OK, so you’ve been asking yourself (I hope!) about what your true motivations are for going to teach English abroad. You’ve narrowed your interests down to a few countries, and perhaps, more precisely, institutions, and are now ready to start applying to relevant job advertisements.
Almost everyone who is reading this article and following this blog series will be familiar with a broad range of job postings in a variety of industries from your own personal experiences (unless you’ve just graduate and are looking for your first job). That said, I don’t wish to bore anyone with what they already know, nor do I have any intention of ‘re-inventing the wheel,’ as the saying goes. What I do want to make clear are a couple of obvious points that are so obvious they are overlooked. Simply put, the stakes are higher when considering jobs abroad for two main reasons: 1) they are overseas, meaning that it’s much harder to leave on the first day if you’re not sure if you like; and 2), most postings will involve a spectrum of investment, patience, and effort that one seldom puts into job-hunting in our own country unless we really, really want it. These two patent points mean that when we apply and ultimately start working, time and care should be given to which posts we aspire to attain.
With that said, let’s think about our subsections, which I’ve divided into four; namely, what can be described as ‘the job,’ ‘qualifications and requirements,’ and ‘renumeration & benefits.’ Additionally, I’ve also added an ‘In General’ section at the end that I think is helpful and also offers some thoughts on red flags as well as some good signs to look out for.*
Disclaimer: It should also, by now, go without saying that this blog—like the others in this series—are complied from my broad experiences and those told to me by friends and colleagues, and while I believe these blogs to be representative of the ESL industry in general, they are unable able to speak authoritatively about every single, unique experience. Rather, I like to think of this series as more like a primer. In time, I hope you’ll agree.
1. The Job
When it comes to job details, even the fullest, richest descriptions leave a lot out that aspiring TEFLers might not know. This is my attempt to help you read between the lines and fill in the blanks you didn’t know existed. No doubt I’ve missed things out, but what’s below seems to me to be the most important.
Hours of Work
I present a quick sampling of today’s TEFL.com: a job post for Zaragoza, Spain advertises 34 hours; a post in Termoli, Italy says 25. Not bad, eh? Maybe. The important thing to realise is that these work hours are unlikely to represent the totality of your working week; it wont only be 34 or 25 hours in a classroom.
These figures invariably refer to ‘teaching hours,’ i.e. hours actually teaching. This does not include marking, lesson preparation, or the time you spend travelling to work (especially if there are classes conducted off-site, which is a relatively normal feature in Europe). These are things evidently worth considering. If you work in Europe or an institution with very high standards in Asia, your lessons will be expected to be of a high calibre, too. This requires significant planning time that might require research or practicing invented games or simply printing 25 worksheets. It is also likely to involve a great deal of testing.
For my job in Spain, I would spend roughly half of the lesson’s length in preparation, this meant about an hour per class (each class being 120 minutes or so in length). I had a total of 26 teaching hours in Spain, and easily spent 13 hours a week on prep. But that was fine, because I was massively invested in the job and really felt I was getting a lot back. I enjoyed it. Yet, compounding my 26 hours of teaching, and my 13 hours of prep, was all of the marking and my travel time. Marking can take an hour or two a night, easily adding up to 5-10 hours a week. My travel time from my provincial town took twenty minutes, but I went by train, so I had to be there early, then walk from the station to my academy. This all adds up to another 60-90 minutes a day. Generally, those 26 hours a week that were advertised were, in fact, closer to 50. And this is not all. In Spain, as in Korea, Saudi, Kuwait, Italy, and Turkey, there were also unpaid meetings, workshops, parent’s days/evenings, exam proctoring (sometimes paid), and extra irregular events that demanded my time at mandatory graduation ceremonies or first aid course in languages that I barely understood. Moreover, at one institution in Korea, I was expected to provide weekly lesson plans, design and produce associated workbooks, homework books, and vocabulary sheets—none of which was mentioned on the job post or in the interview. Yet, in my first teaching post in Korea, I barely needed to spend more than 15 minutes preparing for each class. The point I’m making here is this: ask your recruiter/future employer what other responsibilities and commitments there are in addition to the teaching hours. You might be surprised, but at least you’ll be able to make an informed decision on whether you feel those other things are acceptable to you. Personally speaking, I don’t might most of this as it’s part of teaching in my mind, and helps to maintain my own high standard. What I have an issue with is these extra elements not disclosed prior to my first day and then told about all the things I ‘have to do.’
In order to try and circumvent this potential problem, think about asking some of these questions (in no particular order of importance):
How often are the students tested? And how many students are in each class, on average?
How many exams do they take? Do I have to mark them?
How long does it take to travel to work from my apartment to school?
How much off-site teaching is involved?
What materials, if any, do I need to produce myself?
Are there regular meetings I have to attend?
