basic standards of the course are:
- 120 hours of coursework
- 6 – 20 hours of live practice teaching/observation
- Often accredited
- Qualified instructors
- Help in job search guidance
Why Do a TEFL Course?
Having a certificate like TEFL makes you a teacher of English.
Whereas before you were just a speaker of English.
After completion of the course, you should be able to identify and understand all the various parts of English grammar.
You should know the difference between all the different kinds of articles and conditionals along with all the verb tenses and prepositions.
You know what you are talking about with English grammar and the English language.
Yes, you can learn all of this online easily. But having a TEFL gives you more buying power in dealing with recruiters.
How to Study for a TEFL?
There are two ways to study for a TEFL certificate — online or in class.
Online TEFL Course
The online class is often cheaper — running from around $200 — and only takes 120 hours to complete.
Look for deals on sites like Groupon as they offer some great discounts for TEFL courses. A quick search and I found deals for TEFL on Groupon as low as $39.
120 hours is the magic number for being certified. On English teaching job boards you may see recruiters asking for a TEFL with 120 hours.
The beauty of learning online is that you can do it all in your own time and all from the comfort of your own home. This could be ideal for someone that is still working but planning a new life as an English teacher in their free time.
The online class is usually cheaper than a face-to-face class and many people finish the course in eight weeks.
The downside to doing an online course is that you don’t have as much support as a real live class. For many people doing a TEFL course, many of the concepts are alien and the terms new and strange. All of this can be a little difficult to grasp if you are doing an online course on your own.
But there is always the internet and you can ask questions there too.
In Class TEFL Course
With an in-class course, you get to meet the teacher — along with all your classmates. This can be useful when it comes down to exchanging ideas about what kind of school you would like to work for and which country you would like to travel to and work.
A lot of in-class courses provide support in terms of job applications and finding jobs.
But in class courses can be on the pricey side. And they require you to be in class for one month. That means also that you have to be wherever the course is held. That may not be in your hometown — or even far from where you live. If you cannot give up that much time to study for a certificate this could be difficult.
No Restrictions to Do a TEFL
TEFL classes are available to anyone.
That means that if you are not a native-English speaker, you can do a TEFL class if you wish. There is no age limit either so if you are 80 years of age you can get a TEFL certificate.
But remember, most schools ask for the teacher to be a native-English speaker. Plus, they often have an age limit — usually, the top age is around 60. If you are older than that, then the job offers become a little on the slim side.
It is possible to get a TEFL certificate without having a degree but again be warned that most places hiring will require a college degree. This is often for visa policies of the country. For example, China now requires all English teachers to have a degree—this is a visa ruling and nothing to do with the schools that are hiring.
Usually, it doesn’t matter what kind of degree the teacher has. The school just wants to see that you have one.
The CELTA certificate is considered the best certificate to have for teaching English. But it comes at a hefty price.
There are even master’s degrees in TEFL. This is overkill for most schools. I have met one or two teachers that have this and they may be very qualified but it is rather unnecessary for most schools.
Some Countries Do Not Ask for Any Certificate
There are many countries that will accept teachers with no certificate at all.
Sometimes needs must. They need a teacher — even one without a degree or a certificate — and will pay someone keen enough to do the job.
Some poorer Asian countries, countries in South America, these places offer jobs all the time without the need for any certificate at all. But these conditions change all the time.
Time was when you could buy a ticket to Hong Kong, get a tourist visa for China, cross the border at Shenzhen and look for jobs. Back then a teacher could have a fistful of offers inside a week. But now China requires all English teachers to have a degree, a certificate, plus two years of working experience.
Things change all the time. But remember there is always a school willing to employ someone to do their classes no matter what.
The Recruiters are Flexible
Even though many recruiters demand to see a 120-hour TEFL certificate, they often bend their own rules when it comes to hiring.
They might say in the recruitment ad that all applicants must have a TEFL. But apply anyway and you may find that they change their tune when your application arrives in their inbox.
In fact, it is probably safe to say many schools don’t care about the TEFL. It means little to them.
Also, take the 120-hour thing with a pinch of salt. If it is an online course how can anyone possibly calculate how many hours you have studied? They simply can’t. And as such there are many claims of teachers completing the course inside 20 hours.
