teaching English abroad
General,  Living Abroad,  Work and Travel

A Guide to teaching English abroad – How to get started in TEFL

This post will hopefully offer some insight into teaching English abroad. It aims to be a starting guide for anyone considering getting into TEFL (aka TESOL) with tips for getting qualified and finding work. We also explain some of the jargon and debunk a few myths.


Teaching English Abroad – A Guide to TEFL


There are lots of reasons to get into TEFL. As a travel site, first and foremost we should point out that Teaching English is a great way to explore other parts of the world. It is probably the easiest way to find work abroad and if you happen to be a native English Speaker or are a non-native speaker with a high level of English then there’s no reason why you can’t do it.

Of course teaching can also be a very rewarding and enjoyable profession to get into and with TEFL you don’t need to do much training to become one. Indeed if you have also thought about becoming a teacher long-term then TEFL is a great way to get a taster for it and see if it is for you without investing much time or money.

Other reasons why people get into teaching English as a foreign language are similar to the reasons why people decide to go travelling. Many new English teachers have just finished college/university, just ended a relationship or are just fed up of their job back home and ready for a new adventure.

Lingo

TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language
TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

Basically they mean the same thing. In this guide we will mostly use TEFL for no reason other than it is one letter shorter than TESOL. There’s lots of jargon and abbreviations that get used all over the place but to begin with these are the two you’ll be seeing most of. EFL and TESL are also sometimes used to refer to teaching English as a foreign language while as you look into qualifications you’ll start hearing CELTA, DELTA and other unnecessarily long abbreviations. More on that in the next section.

Steps to becoming an English Teacher

Many people are unsure of how to become an English teacher abroad but for most native speakers, it’s remarkably easy to become one. In the space of a month you can get all the training you need, a respected qualification and start applying for TEFL teaching jobs, of which there are plenty. Read on for the main steps you need to take.


What qualifications do you need to be a teacher abroad?


While it is occasionally possible to find work without any English language teaching qualifications, it’s not a good idea to dive straight into the classroom without any form of training. There are lots of possible qualifications and they are not all the same so it’s important you chose wisely. Once qualified many more doors will open up to you and you will quickly pay for your training.

In your initial research into the whole TEFL industry you will probably come across numerous different websites and language schools telling you why you should do their course. It is very important to note that not all TEFL qualifications are the same and in fact some are hardly worth the paper they are written on. 

Online TEFL Qualifications

Some people aren’t convinced in the value of online qualifications as they don’t include any actual teaching practice but there are some advantages to doing them:

1) They are much cheaper than other TEFL Courses and are a good option for people who have no long-term plans to teach English other than to do a bit on their travels.

2) If you aren’t sure if TEFL is for you then an online course gives you a good idea of what is involved in teaching English as a foreign language.

3) If you decide to go onto to do a full TEFL qualification then you will come in with a large amount of knowledge which will help you out no end in what will be a very intensive period.

4) You can do it in your own time and fit it around your life whereas in-centre courses usually require you to commit all your energy towards it for the duration of the course.

5) Although employers often demand full TEFL qualifications, online qualifications may help you find work and certainly won’t do any harm.

On the negative side if you’re looking into becoming an English teacher as a career, even if it is just for a few years, you won’t get very far with an online qualification. Getting fully qualified will give you access to a greatly increased number of better paying jobs and enable you to be much better prepared for the classroom.

Get a Full TEFL Qualification

A full TEFL qualification typically consists of a four week full-time course that includes six hours of teaching practice. There are loads of different schools and organisations around the world that offer what on the face of it are very similar courses. In reality although they are similar, the final certificate you get at the end isn’t equal.

The two qualifications that really stand out from the rest in terms of quality are:

1) CELTA
2) TRINITY CERTIFICATE IN TESOL

Some courses are billed as CELTA equivalents and are probably just as good at preparing you for the classroom but aren’t as respected by future employers. It is better to do either the CELTA or the Trinity course.

They are very similar and typically involve an intense four week course with six hours of actual teaching practice. The Trinity involves teaching children for at least one class, whereas the slightly more common CELTA doesn’t but in essence they are treated equally by prospective employers. You can do the course in hundreds of locations around the world. It can be a good idea to do it in the place you would like to work once you’re qualified as you may be provided with assistance in finding a job but be suspicious of any course that guarantees you work immediately after you qualify.

There are hundreds of different schools that offer these courses:

Find somewhere to do the CELTA course

Find somewhere to do the Trinity Cert TESOL

There aren’t usually any necessary prerequisites that you need to get on a TEFL course. You don’t need a degree or any work experience but may be asked to take an English test if you are not a native English speaker.

