If you were told you could explore a brand new country and culture and get paid really well while you do it, would you take opportunity? If you knew you could use the time to have fascinating travel experiences, meet great people and learn more about the world, would you go for it?
In 2017 Monique and I did just that and we haven’t looked back. I had been teaching in Johannesburg for 4 years and Monique had been teaching at various remedial schools for her Drama Therapy. And to be honest we were stuck in a rut. Both of us love travel and adventure but we could hardly afford to go for a drink with our friends let alone travel. So we decided we needed a drastic change. Since we’ve started teaching abroad we’ve travelled between 7 different countries, lived in 2 new countries, finished 2 years of contracts in Korea and we’re onto a new contract in Vietnam.
As a qualified teacher in my home country there were many things that I had to get my head around in the TEFL industry and teaching in a foreign language classroom. But there were also a surprisingly large number of similarities. This is what I have learnt from my experiences teaching in a classroom where I was fluent in the home language to teaching in a foreign language classroom where the simplest of communication can be an effort.
The story of how our adventures began
I had never expected to end up in teaching. If you had asked me in my last years of school what I wanted to do, I wanted to get out of the place and never return. But through a series of circumstances I ended up with my teaching qualification and teaching and tutoring bagpipes at a private school in Johannesburg. Like every job it had its ups and downs and for the most part I enjoyed my job there.
When we got married in 2016 both Monique and I knew we wanted more out of life. Teaching abroad seemed like the best way to escape and finally explore the world. The idea of fully immersing ourselves in a new culture and way of life sounded incredible (and it has been!).
If you’ve ever looked for a job in the TEFL industry you know that there is a lot of choice and it can be difficult to decide. We had several friends teaching English in various countries so we started by asking around and from their stories we settled on South Korea and the EPIK program. When we decided we needed another move we went back to our friend base to start our research again and found APAX in Vietnam.
Before I get into the main differences between teaching at home and teaching abroad I want to talk a little about starting your TEFL adventure. As much as TEFL teaching is a way to travel it is essential to remember that the students need to come first. We have met far too many ‘teachers’ in Vietnam and Korea that forget this and it is the students who lose out. Don’t be like those ‘teachers’. Read this post on why you shouldn’t teach English to get a better idea. There are also many pitfalls that qualified teachers can fall into getting a job in a foreign country!
Where to start your adventure teaching abroad
Getting a TEFL qualification
With so many TEFL jobs available the list of requirements can be quite varied, but what most employers will expect is a minimum of a TEFL qualification. We completed our TEFL with i-to-i, a UK based company that is highly rated and well accredited. They are not the cheapest course but you know that they have a high standard. If you’d like to shop around a little then have a look at this post to help you find the best TEFL course for you.
Do I really need a TEFL certificate as a qualified teacher?
The short answer is no, you don’t. Most TEFL employers are incredibly happy to get an application from someone with actual teaching qualifications and teaching experience. In my interview with EPIK I was even questioned why I had done a TEFL course on top of my teaching qualification!
But from experience it was a very good choice on my part. Teaching in a foreign language is very different to teaching students who understand the language you are speaking, even if those still don’t understand what you’re saying. The methods you will be required to use are also very different and there is a very good chance you will be teaching with a co-teacher if you find yourself in Korea teaching with EPIK. Taking a TEFL course is the best way to understand these differences and prepare yourself for teaching abroad in a foreign language classroom.
How to find a TEFL job that suits you
Before you make any big changes in your life it is a good idea to research. We started with messaging our Facebook friends who were teaching overseas to get their opinions on the different options. Go through your friends and see if you can find anyone you know who is, or has been, teaching abroad. They will be able to give you the most personal information and it can help you the most in making any decisions.
Secondly the internet has so many blogs on teaching around the world that you will be spoilt for choice with posts, articles and reviews to read. Start with general blogs and narrow down your search as you find appealing things about certain countries. Posts like this list of the 10 best job markets for teaching English abroad in 2019 and this post on which countries pay the highest salaries for teaching abroad, are the best place to start looking at what options look most appealing and then making more definite choices from there.
When you start narrowing down your search to specific countries it is essential to look at local cultural practices, climate, and lifestyle, and consider very seriously if you can live with it. As a foreign language teacher you have to remember that you are guest to that country and they don’t have to change to suit you. For example, in a Muslim country there will be very strict rules on clothing and behaviour. In Korea and Vietnam there is an incredibly strict hierarchy structure and trying to go around it can get you in trouble. Here is a list of possible cultural faux pas in South Korea if you’re interested in learning more.
How to find the right company
There are a lot of legitimate English foreign language schools and programs but there are also a lot that try to take advantage of their teachers and treat them quite badly. So how can you know what is legitimate and what is not? Research, research, research. Before you sign up with a recruiter or a school, Google as much as you can about them, find as many reviews and, if possible, message teachers who have personal experiences with them. Facebook groups are also a great way to meet other teachers to ask about their experiences and find out more about a potential employer.
