Teaching English Abroad (and Why I Don’t)

Teaching English Abroad (and Why I Don’t)

Prague seems to be one of the TEFL (“Teaching English as a Foreign Language”) capitals of Europe, and since moving here, I get asked all the time if I’m an English teacher. In fact, for many, it seems out of place that I’m an American living in Prague that doesn’t teach English. A native-speaking expat in their 20’s or 30’s that isn’t teaching English abroad is somewhat of an anomaly in this part of Europe. I’ve often been told that I should start teaching English on the side for some extra money or experience, and I have actually thought about it. How hard can it be, right? Except, all you really need to do is speak to one language teacher who spends an entire day traveling between schools and the entire evening preparing lessons to realize that there’s a ton that goes in to teaching a language that native speakers just aren’t qualified to do without some extra training.

Don’t get me wrong; teaching English abroad is an absolutely incredible way to move to a new country, have the ability to travel and explore the world, and to gain some great experience. But just like with any other job, especially one that is responsible for teaching an important skill to someone else, most people can’t just jump in and start doing that job without some prior training and experience. In my opinion, this mindset is similar to that of the “voluntourism” problem that’s currently sweeping the Western world. This post isn’t about volunteering abroad, specifically, but if you’re new to the idea, I suggest going here, here, or here to learn more about the problems associated with and created by voluntourism.

Essentially, as it relates to teaching English abroad, why, as a native speaker, would I assume that I’m qualified to teach English even though I have never learned how to be a teacher? To put it in perspective, consider how much teachers in public schools have to do to be allowed their own classes in those schools. Where I’m from in the US, my friends who have become teachers have completed at least one degree in education, have had to take certification tests, and go through background checks to prove that they’re safe to be in schools with other people’s children. I have done none of those things, so what right do I have joining a classroom in Prague to teach other people’s children?

I’ve asked some ESL teachers to help answer some of these questions and to expand on what is actually necessary before a teacher steps into a classroom. Elise from Travel, Work and Play has taught English in Cambodia and worked for an NGO providing education to vulnerable communities. Here’s what she has to say:

The idea that as a native speaker, you are capable and qualified to teach the language is prevalent throughout developed and developing worlds. At my last school, I saw a steady stream of unqualified and bewildered travellers arrive to teach English to high-school aged students. Some of them had their TEFL qualification and others didn’t. Technically it’s required by most schools here, but rules are regularly bent, depending on how urgently they need teachers. Too many of these travellers lasted a few days or a few weeks before realising they were wildly out of their depth. I have a bachelors in English and a TEFL qualification with about five years of English tutoring experience from the UK, and it still took some serious adapting to teaching in a classroom. My advice would be to ask yourself the following questions to decide if ESL teaching is for you:

Why do you want to do it? What skills or qualifications do you have already? What skills or qualifications are you willing to learn? Do you enjoy public speaking? Do you enjoy teaching or training? Are you confident, quick thinking, patient? How much time can you commit? At the very minimum, are you available for one full school term? (Most credible schools ask for a year commitment.) If you feel like you fit the bill and this is something you’re genuinely passionate about then take some time to research where and how you can teach ESL abroad. Teaching English in other countries is billed as an easy way to travel while earning, but it actually takes a significant investment of time and energy to do it justice.

For some further information about teaching ESL English in Southeast Asia head over to her blog!

Unfortunately, there are a lot of “come teach English in XYZ country, and change the lives of local people” advertisements for schools all over the world. A lot of these “schools” are willing to take native English speaking people, stick them into a classroom with little or no actual teaching experience, and give them the responsibility of teaching a language to (most often) children. I’ve heard about this in Prague, and I’m always disappointed when I hear my fellow Americans talking about landing a job at a school without actually having gotten a TEFL certificate or having any other experience. While I can appreciate that some of these English teachers will work hard and learn quickly in order to become effective teachers, there are many who don’t put in that requisite effort and may end up doing more harm than good. I believe that I speak English fairly well, but I certainly wouldn’t know how to teach complex grammatical structure to a class of non-native speakers without doing a significant amount of prior research, and I’m certain that some of these teachers are in a similar boat. When looking into the possibility of teaching English abroad, it’s important that you be honest with yourself regarding your level of experience and qualification, and find the appropriate training program before picking up your own classes.

