Teaching Abroad – In the Know Series: (No.5) Analysing Job Posts (Part B)

Lunchtime; Korea, 2012

As surely as the Sun will rise in the morning, so Part B succeeds Part A. With modern technology being what it is, I won’t rehash large chucks from last week; rather, I’ll provide the link to it here, and allow you to gorge upon it in your own time.

Onwards, then.

With some of ‘the job’ description analysed previously, and a raft of potential issues relating to wording and intentionality covered, we’re now well-placed to dissect ‘(2) Qualifications and Requirements.’

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2. Qualifications and Requirements

For those veterans of TEFL—or mercenaries, if you prefer—we’ve all met that one guy who we ardently suspect is CIA. And why not? TEFL allows you to travel all over the world, presents a good cover for multiple entry stamps to foreign lands (some of dubious standing), and agents possess an aptitude for acronyms.

Perfect for the ESL world, you might think. Certainly, they at least have a fine set of transferable skills – and so do you!

As mentioned on several occasions, and in particular, our second article in the series, job requirements will vary from post-to-post and from country-to-country. Important among those basic and required qualifications for the majority TEFL/ESL jobs are: being a native-speaker (also distinguished as ‘mother-tongue’), degree-educated, and having a clean police record. Almost all recruiters will also ask for characteristics that include good organisation and interpersonal skills from their candidates, too. Most people reading these blogs will already possess many necessary elements (and to be honest, I’m not sure how you can get a degree without having these characteristics in some quantity). So, fear not.

While we’ve also discussed some possible secondary avenues into ESL/TEFL, here I talk about ‘wiggle-room’ and transferrable skills. Towards the end, I also offer what I regard as some sound advice. (As ever, feel free to disagree with me.)

Before getting into that though, it’s worth re-stating that there will be some jobs that absolutely need a particular qualification or degree type given strict visa regulations or departmental preferences, and therefore won’t budge on their very stringent guidelines for candidates. I’ve experienced this through a past application to Brunei that paid a basic of £4000, tax-free (this is a very high-end salary in ESL). And they wanted nothing less than a PGCE in English, no matter how much I talked about ‘my vast experience, some of which was in Muslim countries,’ or my ‘many degrees.’ Likewise, if a posting is categorical that they want ‘minimum of five years relevant experience in the Middle East,’ they probably won’t except anything less, especially if the institution is paying well; you’re two weeks working as au pair in Switzerland is unlikely to assuage their demands. Accept these roadblocks and move on.

OK, so, for those not familiar with the British vernacular, ‘wiggle-room’ is your chance to work with the loose parameters of the job posting. The most obvious one is ‘degree-educated.’ They are not asking for an English or Teaching degree, just a degree. That one’s easy.

The biggest hurdle to new TEFLers is likely to be the ‘1-year experience working with/teaching children required/preferred’ stipulation. If you’re new to the industry, this might put you off from applying as you, by definition, won’t have any direct teaching experience abroad, and probably not in your home country either. Don’t be disheartened. Firstly, ‘required/preference’ should be read with the later in mind: Of course, educational institutions prefer teaching experience, but you can use those transferable skills that you never knew were transferable skills to help achieve some wiggle-room.

So, secondly, expand your thinking. When it comes to teaching experience it doesn’t necessarily have to be teaching English, or teaching in general. It should go without saying that this is the optimal, but whether you’ve taken my advice and volunteered in schools or worked in summer camps briefly, experiences could also include looking after nieces and nephews, or having a part-time job at a fair-ground, or perhaps even working in a sweet shop. These scenarios all constitute as experience in the context of working with children, while most jobs involve general social interactions with older people in general, in part, helping to present a case for transferable skills including being sociable, rapport-building, and friendliness. What I am labouring to express here is that almost everyone has some experience that is relevant to teaching children and/or adults. Your job is explaining why your particular experiences can be useful for the applied job in absence of ‘real’ teaching experience.

