Many of our readers will know that we’ve been TEFL teachers in Korea since February 2016. It was the best decision we’ve personally ever made, but I am worried that the TEFL industry is being sold as a traveller’s dream, rather than an actual, difficult career. So if you are thinking of teaching English in a foreign country, or have friends that are, read this before you jump onto the TEFL bandwagon.
Myth 1: Being a TEFL teacher is easy
If you, like many potential TEFL teachers, are stepping into teaching for the first time, you need to take a big step back and really consider why you want to teach English. Teaching is f*#c@ing difficult. I know that kids seem cute and it sounds like a party to play games and be energetic in a classroom all day, but it really isn’t that simple. I teach elementary school students, by myself, with around 20 kids in a class.
These 20 kids can be 3rd graders, who have an incredibly limited English vocabulary. My Korean is not much better. And yet I need to maintain discipline, get through the textbook, explain grammar and language rules and exceptions, and be exciting enough to keep their attention. This is not an easy way to make money, and if you’re thinking it will be a great break from your current job, you need to realise that.
Myth 1a: I’ll be fine with a TEFL certificate
Holy hell, I wish this was true! But I want to be very clear here: TEFL qualifications vary widely in quality. If you have never taught anything before, please consider at least investing in a TEFL course that includes in-class hours. Sure, there are tons of online only, cheap, quick, convenient courses, but you will simply not be prepared for standing up in front of 20+ kids who don’t speak a word of English.
I also want to say that teaching in general isn’t for everyone, and teaching English abroad is even less so. People who are passionate about education and child welfare study years to be teachers, and the TEFL industry really hasn’t put in those same requirements. Now, I know some amazing teachers here that didn’t study anything education related, but they care deeply about their students and their education. But I also know many more ‘teachers’ who are here because they had nothing else to do with their lives and really hate the job. I didn’t necessarily want to be a teacher either, and I wrote about how it feels to be nearly 30 and doing a job that many consider to be a gap year.
But maybe the real problem is that many countries are trying to attract young foreigners with good money and very few requirements. This has attracted both awesome, invested teachers, and people who would really rather be somewhere else. If you would really rather not be a teacher at all, please try to find something else to do if it is possible. Young people do not deserve the bare minimum from their teachers. It isn’t fair, and we wouldn’t accept it in the West, so why do we think it is okay anywhere else?
Myth 2: Teaching English in Asia means non-stop party time
This is one of the things that gets to me about how TEFL teachers are recruited. The job is sold as an easy way (see point 1) to have a party while still making good money. Just this week I was reading someone’s blog and they were claiming that during their TEFL teacher stint in Korea they were partying every weekend, and going out with friends every night of the week. Sure, partying is great, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t go out and have fun, but this job is not a joke.
You are part of the education system, and you have an influence over young minds. And I know that learning a foreign language isn’t going to change their lives, but I do think we should try to be a little prepared when we see our students. I’m not saying you need to spend hours everyday on lesson planning, but you do need to how up to work relatively well rested, well-prepared, and with a clear goal of what you are trying to teach. Otherwise you’re just an overpaid babysitter and you’re doing more harm than good.
Myth 3: TEFL teachers get to travel the world
One of the reasons Chris and I decided to start teaching English in Asia was the opportunity to travel. Travel has always been one of our priorities in life, and becoming TEFL teachers seemed like a good way to marry our skills to our goals. If you want to travel more, then teaching English abroad may be something you look into. However, you can’t come into the job only in order to travel. It’s not fair on the people you will work with, or the children you will teach.
TEFL teachers don’t get unlimited vacation time, in fact a lot of the time you will need to negotiate when you get to take leave, and it will be at the discretion of your boss. The same blogger that will not be named (I have so much anger at this guy!), was selling TEFL as a way to travel the globe constantly, claiming that he went to 12 countries in his first 12 months of teaching. I mean, I guess if you hopped from airport to airport you could get that many countries in, but for most of us TEFL teachers, 12 countries is just not obtainable.
In the 21 months we’ve been teaching English in Korea, we have been to Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, as well as travelling within Korea and getting a holiday back home in South Africa. Yes, we could have packed our holidays with more countries, but we don’t collect countries as trophies. We travel to experience different cultures and open our minds, as well as to contribute to sustainable, ethical tourism. Yes, you can travel. No, it shouldn’t be your only priority.