CELTA or Trinity courses normally cost in the region of £1000 in the UK and roughly $1300-1500 abroad. However the exact price varies around the world quite considerably but the course is basically the same worldwide and you will receive the same final certificate. Once qualified you have an excellent chance of finding work in many countries (having a university degree will also be an advantage and is a requisite for official jobs in some countries).

Hopefully now you have some idea of what it takes to get qualified to teach English abroad. However that’s only the start of the road. The fun part is choosing where to go and we cover that in the next section.


Where can you teach English abroad?


The answer to that question is almost anywhere. English is the clear number one international language so people all over the world need to speak it. It is a simple game of demand and supply. In most countries the demand for English seriously exceeds the number of people capable of teaching it.

If you understood that last sentence then you could meet that demand, have hopefully a great experience abroad and maybe even save up some money. Some countries have a preference for Americans, others prefer European teachers. Some countries require you to have a degree, some require you to have a TEFL qualifications, others require neither and a few require both. Whatever your situation, if you can speak English there is a country and a job out there for you.

Some of the more popular countries & regions for TEFL:

South Korea

PRO’s – Some of the highest salaries in the world and a great place to save money. Many schools will even pay for your return flight there and you can use it as a base to explore other countries during your lengthy holidays.

CON’s – Korea has a somewhat unfair reputation for being a bit boring. It certainly lacks the appeal of places like Thailand or Japan in the eyes of most teachers and travellers.

Read more – Check out our guide to getting around South Korea.

Japan

PRO’s – More exciting than Korea and less likely to get nuked! The JET programme enables you to work for a shorter period than your typical TEFL contract. High salaries too often including accommodation.

CON’s – Japan is a very expensive country to live in so it would take a brave or rich person to head out there without a job lined up.

China

PRO’s – Huge and increasing demand for teachers. Salaries are also increasing rapidly and there is lots of university work available which many teachers prefer.

CON’s– Outside the more popular big cities, you might be one of very few foreigners in the town which some teachers find very isolating. Chinese is hard to learn and you need to know some to get by in most of the country.

Spain and Italy

PRO’s – Laid back and fun Latin lifestyle and a larger demand for teachers than other parts of the continent.

CON’s – Limited chance of saving any money as wages are generally fairly low by European standards. Americans and Canadians (and possibly soon British people) will struggle to get a work visa without holding an EU passport.

Southeast Asia – Primarily Thailand and Vietnam

PRO’s – The same reasons so many people travel to the region. Intriguing culture, fantastic food and beautiful destinations.

CON’s – It’s fairly popular with teachers but you should be able to find work. Many schools are poorly run though and you can get messed around.

South America – Chile and Ecuador amongst the most popular

Student living costs around the World

Valparaiso, Chile

PRO’s – Opportunity to learn Spanish cheaply and use it as a base for exploring South America.

CON’s – Some of the lowest paying TEFL salaries in the world.

Read more – See our Patagonia backpacking route for some travel inspiration in Chile and Argentina.

The Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE etc

PRO’s – Fantastic Salaries. Comparable to those of a highly skilled profession back home.

CON’s – Living in a country which adheres to strict Islamic principles isn’t for everyone. It’s also really really hot!

Russia

PRO#s – A famous man once said that wherever there are billionaires, there are English language schools. Okay we made that up but it’s probably true. Russia is an emerging market with lots of demand for English teachers.

CON’s – Living in some places can be tricky unless you speak some Russian and getting a visa to go there can be a hassle.

Check out these hacks for moving abroad for some tips on making the whole process go more smoothly.


How to find TEFL jobs


There are two basic methods you can use to land a job teaching English:

1) Jump on a plane and go find a job

This requires some balls and you will need a bit of money saved up to cover the initial period when you’re looking for work. However in some places this is by far the best approach. The vast majority of jobs are not advertised online and most employers won’t take you seriously unless you are physically in their country and inside their school.

If you opt for this, it’s best to head out a week or so before the start of the school year (varies from country to country) and head from school to school with your CV. In many places you have a decent chance of being offered a job on the spot! This is the best method for finding work, especially in Europe where it’s hard to find a job in advance.

It can be a bit daunting to do this at first though, so there’s no harm in sending out few enquiries and trying to line up an interview or two in advance. Most EFL interviews are fairly straight forward affairs where their main goal is to confirm that you can indeed speak English clearly.

You might find our living costs guide useful in deciding upon where to go. With a bit of research online you can find out about TEFL salaries in different places so by comparing the two you can get an idea of how much money you can save up in different parts of the world.

2) Browse the Internet for TEFL jobs and sort it out in advance

Some of the bigger schools, countries where there is high demand for English teachers and some schools in less popular or less accessible countries use the Internet to recruit teachers. China and South Korea are perhaps the two countries which have the most constant stream of TEFL jobs advertised online but there are positions offered all over the world. If you upload your CV to websites you may even be approached by schools.

