TEFL Teaching English Abroad- Where Do I Start?

TEFL

So you’re thinking about TEFL (teaching English as a Foreign Language) abroad? This post has drawn together the experiences of almost 20 of my TEFLing friends around the globe. It hopes to answer any queries or worries you might have, how to get into it in the first place, what you should know about the TEFLing world and hopefully inspire you to give it a go! What are we waiting for?!

Getting Into TEFL

TEFL

Everyone has their own reasons for entering the world of TEFL. Some can’t bare the monotony of 9-5 office work and living for the weekend, others have always wanted to be a teacher or are broadening their existing teaching skills. The majority of us, though, simply wanted to get out into the world ASAP but had limited funds. While au paring, websites such as Workaway and HelpX, ski season work etcetera are pretty good options, TEFL triumphs as it allows you to truly integrate into a different culture and experience a plethora of lives: from living on tiny islands in the Indian Ocean to quaint villages in the Mediterranean and bustling cities of Bangkok and Beijing. TEFL allows you to live practically anywhere, provides a comfortable salary and can be short-term, an academic year or two, or an actual career path which could even end up with you running your own school.

What Do I Need?

TEFL is very flexible, and as such, no two TEFL teachers have the same backgrounds. What you ‘need’ is very much dependent on where you want to teach. You’ve probably got the first ‘must-have’ already: you must be 18 or over.

But I Don’t Have a Degree?

Firstly, let’s get rid of this ‘but’! I don’t have a degree either, and I’ve had four TEFL jobs and counting. In the world of TEFL, you are not necessarily less desirable than applicants with degrees*. You might not have a degree, but you have spent the last few years as a scout leader, or tutoring kids after school, or working as a nursery nurse, or a babysitter, or assisting children with learning difficulties. Or maybe your last job had you leading a group of people, managing time efficiently, teaching martial arts or water sports or yoga, maybe you ran training courses? While a degree (in any subject) does demonstrate your high level of written abilities, the majority of us have noticed schools not being too bothered about the degree subject or even if you have one- it seems that experience is more desirable.

 

All of the teaching positions I’ve had have advertised for someone with a degree, but I applied regardless. When it comes up in the Skype interviews, I try not to focus on the fact I’d quit university, but on all the things I’ve achieved since and have to offer.

 

*In some places (such as The Middle East, Thailand, South Korea, Japan), a degree is required for the employment visa.

 

But I Don’t Have Any Experience?

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If you find that you really haven’t had any suitable experience, the question isn’t so much about if you’re employable, but rather how you are going to make yourself employable. How do you even know that you want to be a teacher? How will you manage a class of crazy kids? What activities would you do to make the lesson stimulating? ‘How can we trust you with our students’ is basically how the employers will feel.

 

If you’ve got some time before wanting to head out, you could see if there are any volunteering opportunities around you (or abroad), ideally working with young learners and teenagers, or even adults so long as it’s a teaching setting. I contacted my old Primary School and I did a little bit of work experience with a Year 4 class (ages 8-9)- it was pretty much like being an unpaid teaching assistant. A better option would be actually being a teaching assistant. There are many agencies or you could try contacting schools directly. You could also TEFL abroad as a volunteer but just be mindful of the issues surrounding voluntourism.

Another option is to look at TEFL internship programs BUT be very careful as there are many scams out there, so be sure to research thoroughly before booking anything. Quite a few of my TEFL friends and I actually met whilst on an I:to:I Vietnam TEFL Internship, which ran from August to January and included airport pick up, accommodation, food and visa assistance, as well as 24/7 support and basically everything organised for you. At my time of booking (2012), neither a degree nor experience were required. It all sounds too good to be true but remember it did cost about £900 including the TEFL certification, which I’ll talk about later. This didn’t include flights so it was quite a payout. I found once in-country that we were being paid about half of what other TEFL teachers received, so that was a bit of a bummer, but I truly needed the support though as it was so scary going abroad like that for the first time, and I was only 19!

 

But How Do I Teach English?

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It seems schools in Wales, Ireland and Scotland really go deeper into English grammar than we do in England. I remember learning the basics like nouns, adjectives, and how to write a pretty good essay about ambition in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but this does not set anyone up to teach the entirety of the English language, which is actually very challenging and I still struggle teaching the highest levels; e.g. I know that as a rule, we don’t do so-and-so, but there in class in front of a dozen people I honestly don’t know why we don’t do so-and-so; so I have to spend a lot of my time teaching myself and going through all the answers prior to class.