By the same token, but much less prevalent, is the request/preference for exam experience. More specifically, this might refer to proctoring, marking, handing out papers, content design/contribution, as well as a range of various other inputs. While you may lack these specific experiences, you are likely to have experienced dozens of exams in your lifetime. Here, you can talk about how you understand exam conditions, what is expected of you, your excellent time-keeping, and general attentiveness. Again, emphasise the experiences and transferable skills you do have that will be relevant.

A post might ask for a TESOL certification, but might have a CELTA. Basically, in my experience, the CELTA is something liked by European and Middle Eastern institutions, whereas Asia likes TESOL. There is a chance that Asian schools have no idea what a CELTA is (despite its prestigious reputation), and likewise, TESOL in European countries. Either way, a teaching qualification, even if it is not the one specified, has tremendous value – highlight it on your application and, if necessary, explain it. For example, a friend in Istanbul, when applying for a university post, had to explain what a PGCE was. This is the professional qualification all teachers in the UK must have, and therefore a serious qualification. It happens. Talk up those qualifications you do have. After all, there is some crossover in content and pedagogy, but perhaps the most benefIcial aspects of a teaching certification is that is shows you are serious about doing the job properly, and that you also have a good foundation from which to progress from.

Infrequently, posts might ask for a ‘minimum’ A2/B1 level Spanish, or Intermediate Mandarin, for instance, and you know a little of the local lingo. Express this honestly, and endeavour to learn more before and during your contract. Evidently, if a post says that the native language is not necessary or a bonus, you don’t need to worry. The primary purpose, of course, for you moving abroad from an employer point of view is to teach your native tongue, not advance a working knowledge of Turkish during lesson time (more on this in a future blog). Here, holidays to relevant countries, made friends from the applied foreign climes, or even a love of foreign movies are things worth talking up. This is called exposure. At the very least, this shows some basic understanding—and perhaps usage (speaking/listening)—of the language.

There are some parts of job posts that will strike fear and panic in to prospective teachers and serve to put some off: ‘a good knowledge of grammar.’ Some may even ask you to pass an exam or test you before the job is formally offered. This seldom occurs, however. That said, bosses might throw you an unexpected curve ball: ‘Give me an example of past perfect continuous,’ or ‘elaborate upon the differences between the If clause(s).’ In general, grammar is something many of us in the ESL work ‘pick-up’ and develop on the job. The rule of thumb as taught on my CELTA course is this: Make sure you know what you are teaching the night before you do (if you’re not sure, of course). And remember, if asked a grammar point that you’re not sure about, it’s OK to say as much – I have in the past.

Additional Requests/Requirements

Supporting Documentation: Many job posts will request that you send additional documentation once the initial application has been made. This cache is likely to include a picture of yourself, copies of university certificates and transcripts, the picture page of your passport, your police check (if you have it), and references, all topped off with a cover letter. If all of the jobs you apply for ask for these docs, then you’ll want to have all of them ready in a file, as I do—it just speeds the whole thing up.

The Photo: If a job asks for a photo, send one that’s professional or one with kids; in either of which, try to smile. While I do have some reservations about this on the grounds of prejudice (some countries prefer to hire white teachers, for example), you’ll be unlikely to progress if it’s a stipulation prior to an interview.

The ‘Short’ Video: For an increasingly number of Chinese posts, at least in my experience, some will ask for a short 2-3 minute video of yourself. This should include your background, education, and motivations for getting into teaching. Personally, I hate doing this, but some jobs won’t interview you until it’s done. The one good thing is, if you do one cracking video well, save it, and use it over and over. It should go without saying that it’s advisable to dress appropriately and record the footage in somewhere equally appropriate. Wearing a tank top in your local boozer is hardly likely to emit the right sort of message no matter how good your interpretation of ‘that scene’ in Dead Poets Society is.

