I’ve been an English teacher for more than 15 years now, in three different countries and in all kinds of situations: university, high school, general ESL schools, conversation clubs, meeting rooms in factories, people’s homes, even at a kindergarten in South Korea, which was my first teaching job.
What began as a means to adventure and living abroad has become my career. But it’s more than a career; it’s still a means to adventure and living abroad, and it’s also opened other opportunities, such as translating.
I’ve learned a lot, from teacher training courses and especially experience, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. These experiences (including mistakes) informed my newest article for Transitions Abroad: the Guide to Teaching English as a Second Language Abroad. Please click the link for the article.
International ESL teaching is a profession that’s not going anywhere, and it’s a great opportunity for anyone who likes working with people and wants to see the world. Whether you are an aspiring teacher or are teaching already, I hope you can gain some insight from the article. I welcome questions and different opinions in the comments.
I was half asleep, my head on the desk. I’d been in South Korea for about a month, though the school had only been open for a few days.
I was one of the first teachers at a brand new school, and I had no teaching experience. Our boss had no experience running an English school either, though he did already own a small kindergarten.
The secretary stepped into the teacher’s room. “You have a class.”
Really? I shook out the cobwebs and walked down the hall to the sparkling new classroom. At a table sat a 13-year-old boy, calm and expressionless with a notebook open in front of him. Two children rolled and played on the floor.
The boy and I chatted. What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from?
He spoke English quite well, sitting up straight with his hands folded in his lap. I told the two kids on the floor to join us. One hit the other, and they both started screaming.
This was my class?
Welcome to EFL teaching
EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language, also known as ESL, English as a Second Language.
This isn’t your high school English class, writing essays and reading The Great Gatsby, but teaching the English language to people who speak another language.
There are three things to know before you pursue a career in EFL: the requirements, which country to choose, and how to find the right type of school.
A common misconception is that anyone who speaks English can teach EFL, though in a way this is true. Any motivated, hardworking English speaker could find an entry-level EFL teaching job somewhere in the world.
But not everyone will be good at it. Some people aren’t cut out to be teachers, and you really won’t know if you’re good at it you unless you give it try.
There’s a lot more to teaching English than simply speaking it as a native language or even knowing grammar. (Though you should learn grammar – get a copy of The Elements of Style or Essentials of English.)
Another common misconception about teaching English in a foreign country is that if you teach in Mexico, you need to speak Spanish. Or if you teach in Japan, you need Japanese, and so forth. This is not true. In fact, you will give a more effective class if you teach only in English, even for beginners.
However, once you leave the classroom, you’ll obviously need the local language in everyday life. Make the effort – it will make your experience much better. I always thought there was something strange about language teachers who aren’t interested in learning other languages.
For decent teaching jobs in most parts of the world, the basic requirement is a four-year bachelor’s degree in anything. They will want to see your diploma and transcripts, so make sure you bring originals, along with backup copies or digital photos.
For better job prospects and to learn a little about how to be a teacher, a TESL/TEFL/TESOL certificate will help. They are the same. TESOL/TESL means Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Most courses teach teaching methods, lesson planning, and advanced English grammar. Also, most good ones include a practicum, where you must find an ESL school, observe classes, and get some teaching practice.
You can do a course in a physical school or online. To find a school, just Google “TESL” (or one of its variations) and the closest city. You may find a course in a community college or an ESL school, where foreigners go to study English.
An online course is a good option. The price will tell you how reputable it is. For a complete curriculum, such as what you would learn in a classroom, expect a price of around $1,000 USD. This may not include the price of the practicum.
You can find a cheapie certificate online for as low as $100, and some schools might accept it. But for schools that require it, it may not be enough.
For example, if you want to work at a reputable school in Canada, you need a TESL certificate that is recognized by an organization called TESL Canada. I got mine online from a school called Coventry House at ontesol.com.
However, these courses aren’t necessary for many entry-level jobs. Take a look at the requirements for jobs in the country you want to teach in. The type of job that requires a TESL certificate may also require experience, usually two years. You can always do a TESL course after your first year teaching.
And honestly, these courses do not fully prepare you for being a teacher. You learn to be a teacher by teaching and asking advice from more experienced coworkers.
Many schools understand this, and there is such a demand for teachers in some countries (especially South Korea, Japan and Taiwan) that someone with no experience and no certification other than a bachelor’s degree can easily find a job.
Other requirements depend on the country and type of school. You will find many schools that want previous experience as a teacher, often more than two years.
Take a look at some ads online to get an idea of what specific countries and types of schools are looking for.
Where to go
Where do you want to go: Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa?
Jobs are available everywhere in the world, including cities in English-speaking countries like New York, Vancouver, London, and Melbourne.
Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, the three most developed countries of East Asia, typically offer the most entry-level job opportunities and best pay.
There are jobs in other parts of Asia, like China or Thailand, but with no experience you may get paid very little.
The same goes for Latin America – plenty of opportunities, low pay. But if you are thinking long term, after a year or two you will have more opportunities with better pay and benefits, such as universities.
Europe can be tricky because there are so many multilingual people already living there. Most schools require experience, often a minimum of two years.
Some of the most lucrative jobs in EFL are in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Private schools offer large tax-free income and loads of benefits, but usually ask for a minimum of two years experience. If you really want to go, consider getting your experience elsewhere and then moving on.
Dave’s ESL Café is the best resource for finding a job online. Spend some time on the site – get to know which countries are hiring and what the requirements and benefits are. You’ll get an idea of the types of schools available in various countries: elementary/high schools, small private schools, government schools, universities.
Search for other sites, articles like this one, or specific schools. You may not want to get a job off the internet, but at least you can get some knowledge about the teaching market of a country that interests you.
For an entry-level teaching job, your best option is a small language school, often called academies, cram schools, or its name in the local language (hogwan in Korea, for example).
These may be for kids, adults, or both.
If for kids, you will probably teach kindergarten in the morning and then school-age kids in the afternoon. This is a great place to learn how to teach, because there’s less pressure to know what you are doing. If you teach adults, you’d better know grammar.
Berlitz, for example, is an international company that focuses on adults, often business people. Many schools like Berlitz have classes in the early morning and late afternoon and a long break mid-day. Or you will teach in companies and factories, traveling to them on public transportation all over town.
Teaching university almost always requires experience, but these can be some of the best jobs in EFL, with good pay, good benefits, and vacation time. The same goes for elementary/middle/high schools, although you might find these more challenging because of larger class sizes and discipline problems with immature students.
In many countries you will make a lot of money teaching private lessons. So when weighing your options, don’t only look at how much the pay is, but what your schedule will be like. A job with fewer hours per week gives you more time to teach private lessons. But be ethical; don’t take students from your employer.
Two options to get the job
To get a job, you can find one beforehand (probably online), or travel to your country of choice and hit the streets.
Finding a job beforehand has advantages, especially for first-time teachers. The school may pay for your flight. They may even pick you up from the airport. You won’t have the stress of getting around a new country, dealing with a new language, and worrying about your money running out. Most will provide an apartment.
The downside of getting a job while still at home is that you won’t know exactly what you are getting into. I got my first teaching job in South Korea from home, and I was lucky: My boss was honest – we became friends even – and he kept to the contract.
Many people aren’t so lucky. They find out that they will have to work strange hours. Or they are underpaid and given a dingy apartment. Or they have a long commute. The point is that you won’t know until you get there, though it’s a good idea to speak with other English teachers at the school.
And not all good jobs advertise online. For example, you’ll rarely find a good university job on Dave’s ESL Café.
And if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree and still want to teach EFL, you’ll have to search for small, independent schools that will hire you just because you are a native speaker. These places don’t often advertise online for teachers.
So the second choice is for the adventurous: fly to the country you’re interested in and hit the streets. That’s what I did here in Mexico.
Finding a job in person has many advantages. You can find the jobs that aren’t advertized online. Ask around, look for advertisements in university newspapers – you will find the schools.
More importantly, you can get a face-to-face interview and weigh your options. You can see the school, meet the person who will be paying you, and take a look around the neighborhood you will be living in.
Of course, this method has disadvantages – the greatest being that you may run out of money while on the job search.
Also, if you find a job in person they may not pay for your flight or your apartment, and you may have to apply for the working visa by yourself.
What to expect
You can expect stress, confusion, frustration, maybe homesickness, and possibly a broken contract.
Be as patient and flexible as possible, in and outside of the classroom. Dealing with a new culture takes time. Even after years, you won’t fully understand certain social conventions.
There’s a time to be firm as well. Make sure you get what you’ve been promised, especially if you agree to a contract while still back home.
During my two years in Korea, I learned how to teach. I traveled all over South Korea. I traveled to China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. At the end I went back to the Philippines for three months of beaches, scuba diving, and forgetting about classrooms full of small children.
13 years and four countries later, and I’m a university professor and translator in Mexico. I never planned on making EFL a career. I just wanted to see the world from the inside, not be a tourist, but a resident.
It was a good decision.
I can recommend this book too, from a guy who knows what he’s talking about:
Transitions Abroad is one of the oldest and best resources on the web for information about living in a foreign country. I’m really happy that they published my story ESL Teaching in Mexico as a Freelancer.
I wrote it up on my roof, sitting in my beat-up yellow lawnchair.
It’s my second article for them. The first was A Drinking, Smoking, Womanizing Saint.