 

Teaching younger learners is a lot more straight-forward. For example, if you had a 1 hour lesson on body part vocabulary ages 7-9, you’d lay out your lesson like this:

TEFL

 

Now, this is all relatively simple provided you understand the syllabus, have loads of ideas, activities and games up your sleeve, feel confident in managing a class and give yourself plenty of time for lesson planning and preparation. If you aren’t confident in your teaching abilities, which I certainly wasn’t, then have a look into TEFL/TESOL certifications or the Cambridge CELTA (Certification in English Language Teaching to Adults).

 

TEFL/TESOL or CELTA?!

For most jobs you’ll need at least a 100 hour online TEFL certification (unless you have a teaching degree or extensive teaching experience), while others reject any kind of online qualification and want CELTA qualified teachers. However, some teachers note that from time to time employers aren’t that bothered- especially when they need to fill a position quickly!

 

One that springs to mind is a company in Italy who I’ve taught summer camps with (and am going to this summer- come with!)- who do not require tutors to be TEFL certified. Another is a position I had in Sicily where the school’s website stated all their teachers were graduates and CELTA qualified, I had neither so was shocked when I was accepted. Don’t feel held back when reading job advertisements, just apply and see what happens.

TEFL

I used I:to:I TEFL and would recommend them and the 140 hour TEFL course which included 20 hours of practical observed teaching. I was able to choose 4 “specialty modules” and I went with Teaching Large Classes, Teaching with Limited Resources, How to Teach Audio and Video Lessons and Teaching English One-to-One. The rest of the course was as follows:

 

TEFL Basics– types of learners, role of the teacher, classroom management, importance of body language, using the board, seating arrangements, etc
Grammar– an introduction to English Grammar: grammatical terms, phrases, functions: nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, determiners, interjections, plurals, countable/uncountable nouns, possessive, main and auxiliary verbs, model auxiliary verbs, regular/irregular verbs, tenses: present/past simple, present/past continuous, present/past perfect, present/past perfect continuous, future simple/continuous/perfect/perfect continuous- active and passive voices, conditional clauses, etc.
How To Teach the Language– form, function, phonology, ‘Test-Teach-Test’, learning through contexts, concept questions, characteristics of words: pronunciation, stress, spelling, style, collocations; teaching methods, eliciting, drilling, techniques to teach vocabulary, games and activities, how to teach pronunciation, intonation, syllables, vowels, consonants, phonemic script, the Logical stress, teaching in 4 steps, rising tone, falling tone, accents, how to correct mistakes and give feedback, how to correct speaking mistakes- immediate and delayed, types of assessments
How to Teach the Skills– writing activities, 10 steps to a successful writing lesson, the importance of STT (Student Talking Time), how to maximise STT in class, speaking activities, discussions and debates, role plays, balloon debate, guess the advice, ranking exercises, listening exercises, how to teach listening and reading, ideas for song tasks, 10 top tips to reading success, ideas for developing receptor skills: before, during and after.
Lesson Planning and Cultural Awareness– example lesson plans: talking about ability, giving advice, talking about past habits, how to lesson plan, more games and activities, playing with language, understanding false assumptions, power distance,individualism, masculinity, common cultural differences, taboo subjects
How to Find Work- writing a CV, writing a cover letter, types of language institutions, the interview, teaching destinations, what to consider before choosing your destination.

 

All of this was about 80 hours. Then there was an additional (rather difficult) 20 hours of Grammar Awareness: the nuts and bolts of English, English tense forms, English tense functions, Vocabulary and Phonology.

 

As you can see, the TEFL certification is pretty hardcore. I liked the fact it was online because it meant I could carry on working full-time while studying. I’m not sure about the TESOL but I know it is accredited by Trinity College London, and is therefore a little more valuable than a TEFL.

 

My TEFL definitely prepared me well, as I took notes on EVERYTHING and now have a gigantic folder on TEFL I can dip into any time. Others have said they’ve forgotten everything from it- it is what you make it I guess. One thing I will say is that the TEFL is very good for teaching levels A1 up to about B2 (upper-intermediate), but it doesn’t really prepare you for teaching advanced and proficient classes. I try and shy away from those as much as possible as I just find it all so difficult, even as a native. A proficient student’s English exam will take more than 6 hours to complete!