The same applies to class courses. Many of these courses can be completed in half the time. But they are still accredited. Go figure.
Whatever you learn in these courses you can often learn in the classroom in a much better way, and quicker too. Teachers often learn more in observation classes or just doing the classes themselves.
Not that there are not some great TEFL course providers out there.
It is just that there are courses out there that are just very average.
Do You Have Experience?
Do you need teaching experience to teach English abroad?
In a word: No.
You don’t need any experience at all.
Many recruiters ask for a teacher with experience. But often this means nothing during the application process. For example, English schools in Asia often greatly need teachers and find it hard to recruit them. They need a teacher to do their classes. Something to consider when job searching.
If the school asks for teachers to have five years of working experience, they may be looking for a specific kind of teacher. Someone that really understands the IELTS or TOEFL tests for example.
Most schools may ask for experience but in the interview stage they are inclined to forget about it.
Especially if you can win them over in the interview.
However, if you do have any kind of teaching experience, this could be useful to you — not in terms of applying for jobs but for you making the transition to working in a big classroom filled with forty or fifty energised kids.
If you have any experience working at a summer camp or helping out in some voluntary capacity, this could definitely be a plus for you.
Most teachers arrive with no experience at all. They enter the classroom feeling nervous as they do their first real teaching class but after a couple of weeks they have learned a great deal more than they may have learned on their TEFL course.
It doesn’t take long before you pick things up.
And the local teachers are often very kind and willing to help the foreign English teacher with any issues they may have.
Be bold. Be fearless.
Am I Too Old?
Usually English teachers are young. In their twenties and fresh out of college and looking to see the world. On a voyage of discovery and all that jazz.
But there are many teachers in their thirties and forties too.
Many in their fifties.
A lot of schools have restrictions on age when hiring an English teacher. They may have an age limit at 55 or 60.
This is especially true for training centres. They often prefer to hire younger teachers to give their brand a young, energetic and vibrant image.
That said, older English teachers can be found in the classroom.
I have met teachers well into their sixties and still teaching.
I knew one guy who was over seventy years old. Still teaching English — to packed classes of junior school kids no less — and loving it.
Apart from any visa restrictions do not let age be a consideration when becoming an English teacher.
Racism in The World of ESL
It is a sad fact that many Asian schools prefer a white teacher. There was a time when schools could advertise — white teachers only.
I was asked years ago if I knew any other Caucasians. You don’t get more direct than that.
Recruiters may never say it to your face or via your application but the truth is that many schools are looking for a white teacher. There is a well-worn cliché that all is required is a white face and pulse for you to stand in front of the class and teach English.
Time was when even Asian-Americans found it difficult to get hired in Asia because they didn’t look ‘foreign’ enough, therefore, how could they possibly teach English?
It was all about marketing to the masses and the masses were the parents wanting to see white people in their kids’ classroom. Preferably a good-looking white person with blond hair and blue eyes and a Hollywood smile.
This is changing and now many schools hire teachers no matter what colour they may be.
But it is something you need to know before arriving. As unpleasant as it may sound.
I am not trying to be an apologist for this but mostly this comes down to a total lack of world view.
The times they are a-changing and many schools now employ teachers no matter what their colour.
Gay or Transgender?
Also, if you are gay, I would suggest that you keep that under wraps while working in a school abroad.
Some countries have a very serious view on gay culture while others just don’t understand it.
These western concepts that we take for granted may be seen as strange and alien to other countries.
I worked in a training centre where one campus was pretty much all gay.
I don’t think one of the teachers made their sexuality public to the local colleagues or staff and certainly not the students.
Things are improving and there is a little more understanding but you also have to understand that some countries have a very traditional culture.
A little secrecy won’t do you any harm in this case.
International schools are almost the same as any school in your home country. They require qualified, certified teachers with a degree in the subject they are teaching in.
Usually, the foreign teachers working in an International school are teaching maths or science subjects not English as a second language. The students and the local teachers working in an international school often have a very high level of English.
Positions in international schools are well sought after and offer a high salary (by local standards) plus an allowance for an apartment, sometimes an apartment is provided. There are bonuses too such as return flights home once a year and fully paid holidays.
