How to become an English language teacher abroad

January 19, 2021

Danielle Bodnar

The choices you need to make

When you live in the United States, it’s not always easy to go off and see the world. Expensive overseas flights and a lack of paid time off often stifle such dreams. For Americans who like to wander, steering their career in a direction that allows them to see the wider world is more important than climbing up the career ladder or pursuing a stable job. Some choose to become digital nomads, hopping from country to country while still managing to make a living. Others, prefer finding an ordinary job in a single country overseas, as they can become more deeply immersed in the local culture than they would have otherwise.

For now, the latter option may be the most appealing, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic makes constant traveling at best inconvenient and at worst a logistical nightmare. Finding a work placement in a particular country can help you hunker down and embed yourself into the local area. In addition, those who are more keen on venturing off the beaten path can explore the less-visited parts of the country.

The jobs Americans can do while abroad varies depending on the country and region. The one major exception is English language teaching. From Europe to South America to East Asia, the demand for native-speaker English teachers is high, and opportunities abound on every continent. Not every country is an easy egg to crack, but with the right information and realistic expectations, you can land a teaching job abroad.

To TEFL or not to TEFL?

There are many paths to becoming an English language teacher abroad. If you don’t have a teaching background, your first decision may center around the question, “to TEFL or not to TEFL?” A Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course is meant to train English language teachers quickly and efficiently, so they can start teaching within months. Experienced teachers without a background in teaching English language learners can also take the course. Although in general, most trainees do not have a background in teaching and primarily want to work abroad.

Enrolling in a TEFL course costs money and comes without a job guarantee; if a program claims to have one, it’s highly suspect. I had next to no teaching experience, so for me, the decision was easy. Despite the costs involved, taking a TEFL course was relatively short and affordable compared to pursuing a master’s degree. Regardless of whether I would teach children in schools or adults in offices, I would need to learn teaching fundamentals before I could even think of finding students or a job.

In-person or online course?

So, you’ve decided to get a TEFL certificate. Next question is, which course? In-person or online? I went for an in-person option as I felt an in-person dynamic would be more useful for my learning. This was in no small part due to my living situation at the time of the decision, which was not conducive to distance learning. A change of environment was also necessary.

However, this pandemic has shown that distance learning can be highly effective, especially for learners who can manage self-guided study. In the case of TEFL courses, online courses are often cheaper and have a more flexible schedule, which can allow trainees to complete the course on their own time.

The main downside of online courses is that many lack the practicum component that I found so helpful in my own TEFL course. The practicum provides the opportunity to teach real non-native speakers under teacher supervision.

The next step in my TEFL course selection, was to decide where in the world I would go for the course, and to which school. To help find courses, I used International TEFL Academy and looked at the various sites offering in-person courses. There were several U.S. based courses, but I wanted to dream a little bigger.

I was drawn to Europe, having previously visited but not nearly having explored it enough. I chose Prague for its lower costs and the fact that I hadn’t visited there before. The school I eventually landed was The Language House, a solely Prague-based language teaching school that sported several glowing reviews.

In-person courses cost more, not only because of the physical facilities and travel costs, but because you need to also pay for housing. Depending on the location, you might be able to find a hostel with reasonable rates. For me, my best option was to opt for student housing.

In-person courses are intensive as everything you need to know about teaching, and specifically teaching English as a foreign language, is packed into 4 to 6 week courses.

These courses do offer a unique perk. By working together with your fellow teacher trainees, you can form bonds that may solidify into fast friendships once the waves of relief at having survived the ordeal wash over you. In my case, I remain good friends with 2 of my fellow trainees. As convenient as an online course is, you can’t exactly get together at the neighborhood pub after an exhausting day of training, prep, and classes.

Is TEFL worth the money?

If you’re interested in English language teaching abroad and have no teaching experience, it’s a good idea take a TEFL training course. While employers in some countries, such as China, may not require such certification, you’ll find better work more easily with it.

Despite the saying “those who can’t do, teach,” those who think that they can just walk into a classroom and start teaching effectively have the wrong idea of what teaching actually entails. Practice really does make perfect. With no experience in front of a classroom, you may just freeze up on the first day of class. It takes practice to become comfortable being at the front of the classroom.

That said, not all TEFL courses are created equal. So be sure to do your research and look at alum reviews and don’t hesitate to contact past graduates if they’re willing to talk to prospective trainees.

If you’re especially interested in teaching in Europe and don’t mind a more rigorous curriculum, CELTA/DELTA certification courses from Cambridge University may also be an option for you. These courses aren’t as widespread as TEFL ones, due in part to their higher cost and tougher coursework. It may be a worthy investment if you want to pursue a career in teaching English as a foreign language.