A few TEFL job websites worth looking at are:

TEFL.com
eslbase
eslcafe

You will probably need to have a fairly simple SKYPE interview to secure a job. The downside of this method is that it offers little security for either party. Teachers do accept jobs and then have a sudden change of heart about their upcoming move to Uzbekistan. From your point of view you should be aware that many English language schools and agencies are also a little bit dodgy. Some will try to get your money in exchange for their services. You shouldn’t have to pay to get a job (especially one that might not even exist). Use a forum like the one on Dave’s ESL Cafe to try and contact people who have worked for the school in the past or can verify that they are a legitimate organisation.

How easy is it to get a job teaching English abroad?

While you may not have had much idea before of how to find TEFL jobs, a more important question is perhaps how many jobs are out there. It varies from country to country but generally speaking it is often ridiculously easy to find a job teaching English abroad. Better still from a travel perspective, there is a market for English teachers in practically every single nation on the planet. English is the international language so if you’re a native speaker with a TEFL qualification you shouldn’t have much trouble finding work. A degree is required in a few of the more academically minded countries in the Far East but isn’t a necessity in most. Teaching English is by no means solely an option for native speakers and people from all kinds of different backgrounds end up making a living in TEFL.

Overall if you are certain about where you want to go, you will have more chance with method 1 than method 2. Employers will take your application much more seriously if you show up in person rather than send them an e-mail from the other side of the world with vague plans to come and teach English in their country. If you’re open-minded about where you teach then you can have some success with method 2 especially once you have built up some experience and references.

A good tip for beginners is to do a TEFL course in a city which you would like to teach. If you do well on the course, the school may even employ you but as a minimum they should help you find work and it gives you a chance to make friends and get to know the city too. Short term teaching jobs at summer camps are also a nice way to get your first TEFL experience.


Teaching English as a Foreign Language – TEFL FAQ’s


Some of these points we covered in the previous sections, but they are common doubts amongst newcomers to the world of TEFL and teaching English abroad. If your question isn’t answered then use the comments section at the bottom and we’ll get back to you.

Do I need to know the local language to be an English teacher abroad?

No is the answer to this in the vast majority of cases. Of course it helps if you know a bit, but lessons can and in the opinion of many in the profession should be solely in English. You can use various prompts and materials to explain what you mean and even with weaker students it is relatively easy to get your point across with a bit of persistence.

Is it better to apply for TEFL jobs from abroad or once you’ve arrived at your destination?

It’s much easier once you’ve arrived but that doesn’t mean you can’t start looking before you hit your planned destination. Send out CV’s to schools and you should at least be able to arrange a couple of interviews for when you do arrive.

I’m not a native English speaker. Can I still teach English?

Yes. Non-native speakers have the advantage of having actually learnt the language from scratch in a school environment so you may be able to relate to your students better than a native speaker. Schools generally prefer native teachers but if you have a high level of proficiency, there are still plenty of opportunities for non-native English speakers.

What is a typical background for an EFL teacher?

Truth be told EFL teachers come from all sorts of different backgrounds and given that it is very easy to get into and pretty much any English speaker can do it, there is no typical path into it. A typical TEFL course or TEFL workplace will consist of people aged anywhere between 18 and 65 and probably from a variety of different countries. People from the UK, USA, Australia, South Africa and Canada have an obvious advantage but the demand for teachers is very high and there are probably just as many non-native speakers who get into TEFL as there are natives.

I am really bad at English Grammar! How can I be expected to teach anyone?

Even if you think you are good at grammar, there is a whole lot that you probably don’t know yet that you need to, in order to be an English teacher. This is one of the main reasons why you need to do a TEFL course and grammar is a big part of it.

Many new teachers feel the same way to begin with and many experienced ones still struggle with it from time to time. In answer to the question, you just have to learn it which can be a daunting prospect as you encounter a whole heap of new jargon. It will change the way you think about your own language!

Non native speakers often make better grammar teachers because they have gone through the process of learning it from the beginning rather than native speakers who pick it up naturally without thinking about it.

How much can you earn as a TEFL teacher?

You are never going to get rich from teaching English (unless you start your own language school or spend twenty years in the Middle East) but it’s generally quite easy to find work. Pay varies from city to city, country to country and continent to continent and ultimately comes down to simple demand and supply.

If the demand for English is high, but few teachers want to live/work there then wages will be high. Korea is an example as is Saudi Arabia where business with Western nations and companies is booming and people need English but few teachers want to live in a boiling hot desert where they can’t enjoy some of the freedoms they take for granted at home.