Teachers working in an international school often have the full expat package and enjoy a somewhat privileged life abroad.
If this is the route you want to take you need to consider whether your degree is of any use to the school plus you need to be a fully certified teacher who is legally allowed to teach in your own country.
So Where Can You Work?
Effectively, as an English teacher, you can work at one of four places.
These places are:
Public Schools — junior school, middle school, high school
Training Centres – privately owned English schools, often large chains that are all around the country. Very popular in Asia.
Universities — usually in a capacity as an English teacher.
Kindergartens – may be public but there are many private kindergartens now.
Those are the main teaching gigs available. Occasionally you might see a job in a big company that requires a teacher to train all their staff in English skills. The usual things such as email writing, speaking in meetings, talking on the telephone. But these jobs are not so common.
The main bulk will be public schools and training centres.
But go online and have a look. Usually, you can find many offers.
In the public schools, you are usually required to teach one class a week to each class of students. In Asia, the classes are huge — anywhere between 40 and 60 students. If you work in a public school, you will only meet these students once a week.
Often the classes span throughout the day. You might have five classes one day and just two the next.
Some schools might expect you to be on campus all day. Some not.
As the foreign English teacher, your job primarily is to help the students open their mouths and speak English. The local teachers usually teach grammar, vocabulary and all the finer points of English.
You may find you are working at a school that requires you to teach various English skills but most teachers are there to help the students speak English with a degree of confidence.
If you work in a public school, you may find you are the only foreign person working at the school. This might get a little lonely. But if you are looking to immerse yourself in the local culture, this could be perfect for you. Certainly, a good place to practice the local language.
The training centres are privately owned and often require teachers to do between 16 and 28 classes a week. These places can range from high-end chains with a full curriculum and lesson plans down to dodgy joints in shopping malls with no curriculum and no lesson plans.
In the training centres, most of your working hours will be in the evenings and weekends. But you should get two clear days off a week.
The students can range in age from teenagers to adults.
The school-age kids are there to improve their English skills for the thousands of tests they have in school.
The adults are there to improve their English for the workplace and give them a competitive edge.
You will very likely be busy in the evenings and at the weekend. During the day will be relatively quiet.
There are also many opportunities in universities. These jobs can be very comfortable. A decent salary, sometimes with an apartment provided. In a university job, you may find you have fewer hours than a school. Sometimes as little as ten hours a week. Many teachers do some moonlighting on the side but be warned that some countries frown upon this and consider it a visa injunction.
But it is possible and like all things, if you are discreet there is often no problem.
Kindergartens are a different kettle of fish altogether. You will have to deal with classes of screaming kids so if you are of a weak disposition this is not for you.
Private kindergartens are everywhere where there is the moneyed middle class. They want their children to be fluent in the English language before they start middle school.
Can be very well paid. I have known kindergarten teachers making around $3000 a month. And that was only working in the mornings.
But again…. Hordes of screaming kids. I could not do it. But if you love children — go for it.
There are also the teaching English government programs. Many Asian countries run their own government-led programs to recruit teachers and find them a placement in-country.
These programs require teachers to be fully qualified and certified plus there is often a stringent vetting system. They may require you to supply references and background checks to provide evidence you are a suitable and good teacher.
These government programs often pay for airfares back to your home country.
The only problem is that you cannot always choose which city you would like to work in. The programs often make all the choices for you.
I am ready! Now what?
So you have completed your TEFL course. You have thought about what kind of school you would like to work in and now you are ready to dive in.
But not so fast.
As an English teacher, you can work pretty much anywhere. There are teaching jobs available in almost every country in the world.
Not sure if there are positions in Greenland. Just checked. Yes, there are. Shortage of good teachers apparently.
But the first thing you need to decide is where in the world you want to work.
Which Country Do You Want to Work In?
Literally, the world is your oyster.
You are in the highly enviable position of being able to choose wherever in the world you want to work.
Few people are so lucky.
As an English teacher, you have four main areas of the world to choose from.
- The Middle East
- Mexico, Central and South America
These are by far where the most job offers are from.
This is literally a haven for English teachers. The choices of places to work spread to almost every single country on the continent.