CELTA

CELTA, like TESOL, also has a lot of value as it is accredited by the University of Cambridge. This also means it costs more than £1,500, while the TEFL is a few hundred pounds. While the TEFL is online, the CELTA is a 4 week intense study and teaching course. I’ve looked into it and I can’t even find a centre in Essex which offers the CELTA, so I would have to commute to Cambridge or London every day or move there for a month. It all seemed a bit inconvenient.

 

With a TEFL you either pass or fail, and you can keep trying until you pass. With the CELTA you’ll either get an A, B, C or fail. If you go to all the trouble and only end up with a C grade, you may have been better off trying the TEFL course first, to get to grips with all the grammar, etc. I’ve never seen job advertisements specifying which grade CELTA graduates must have though a TEFL friend of mine said her manager in Spain would only interview graduates with grade B or above.

 

What About Non-Natives?

I don’t know the answer for every single country in the world, but I imagine that non-natives would find it very difficult to find positions teaching in the United Kingdom, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or anywhere else where English is the native language, simply because they’ll be up against an abundance of native applicants.

 

Non-Natives with degrees in teaching, English or in several languages plus TEFL/CELTA qualified and experience teaching, on the other hand, should not find much trouble. In Vietnam, many of my colleagues were from Ukraine, Russia, Sweden, Finland and Norway, but there were also TEFL teachers in the city from pretty much ALL over, even with strong accents. My advice again, don’t be put off and try your luck. Just be sure to emphasise your English ability is native-level.

 

You might need to have qualifications in English to prove your language ability. I’d recommend looking at the Cambridge Proficiency or IELTS exams. Remember that a lot of employers will respect your determination and your deep knowledge of the English language having had to learn it from scratch yourself- you could perhaps be a more compassionate and patient TEFL tutor than a native who has never struggled through it.

 

But I’m Worried About Going Abroad Alone!

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If you’ve got all the tools you need but are feeling anxious, how about asking a friend if they’d be up for an adventure and going together? Failing that, there are so many blogs, forums and Facebook groups online which will inspire you so much you’ll be out the door tomorrow. My favourite FB female-only group at the moment is Girls LOVE Travel (sorry guys!).

 

When I was offered the job in The Maldives the first thing I did was search on FB for expatriate groups and I found loads of people and even other colleagues I’d be working with! There’s pretty much an expat group for every country, and sometimes you’ll find ones specific to your nationality like for me I found “Brits in Italy” and “Brits in Maldives” where people were very supportive and helped me when feeling homesick etc.

 

Finally I’d suggest a small trip abroad or similar to get a bit used to travelling abroad: you could backpack somewhere and stay in hostels, or you could try a Workaway project or a summer position, volunteering abroad, or even a TEFL internship like aforementioned.

 

Finding a Paid TEFL Job

TEFL

There are an abundance of websites for finding TEFL work, my favourites are TEFL.com and Dave’s ESL Cafe. I’ve always applied for work prior to going abroad simply because where I went abroad was completely dependent on the job I received! I am known for applying to hundreds of jobs until one finally gets back to me. This could be due to my lack of degree or CELTA, or simply because there are just so many TEFL teachers out there. Not to worry though, there’s a place out there for you somewhere!

 

Other TEFL friends have found jobs both through word of mouth and looking for work once settled in the country. This suits if you are absolutely intent on living in one place in particular, but you’ll need to budget money for a few months rent, food, etc, in case nothing comes up at first.

 

Any UK people reading, I was surprised to see how many summer camps run all over England and Scotland. If you’re not quite ready to go abroad or don’t have a lot of money or experience, this could be the ticket. It’s quite demanding though (if residential) so be ready for long days waking up at 7 and finally climbing into bed after 10, 6 days a week. Friends recommend Studio Cambridge, Xkeys and Ardmay House International Summer School.

 

When To Apply?

Europe

For the most part, if you want to be hired for a September/October start (start of academic years in most of Europe), you’ll be researching and applying for jobs from March/April onwards. By the summer, there will still be loads of positions for teachers in Europe but I’d be worried personally if theyre hiring this late in the year they seem somewhat disorganised (and from experience, they were disorganised).

