Teaching Abroad – In The Know Series (2) Getting Started (Part A) by Thomas Dowling

An Indirect Homage to Lewis Carroll

Getting started, as far as I’m concerned, really means beginning at the beginning. And that means realising what assets you possess personally, as well as some general basics that employers will be looking for on your resume or curriculum vitae. But! If you don't meet all of these broad requirements, there may be other options open to you. 

To make things easier at this early stage, you’ll generally need to a native English speaker, have a degree, and possess a clean criminal record. There are caveats to these ‘necessities,’ of course, which I’ll discuss below in more detail.

The Basic Requirements, Broadly Speaking

Native vs. Non-native: I’ll start by telling you some things you already know: the qualifications you (almost certainly) have. For most people reading this blog post, you’ll be a native speaker of English. This ability, is perhaps, one of the best assets you currently possess and yet don’t fully appreciate (more on the power and influence of the English language in future blogs in this series). In essence, it is your passport to moving oversees. That’s not to say that if you are ‘non-native (an industry term for those people not from the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa),’ that you can’t get a job in the ESL world. But it is significantly harder. While I don’t want to discourage non-natives, the realisation of this reality is important; Facebook groups are festooned with disgruntled non-native teachers vexed over unfair treatment (and it really is unfair) in how, while often hugely qualified, are overlooked by employers with rather rigid impressions of ‘English teachers.’ 

Simply put, being a ‘native’ is often a prerequisite of securing a teaching job abroad; employers like natives as it looks good for their respective institutions to be able to boast ‘X’ number of oversees ‘specialist’ teachers. That said, it also depends where you apply (more on this soon). For example, many places in Spain are happy to hire Europeans, not just those from the UK or Ireland; Middle-Eastern countries secure large legions of staff sourced locally and from neighbouring countries, and by far out-number native teachers; South America, as I understand things, do the same. Overall though, being a native makes it significantly easier to find a teaching job in most parts of the world.

A Major Advantage: Now, whether you are a native or non-native, there are other perquisites that you’ll need before really ‘getting started.’ For most ESL/TEFL/TESOL jobs abroad [see terminology at the bottom of these blog], a degree is essential. Luckily, that degree doesn’t have to be in teaching, nor even in English (though these can be evidently advantageous and especially desirable for some employers), just a degree is enough (my own, for example, is in Ancient History). In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a particularly high-achieving grade either; literally a degree is all that’s needed. The rationale behind this prerequisite is broadly two-fold, as I understand it. In general, employers hold the view that by having a degree, one has a demonstrable ability to learn, and by extension the potential to teach others. Obviously, this theory doesn’t always bare-out in practice. Secondly, and no doubt a reflection of this first point, relates to the legal parameters. Visas in most countries require that those employed in the English teaching profession must possess a degree (and often one will need to provide the hardcopies at various stages as proof; you’ll basically need to take these with you) to qualify for the visa stipulations, which are necessary to work legally. While I personally don’t agree that having a degree (or ‘major’ in the American vernacular) automatically makes you a ‘good’ teacher, it certainly seems to be the inherent view that visa-wielding civil servants take. And their view is quite literally the law.

As mentioned above, some countries (and more specifically the elite institutions within them that offer the best salaries and desirable benefits) require as both an interview condition and/or a visa demand that teachers are either in possession of an English degree or a professional teaching qualification (such as a PGCE in the UK; CELTAs and TEFLs are not considered in lieu), or even both, regardless of experience or qualifications. This note concerns some of those top institutions in countries such as Oman and the Sultanate of Brunei. Yet, despite four degrees and 7 years teaching experience, as I do not possess either an English degree nor a professional teaching degree, I am unable to land these high-paying jobs (I have tried in the past and have been rejected for those very reasons).

The Road to Character: In addition to one’s degree, a clean police check is required in almost every country. Again, this serves to not only verify your good character to a potential employer, but also to qualify for the visa process: countries want to admit only good foreign nationals, and I think most can agree that’s fair enough. Requirements and processes, not to mention paperwork, differ from country to country, and sometimes even between institutions. Some places will require only a basic disclosure, while others will demand one that is ‘enhanced.’ Only a few places are unlikely to ask for this. If I recall correctly, Canadians don’t need to produce police background checks for Saudi Arabia. The point is this: you’ll need to do your research for the country you are accepted to work in. There will almost certainly be on-hand advice from your recruiter or employer, or perhaps current or past employees, but the onus, of course, is on yourself to abide by the correct requirements and produce the paperwork when required. If memory serves, every job that I have ever applied for that demands a police check, highlights this very clearly in the job requirement section.