Big markets for ESL teachers are China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
There are growing markets in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar too.
I have met teachers that have spent many years in just one Asian country. And many others that have bounced from one Asian country to another.
It is possible to spend half your life working in Asia teaching English. It seems to have that effect on people — once you arrive it becomes more and more difficult to leave with each passing day.
The Middle East
The mecca for English teaching as it offers very high salaries. And positions come with free housing and round trip flights too.
The main countries in The Middle East for ESL are Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Dubai……….
Countries to be avoided are Iran, Iraq and Oman but the world changes very quickly so this could all be very different in a year or two.
Mexico, Central and South America
Still something of a new place for teaching English, but many opportunities exist.
This region doesn’t have as nearly as an advanced system as Asia when it comes to ESL so things are still developing.
This makes it a good place to work for non-native speakers and people without a TEFL.
Best counties for work are Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru.
But the market is expanding rapidly.
A popular choice of destination for English teachers. But make sure you are qualified or you will not find a job. This means owning a CELTA.
Also, there is a big distinction between East and Western Europe — the former being much cheaper than the latter.
Spain is by far the biggest draw for ESL teachers.
Quickly followed by France, Germany, and Italy.
What Kind of Climate Do You Like?
It is very much worth thinking about what climate you like.
I mentioned Greenland earlier.
There is no way I could live there considering it is icy cold most of the year.
That would just be unbearable for me.
Remember the guy I talked about before in Hong Kong? Who could not stand hot places?
And yet he chose to live in a city that has long summers and the temperature around 35 degrees.
Another guy I knew flew from Sydney, Australia to Harbin in North-East China.
He arrived in a sweatshirt and jeans as he had heard it was a bit chilly.
It was minus-30.
Summers in most Asian cities are hot. Sweltering hot.
Then in the winter, they can become brutally cold. Shanghai, for example.
The Middle East is hot and dry all year round.
Go online and research what the climate is of the country you would like to go to. It can get very, very hot and very, very cold in some places.
Also, check precipitation levels. Some cities have downpours. An entire month of heavy rain.
Big City or Close to Nature?
What kind of person are you?
If you like the action found in big cities, then that is where you should think of going. But if you are more of a quiet person, then a smaller city could be your preference.
Do you need to be near nature? Beaches, mountains, fresh air and mountain streams? There are plenty of cities near that kind of environment.
I knew a guy that loved motorbikes and mountains. He was teaching at a small university in Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China. Right at the foothills of the Himalayas.
He said from Monday to Friday he was working on the edges of the city, doing his classes. But come the weekend he would hop on his motorbike and head off into the hills. Some of the best mountain roads he has ever seen.
Then there was the guy who lived for the beach. He had a job working on a small island in Thailand. Thailand is a popular destination because of the beaches, the islands, the hills and the backpacker lifestyle.
Bear in mind that it is not the best kind of place to earn good money.
The guy I knew who worked on an island said that while he had a great experience for a year, he could not save a penny.
He spent everything he earned every month. Lots of leisure options at the weekend and after work he said. But a fantastic experience. Few people in the world get to have that kind of life.
Think about your location because you will be there for a full year. If you sign a contract, serve the full twelve months. So you need to think of the best location that suits you.
Do your research.
Places to Earn Good Money
For earning potential Korea or Taiwan seem to be the places to go in Asia. The best salaries to be found in the huge sprawling cities of Seoul and Taipei.
However, while the earning potential may be good, the cost of living in these cities is higher than in smaller cities. You can earn good money in Seoul and Taipei but as with everything the costs there are higher than some remote town in South-East Asia.
The Middle East and Western Europe have the highest salaries but the competition for jobs is also high. As is the cost of living.
I have known people to live in a small town in China and amass quite a large chunk in savings at the end of the year.
It depends heavily on your lifestyle.
Large cities can offer many attractions that can eat into your salary. Bars and coffee shops and western-style restaurants often charge premium prices.
Learn Some Language Before Going
It might be a good idea to learn some key phrases in the country’s language too.
I’m not saying that you will hold down conversations in Japanese, Thai or Greek but at least learn useful things like numbers and how to order lunch.