Elise explains that this is also an insidious problem in the volunteering sector:

“Many non-profits are unregulated and accept volunteers to ‘teach’ English abroad, with only their native language to qualify them. Many volunteers pay a fee to spend a few weeks teaching in a classroom, many of them repeating ABCs and basics that the students have already been taught by the last unqualified volunteers in their classroom. With no syllabus and prior training, how can their presence be anything but damaging? I would urge anyone interested in volunteering abroad to sign up for projects that they are genuinely qualified for. No teaching qualifications or classroom experience? Sign up for a community project to help farm or clean. Volunteer at a hostel or somewhere that needs help doing work that doesn’t require extra training. Websites like Workaway and HelpX help match volunteers with projects where they can make a real difference.”

I also reached out to a fellow blogger, Mariza from HopOnWorld, to explain her journey to teaching English abroad. Mariza is from South Africa, and comes from a publishing/advertising background. In her early 30’s she decided she wanted to explore the world and travel, so she earned a TEFL certificate, and has been teaching in Taiwan for six years. She’s been kind enough to explain the in’s and out’s of her journey to becoming an English teacher abroad! Here’s what she has to say:

English teacher in Taiwan

Teaching English in Taiwan

During my university years, I often thought of just packing my bags and going traveling. But after my graduation, I soon found myself in the corporate world – hooked to the fast pace of the media and advertising world. Somehow, I still felt something was missing in my life. So, a few years later, I finally mustered up enough courage and started planning the adventure of a lifetime.

After considering many options to fund a traveling lifestyle, I finally decided to teach English abroad. Being a teacher might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does have some pretty great perks:

  1. You get to really immerse yourself in a culture.
  2. You get to make a difference in someone’s life.
  3. You get to travel.

It sounded like a match made in heaven! So, I got online, did tons of research, had endless conversations with family and friends, compared pro’s and cons, and finally decided to teach English in Taiwan. Six years have past since I took that leap of faith, and I have never looked back.

Life in Taiwan

Taiwan might not be on top of everyone’s list when considering a teaching career in Asia – most people choose South Korea, Japan, China or even Thailand. But, if you did a bit of research you will soon realize that Taiwan is the perfect place to kickstart a career in ESL teaching.

Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan is home to almost 23 million people, making it pretty populated for its small size. However the island has plenty to offer, which is most probably why so many expats enjoy living here. From gorgeous scenery – beaches, mountains, waterfalls, jungles…you name it, Taiwan has it all – to bustling neon-filled cities, a highly efficient public transportation system, low crime rates and extremely friendly people. If you are a foodie, you are in luck too! Taiwan has some of the most incredible dishes and street food you will ever come across. Not to mention, a great healthcare system, lucrative salary packages, affordable housing and super cheap utilities. But, the best part about living in Taiwan, is its location. Want to hop over to Osaka, Ho Chi Minh City or Hong Kong for a long weekend? Guess what…you can!

So, how do you do it? The first thing you need to do, is find out whether you actually qualify to teach in Taiwan.

Qualifications

In order to teach in Taiwan, you need to meet the government’s requirements. These requirements are non-negotiable. So, even if you are a native English speaker, but you don’t have a degree, you have zero chance of finding a job legally here.

Cram school requirements:

The easiest place to land a teaching job in Taiwan is at a cram school, more commonly referred to as buxibans. Buxibans are privately owned after-school schools, where you mainly teach elementary students. Depending on the school, you might have one or two older classes. Buxibans generally offer 20-30 teaching hours a week on a full-time contract. In order to work at a buxiban, you must meet the following criteria:

  1. Be a Native English Speaker.
  2. Hold a valid passport from USA, CAN, UK, IRE, SA, AUS, or NZ.
  3. Have a Bachelors Degree (in any field) from an accredited university.
  4. A minimum 120-hr TEFL/TESOL certificate, with some practical hours – some schools might accept online course certificates, but if you want to improve your chances of landing a job, do a proper TEFL course.
  5. A criminal background check from your country.
  6. Be able to produce certified copies of your qualifications and transcripts.
  7. Often, little or no experience is needed.