For British citizens, of which I am one, and where my immediate experience is focused upon, one must apply for a Police Check by visiting https://www.mygov.scot/organisations/disclosure-scotland/. Once you have filled out the forms and payed the fee, you’ll need to send the document to be legalised (often referred to as apostilled) to Milton Keynes. All this information is available via the same website. For US citizens, the FBI is the equivalent institution, and the CIS for Canadians. For others, I am unsure, and if hailing from Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa, you’ll know where to send these documents better than me.

in general, as a rule of thumb, it takes 4-8 weeks to get a new police check from online application to legalisation, so do bear this in mind. I try to get mine done and organised while still in my current job so that I don’t need to wait around for the next job. 

It should also be noted (if you are intending to be proactive and get your police paperwork organised prior to landing a teaching position), that police checks are not valid forever. In general, they are viewed as good and authentic for a year. BUT, South Korea—often the first place on the ESL circuit—only validates them for six months. So do bear that in mind, particularly as it can take several weeks IN COUNTRY to get your alien residency organised (my first boss, waited for just shy of the whole three month registration period, for example). You do not want your police check running out. 

In summation, it’s smart to plan ahead a little with your police check, but remember to keep an eye on the validity of the document in the country you are hoping to move to, and make sure you apply for the correct document via your relevant law-enforcement authority. Otherwise, you may have wasted lots of time and money for nothing. Be sure to remember that the requirements of countries and institutions are not always the same.

CV Bonuses

So, if you’re in the enviable position that you possess an English-speaking country passport, a degree, and a clean police record, you’re in super-good shape to be finding a good teaching job abroad. But you’ll be in an even better position if you are able to add these nuggets of wow to your resume. 

You might think, ‘why bother?’ That’s a fair question if you don’t know the ESL industry. I started working in the ESL world in 2010, in South Korea. At that time, I had a BA and a MA degree, and I had also completed two very basic TEFL certificates (more on this shortly); I rated myself as well-qualified. Reflecting on my initial 12 months in South Korea, the first year felt like there was one teacher for every two available jobs. Then the economy crashed, and this perspective reversed: there seemed to be two teachers applying for every job in the ROK. I stayed with my first school for two contracts, so I was safe regardless—my employer and the students I taught were fond of me. But this situation was not only affecting Korea. In 2011/12, economies were still hurting in many western countries, while in the east, many parents had less money for private education in places such as Korea. The jobs reduced in direct correlation with the dip in student numbers; the one’s that remained became more competitive. Simply put, everyone, pretty much, possessed the main perquisites mentioned. This meant that if you didn’t have these ‘basics’ things got even harder, but it also meant that these basics were not simply enough anymore to land a good job like they were before the bubble burst.

Unfortunately, if you are now entering or intending to enter the ESL world, this may affect you. The best way of fortifying yourself against these issues and helping yourself to standout is to add more strings to your bow. In my estimation, and again, this is based on my personal experience after years in the industry, there are three main avenues to distinguish yourself from the madding crowd: experience, teaching certifications, and more (relevant) degrees.

1. Experience: I’m sure your first reaction—like many jobs and careers it seems nowadays—is how do I get experience teaching abroad if I’m not oversees actually gaining it? Honestly, good question. And it’s perhaps much easier to answer and achieve than you might think. I have two recommendations that are largely dependant on the time of year, as will be almost immediately obvious. 

1A. Summer camps: When I first entered the ESL world, I had no idea summer camps existed. Working in Korea, vacations are generally limited when working in the academy system, so summer camps never appeared on my radar. Similarly, though for different reasons, working in Saudi was often well paid and emotionally challenging, so colleagues often simply enjoyed the summer. Yet, working in Europe (Italy and Spain in my case), the contracts are typically shorter (ending before the summer so schools don’t need to pay you summer wages), and the paycheques more slender, so summer schools to get one through those months become are a fun option to supplement your annual salary. 

If you’re a new teacher, or an aspiring one, summer camps are an amazing opportunity. They are well paid, provide accommodation, food, and vital experience. Additionally, they can be found all over Europe, with a special concentration in the UK as many European middle-class families send their children to Blighty, but can also be found in places including Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Bulgaria, and other locales. One other useful thing to note is that these jobs can often be secured at the last minute.