Once you arrive and you feel the desire to learn the language that is the best place to do it.
Get an idea of what currency the country uses. Have a rough idea of currency exchange rates too. There is no way you can be accurate every day but if you have a rough idea that X amount of the local currency equals Y amount of dollars then you have less chance of making mistakes.
After a few months or even weeks of being in-country, you will adjust to how much things cost in the local currency and use that as a measure.
Politics and Culture
And in terms of the country’s political or cultural sensitivities — it is advisable to get some general knowledge of this before going. Like the language, you cannot fully understand the political structure or cultural customs, but at least try to get some basic idea of what is going on.
Things that the people of the country take for granted because of historical events or politics are things that the newbie can often blurt out and offend people.
Teaching Abroad is Not a Holiday
The idea of working on the beach is just a dream. In real life in ESL, you will be unlikely to find a job like that. You are more likely to be working in a city or town far from any real nature. Remember the closer you are to nature, like beaches or mountains, the smaller the town and the fewer schools there will be. The cost of living will be low but so will your salary.
But wherever you are working, eventually reality will hit you and you see you are working and you have a job to do.
It is not a holiday.
You need to take your responsibilities seriously — as all your local colleagues do — and make sure you prepare for the class in a timely and effective fashion and get to work on time.
Unfortunately, the ESL industry can attract the types that treat their job with disdain and zero respect. They turn up to work drunk or high. They arrive late and looking dishevelled. Or they hit on girls they are working with. Or teaching.
No one is saying don’t party at the weekends — or every night of the week — but treat your job and your colleagues with respect. You are an ambassador for your country so don’t leave a bad impression.
How Do I Find a Job?
The best way to find a teaching job abroad is online.
For places like Asia and the Middle East.
If you do a TEFL course, they may provide assistance in finding a job for you.
But by far the best method is online. More choice and easy to apply.
There are many websites to help you look for a job teaching English.
Let’s look at the best ones.
The ESL Job Boards
These are the top 17 sites for ESL jobs.
These sites list jobs that are currently available. But ESL Cafe and TEFL.com also have forums which are a great source of information about jobs, schools and countries where you plan to work.
Most of the sites are laid out in the same style, by country. It makes it easy to navigate for logical reasons.
I have also seen a great deal many ESL job recruitment ads on sites like Craigslist and the mainstream job websites but this appears to be mostly agencies looking for teachers and advertising jobs that may not exist at all.
This happens with the ESL sites too but you can verify information via the forums with the forum members.
Some sites also have a chat forum.
A few years back many ESL forums were largely unmoderated and so they were filled with obvious trolls. But since then they are now a lot easier to deal with and can be a great source of information.
If you see a job offer from a school, you can check on the forums as to the school’s reputation. You might get a few replies all saying positive things. But you might equally hear the opposite. In which case you can back up and look elsewhere.
Remember disgruntled ex-employees are everywhere though and you have to fish through any negative feedback and use some common sense.
A school may get one guy saying how it was the worst place to work ever. But other feedback could be reasonable.
Take it all with a pinch of salt.
Sending Your Application
Once you find jobs you like, then you need to apply.
Make sure you have your resume ready. Any experience you may have in terms of anything related to teaching should and must appear on your resume.
Include your education history and your TEFL certificate if you have one.
Some job ads ask for you to send a photocopy of any certificates that you may have — college degree or TEFL certificate.
I know this may sound a little paranoid but there are people who exist who want to use this information to create their own identities or copy your certificates and use them for their own purposes.
I would personally wait until you have contacted the recruiter before sending any certificates.
And it may go without saying – but never send any originals!
Most job applications are done by email these days but many are now using messenger services these days.
In Asia, two apps that are in common use are Line and WeChat.
If recruiters ask you to use one of these apps, you may find that responses and the whole application process are much quicker.
Applying Via an Agent
When you apply for teaching jobs you find that you come up against agents.
There are some good agents.
Then there is the huge festering swamp of pond-life that is anything but good.
Unfortunately, the ESL industry attracts some highly unscrupulous agents looking for easy prey. For many teachers fresh out of their TEFL class, these are an easy target.
If you are dealing with an agent, you can ask online to verify if they are good or not. Dave’s ESL is a good place to ask such questions.