Times and Days
The hours of work are usually listed, but not always. If you are working in a secondary school in Korea, you might reasonably expect to work from 8-4. At academies in Spain, Italy, or again, South Korea, you’re work day might start around 12 or 2pm and run as late as 10 or 11pm. You should also ask about weekends. You may well be expected to work on Saturdays if you are part of an academy whose business clients work Monday-Friday. When it comes to work hours and days, don’t assume they will be like your old school. This should also be considered when working for academies: they are likely to be open all-year round, including the summer and other holidays, so you’ll probably be expected to work. The same should also be said of traditional holidays and festivals. For instance, most westerns have Christmas Day and Easter off, but these traditions might not be honoured in Buddhist Thailand, or Muslim Saudi Arabia. Ask about these things so that you are in no doubt as to what is expected of you. This is your responsibility.
When it comes to the ESL world, there is a fairly high turnover: one year contracts, industry fluidity, dislike of the job, or people simply pulling out of a contract because a terrorist attack hit a nearby airport, or a better job emerged. This is the industry; employers understand this, and so should any perspective TEFLer. Given the very potent potentialities for contractual rupture, employers may still be frantically looking for staff just days before their new academic year starts. So, when a post says immediate, don’t think next week, think tomorrow or the next day. For a job I took in Kuwait, it went something like this: I applied for the position on a Tuesday, was interviewed and offered the job on Wednesday, and was in the country by Friday. That’s pretty immediate in my eyes. If you’re not ready to ‘up-sticks’ in such a short-time frame, don’t even bother applying.
‘Teaching students of all levels’
This will often be explicit in the job ad details, noting young learners, adults, business people etc., but you might not either be good at or want to teach 4 or 5 year olds. Make sure you get some better understanding of the age of the students involved by asking for clarification during your interview or pre-interview emails. In some posts, ‘children’ might be 2-4 years. We might not think of that age group as being children ourselves, but regardless of what the advertisement said, that might be what you end up teaching. Not everyone wants to teach very young learners, which some recruiters know and may disingenuously write job details in such a way as to hide this reality until you are confronted by a range of teddy bears on selves and tiny people sitting slumped in tiny seats.
‘Freedom to design your own lessons’
I love this. For an experienced teacher, having autonomy over what you teach and how you teach it is a beautiful thing. However, it does take work and a creative mind. If you are new to the industry, this might invoke a minor panic attack when you arrive in your classroom and you have to plan for the first time (as it did to me when I first got to Korea in 2010). Most of your colleagues and expat friends are likely to offer help and advice; if not, there is a huge amount of material on the Internet. All this is fine in my eyes. However, I highlight this for another reason: some places are shoddy, under-equipped, poorly managed, and sometimes, corrupt. Make sure you ask the right questions: this phrase (or variation of it) may mean that school ‘X’ has no resources or curriculum in place, and you’ll have to put something together yourself. That is not so fun if you have little experience or training, especially at a time when you are already stressed/nervous/excited about being in a foreign country. This possible issue can be investigated by asking questions about what books are used, course details, and the means of assessment, for example.
‘The area is safe’
I’ve applied—and interviewed—for jobs in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia as well as others, and in some of these ‘unsafe’ or ‘risky’ countries job ads will state that the country/area/institution is safe. Well, obviously they would! You’ll need to ask questions that coerce the person interviewing you into explaining what measures and mechanisms are in place to ensure your personal safety. If you’re still not sure, the best way of making a decision is to ask your mother. If she is displaying overt signs of distress when you say ‘I’m interviewing for a job in Erbil, Iraq tomorrow,’ gauge her reaction and listen to her option (just don’t do it when the 6 O’clock news is showing ISIS columns 80 miles to the east of the city firing AK47s). Remember: you are potentially moving abroad—a long way from home—for a year; you have every right to make yourself feel safe, and so should the recruiter—that’s part of their job in my eyes. If they can’t reassure you, apply for another job. That said, I’m rather attracted to some of these dangerous places; just do whatever you feel safe with.
‘Searching for teachers at several/multi/different locations in country “X”’
This is a bit naughty, in my view. Most companies or schools will be looking to directly hire staff for their institute in Lyon, or Seoul, or Dhaka, or wherever, but the larger companies and the bigger recruiters with stuffed portfolios might be recruiting country-wide (but not advertise this part clearly). What does this mean? Well, let’s provide an insight. When I first applied to work for a company in Saudi, the job post said Riyadh, the capital. When I go there, expecting to be shown around my new school, I received a phone call. I was being posted to Tabuk, some 1600 kilometres away. Not exactly the same. But there wasn’t much I could do at that point, of course. (Note: I had a fantastic time in Tabuk). The rule of thumb here is this: Ask where you will be working if the job post is ambiguous. Equally, if clarification is not forthcoming, state very clearly that you only want to work in place ‘X’ or locations ‘Y and Z.’ This might not be enough when you’re in-country and there’s little you can do, but you can at least try. The solution to this risk, as I’ve just highlighted, is to apply only for direct recruiters, usually the owners of the institute or an experienced senior teacher. I prefer this. Trust in an employer is, for me, really important. And it’s much easier to assess if the boss is the one interviewing you).