In some countries there are government run initiatives that you can apply to: like EPIK in Korea and JET in Japan. These programs may not always pay as well as a private company but you know that it is legitimate. You will not be abused or suddenly find yourself deported for having the wrong visa or something similar. There are also private companies like APAX in Vietnam which offer legitimate employment and a good structure for foreign teachers.
Getting your documents in order
Even though many employers only require a TEFL qualification and for you to be a native English speaker, many countries require more documents to get a working visa. The minimum standard generally involves at least a 4 year Bachelor’s degree. You will often also need to get a police clearance certificate.
Just having the documents is not sufficient as most immigration offices do not want original copies and they may just be disposed of. You will need to get copies made and have them legalised in your home country. Each country will have a very specific process to legalise documents for foreign use. If you’re coming from South Africa then this post covers, in detail, what you need to do to get your official documents in order. The process to get your documents in order can take a long time so make sure you give yourself ample time to get everything done!
Learn the language
To effectively teach a language it is essential that you have at least a basic understanding of the home language of your students. Not only will it help you communicate with your students and build better working relationships but it will give you a better understanding of how your students will be learning English. A quick example, Korean does not use an article so no ‘the’ ‘a’ etc and your students may struggle to grasp how the article works in English. There is also no plural and this is often context based, so teaching English plurals can take a while.
Every language has its own nuances which could potentially create their own complications in learning English. If you know the language of your students it will be a huge help to effective teaching.
It will also make day to day life so much easier and really help integrate into your new home. If you need to visit a doctor or get something done like have some plumbing fixed you can’t just hope that whoever you are talking to understands English.
What to expect as a qualified teacher teaching abroad
1. Other TEFL teachers
If you get into a TEFL teaching job the first thing that you will notice is that most of your TEFL colleagues have little to no real teaching experience. They have studied an arbitrary subject like accountancy and their only exposure to teaching is what was in their TEFL course. This is obviously no indication of ability to teach but be prepared for several cringe moments!
What may be proper classroom etiquette to you, a TEFL teacher without proper teaching experience may not even think about. If you want to keep friends you may find yourself biting your tongue but it is also an educational opportunity to help fellow TEFL teachers become better teachers!
Also be prepared for your superiors to think that a teacher that is loud is a good teacher. I have known several teachers who have completely ignored the weaker students in their classes and just focused on the 1 or 2 who are competent. They try harder to be the students’ friends than actually teaching any English, and you can see how terrible their classroom management is. But because they are loud and ‘vibey’, everyone thinks it means they are a ‘good’ teacher.
In your home country and language you will have developed ways to interacting with students. You know how to get a rapport with your class. You will have strategies of dealing with misbehaving students.
You can throw most of that out of the window when you’re teaching abroad.
Unless you are fluent in the local language you will really struggle to have the same level of connection with your students. If I think back to how I was teaching in South Africa to the teacher that I am today, they are 2 completely different people. The most difficult part is that I can no longer just joke with my students. I find that humor is a great way to connect, but that humor often relies on a decent understanding of the English language. As the teacher, any miscommunication is completely my own fault, and lies in my poor grasp of the local language, but I do miss having a laugh with my class. You may also be restricted in how you can deal with misbehaving students. In Korea there was nothing we could do except to verbally chastise them. There are no detentions, demerits, or other point systems, you can’t send students out of the class and you don’t see your classes often enough to set up a regular reward or points system of your own.
Patience is another very important part of being a foreign language teacher. Patience in any classroom is essential, but even more so when the language of your instructions can get misunderstood and not just the instructions themselves.
3. Local teachers
In your home country you are considered a professional or an expert in your field but often when start teaching abroad you will be at the bottom of the hierarchy. When I was interviewed to teach for EPIK my interviewer brought this up and asked if I would be okay with it. I consider teaching just as much about learning as it is about teaching and teaching in a TEFL classroom was going to be a new experience so I was fine with not being treated at the level I had been in South Africa. But I will admit that there are times when I struggle with being treated just above the level of a student and not as a highly qualified teacher.
Many teachers will want to be your friend because they are fascinated by you but it can be difficult to form any lasting or deep relationships. Local teachers are used to TEFL teachers passing through every year so you are temporary. Do your best to get to know your colleagues, but understand that if they are indifferent to you it’s not necessarily because they don’t like you!
If you teach in a private English centre you may not have to work with local teachers but your place in the hierarchy is dependent on how long you’ve been at the centre, it has nothing to do with your experience or ability.
So you got a job, now what?
You’ve got all your necessary qualifications, you found a country you love, researched your job properly and now you’re sitting in your new apartment getting ready to start your new life. My best piece of advice is to have fun. Take the challenges as they come and make the most of this amazing opportunity that you have been given. Remember that nothing is perfect and you will have good days and bad days and sometimes you may question why you made the choice to teach abroad.
But you are in the most amazing position to truly learn about a new culture and way of life. If you’re having fun it will help you make friends, your lessons will probably be more interesting, and you will create the best memories.
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Happy travels and blue skies!
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