References: This requirement/request will vary from place to place, but it doesn’t have to be the President of France, someone from your Masonic Lodge, or a Cardinal with the ear of the Pope, just someone who knows you well. Think of a previous teacher, or a recent employer. Don’t ask your best mate, or your mum – they are unlikely to be impartial!

Other Helpful Nuggets of Knowledge

Don’t lie to land a job: Saying you have good IT skills or that you’re Excel-competent in order to secure a job in the UK or the US is one thing—and is a relatively quick fix if it’s untrue—avoid lying about having either formal qualifications that you don’t, such as a degree (you will be required to submit all required documents, and in almost all cases they will need to be legally verified or ‘apostilled’ by the relevant law enforcement institution), or say that you have certain skills when you don’t. For instance, if you say you can speak intermediate Arabic or Mandarin, or you can drive (important as you’re house/school is nestled deep within rural Italy), you’re gonna struggle when your new colleague asks you to order dinner, or when your new boss loans you the keys to the company car. Likewise, if a post or an interviewer asks if you ‘love children’ don’t say ‘yes’ just to get a job in hip Shanghai or cultural Madrid. This question is asked as you’re probably be teaching young learners, which not everyone likes or can do (I find it a challenge, though less so after years of experience). Be honest when flying half way around the world for a job.

It’s OK to say you don’t know something: Oftentimes in teaching, you will teach yourself something before you teach the students. This might range from specific grammar points, lexis, vocabulary, or perhaps a productive skill like creative writing. Other stuff you might not yet know much about might include things like motivating students, classroom management, and discipline. These are things you can learn. The most important point here is not to simply be honest and admit ‘I don’t know the answer to “X,”’ but instead say, ‘I am willing to learn the answer to “X” (and even better if you can frame it using the recruiter’s/future bosses’ teaching methodology—big bonus points!).’ A desire to learn is something you should put across well as it is something you will have to do in the job. Again, recall the degrees and courses you have achieved to-date as illustrations of your abilities. Showing your willingness to learn will go along way especially at institutions that pride themselves on being highly professional, or those with a mind to expansion.

Social Media: Also of consideration should be your social media presence. If, for example, your Facebook profile picture is you downing a pint of lager in the UK, smoking a (perfectly legal) joint in Amsterdam, or posing topless on a Thai beach, this won’t give off a great signal to potential employers, particularly in countries where alcohol is forbidden, narcotics trafficking is a death penalty, or where exposed flesh is deeply offensive. Try to remember: employers want to be able to picture a new TEFLer teaching in (at least) semi-smart attire at the front of a class of children, adults, or business people. I have to confess that I am not aware of any past recruiter/employer looking at my social media profile before or after an interview, but I have heard it happen. At the minimum, think about the (potentially negative) impression you might be giving out during the period you are applying for jobs.

Hope

What I’ve tried to do here is to provide hope through demonstrating the ‘wiggle-room’ of job ads—seldom are they as proscribed as they say—and to highlight the extraordinary amount of transferable skills that almost everyone reading this will have. Try to realise this and apply those particularities to the essential and desirable aspects of the position both before you apply and in subsequent stages (interview, etc.).

The important things to remember are: don’t lie; and secondly, illustrate a clear desire to learn what you don’t know, as you already have in your relevant degree subject(s).

Personally, I would even say it’s perhaps better to tailor the job post to your skills rather than the opposite; in teaching you often have to think on your feet, adapt, think out of the box, and create your own materials with only the slimiest of briefs or resources to go off.

Much of teaching is about tailoring things to your personality, style, and experience. You might as well start with the job postings.

OK, that’s me done for this week. Next time, I’ll be moving on to a subject that will enthral many: Renumeration and Benefits. In the meantime, you can access past Teaching Abroad blogs here.

You may also want to start thinking about safety in some of the countries you wish to teach, in which case, I’d suggest checking in with The Digital Traveller’s Staying Safe Abroad series (Asia), now available every Friday.

Editorial: 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.

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