Sometimes the agent is not an agent at all and just trying to scam money out of people. If an agent asks for a fee of any kind take this as a warning. There is no such thing as any administration fee so don’t fall for it.
Other bad agents may say you don’t need a work visa. They will tell you to apply for a tourist visa for whatever country you are going to and work on that. While there are a great many teachers that work on tourist visas be warned that if you are caught by the authorities there may be a hefty fine to pay.
Telling the police that the agent told you to work on a tourist visa is no excuse and you will still be expected to pay.
Deportations are not rare.
Sometimes agents offer a job in one city only for you to arrive in the city and find that the job is actually in a small industrial town in the middle of nowhere.
Try to get all your bases covered when dealing with a school agent.
You need to know exactly:
- The name of the school where you will work
- The full address of the school
- How many classes will you teach every week (some agents are known to farm the teacher out to various places using you as a cash cow)
If accommodation is offered ask for the full address of the apartment and for pictures of the interior too. It might also be a good idea to check on Google Maps or Google Earth to check you are not living miles away from the school.
As with anything online, check everything.
The authorities crack down on dodgy agents now and then. But the dodgy agents are very persistent so beware.
The Summer is The Best Time
You can look for a job teaching English pretty much any time of the year. You will find job offers in any month.
But by far the main bulk of jobs are offered in the summer.
This is because the schools are looking to hire for the next school year beginning in September. If you go online around July and August, you will see literally hundreds of job offers around the world as recruiters sweat it out trying to find English teachers.
If you are beginning your job search any time in the summer you should have a very wide choice of offers.
But outside of the summer, the jobs shrink somewhat.
Remember, training centres are usually hiring all year round.
Questions to Ask
So you have sent off a few applications and now you have recruiters sniffing around asking about you.
You find that offers could come in hard and fast once you send out a few applications.
How you sift through these takes a great deal of care. As I mentioned before, you can ask other people on sites such as Dave’s.
But you can also do your own detective work by asking the right questions.
I have listed below some suitable things to ask.
What is the name of the school?
Should be obvious but you never know. The job might say ABC school and then you find you are working for XYZ school.
Agents are particularly good at doing this.
Check the exact name of the school and the address and then check on Google Maps and Google Earth.
It’s a good idea to see where the actual school is. The recruiter might say it is very convenient. But when you check it’s just convenient if you want to be surrounded by factories or near a 16-lane highway.
How much is the salary? Is this before or after tax?
You need to know exactly how much they will pay you.
Be very clear what the school is paying you and when you get paid.
How many classes per week? And how long are the classes?
How many classes each week.
How long are the classes.
I almost worked for a school that tried to reinvent time. They tried to convince me that each class was two hours but I only got paid for an hour and 45 minutes.
To be honest, it is just the training centres and the agents that are this slippery.
Oh, and check if you are paid if the class is cancelled.
Sometimes you might find that classes get cancelled. Check if you still get paid or not.
Are there any weekend classes? Evening classes?
In a training centre, there will always be weekend and evening classes. But for any other school, there should not be.
Check this because you might find an unscrupulous recruiter is trying to farm you out outside of school hours.
Do I have to do office hours?
Some schools expect you to be in the teachers’ room all day. They call this ‘office hours’ when in fact you are just sitting there like a lemon most of the time.
Some schools say you are only working when you have class. Any time outside of that is your own.
What are the holidays? And do I have to work on those days or not?
I mean national holidays. Sometimes the school might tell you there is a holiday for bowing down to the tombs of the great grandfathers. And then they make you work on the weekend to make up for it.
Check all of this as they can sometimes spring a working day on you.
How many students in each class?
Sometimes it is very difficult for the school to give an exact number but they should have a rough idea.
The difference between a large class and a smaller class can make all kinds of changes in the kind of lessons you can do.
I worked in a university that asked me to do an extra class on a Saturday morning.
I asked what was the class, and the manager told me it was an IELTS class.
Not many people, he said.
I arrived on Saturday morning and found 1800 people in a huge lecture hall.
If you are making these enquiries from overseas, then it is rather difficult to determine exactly what the job involves exactly.
But you can do some small part of damage control and prevent anything terrible happening by these simple checks.