 

January is also a popular start for TEFL teachers as some teacher’s contracts end over the Christmas holidays, or teachers leave at Christmas and don’t come back. Advertisements should be online around November.

Rest of the world

Unfortunately I have no idea about academic years in other parts of the world. I remember in Maldives it ran from January through to November and December was a sort of ‘summer holidays’, but I applied and was hired in March. In Vietnam, I worked from August to December but was supposed to stay on until January, which is common in a lot of countries. My TEFL friends in Malaysia only had December 24th and December 25th off work for Christmas holidays, while friends in China had to work most of December but had a month off in February. Something to consider if you know you want to be at home over the holidays.

 

Last minute positions are available pretty much all year round, but research the school and place thoroughly as you may find that the reason they’re hiring is because their TEFL teachers left due to frustrations in the workplace or the area/lifestyle wasn’t up to scratch.

 

Things All Prospective TEFL Teachers Should Know

TEFL

Salary

Unless you find work in Saudi or similar, you’re looking at a very average wage as a new TEFL teacher. Sometimes your accommodation is included, as it was in Maldives, because rent prices are astronomical or apartments are really difficult to find on your own. Just be prepared here for the worst. My bleak studio flat left much to be desired. On the bright side, the salary is always more than enough to have an awesome quality of life abroad, and I was able to do loads of sight-seeing, spend weekends in Ha Long Bay, island hopping and learning how to scuba dive.

Workload

More often than not, you’ll be required to teach 25-30 classroom hours a week, which doesn’t include the roughly 10 hours a week you’ll spend planning and preparing your lessons. Some schools actually plan EVERYTHING for you, and so literally you just do your 25 hour week plus maybe going into work 30 minutes to an hour earlier to read over the materials and check the CDs aren’t faulty etc. Sometimes when it’s planned for you it’s a relief, other times it’s just irritating- like when the worksheets are riddled with grammatical errors or awkward things like in Maldives (a Muslim country) I had the words ‘bacon’ on a children’s food worksheet and ‘church’ when teaching the phonetic sound ‘ch’. You might be better off making your own materials and accumulating a wealth of resources to use in the future.

 

Most timetables will start from around 2pm and finish around 9pm, Monday to Friday (or Sunday to Thursday). Some schools will have all children’s lessons in the afternoons and adults in the mornings. It depends on the country, as in Europe, kids go to school during the day so are only free for tuition in the afternoons/evenings. In Maldives and plenty of other places, parents can choose to send their kids to morning schools or afternoon schools, so some days I started work at 9AM and finished in the afternoon, which was ideal for me.

 

If you’re lucky, I’ve seen some schools (particularly in Spain) offer the same money for only 4 days a week, Monday to Thursday. The long weekend must feel fantastic and gives you so much time to explore the country!

Skills

TEFL

 

While having excellent time-management and leadership skills, being great with kids, understanding English grammar (duh) and just generally being a nice lively person, the most important thing is adaptability.

 

When you’re living and working in a foreign country, try to understand that you are the one who is foreign, so you need to be able to adapt to that country’s or company’s way of working. You may well experience culture-shock and this will be very difficult at first but all part of moving abroad.

 

You should be ready to embrace somewhere totally new. If you’re just going to complain about everything you’ll really have the worst time. We’ve all met so many people who seem to hate the place, hate the locals, refuse to learn the local language, moan that everything is different, disorganised, or whatever. I’ve learnt to try to stop expecting things to change and be the same as they are back home.

 

Flexibility. Be prepared to have to deal with things changing, such as issues in your school/ with the manager/ your timetable, etc. Lots of my TEFL friends have been interviewed for a certain position, like teaching young learners, and then received a timetable teaching 15-18 year olds. Or in Naples, when I was told I’d teach at one school, with young children, in the evenings, and ended up having to commute to three different schools and teach 3 years up to adults any time of day, including Saturdays.

 

Most TEFL teachers will admit that it takes a while to get the balance right with planning time and sometimes in your lessons you won’t quite finish something or you’ll realise your students need more time on one thing and less on something else. The lesson plan is more of a guide, and with time and practice you’ll feel yourself becoming more confident and things going more smoothly.

TEFL Teacher Highlights!

