Teaching Abroad – In The Know Series: (No. 9) Post-Job Ad Analysis – Red Flags and Green Lights by Thomas Dowling

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Ok, so you’ve read through and analysed the job posts that appeal to you, and now probably feel armed with a solid understanding of what they are actually saying.

Quarter-mastered with a certain confidence, applications were filled out with determined gusto, and resumes electronically posted with vim. Swoosh!

After waiting a day or two, the replies from the four-corners of the world are reaching you through the ether of cyberspace, filling your inbox with hope. Great, you think.

In the interim, you’ve passed the time thinking about your new life supping local Italian wine in a cafe overlooking a two-hundred year old piazza, or munching on steaming dumplings in some back alley in Shanghai, or studiously searching for decent articles about camels’ milk and why the Arabs love it so. I’d put money on you taking a closer, personal interest in Middle Eastern news, perhaps an unusual preponderance for US foreign policy, or what Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is really all about. And almost certainly, uncountable minutes have achieved apotheosis as you’ve window-shopped for appropriate tank-tops for Phuket or extra-warm thermals for St. Petersburg.

It’s gonna be easier than you thought…

Or is it?

This blog today talks about a few red flags as well as several soothing signs from recruiters and potential future bosses that should save you a couple of gold coins at your nearest fortune teller.

As ever, this blog is informed by my personal experiences and those related to me by others. I would be happy to hear and discuss other experiences from Digital Traveller readers.


Red Flags

Obviously, moving abroad, starting a new job, and living in a new apartment, not to mention leaving your old life, family, friends, pets, and perhaps a treasured car in your homeland, is a massive change that comes with a whole series of challenges and exciting possibilities. This whole process is made possible by the job you’re hired to do, after accepting an offer. That offer, of course, comes post-interview.

But before we get to that stage, there’s a lot one can understand about the institution, boss, or company you may work for by the initial contact and correspondence from the post you’ve applied for.

For me to move forward with any interview (let alone a job), I would say there are two important things that I actively look for, or perhaps more accurately, wish to feel: care and trust.

(Lack of) Care

In my case, I want to feel invested in by a recruiter or potential employer. I want them to appreciate all the issues and challenges I’ll face and endure to get to that village in the Basque mountains or that compound in the Arabian desert. I want to feel that if I have an issue with my flight, or a delay in my visa application, or a wobble about leaving my dog/wife/friends etc. that they will understand and reassure me that they know this is a huge, life-changing decision, but that they will help guide me on our mutual journey together.

Good recruiters and potential employers do this, which evidently shows in their correspondence, initial or otherwise.

Bad ones do not. In my experience, this is important to realise and accept as it often reflects the institution or person they work for: If the recruiter doesn’t care about me, what makes me think my future boss will?

As far as I’m concerned, this lack of care can be identified in several ways:

  1. Poor/Bad English: As an English teacher, developing patience and understanding in your students’ mistakes, foibles, and misunderstandings will be part of your job; you’ll need to appreciate that English is Kamal’s, Yujin’s, and Alessandro’s second or third language. You’re job is to help improve their competency. However, I personally do not expect to have to deal with this from a recruiter or potential boss. I do not feel I should have to make allowances for someone writing in a second language and making a mistake in this context: teaching and communication in English is, after-all, the nature of the business. If a French chef is making Mexican food, I still expect that Mexican dish to be up to a certain standard, and ultimately satisfying. Poor/bad English in an email not only creates a bad first impression, but tells me that person/company X doesn’t care enough about me enough to invest their time in writing a decent email. I think I deserve that at least, and so do you, in my view.
  2. Generic ‘hello’/wrong name: What I mean by the first part is a ‘Dear Sir,’ ‘Hello,’ ‘Greetings’ etc., rather than a ‘Dear Thomas.’ I am potentially moving to a new country; if someone isn’t prepared to give me the time to write my name on what is likely a cut-and-pasted email, I simply won’t invest the time to reply and take things further. Equally, if my name is either misspelt or totally wrong (both occurrences have happened multiple times), that’s also a big red flag: again, either they don’t care enough about me to get my name right, or, perhaps, they have such a big client list that they are unable to respond to the questions I might need answering later on (those sorts of reassurance questions I mentioned). The caveat, with this second part, of course, is that bog-standard, unfortunate, face-palming human error does occur. My rule of thumb is if this happens and I’m really interested in the job, I’ll reply to schedule an interview but highlight the correction that needs to be made. If an apology is forthcoming, I‘m happy to move forward and confirm an interview time.
  3. Not Answering my Questions: Perhaps some may think that asking (too many) questions in an application is the wrong stage. I’d generally concede this point, but with certain caveats. Sometimes asking questions will be a necessary requirement if the information on the job ad is limited or wholly insufficient. For example, a post may not mention salary, (precise) location, age range of the students, or a hundred other things besides (see previous blogposts for some other examples). This could be for nefarious reasons, i.e. they don’t want to tell you because the post is not great in X or Y way. However, there are many important, pertinent, and motivational questions that need to be asked—and answered—before I invest my time and energy into an interview. If a recruiter or employer doesn’t answer these questions, this is also a red flag. For example (and this is not such a big deal as it was for a summer job, but consider it illustrative), I saw an interesting little post along Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast (a place I love) for a month via Facebook. I enquired about the pay and other benefits in a message that included my resume. The person in question kept avoiding the question (after several attempts), electing instead to highlight a litany of other benefits concerning the location, the low-cost of living, etc. Eventually, he confessed that the position was voluntary, i.e., not paid, and got rather rude with me. Needless to say, I did not continue to pursue this avenue. Now, in this instance, pay was important (I had student loans and a PhD to pay for, not to mention needing funds for the next job). Given this, an interview would have wasted everyone’s time.

