6 Things You Should Know If You Want to Teach English Abroad

6 Things You Should Know If You Want to Teach English Abroad
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Mickey Gast November 4, 2015

Teaching English abroad requires a unique set of skills — openness to new cultures and ideas, charisma, and an exceptional understanding of English itself. Check out these six things you should know before you start down this exciting path.

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Your passport is ready. Your wanderlust is in full effect. You think that traveling to new places while making a living at the same time is the perfect combination of fun and real-life responsibility.

So you choose to become a teacher of English as a foreign language (TEFL). It’s a good choice, considering that as of September 2015, the TEFL market — which caters to about 1.5 billion people — is estimated to be worth $55 billion.

Before you pack your bags and embark on an English-teaching career, however, here are six things you should consider:

1. The ability to speak English does not an English teacher make.

What could be easier than teaching your native language? After all, you’ve been speaking it since you were a toddler.

Think again.

The fact that you can speak a language doesn’t at all qualify you to teach others that language. Let’s say you’re in front of a classroom full of students, and somebody asks you the difference between the present perfect tense and the past simple tense. That should be a basic question, right? After all, you’ve probably correctly used the two tenses hundreds of thousands of times yourself.

But under what circumstances do you use each of them?

When you’re a native speaker, it’s very easy not to notice the rules of grammar. You learn them intuitively and use them correctly all the time through repetition. It’s called first-language acquisition, and it is quite different from foreign language learning.

When you’re the English teacher in a room full of non-native speakers, however, you have to explain why the language gets used the way it does. You have to know the intricacies of usage and syntax, the ins and outs of grammar rules, and sometimes even the origins of idioms. You can’t just improvise explanations.

Which leads me to my next point.

2. You will need a teaching certificate.

In addition to helping you learn everything you’ll need to know about English as a foreign language, a teaching certificate will also familiarize you with planning and delivering lessons, assessing students’ knowledge, and classroom management. The most common standardized teaching certificate is the Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA). If you plan to teach children, you can add a young learners (YL) extension to your CELTA.

There are a few important questions to ask before you hand over a chunk of change for a teaching certificate:

  • Does the school offer a CELTA-authorized program?
  • How many hours of instruction does the program include? (At least 120 hours is the norm.)
  • How many of these credit hours are direct teaching hours and how many are observed teaching hours?
  • What is their job placement rate for graduates?
  • What teaching strategy does the program use? Most employers nowadays prefer a method called communicative language teaching (CLT), which privileges interaction between individuals both as the ultimate goal and as the means to that goal.

In addition to honing your grammar skills, there are other important reasons to get a teaching certificate.

The Visa
In order to get a teaching visa in many countries, you will need a relevant certificate. Sure, it’s possible to enter the country on another type of visa and get a teaching job. But it’s not legal. And of course you wouldn’t want this experience to be compromised by legal troubles that could have been prevented by simply putting the time and effort into completing the right paperwork.

A lot of schools require instructors to hold teaching certificates. You will have a better chance of getting a job and you will be able to command higher salary rates. When the competition is fierce — as it is in Western European countries — a teaching certificate will help you stand out from the crowd of “just English speakers.”

Even if you only want to teach abroad for a couple of years, a teaching certificate is still a good idea.

3. Be a courteous guest.

Worldwide, education systems are pretty sluggish.

Kids are cheating on applications and on exams. The main classroom teacher is not doing her job properly. This could be improved; surely there’s a more efficient way of doing that. You could easily rattle off five different ways to improve things.

It’s true. There is room for improvement in every school, in every country. Perhaps you can see the problems (and their solutions) more easily because you have an outsider’s perspective.

You may think you can eliminate some of these issues because you have related experience in your home country. What you might not know is that these problems have been there for a long time. And while your intentions may be good, your approach might seem rude and intrusive.

Let’s reframe this. Would you go into someone’s house and point out how messy it is, how the furniture doesn’t match, or how their fence is broken? Probably not. In the same way, you can’t just walk into a new country, city, or school, and point out the things they’re doing wrong.

What can you do instead?

Find out whether your solution is possible or implementable given the tools available. Find out whether it’s been tried before. And if so, what were the results?

You’re not going to be there for long, so it’s really not your place to overhaul the system. (Exceptions should be made for serious violence, abuse, and flagrant violations of human rights. Then, by all means, speak up.) But you should be very tactful in offering bits of advice and quick fixes, especially if they’re unsolicited.

4. Teaching English as a foreign language is a serious job.

If you’re looking at TEFL as a way to travel cheaply, the truth is you’re not going to get far. Sure, you might have colleagues who fall into this category, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be good teachers. There’s no guarantee that, once you land a TEFL job, you’ll be able to hold it for the duration of a school year. It’s important not to think of these positions as merely an extension of your time studying abroad rather than your priority. It is a serious job, and you are expected to be a responsible employee.

It may feel in part like a vacation for you, but for everybody else it’s real life. Though exploring new places in your time off is a great perk, you must remember that your colleagues are deeply invested in their work. They take their jobs seriously, and treating your job as if it takes a backseat to your travel plans may cause friction with your peers.

5. Your English is not the only English.

If you come from the United States, you might be inclined to believe that the English spoken worldwide is American English. But the U.K, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all have their own unique (and perfectly acceptable) versions of English. So be very aware when you teach students to spell the word “jewelry,” there isn’t only one correct spelling of the word.

What you should focus on, rather than getting hung up on students learning American English, is English as a lingua franca (ELF), which is the name for speakers of two other languages using English to communicate with each other. Say, for example, a Hindi-speaking tourist needs directions on the Tokyo Metro. She may pose a question (in English) to an English-speaking Japanese transit official. ELF’s principles explain that English serves as a medium to enable intercultural communication. The first priority when you’re teaching should be on effective communication rather than on a specific dialect.

So while your North American accent is an extremely valuable asset for you as a teacher, don’t disregard the many other English varieties that are spoken throughout the world.

6. Do extensive research.

This may seem like obvious advice. In the age of Googling everything, doing your research before moving to a new country is a given. But what I’m advising you to do is to go into great depth with your questions about your future home.

Find out how your salary aligns with a given country’s cost of living. Are your working conditions on par with those of native teachers? What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in a given area? Is that neighborhood close to where you’ll be working? Are you expected or required to take any supplementary classes while you’re there, or to earn continuing education credits? Will you be responsible for any clerical duties (affectionately called “desk-warming” in the teaching world)?

Brush up on the history, the culture, and the language of your host country. The language might take a while, but make sure you research major events that have happened in recent history and how they may affect your interactions with the locals.

For example, if you’re going to teach in Eastern Europe, the rise and fall of communism will most likely come up in conversation. In South Korea and Vietnam, people talk about recent wars and their widespread effects. Although you may not remember a lot of the world history you learned in school, you should make a concerted effort to learn about the major stages and changes your host country has gone through over the years. And, I know I mentioned this before, but always be considerate.

Teaching English abroad is a very rewarding career choice that offers you the chance to follow your calling while immersing yourself in another culture. Remember to keep an open mind and to be a gracious guest. Use this time not just to be a teacher, but to be a student as well. While your students will be learning a lot, so will you.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: ESL / ELL / TESOLEducation & Teaching