Ask on the forums too and people may provide extra background on the school in question.
If a simple search using the school’s name brings up lots of negative feedback, then you know to avoid it. But if it is just a couple of negative remarks, then that is down to some disgruntled former employees having a whine.
One thing you must absolutely check is your work visa.
Is the school taking care of this?
If the school or agent tells you not to worry that you can organise your visa after you arrive, now is the time to worry.
Yes, many countries you can do that. You must check what the legality is about applying for work visas to the country you plan on working in.
But some countries are very strict about this now. China expects the teacher to apply for a full and legal visa. The rules of this change all the time.
As mentioned above, dodgy agents are prone to telling the teacher not to worry about the visa.
It will bode you well in the long term.
Criminal Record Background Check
Some countries require that the teacher prove he has a clean criminal record. Depending on where you are from you may have to go to your local police station or get a record from higher up.
I believe in America the FBI provide a record of this.
Check with your local authorities and make sure you have one. You will need it.
Pack Your Bags
Assuming your application has been accepted and the school has a copy of your clean slate of criminal record. And that your visa is either in hand or in process, you now need to prepare the final few things before jumping on the plane and heading off.
Now you have to pack.
I am not going to tell you what to put in your suitcase. I’m sure you are an adult. But now I am going to tell you what to put in your suitcase.
You will need some money to take with you. You are not the ESL version of Dick Whittington arriving in a city with the streets paved with gold.
Don’t bring thousands of dollars but bring some immediate funds for your first month in the country.
The reasons are pretty obvious but in case you are not aware. Food is not free. Neither is public transport, taxis. Or beer.
If you are on a regular prescription for meds bring enough to last you for the first month — or longer if you can.
Also, bear in mind that these meds may be checked and confiscated at customs. So bring any necessary documentation with you too. Doctor’s notes, prescriptions, etc. Also, check if you can receive these same meds with an overseas doctor’s prescription in the country you are travelling too.
Always a good idea to bring enough of these. In your first month of being in-country, it might take a while to adjust to your new town so stock up before arriving.
Time was when this was a real pain to buy anywhere in China. The only thing I could buy was some stupid roll-on deodorant that was made for women. And in the summer I was sweating like a pig so I was hardly fresh and clean all day.
My advice: bring plenty.
It is probably more readily available these days but bring enough to last you the first month.
I don’t wear any these days but I think it is readily available in most countries. You might have certain brands you prefer so bring stocks.
Bring clothing. If you are big in body, you may find it hard to buy clothes of any size to fit you, especially in Asia. So bring clothing.
Particularly if you are going anywhere in Asia and you have big feet.
Shoes can be a nightmare to find in big sizes in China, Korea, Japan…
Bring an adaptor so you can charge your phone and computer. They are often easy to buy abroad but do you really want to have that on your list of things to do when you arrive?
If coming to China, you will need a VPN service. Get one installed before arriving as it is a little tricky to do in the country.
And bring digital copies of all the following documents:
- Driver’s license or domestic ID
- Birth certificate
- Medical history
- Immunization records
- Degree(s) (Most schools want copies of the original)
- TEFL/CELTA certificate(s)
- Resume or CV
- Bank account information
You may need any one of these docs for obvious reasons.
Having digital versions of all the above items will save you a lot of time and a lot of stress. You would be surprised the people that may want to see copies of these things — anyone from bank personnel, government departments, landlords, etc.
So the plane lands, the serious-looking customs guy lets you into the country and you have now arrived.
You have made it!
Enjoy the honeymoon period.
Not that things will turn sour in the next couple of weeks and life will become a stress-filled bonanza.
But enjoy that moment of being in a country where you don’t really understand what is going on, what all the strange smells are, the different sights before your eyes — and what is all that noise?
This is a great moment to experience. Savour it and bathe in it.
Because you will soon enter…
Be prepared for this — it is a real thing.
Each person is different and what may take a couple of months for one person to adjust may take someone else a year or two. But usually, the whole process of culture shock takes a year.
After the honeymoon stage comes the following stages:
The Distress Stage
This is where the honeymoon period wanes and you may feel isolated and alone. The things you thought were interesting before now seem alien, maybe even threatening.
