What you need to know before teaching English abroad

Teaching English abroad has become an increasingly popular way for college graduates to explore a new country, earn a living wage and gain valuable hands-on work experience. But those who’ve actually completed their training take away so much more from the experience than they anticipated.

According to Amber Jade Parker, alumna and program advisor at TEFL Heaven, it’s a “developmental experience that, if done right, will enable you to gain new skills, create tons of new friendships with people all over the world, increase your independence, increase your cultural awareness, create a great personal story, leave a legacy for generations and ultimately help you become the best version of yourself.”

The best part? There are no signs of this type of vocation slowing down, with over 1.5 billion English learners of every age worldwide continuously in search of an English education, according to International TEFL Academy.

If it sounds too good to be true, well, let’s get back down to Earth. Like any job, it requires plenty of training, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and a certificate allowing you to teach English in a foreign country, which you can complete online through a college’s faculty of education. The more hours you put into your course training, the more opportunities you unlock, like the ability to teach in certain countries, as well as increased job security or assistance with accommodations.

There are slight nuances among the accreditations you can choose from, according to Go Abroad: TEFL refers to teaching English as a foreign language in countries where English is not the dominant language; TESL refers to teaching English as a second language, where students live in a predominantly English-speaking country, but who themselves speak another language; and TESOL refers to teaching English to speakers of another language, which offers some flexibility in the types of courses you can teach. The latter accreditation has only been introduced recently and is thus not as widely recognized.

Ready to take the leap? Here’s what else you need to know about teaching English abroad.

Choose a country

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching English abroad is that you’re not bound to any one country, culture or classroom. But the freedom to choose can be overwhelming.

Parker said one of their mandates is to walk you through the decision process. “Our advice is to first start by doing research into the locations you’re interested in,” said Parker, whose parents had their honeymoon in Thailand, which inspired her to teach English there. “You’re only ever a Google or YouTube search away from great information that will help you get an initial feel for the culture of the locations you’re interested in.”

Once you’ve figured out the locations you’re interested in, look into the programs available in those areas. Popular and widely accepted accreditation services include Uni-Prep Intstitute, Teaching House (run through the University of Cambridge), and International TEFL Academy.

For a more personalized touch, schedule an initial consultation with a program advisor, or find alumni-led social media groups devoted to giving prospective teachers a window into what it’s like to teach in that given country. There, you can ask questions directly to those who’ve been in your shoes.

Get paperwork squared away

Upon acceptance to the program, you’ll receive a welcome packet outlining the terms of your teaching position, what you need to bring, and how to prepare. “The preparation team will send lots of really helpful information. Don’t ignore it,” said Parker. “Between the program advisers, the prep team and the trainers you will have all the information you’ll ever need if you’re willing to read, listen and take it in.”

Depending on where in the world you’re coming from, traveling to certain countries requires paperwork ahead of time, but working on top of that can complicate matters even further. It’s important you find out exactly how to acquire a visa, where you’re supposed to pick it up and how long it lasts. Every country has its own policy for business and travel visas, so make sure you are covered for the duration of your stay. Make sure your travel insurance is up to date and that your passport is not about to expire.

Part of teaching through an organization means their advisors are also there to assist with flights and accommodations either financially or logistically. Speak to an advisor about living close to campus — should that be what you choose — or have them organize airport transfers for ease of navigation.

Source: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

Learn the culture

There’s only so much you can learn from a welcome packet. Before making your grand entrance into the classroom, entrench yourself deeply in the culture. Get a feel for any customs they practice, and make an effort to adhere to them out of respect to your students and fellow colleagues. Avoid taboo behaviors deemed offensive in that given country. Learn a few basic phrases native to your students so you can better interact with them while you teach.

“Understanding the culture is really important, which is one of the reasons we only do in-country face-to-face training, because you really need that cultural integration period in order to get off to the best start,” said Parker.

Don’t treat it as a vacation

Working in a foreign country can in and of itself feel like a vacation — you’re seeing new sights on your morning commute, meeting new colleagues from around the world and maybe even trying a new cuisine on your lunch break. And while all those factors can certainly make for an enjoyable and enriching experience, it’s crucial that you treat teaching English abroad as what it is: work. Parker said on the plus side, you do get to take little vacations in between teaching — especially when your students go on break — so use those opportunities to let out your adventurous side.

Parker noted that many teachers make the mistake of spending far beyond their means while living in a country with a weaker currency than they’re used to. “Financial planning is a common one. Naturally it takes time to develop that built-in currency converter between your currency back home and the currency of your new location, and the mistake people often make, especially in countries where the cost of living is really low, is assume they can now afford to buy everything. So good budgeting is essential and financial planning is essential,” she said.

Take your time

Parker said many teachers make the mistake of rushing to complete the first (and often cheapest) course they can find so they have documentation to immediately show prospective employers. But teaching English is a lot more involved than a few written exams.

“At the same time, they’re totally oblivious to what’s going to happen when they actually get inside of a classroom with a bunch of students expectantly staring at them,” she said. “The reality is you can’t learn how to become a TEFL teacher, which is a really practical style of teaching, without having learned or been taught in that same style. It’s like learning to drive, passing your theory test and then thinking you’re ready for the road.”

Once you do receive hands-on training, it’s important to be prepared with course material instead of winging your lectures or otherwise coasting through the semester.

“[Take] the process seriously, because if you do, you stand to gain so much from the experience,” said Parker. “We try to educate people so they don’t make this mistake and totally screw up what should have been a life-changing experience, for them and their students. Being a teacher is about leaving a legacy.”