If you are desperate to travel, have a look at this article on all the different jobs you can do to earn money while you travel. Teaching English may seem like the easiest option, but maybe your talents are more suited to a different job.
Myth 4: TEFL teacher jobs pay well
Along the same lines of the travel focus in myth 3, this myth is less about pay than it is about priorities. Not all TEFL jobs will pay well for what they ask of you. If you are moving across the world in order to make a quick buck, take another moment to think about your choice. There are some super jobs, like the EPIC program we work for in Korea, where your money is good, and guaranteed to be paid on time. There are also a ton of companies out there that will do their best to screw you over.
Every country is different, so I can’t really tell you if your company or recruiting agency sounds legit or not, but beware of jobs that sound too good to be true. Do your due diligence and research as much as you can before you sign a contract. You don’t want to be in a new country all alone and realise that the company you signed with now refuses to give you health insurance, or won’t reimburse your flight like they promised.
Chris and I are earning considerably more here than we were as teachers in South Africa, but that doesn’t mean we are happy 100% of the time either. If teaching isn’t something you would want to do back home, you probably won’t want to do it in a foreign country either, no matter how good the pay is. So be careful of being led by a need to be financially independent. I get it, struggling for money is a horrible feeling, but just know that you can be earning well and not fulfilled, so be realistic.
Myth 5: TEFL teachers can act without consequences
My goodness this is a big one. When you commit to teaching in a foreign country, you agree to a great deal of things. The first thing is that you will need to agree to all of the laws of that country, and specifically the laws regarding your visa. In Korea, the E2 language teacher visa is pretty specific. You cannot earn money from any other revenue source while you’re on the visa.
No side hustles, no private tutoring, no freelancing. This is a pretty restrictive rule, and is one of the reasons that Chris and I are moving on to another country after this contract. We want to start earning money from our blog and have the freedom to diversify our income streams. Do your research before you commit to a country and a contract!
My favourite horrible blogger, in his terrible blog post, boasted about spending 18 months in Korea and having started to make enough money from his blog to fund full-time travel while still working in Korea. This is illegal. He goes on to encourage his readers to do the same. This is unethical.
Guys, it may seem like such a small thing, and you may justify it by saying that you have enough time for other activities, but at the end of the day you are breaking the law. Don’t be that guy that breaks laws in his own life but is quick to complain about crime and corruption. Keep your hypocritical ass home and leave the rest of us TEFL teachers to try to be law-abiding citizens.
Myth 6: Teaching English is just about teaching English
I want to get a bit more reflective here, in the hopes that you will join me down the rabbit hole. The TEFL industry has a lot of stuff to unpack, that isn’t necessarily on the promotional leaflet. If you are going to go anywhere, but especially if you are going to less affluent countries, you need to do some internal work first.
The new Learning Service book talks about this at length, but I want to give you some reflection questions to start with:
- Why do you want to be a TEFL teacher?
- How do you feel about English putting other indigenous languages at risk of disappearing?
- Why is English an important skill for non-native speakers to learn?
- Are you equipped and qualified to be teaching a language?
- Are you interested in ‘saving’ students from poverty by teaching English and Western culture?
- Are you going to teach, or are you also willing to learn?
- Do you consider Western culture to be better or more civilized than others?
- Are you willing to be treated like a foreigner?
- Are you willing to be uncomfortable?
I think these are important questions to ask, because native English speakers, especially White native English speakers, are used to being the centre of the linguistic world. We speak what we are taught is the only international language, and there are very few times when we will not be understood and made comfortable. It is easy to view Western culture as the pinnacle of the ‘developed’ world, and to want that culture for everyone else too. Jacob Mikanowski writes a great article about exactly this trend that I really suggest you take the time to read.
These are things we as TEFL teachers, and as decent human beings, need to fight against. Educate yourself on the damage English is doing to smaller languages, and how the West has infiltrated the entire world with our beauty standards, our education systems, and our culture. As you think about joining the ranks of TEFL teachers across the globe, you need to confront these things, and understand your part in them. Just because you didn’t know, doesn’t mean you won’t do harm.
If you’ve made it all the way here, maybe being a TEFL teacher is right for you after all! Here’s my guide to everything you need to know about teaching in Korea. I sincerely hope that you find what you are looking for and excel in your chosen path, whatever it is. Let’s work hard to be better, more reflective people, so that we can impact younger generations to be decent human beings as well.
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