‘Deliver tailored/individual/personal lessons’
Personally, this is something that comes with teaching experience and some extra training as you learn the job (unless you have completed a CELTA before you get into the classroom, of course). At this stage (pre-interview), you should appreciate that different students have different learning methods and therefore different teaching approaches will work better with some rather than others. For instance, Ming-soo might be a visual learner and does really well with vocabulary games that involve pictures, but struggle with tasks that involve communication in group work. Andrea, on the other hand, is a musical prodigy, able to listen attentively, picking-up pronunciation and accents easily, but might be terrible at writing. Your job as an English teacher is to communicate information and knowledge in ways that a mixed ability group can understand according to their personal learning styles. This takes time to appreciate. It’s OK to say you don’t know these things, but express your willingness to learn and improve.
When I worked jobs in England, I readily accepted that a 12-week probation period was a necessary thing to agree to in order to get the position. There was a risk, sure, of being fired for a relatively minor mistake, but that anxiety would pass soon enough and my pay then went up. Happy days. Worst comes to worst, I could easily move on by giving my one weeks’ notice, or find a new job if I was let go. This situation was never a huge issue for me because I lived at home, had support around me if things didn’t go well, saw a plentiful amount of other jobs around, and I also knew that there was always the safety net of welfare, however unsavoury that thought was.
Things aren’t so simple when you’re abroad. For argument’s sake, let’s say you’ve flown 5,000 miles away from home for you’re first TEFL job. For one reason or another (maybe you’re the wrong person for the post, maybe the male boss really wanted a female, maybe the school is closing, or whatever—I’ve heard about all these happenings), your boss has decided not to continue with your employment beyond your probation.
All that time, money, and effort evaporates with that decision as your whole life is basically tied up in that job: accommodation (that usually comes with the job), working/residency visa, and of course salary. The news then stresses you out not only because of those soon-to-be-lost things, but also because you are not sure if you will get your next month’s salary or whether your initial outlays in flights and medicals will be honourably reimbursed. Personally, I’ve always stayed away from job postings that make a probation period a visible, disclosed item on the ad; they make me feel very unnerved and insecure (not what you want to feel in a foreign country).
One thing that really, really annoys me and which is something almost never mentioned on a job listing is all the paperwork you have to do both before and after you arrive in a country to make your stay and employment legal. This could involve taking several long, up-country trips to the nearest police station or municipal hub, or simply involve many hours of queuing in the same city to process your details. Ask for some information on the legalisation/residency process in country. At the very least, take a book with you. In my experiences in each country that I’ve worked it, forays to immigration, police stations, hospitals etc. take forever. Just something to bear in mind.
Part-time work beyond the contract you sign is often frowned upon or at worst, illegal. In Korea, many ESL teachers moonlight, but an increasing number are being fined thousands of dollars and sent home if they are caught. The main reasons against moonlighting are pretty straightforward: the institution you’re with doesn’t want you to be tired and less effective in your contractual agreements with them; secondly, many countries want private teachers to possess a certain level of professional certificates, and not be some random backpacker. If you need to work an extra job for whatever reason and the draft contract that you (probably) have been sent doesn’t make any reference to other part-time work, raise the point: the last thing you want is to be fined or deported for bringing in a little extra dough.
Many jobs will have a measure of quality controlled built-in. This is the same with teaching, but it’s often omitted on the ads. However, I think it’s important to ask about this aspect of the teaching job. How often will my lessons be observed? What do I need to prepare for them (this could involve significant work). What mechanisms exists to improve my teaching? Most places will encourage a measure of training, and you’ll almost certainly get better the longer you teach. As is often the advice in teaching, make sure you know your material well enough before you teach it.
*Editorial: Given how inflated this blog post became, it’s been split it into four (Part A, B, C and D), which will be published over the next three weeks. Next time then, on Monday 24th, Thomas continues his analysis by taking a look at Qualifications and Requirements.
Thomas Dowling has worked in the ESL industry for over 7 years, having lived and worked in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Myanmar, Kuwait, and the UK. His work experience has included an international school, a university, private academies, and summer camps. Currently, Thomas is a full-time PhD Student studying Environmental Security at the University of Leicester. He has previously studied degrees in Ancient History (BA; MA: Bristol), and International Security Studies (MA: Leicester). In 2014, he earned his CELTA qualification (ITI: Istanbul, Turkey), complementing previous TEFL certificates acquired in England. Thomas is also the Co-Founder of The Digital Traveller, focusing upon content and content management. Thomas presently lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife, Jack Russell Terrier, and newborn baby, Zeno.