(A Lack of) Trust

As with care, trust is massively important to me. If I leave my homeland for a job in place X, I need to be able to trust the person emailing me, interviewing me, and ultimately offering me the job. If I can’t do that, I won’t move forward to the next stage. Here are a few red flags.

  1. CCing other Candidates: This, for me, is completely unacceptable. As mentioned, I want to feel cared for and invested in especially as recruiter/boss X could determine the success (or failure) of the next 12 months of my life. Being 1 of 12 or 30 candidates or whatever in a CCed email just doesn’t make me feel that way. I am not naive enough to think that recruiter X is my ‘agent’ and I am their one prized asset, or their greatest single hope for a commission, but nor do I want to feel like a number. While this is bad in my eyes, there is a bigger issue at hand: security. Beyond the click applications on such sites as TEFL.com, many recruiters, institutions, employers, companies etc. that are interviewing/hiring directly will not only ask for your resume, but also copies of your passport picture page, perhaps a police check, your university transcript(s), and possibly references, too. The point I’m making here is that you will be sending off potentially vast amounts of private—and valuable—information to recipient X. I don’t know about you, but I have no desire for multiple people potentially having access to a range of details that disclose my identity (particularly as I studied much of this via my second Masters in International Security Studies, while the news about social media networks has made many users think harder about data-security). In this way, I won’t be able to trust the recipient with either handling my personal information, or my best interests more generally.
  2. Scammers: This might not be something that new teachers may think of given the industry, but scammers have entered the teaching world over the last few years as surely as other areas of the global economy. I myself was almost duped even with all my experience. I saw a great post in Malaysia (a country I have tremendous time and passion for) with wonderful travel options (AirAsia’s home airport in Kuala Lumper), a generous salary, awesome sounding housing, long holidays, and in an prime location in downtown KL. To be honest, it did sound too good, but I was blinded by my desire to live and work in KL, and as I mentioned, the job package was far to good to resist (the hook of scammers, of course). But there were warning signs that I wilfully ignored until the 11th hour. So, when it comes to scammers here’s what to look out for:

a) Quick replies to your message, and I mean within an hour or two. Be even more weary if the email has been sent outside of local working hours. If we assume that 8/9am to 5/6pm is a standard working day, and you get a rapid reply from person X at 2:20am in the morning (local time), this might be a sign of a scammer. It might not, but this may add up to this conclusion if other factors are taken into consideration.

b) If your first email comes back quickly, or this is a pattern with successive ones, put the trust on hold and do a little digging to either confirm or assuage your suspicions. First, do an internet search of the company. If they are a scammer, there will be enough on the Web to confirm this (you may also discover that they are already blacklisted from certain reputable sites). This might be harder if they are a new illegal enterprise or have changed there name, however.

c) In this case, type in the company address on Google maps. Does the site look plausible? Most of us will have some impression of what a large school looks like, but a private place might be harder to discern. Yet, if the scammer is giving you location X, and Google says it’s a cement factory, or a bakery, or a clothes shop, you might have enough to confirm suspicions.

d) These may all check out though. Again, asking specific questions about the school, students, area, and other things associated with he job with help flush out a scammer. If you only get brief or incomplete answers, well, you may also have yours.

e) If you are still unsure, compare the renumeration of this job to other similar posts in the area.

f) Skype interviews: This is pretty much industry standard for obvious reasons: it’s free, easy, and you get to see each other like a traditional face-to-face interview. Scammers are less likely to agree to a Skype chat as their identify may well be exposed.

g) The easiest way to spot a scammer is the simplest: They may ask you to send money via Western Union to a private account. Obviously don’t do this. This is where I finally put the breaks on. I should have become suspicious sooner, but you should never, ever send money ahead for a job (unless, of course, it’s for a programme or arranged teaching internship from a well-established company).