If you have utterly no experience in teaching, then you may not get more than two weeks work, but this is likely to be enough when applying for your first teaching job. If you are not wholly confident or ready for a full, and to be frank, draining 6-7 hour daily teaching schedule, a half teacher/half activity position is a good compromise, particularly if you like sports and wish to go on student excursions. Either way, this crucial experience could be the difference between you and someone with a more accomplished CV, yet one that is devoid of any teaching experience. Personally, I’ve worked three summer camps in the UK for three different companies and thoroughly enjoyed each of them. Another fun aspect to these summer camps is that you get the opportunity to live and work around the UK, which also helps broaden and prepare your travel horizon. Summer camps are hard work (even for someone with my experience) but exceptionally rewarding. 

1B. Volunteering: I’ve done this too. There was once a time, prior to my ESL career, that I was throughly intending to do my PGCE in History. I was advised that two weeks volunteering would help my application. Facilitating this meant contacting schools in order to sit-in on classes, observe teaching practice, and help students in a basic, limited way. I am convinced this was helpful in landing my first teaching job abroad, and can be done at most times of the year (I went to my old secondary school in the March of 2009), but is not as fun, economically lucrative, or useful as you don’t actually teach, unlike in a a summer school. For me, summer school is the best way to gain (paid) experience in genuine teaching. If you trying to get abroad outside of the summer season, however, this is probably the best way to get some much-needed experience.

Either way, you can put this experience on you CV, and be confident that this will help land you a teaching post for two reasons. Not only does this help give you experience in teaching (again, summer camps are better as you’ll be gaining additional experience in preparation and in teaching children who’s first language is not English), but further illustrate to potential employers that you have invested yourself into the profession and are serious about teaching. This will go along way in convincing someone to hire you. Remember: employers take a chance on you as much as you take a chance on them.

2. Teaching Certificates: As I’ve already tried to illustrate, when I started out in the ESL industry, jobs were relatively plentiful; you didn’t really need to professionalise yourself unless you wanted the absolute top jobs with the huge salaries. Unfortunately for those entering the profession now, and to be honest, those already in it, professionalisation has become de rigour. In Europe, Japan, the Middle East, and increasingly China and other countries, ESL qualifications are being increasingly demanded as a perquisite. That means a CELTA, in general. 

A CELTA is a proper ESL teaching certificate. It’s hard-work and intense, and that’s why it’s recognised and respected so widely. It includes assessed teaching practice and assignments designed to make you a decent teacher, armed with the core skills you’ll need to make a real difference to your (future) students. It’s not cheap, however, but its a good financial investment that will not only help to get a job but put extra money on your pay-packet, too. This professional certification will help you get that job in Europe or the Middle East. Gaining this month-long course (or three-months, part-time) will certainly help you stand out because of the value it is perceived to have internationally. I did mine with ITI in Istanbul. The course was difficult, tough, and long. To put the demands of this in context, as someone who has undertaken four degrees in three different subjects, I continue to tell friends and Digital Travellers that the CELTA was without doubt the most intense academic month of my life. At the same time though, it fun, enjoyable, and incredibly helpful in my development into a pretty decent teacher. (Click here to get a better understanding of what it entails and to learn more about ITI.)

3. More Degrees. This is almost certainly the most expensive and longest way of boosting your resume for a job abroad. Degrees take a long time. Yet, they of course enhance your resume immeasurably, as well as your credential and pay packet. For example, you are more likely to get a teaching job if you have a degree in ESL or teaching, and you’re pay is often related to the number of degrees you possess and what they are in. Institutions such as the University of Manchester run some programs that I’m personally familiar with (several friends and former colleagues that completed courses there) and that have been recommended to me over the years. Survey some of their associated courses here. The University of East Anglia, too, often comes up in conversation.

Personally, I think undergoing MAs in related degrees online are now the best (modern) way of developing your resume for teaching, often on the job, where you can use new ideas and methods directly in the classroom. We will be spending significant time towards the end of this 12-month blog series on professionalisation, focusing on the CELTA, DELTA, and particularly degree programmes/

Other Useful Additions

These next points should be relatively obvious, but I’ll make the points anyway. 