There are a couple of good chain schools in Taiwan. With Shane English School, American Eagle, Joy English and Giraffe being among the most renowned.

Public/ Private School Requirements

If you are an education major, you can easily land a job at a public/private school. These schools offer loads of benefits, such as housing allowances, flight reimbursements, paid summer vacations and more. Salaries are usually fixed and the hours are 8am-4pm. Here’s what you need:

  1. Be a Native English speaker.
  2. Hold a valid passport from one USA, CAN, UK, IRE, SA, AUS, or NZ.
  3. Be a licensed teacher.
  4. Hold either a BA, MA or higher qualification specializing in Education.
  5. A criminal background check from your country.
  6. Certified copies of your qualifications and transcripts.
  7. Some schools require at least one year’s teaching experience.

If you qualify to work in Taiwan, the next step is finding a job.

Finding a job

To legally work in Taiwan, you must have a work permit stating that you are permitted to accept employment. Obtaining a work permit can only be done with the help of a potential employer. The easiest way to go about this, is to have a job before you move to Taiwan. Once you have a job, your employer will help you with all the necessary steps to obtain a work permit.

Taipei, Taiwan

Do research

There are tons of websites with useful resources and job offers, but I found www.tefl.com to be the most comprehensive and user-friendly. The process of landing a job is pretty easy, but choosing the right school can be tricky. Be sure do do your research. It’s best to stick to the bigger chain schools offering some form of training.

Applying for a job

Once you have applied, a recruiter/the school will contact you to setup an online interview. If your application is accepted, your school will send you a step-by-step guide on what do to next. From getting your transcripts, doing a criminal check to getting a visa.

Getting a visa

Depending on your nationality, you might need a visa to enter Taiwan. Ask your recruiter or check your country’s visa requirements for Taiwan.

As a South African, I had to apply for a three month multiple-entry visitor’s visa. I had clear instructions not to tell immigration that I am planning to work in Taiwan. Only that I was traveling. The reason for this is due to a weird glitch in Taiwan’s visa laws. You can’t work legally in Taiwan without a working permit. And, you can only get a working permit, when you have proof of employment (such as a contract). It sounds very complicated, but don’t worry too much. This is an everyday practice and most teachers enter Taiwan this way.

To read more about the visa requirements for Taiwan, visit www.boca.gov.tw

The entire process can take anywhere from 1-3 months depending on the school’s specific needs. Most schools start to recruit in May for the upcoming new school year.

Final thoughts

Teaching abroad is not easy. Especially when you just start out. You will feel homesick and stressed out. You will need to cope with the language barrier and with the culture shock. They might seem like obstacles, but they are all part of the adventure! Once you find your feet, you will soon find that teaching, is a wonderfully rewarding experience.

Teaching English abroad is an excellent opportunity, particularly for young university graduates who are looking for some international experience. While Mariza moved to Taiwan and has remained there to teach for several years, many English teachers decide to stay only for one or two contracts before either moving on to a new place, or going home. Either option is fine so long as your preparation for your time teaching English includes appropriate training.

For better or worse, English is now an international language, and those of us who are native English speakers have an immense amount of linguistic privilege that isn’t afforded to people from non-English speaking countries. While we were listening and singing along to the radio one day, I once had a Czech friend ask me what it was like growing up and understanding the lyrics to the songs we were listening to. It absolutely blew my mind that day that I hadn’t realized how lucky I was to actually understand what the Spice Girls were singing about while I was growing up! Imagine having the responsibility of being part of a team of teachers that will teach a child a language that will help them navigate the world outside of their home country. If a native English speaker were to teach that child incorrect grammar, for example, it will be very difficult for that child to un-learn those errors later. Language teachers, in general, have a huge responsibility that I believe is under appreciated, and I think that as native English speakers, we owe our potential students the time and effort to become a properly qualified teacher prior to stepping foot in a classroom.