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Full credits to artist Oliver Jeffers

 

Meeting incredible, uplifting, inspiring people, creating lifelong meaningful memories, being able to travel on the cheap, embracing new things, trying new foods, working with delightful children, falling in love with someone who ‘gets’ you, teaching getting easier the more you do it, working in a relaxed happy environment, having fabulous colleagues to explore with and enjoy very cheap booze, cheap booze in general! Having the ability to jump deep into the core of a country’s culture, when your students pass their exams! When you meet beautiful young minds and help them to grow. When you look back after a year at how you and the people around you have flourished! When it’s time to leave and your students bring gifts and flowers, your school throws a goodbye ceremony. When TEFL opens up other paths in your life you never knew existed…

The Not So Good Stuff

‘Accommodation included’ could be your worst nightmare, you don’t research enough and find you’re moving to the middle of nowhere, when there’s issues in management, feeling lonely from time to time, language barriers getting in the way of day-to-day life, if you fall out with colleagues… but overall, I wouldn’t say there were many low points, certainly not enough to deter anyone from giving TEFL a go.

If I Could Go Back…

One thing in common between my TEFL friends and I is that in hindsight, we really should have made more of an active effort to learn the local language. It would have made a massive difference and lessened the frustrations of struggling to send a letter or open a bank account or ask someone where the bus stop is or ordering food in a restaurant, etc.

Last Little Oomph!

Family, boring friends etc, have quite often asked me when am I going to get a “real job”. If you’re facing similar dilemmas, I truly ask you to put aside what others think is rational and the ‘right way’ of doing life, and go and teach in Costa Rica or Mexico or in the Austrian Alps or a village in the south of France, or live a city life teaching in Rome, Paris, Seoul, Singapore– wherever you feel the urge to be. 95% of the people I asked agreed that they had started TEFL for the sole purpose of travelling, but now adore it so much it is their profession- and will continue to be indefinitely. Cheers to that!

TEFL
(Not my picture! Credits to owner)

 

Any questions, do please comment below! If you found this useful, please share and hopefully we can inspire others! Sarah xx

 

Hi! I'm Sarah. I dropped out of university tired with the mundane life I was living in England. Now I'm an aspiring ex-pat of the world, having already lived and worked in Vietnam, Italy and Maldives. I'm using this blog to document my experiences and hopefully inspire others!

30 Comments

    1. Thanks! Working in Maldives was like a dream — I found it advertised on Dave’s Esl Cafe website I think. They wanted me to come in less than a week so I took a big breath and went for it haha!

  1. I’m less discouraged now than I was before haha, since I’m not a native English speaker I was a bit worried. Although one of my Korean friends is also teaching English in her country without a degree. Great guide Sarah!

    1. Thank you! Nothing to worry about 🙂 however- my first class was terrifying, I was so nervous! Gets easier as it goes on though 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for this comprehensive guide! I really want to teach English abroad when I graduate but haven’t done a TEFL yet. This was really helpful!

    1. Hi Cynthia, thanks for your comment! Definitely keep it in the back of your mind — I think it’s a great thing to do at least once in your life 🙂

  3. This was so interesting to read! I’m searching for as many people as possible who share their stories on teaching abroad. I will be graduated as a PE teacher in June and I would love to teach and travel my way around the world actually.
    I should really give this a shot!

    Oh and by the way, do you know anything about how to get a job as a PE teacher or assistant in an international school or did you meet any friends who are experienced in this?

    I would love to hear their stories as well!
    Cheers,
    Eva

    1. Thanks for your comment! You should definitely start look now for opportunities starting this year, if you’re ready to go by June! I know a few people who taught English in international schools, sometimes you can email the school directly and see if they’re hiring. But there must be an online jobs board, happy searching!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Cristen! Have you done any teaching since? Where were you a teaching assistant? I’ve seen a couple advertised in Spain!

  4. Very thorough…teaching abroad is often a great outlet to other similarly rewarding non-teaching related positions.

    1. You’re welcome! It depends on the school really 🙂 summer camps can run for 2 weeks or hire you all summer, sometimes a school just needs a teacher to cover the last few months of term, but generally, schools in Europe hire for the academic year September- May/June and schools in Asia hire at pretty much any time of the year so I’ve experienced!

  5. Wow great advice Sarah! I wish I had advice like this when I embarked on my TEFL career!

    My friend is seesawing back and forth about getting into TEFL and I’ll be emailing her a link of your article! 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

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