Overall, feeling cared for and having trust in the recruiter or potential boss when they get in touch after I’ve applied for an ESL job is really important to me, and can influence whether I continue or not. Simply put, these two factors might be the difference between taking a similar job in country/city A or B.

With that in mind, here are some good signs to look for.

Green Lights

In some respects, these points are straight contrasts to the red flags above, but certainly worth making nonetheless.

Things to Look Out For

To provide some context, I should probably declare that I’m a natural worrier and often find stress in places where none previously existed before (as many past recruiters and employers will almost certainly confirm; my wife, too). This makes me cautious and generally insulates me from disaster, but also means I tend to want/demand/expect more information from recruiters/bosses when they message me for the first time as well as in subsequent emails. This, as you can probably deduce is why I prize care and trust so highly. To reiterate again: every time you set out for a new teaching contract, you invest massive trust into the person who hires you to deliver not only on the contract, but in helping you in lots of other areas besides.

So, here are some good signs:

  1. A personalised response is also important in my mind. I prefer the friendlier ‘Thomas’ rather than my full name, but that’s just me. Conversely, it does grate on me if I’m addressed as ‘Tom’ when I have clearly introduced myself as Thomas (this also falls into the wrong name/lack of care column to my mind). The point to take away here is the investment and care to personally write to me; I feel valued.
  2. Quality Writing: A well-written, mistake-free, properly addressed email remains, in my view, one of the surest signs of a positive future relationship at their school/with their client. It exudes care and professionalism, both of which help to build up trust.
  3. A fast email turnaround time is a good sign. This is in stark contrast to the scammers point elaborated above. An email the next working day or the day after is a fast time considering you are not recruiter X’s only client.
  4. If there is any ambiguity in the job post, i.e salary, hours, etc., you have every right to ask about these details in your initial email if you feel so inclined; you are not a volunteer, and let’s be frank, it almost certainly should have been mentioned in the job post originally. If this question and others are answered (perhaps with some measure of rationale), this is to be taken as a good, reassuring sign. For example, a responder may well say ‘we regret that Hungary only pays $700 per month, but the area is cheap, hip, and beautiful, …’ then they have explained why, and this was most likely going to be discussed in the interview anyway as $700 is a relatively low salary and the recruiter/boss would likely aim to market all the other bonuses in lieu of the pay. Regardless, direct questions should be directly answered.
  5. Extended intros/banter: I do like the added personal touches in that first email as it helps to break down barriers and makes me feel at ease. Of course, most will not feel like it’s appropriate or professional in the first email (or perhaps even subsequent correspondence), but if recruiter X is from my hometown, or has visited the capital of my country, or has shared work-life experiences, again, I am more likely to trust that person.

For me, these are the main green lights that I look for, but they are, of course, highly subjective.


ESL Starter—An ESL Recruitment Company

I first began my ESL career with ESL Starter some 8 years ago. They helped me get to South Korea for my first teaching job in the historic city of Jinju.

Of course, ESL Starter’s Phil Negus was not the only company/recruiter I applied for. But the first email I received from Phil was professional, friendly, and felt like a warm handshake from an old friend. Essentially, I felt like Phil cared about nervous and apprehensive me; I didn’t feel like a name on a spreadsheet – I felt like I could trust Phil to get me out there and look after my interests. That’s ultimately why I continued the process towards the interview stage, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was proven right. I had loads of questions from visas to lifestyle, yet, I can’t remember Phil not answering any of them – and all in a timely fashion. And he’s a Liverpool F.C. fan, like me; we bonded. Of course, you don’t have to bond with every recruiter/boss, but for your first time away it certainly helps.

Honestly, reflecting on the less worldly, poorly travelled person I was then, I’m not sure if I would have left England’s shores if it wasn’t for Phil.

Given my experience and trajectory in my ESL career to-date, I personally endorse ESL Starter as your first milestone on your own ESL journey. And The Digital Traveller is very proud to call them our partners.

Over the coming weeks, I will be discussing this collaboration in more detail and the opportunities afforded for Digital Travellers wishing to go into the wonderful world of teaching abroad. Keep an ear to the ground.

OK, that’s it for this week. This coming Monday we’ll be thinking about interviews for ESL posts. In the meantime, make sure you have set-up a Skype account as this is the main avenue through which interviews are conducted. Later on, when you get abroad, your Skype account will then evolve into a vital link back to friends and family in your homeland. You can download the application for free here. (And do try to use a professional picture for your Skype profile!)

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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