Where do you want to teach?

Before I even set foot on the plane that would take me back to Europe, I started thinking about where I wanted to teach. Asia, especially China and South Korea were appealing for their unique cultures and for the promise of good salaries. Some European countries, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, offered relatively easy avenues for Americans to get work visas without landing a job first. Parts of the Middle East also appealed, due to my interest in seeing a region often shown as backward and dangerous in American media.

If you are wondering which place you would like to try and go teach, think about what and where is really calling to you. There’s no need to follow the money if that’s not what’s driving you into teaching English abroad.

If there is a particular country or region you want to live in, look into opportunities in that area. Better yet, find people from your own country who already live and work there, and ask them about how they got their teaching jobs. Knowing how the visa process works in your country of interest will help make a smoother transition.

Of course, not every country is equally easy to move to, or to find work in. If you’re looking to teach English in Asia, it’s a lot easier to find a job and a visa than it is in other regions. Some countries in Europe are especially difficult for teaching. For example, if you’re dreaming of moving to a Scandinavian utopia you may want to look into other careers options. This European region has some of the most fluent non-native English speakers on the continent. In many other countries around the world, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Who should you teach?

In your country of interest, you may find 2 different tracks of teaching, adults or children. In most countries, it’s easiest to find a full-time job teaching children, but not everybody’s good with kids. Teaching children, especially when you’re using a language they don’t speak, mainly involves holding their attention in the hopes that they’ll learn something along the way.

Young children can become easily distracted and are high-energy. Some people find this difficult to handle with their own children, let alone a dozen or so young strangers. Teaching children often involves a lot of games and creative play, and people who like approaching activities with creativity might like teaching children, no matter the subject.

Teaching adults as a foreign language teacher can often feel more like having normal conversations that are gently structured and punctuated with corrections and comments on language usage or grammar. However, with the exception of public classes, life can often get in the way of adult learners, and most teaching opportunities involve language schools and self-employed private tutoring.

A career as an adult language teacher, without the stable school schedule and steady stream of kids year in and year out, can feel a bit more haphazard and unstable.

This is the path I chose, although I did also include children above a certain age among my private students. I made this choice based on the benefits of having greater autonomy over my schedule and what I teach, more individualized attention to the students’ learning goals, and a more intimate view into local people’s mindset and culture.

Online teaching and becoming a global nomad

Online teaching has experienced a boom in recent years, and the coronavirus pandemic has ensured that its popularity will only continue to grow. Many parents in China are turning to various online language learning sites and apps so that their kids can interact with native speakers and pick up English in bite-size lessons.

Self-employed English teachers have turned to online teaching as a way to be a digital nomad. Without being tied to a certain country or local school, they can enjoy international travel while also working in one of the most in-demand fields in the world. If this is more your route, you can get started right now. Sign up for an online TEFL course and find employment with any of the numerous online teaching employers worldwide.

Should you actually teach?

Before you scramble to sign up for a TEFL course, ask yourself some questions. What do I really want to get out of this? Do I really want to learn some new skills, experience living in another country, learn more not just about my own native language, but also a little bit of the local language of the place I end up living in? Am I doing this just for an easy ticket to land a job in another country? Why do I even want to go abroad, anyway?

Teaching English abroad is at its most rewarding when you become a traveler, or even one of the locals, rather than a tourist.

As much as we may dream of going abroad and being enriched from the experience, we must also keep in mind how we can enrich the experiences of the students we meet. Living abroad is not a one-way street where you extract personal value from the local culture while giving nothing of value in return.

If you feel that you can really add value to the lives of local student through English teaching, then by all means you should pursue that course of action. But if you simply want to go abroad, you should consider other options, such as studying abroad for a semester or even pursuing a degree.

While the world may be your oyster, it is not only yours. Billions of other people with something to contribute also live on this planet. Teaching English abroad is at its most rewarding when you become a traveler, or even one of the locals, rather than a tourist.

Although teaching English abroad can be as fulfilling a career as any other, for many it isn’t exactly a calling. Instead it primarily attracts people who want to see more of the world or live in a particular country. I myself am one of these people. Like any other career or job, you can find ways to make it fun and interesting, even if you do it as a career break or gap year between university and entering the workforce back home.

Teaching English abroad is about a lot more than the job. It is about intermingling with other people and cultures, and making connections that span language and cultural barriers. And that can be fulfilling in itself.

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