This is the stage when people complain and whine about their host country and the culture within.
You compare it to your own country and see nothing good in the place you are in.
This is part of the integration process.
This is where you emerge out of the constant complaining and see good in things.
You like yourself more at this stage too.
You grow through it and come out liking your host country and seeing great things.
You are realistic but you have adapted and become accustomed to the country you are living in.
Spend Time with Others
Some people never adjust and after a year of being in the country usually jump in a taxi and run for the airport.
Others take to their new country like a duck to water and then never leave.
One thing you should try not to do is take it out on your colleagues or students. If you are going through this, then seek the company of other foreign teachers — or any foreign person come to that — and tell them what you are going through.
Usually, a couple of beers and a few laughs is all it takes to make you feel better.
Do not isolate yourself.
You will need to be patient and learn to be flexible in another country. A simple thing like going to the local supermarket can become a test in human tolerance. Understand that things are done differently and learn to accept these things.
It takes time to adjust and you have to ride it out.
Don’t Try to Change The Country
You need to abide by their rules, their customs, their way of doing things.
A good friend of mine said 1.3 billion people will not change for you. He said this about China and he was right. Why should they?
You are the one that needs to change. You need to adapt to their way of doing things.
When in Rome is a very true and appropriate saying. Watch, observe and learn.
Education Systems of The Country Are Not Your Own—Accept The Way They Do Things
Many Asian countries—especially Korea, China and Japan—have very different ways of teaching and learning. They have rote learning systems and the amount of homework these countries give to students would give a mother in the suburbs of your home country a heart attack.
It is not your place to change the way they do things no matter how strongly you may disagree. Abide by their rules. If the school says give ‘em more homework, then that is what you have to do. Truth is—you will usually just be there to help correct their spoken English. The local teachers will do all the homework and tests.
Stay Away From The Whingers
Sure everyone likes to let off steam now and then. But try not to let the whingers and complainers become too friendly.
These people can be a real drag.
Yes, you will have times when the country you are in is getting you down. But to spend all your free time in a bar moaning about it with a couple of other whiners is no way to spend your life.
Stay away from certain chat forums too. It’s no way to live.
Enjoy what you are doing. If not, quit and leave. Go home.
And Most of All — Enjoy The Experience
You are doing something that very, very few people ever do in their lives. You are travelling the world and teaching people from an entirely different country and culture of your own.
If you stay abroad for one year only you will have a thousand stories to tell. And when you get back home your family and friends will quickly tire of hearing them.
Breathe the experience in and enjoy it.
The memories will last a lifetime.
The Contract Ends
Twelve months just fly by and you find you are at the end of your contract.
Are you going home? Or stay another year? Or are you bitten by the travel bug and want to move on to a new place?
Maybe going home doesn’t sound so appealing now. Maybe you don’t miss home at all.
I have worked with teachers who have reached the end of their contract and run for the airport, swearing never to return.
Two months later they are back in town again.
Living and working abroad does a funny thing to your head.
You have a choice when you end your contract. If you like where you are living, like your colleagues and the students — why not renew your contract?
Schools love teachers that do that.
You might negotiate a little extra pay.
Or maybe you want to stay in the same country but move to a new city. A smaller town. It is up to you entirely.
Or perhaps you have had enough of the country you are in but want to try another country altogether.
It is all possible.
And now you have one year of experience under your belt it becomes so much easier.
I doubt if I have covered everything.
In a few pages, it would be impossible.
And I know I have only provided very broad strokes in terms of the different countries and their approach to teaching English.
Please do the necessary research on the smaller details once you know which country you have chosen.
Teaching English abroad is the path less chosen. But it would surprise you how many have trodden on that path.
Whatever your question about teaching English you will find someone has an answer for it. It’s just a case of finding the right channels to help you.
But I hope that you make the right decision and do it.
Just one year of teaching English abroad will change you. You will become a lot more independent and you will see the world differently.
There’s that old line about never knowing my hometown until I went to the coast — or something like that. Teaching English abroad is definitely about that.
You will come back a different person.
Plus, you will have helped many people learn a skill that could be useful to them their entire life.
You will have changed their lives and your own.