Somewhere like Thailand that is a more popular place for foreigners to live, has high demand for English in part thanks to a huge tourism industry but also has a high number of English teachers so wages aren’t anything amazing but enough to live very comfortably.

In truth, although the job is pretty similar wherever you go, pay varies greatly across the world. In Latin America for example teaching wages are on the face of it extremely low yet will just about cover your living costs. Pay in Europe is much higher but so are living expenses so you’ll do well to save much money while teaching in Europe.

The real money is to be made in Asia, where working for 6 months or more in Korea or China for example should leave you with some sizeable savings to go travelling on or take back home. In English speaking countries, jobs are much harder to come by if you don’t have much experience but there is still a market. Summer camps in the UK for example are fairly easy to get into and offer excellent potential to save up some money all be it over a short time period.

Will I be teaching mostly adults or children? Which is better?

Depending on your school you could be teaching anything from a group of middle-aged business people to a class of screaming 4 year olds and sometimes both on the same day. Many teachers enjoy the diversity that brings while others have their preferences. Kids and teens can be hard work but have lots of crazy ideas so it’s often more enjoyable and they have lower expectations and are less likely to complain about not learning enough. Adults behave but are more reserved and expect to actually learn rather than have fun! It’s good to experience both sides of the coin and you’ll quickly know which one you prefer.

teaching English in Asia

English Students in China, CC BY-SA 2.0

Can I just quit after a couple of months if I want to visit somewhere else?

Well yes. Like any job you can quit if you don’t want to do it anymore but you will almost certainly be asked how long you intend to stay for during your interview. It’s up to you how honest you want to be and we wouldn’t condone lying but many teachers do. A lot of English Schools around the world do tend to have a very high turnover of staff but as we mentioned in the previous section it’s pretty dishonest behaviour and doesn’t reflect well on you.

If you don’t feel as though the school is treating you well then that is a totally different matter. In an industry where it’s very easy to find work, the ball should be in your court and you should be looked after. Don’t let schools bully you around.

I’m not sure I’m ready to teach but I’ve heard of people working as an English Language Assistant. How do I do this?

There are language assistant programs that you can join and some schools actively hire assistants. You don’t need a TEFL course for this but will probably need a degree or be in the process of getting it. Most language assistants tend to be in their 20’s. If you are a Brit have a look at the British Council’s Language Assistant programme. In some countries (Spain is a good example) you can also pretty easily get on their own governments language assistant programme by turning up in the country and making a few enquiries. There aren’t nearly as many opportunities for assistants as there are teachers but if you can get a language assistant role it’s quite a nice, non-demanding job but not normally that well paid.

How much work is involved in TEFL?

Almost everywhere roughly 20 hours a week of teaching should cover your living expenses. 20-25 hours is generally considered full-time in the TEFL world but some at least basic lesson planning and travel time between classes means it’s not the always the cushy job that it might sound like. It’s generally speaking not difficult work once you’re used to it and can be quite rewarding but it’s not for everyone. Teaching children and unruly teenagers can be tiresome. Adult classes tend to be easier but they will expect to learn and will get annoyed and drop out if they don’t!

What is a typical day or week like as an EFL teacher?

It depends what type of school you work for. Some language schools have all the classes on site. Typically you might work say 4 or 5 days per week with an evening schedule of 4.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. Many classes are scheduled late because the students come after work or school.

Alternatively you could be teaching business or after-school classes in which case you may have to do a lot of travelling between classes to different locations. Your school should pay for your transport if this is the case. A few schools require you to teach weekend morning classes (usually to kids). Try to find a job with at least two consecutive days off which allows you to do things or get away and travel at the weekend.

A typical day might consist of you getting to school an hour or so before your first class to plan and prepare materials or attend meetings. Then you can be teaching for four or five hours with the odd break in between classes. Classes can last anything from 45 minutes to 2 hours depending on the school and the type of students.

Can I teach privately?

Yes. You will probably make more money too per class but students can be unreliable. It also takes time to find students and you don’t benefit from the resources that many language schools have. One to one classes can also be pretty hard work but it’s good money if you can build up the contacts and keep your students happy.


This post was last updated in June 2019.


Featured Image of an English teacher in Ghana, CC BY 2.0

One Comment

  • Mrs Ambreen

    In these troubled times due to covid 19. Traveling is not as usual. The only option is to teach from home. I am a TEFL teacher and teaching two kids in Jinzhou ( China ) and an adult in OSH (Uzbekistan)
    I am not a native speaker, still it is not difficult to find jobs online. I posted my CV on a few Teachers
    job Boards and was successful as some families contacted me directly. If any TEFL teacher needs my
    help. I am here to help. Contact: mrsambreen9@gmail.com

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