A Piggy Bank: While individual motivations will differ (travel, experience, or making a good salary, are common reasons), having some money in your account will be useful. In some cases, you’ll be asked to pay for a flight, or your medical or your visa costs upfront before being re-enbursed later (which could take weeks or months). Aside from this, you may have to wait 4-6 weeks for your first paycheque; you might even be lumbered with an unfurnished apartment. Having a cash reserve will be helpful. But not always. Depending on your country, institution, and boss, some or all of these worries may be mitigated. For example, flights are often paid for in advance by recruiters or employers in Asia and the Middle East (but not always), sometimes that’s the case with visa and medical costs, too. I’ve had friends tell me that sometime bosses in Korea give an advance; in Saudi, a loan. So, it’s not the same everywhere. Plan accordingly and try to ask the right questions. Often, there is ‘wiggle-room’ in contracts to negotiate various items and expenses. The general rule of thumb is to just be happy with what you are given, once negotiated; if you have a bad feeling, don’t sign the contract. 

Medicals: Following on from the above point, in my experience, Middle Eastern companies often insist that you undergo medicals before you fly-out. This is often a visa requirement, too: you must be free from HIV/AIDS, not be pregnant, or have narcotics in your system.  On the two occasions I worked for the same company in Saudi Arabia, I was directed to Westend London, and the initial outlay was nearly £1000 for the full medical and visa processes (more on this in a few weeks). Sometimes employers make you pay these upfront costs first, and then pay you back in-country. In Asia, you’ll often do the medical in-country, but the cost is yours and might set you back a few hundred dollars. If you do like to partake in recreational drugs, the best advise is stop a few months before your medicals—residual traces of certain narcotics show up in toxicology tests and will result in your candidacy being rejected.

A Knowledge of Grammar: ARRRRRRRGH! Might be your first thought. To be honest, so was I. Grammar is often one of the native teacher’s weakest areas. In schools, we tend to learn grammar intrinsically, for we essentially absorb it. But teaching its mechanics is a whole new ballgame, and your students might know more than you. The rule of thumb—as taught on CELTA courses—is to not panic; learn the grammar point you are to teach prior to the class the next day. If you don’t know something, tell the class “we’ll cover that point tomorrow,” or some such excuse. You must fulfil your promise though. If you know that you are going to teach abroad, my best advice aside from completing a CELTA course is to get familiar with English grammar. Invest in a solid course book and work through it. Honestly, when you are an English teacher you get to know grammar really well as you teach it. The skill then becomes teaching well and teaching it in a fun and interactive way—which are entirely different skills. This blog series will go into all of this in more detail over the coming months. At this stage though, the important thing is not to freak-out (as I did). Between the books and your colleagues, and literally dozens of websites dedicated to teaching English abroad will provide you with all the help you’ll need. And various teaching websites will offer thoughts and suggestion on how to make your grammar lessons awesome rather than boring (this is actually the bigger challenge).

A Second Language. I will be brutally honest about myself: I have tried and tried to learn a second language properly, but have simply not committed the time and respect to doing so. That said, I do understand the value of a second language to teaching. If you already do, or are currently learning a second language whether it be a random one or the main language of the country you intend to teach in, you know how hard it is to learn something that is not your mother tongue. This will give you not only empathy with your students, but also ideas how to better teach things based on your own experience. Don’t underestimate that your students may have once or are currently in the position you have been. You’ll recall what was hard, what as boring, and what you would have done to make the lesson memorable. 

I’ll be talking more about languages, both English and the teaching of it, as well as learning or otherwise acquiring secondary linguistic skills in forthcoming blog articles. For now, I just want to say that having a second language is a useful tool for several pertinent reasons that will become apparent in the time you are engaged in teaching English oversees.

You: Obviously, you know you better than I do. There are certainly qualities a good teacher has: organisational skill, a hardworking mentality, empathy, a sense of humour, discipline, determination, being sociable, a good listener, and many more. These help teachers become great teachers. Ruminate on the characteristics you possess for this profession. For me, teaching should be informative, beneficial, and fun during the class, but damed hard-work before hand in order to make it so.

And If I Don’t Have Any of These Things…?

Without doubt, if English is not your first language, or if you don’t have a degree, or if you lack a clean police record, or more complicated still, are not in possession of all three, finding a teaching job abroad will be extremely challenging, but not impossible. That said, you’ll almost certainly have to accept that you’ll be overlooked and turned downed for many teaching opportunities before possibly landing one.