Teaching English Abroad

 

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15 thoughts on “Teaching English Abroad (and Why I Don’t)

  1. Great information!!! I’m a New Yorker too! Originally from Long Island! Love the layout of your blog. Easy reading and of course- great information.

  2. So true that many are thrown into a teaching role in a foreign country without any teaching experience. Such a fresh and honest perspective on teaching abroad. Really helpful and detailed information.

  3. I think that there are many people who speak English as their first language but don’t come from the USA or England or other countries that English is their main language. The problem for them is proving that they can speak the language. Gosh… Sorry that came out as a tongue twister. Another problem is being fluent in the language that the new country speaks. How would you explain things otherwise?

    1. The native language thing is definitely true, although I still think those people would need more than just being a native speaker to teach English. I guess they would be blocked out of teaching in some countries, but if they’re qualified, they’ll find teaching gigs elsewhere.

      I don’t think you need to speak the local language to teach English there. All of my best language classes, even at the most basic level, have been taught exclusively in the target language. Obviously it’s tough, but it makes you learn the language more quickly and effectively.

  4. This is an excellent discussion of this topic, thank you so much! As a homeschooling Mom, I have a bit of a ‘you don’t need a degree in education to teach’ bent. HOWEVER, I tell every mom considering homeschooling that they need to go in expecting this to be a full time + job. That they will be prepping lessons, refreshing on subject matter, and correcting papers in the evening. They won’t have the ability to draw on what they taught last year when they teach it next year, because their curriculum changes each year with their child, and that they have to be ready to hire outside experts as their children get older teach the subjects they just don’t have the mastery to teach.

    Reading this, it seems teaching ESL is very similar, with the added (big) factor that they are actually teaching many students in a classroom environment, not their own child(ren) that they already know intimately, in a very small student/teacher ratio. I cannot imagine walking into that naive and unprepared!

    Kudos to you for pointing out what a challenging job this can be, and being a bit of a warning cry. <3 Love it.

  5. Great post! You’re right. I’ve met so many people who suck at their own mother tongue! Their own grammar goes for a toss and though they know somethings just because they’ve been using the language to communicate since childhood, many a times, they don’t know why is it used so!!!

  6. Thanks for this compilation of thoughts. My husband and I actually considered this in Taiwan when we retired but changed our minds when we found out too tied down you can be. It would not allow us to travel the way we wanted and ended up RVing in North America full time for 8 years!

  7. An interesting read, I’m a fully qualified secondary school English Language and literature teacher. And I wouldn’t take a job doing Tefl without first doing the course, which I haven’t. I’ve taught English, American and International curriculum around the Middle East but to students who can already grasp the basics of the language. I can get you into a good university with literature but teaching from scratch is a completely different skill. I’ve been asked here in Greece many times to take on teaching children privately and have politely declined each time. The wrong teaching/teacher can do more harm than good. Thank you for tackling this topic

  8. I hear about that all the time but never really realized how broad it is, or what an opportunity taking status it holds. I live part time in Panama and have been asked that before. LOL Thanks for the very informative piece.

  9. When I was younger and I watched some travel documentaries Ive seen many Americans teaching English abroad and I was jealous as I though only you guys get such a change to travel the world on budget. Because who would hire me, polish girl to teach polish 😀 And then I discover that I can learn English too and get some kind of other job for my travels like work behind a bar or any other help. I do agree its important to make sure you know what you doing when you accepting teaching job. Even if English would be my first language I wouldn’t agree for it.. as I know I would be horrible teacher 😀

  10. You are so right when you say some serious questions need to be asked before anyone goes to teach English abroad, or anything, anywhere really. Teaching should not be underestimated, as I of all people know how hard it can be dealing with kids like me! 😉 But that was many years ago, and I think I have become a bit more mature and placid.

    Now I am very seriously considering a bit of a mid-life career change (most likely 1:1/adult/business English). I’m busy with an online TEFL course right now, and I’ve already learned a lot in the first week, but I’m also doing plenty of other reading, which is what brought me here. What with English being the world language, it should go without saying that it needs to be taught properly. If not, it can seriously hold someone back in an ever growing global society.

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