I would like to highlight that without some or all of these qualities, salaries and job-security are often much reduced, and sometimes the work hours are increased as employers will be aware of your limited options to move on. Ultimately, you’ll need to use your judgement on individual cases and ask yourself what you are prepared to accept.

Here’s what I know from my personal experiences and interactions with colleagues in various jobs around the world. As ever, the caveat I’d like to highlight is from my experience. Others may have different viewpoints that differ from mine, and I would certainly encourage those to be expressed in the comments section.

Non-natives: There are some countries that will simply not accept non-natives. Very few people working in the industry whether native or non-native feel the prejudice against non-natives is often fair—it’s not—and frequently emerges a topic of deep discontentment on many Facebook-related groups. In my experience, non-natives, while sometimes lacking that ‘English-speaking accent,’ make up for it in a huge range of areas from reading, writing, listening, and grammar skills that natives often embarrassingly lack. However, the focus is usually on the speaking in many parts of the world. Places like South Korea simply will not hire non-natives, the same for Japan (who also have a grave dislike of tattoos). However, the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey, for example, hires well-qualified non-natives from the Arab world and the sub-content, including India and Pakistan. For the many ESL jobs in Europe, a preference is retained for Brits, but many will employ fellow continentals, though institutions are less likely to hire outside of Europe unless from an English-speaking nation like the United States. Where I worked in Spain, for example, in addition to myself and local Basque colleagues, I was joined by a Lithuanian, an Estonian, a Romanian, and an American.

The point here, as I’ve tried to emphasis, is that not being native does not bar you from an ESL job. However, it is harder to find employment. Personally, I hate this stereotype and prejudice, but there it is, laid bare. Perseverance is, perhaps, the most crucial quality in this in instance. Don’t give up.

No degree: As already mentioned, a degree is important. This is not to say that you can only be a good teacher if you have a degree (I’ve met many well-educated people who are not), but it is almost invariably needed because it's usually a visa requirement. In countries where a degree is therefore needed for official documentation, you will not be allowed to legally work in that country, and would therefore be, if caught working, be subject to a range of criminal charges and in all likelihood, deportation. Not every country requires a degree, however. At the time of writing, an ever-decreasing percentage of institutions in countries that once offered non-degree holders employability opportunities like Thailand, China, Greece, and Spain, for example, did not always insist on this criteria. Yet, those sorts of jobs are much harder to find now with such a large, willing, and qualified pool of teachers to choose from. Simply put, there’s less need to hire people who lack a degree. 

In other countries, such as South Korea, there is at least one program that I am aware of called Talk Talk. This is geared towards business professionals looking to change careers: managers, supervisors, and people of this ilk, who possess transferrable skills that could be useful in the teaching profession. As I understand it, places, however, are limited.

Unclean police record: It will probably go without saying that if you don’t have a clean police record it will be almost impossible to land a job given that you will be in a position of trust looking after children (regardless of how minor your crime was). Yet, they do exist, though not through regular channels and means. Places like Thailand—and a few others as I understand things—still allow backpackers to apply for jobs on site. While this might seem like a good proposition, the salary and security is extremely limited and not recommended. 

All three? Personally, I’ve never met anyone who lacks all three basics. If you find yourself in this position, I would think that the only avenue open to you would be to apply for jobs on site, such as already mentioned as still happens in Thailand. Even then, it may take multiple attempts to secure a position given all that I have already mentioned above.

Taking Stock

While this blog should not be considered definitive—it is often interlaced with caveats relating to specific examples of country, institution, and legal requirement, it has sought to provide a thorough overview of the basic skills that most ESL jobs require. Yet, it has tried to provide hope for those who lack what are widely regarded as industry-specific basics.

Ultimately, there is a huge variety of employability options and requirements out there, and it’s down to you to fulfil them.

Next time 

In the coming Monday’s Teaching English Abroad Series (3) Getting Started (Part B), we’ll be exploring how to actually get started by helping perspective teachers to think about the right sorts of questions surrounding one’s motivations as well as looking in the right sorts of places for jobs abroad. 

Thomas Dowling, on behalf of The Digital Traveller Team

August 2018


Glossary notes

ESL: English as a Second Language 

TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language

TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

CELTA: Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults

DELTA: Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

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