How to Teach English Abroad

Having just this week moved to Turkey to begin a year teaching English, I’ve decided to put together a how-to guide outlining the steps of what is a long, complicated process to make things a little easier for those similarly dreaming of working as an English teacher in a foreign country.

My Story

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Last year, in my home city of Melbourne, Australia, I completed my Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (or CELTA). Having already travelled through Asia and Europe in 2017, living abroad was something I knew I was interested in doing and working as an English teacher was a natural fit.

After receiving my qualification, I headed off travelling again, this time to South America. Spain and Turkey had both resonated with me on my last trip as potential places to live, but I wanted to explore and consider another region before I made my decision. I kept my eyes open for opportunities to teach, both where I was in South America, and online other countries.

As it turned out, I never felt like settling down anywhere long enough in South America to start work. So, after six months of aimless wandering, I returned to Spain. While also looking for jobs locally, I interviewed via Skype for a Turkish position, which I was later offered and accepted.

With the job locked in, I returned home to Australia for two months to finalize preparations before setting to begin my next chapter.

Your Story

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One thing you should take away from my experience is that there are many different pathways to teaching English abroad. How you navigate the different choices will depend on a number of factors, including:

  • Where, when, and for how long you want to teach.
  • How much money you want to spend on training and earn while working.
  • How important a longer-term career in education (or travel) is to you.
  • How much time and emotional effort you are prepared to put into what can be a stressful, frustrating and disappointing process.

Of course, you don’t have to know all of this in order to get started, but answering the following basic question may help you clarify your position:

Are you looking for:

A)  A means to enjoy a one-off, short-term experience living abroad?

or

B)  A pathway into a fulfilling education career and/or living and working internationally in the long-term?

Generally speaking, answering (A) might lead you to make cheaper, quicker, easier choices regarding qualifications and work, while (B) might favour investing in a course and job that will be more beneficial in the long run.

Training

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There is a huge variety of TEFL courses you can take.

It’s possible to find opportunities to teach English on a volunteer basis without any prior training or experience. Many countries also offer placements or internship-style programs – either privately or through the government – that provide training and subsequent placement as an English teacher.

In Spain, for example, you can apply to become a Language Assistant, working in schools after completing an online English Teaching course. There is a monthly stipend attached to this program, as well as the possibility of a homestay. There can be up-front costs attached to this as well, however, so make sure you’re not paying someone $1000 extra for something you could do yourself for nothing.

To apply for independent paid work, however, you will need some kind of TEFL qualification. Depending on your preference and the timing of your travels, you can study in your home country before you depart, or later in your destination country.

Studying at home means that you can also lock down a job offer before you depart (which may be a visa requirement) and have the certainty of knowing what to expect when you can arrive.

Studying at a school in-country can mean you get a cohort of friends all in the same boat, local contacts to help you find work, and more flexibility generally.

Then there is the question of what qualification to get. TEFL education ranges from short, online-only courses that cost a few hundred dollars all the way through to globally recognized qualifications like the CELTA, which in Australia costs a few thousand dollars.

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Speaking generally, the cheaper the course, the more limited your opportunities for work will be, especially in more developed or attractive markets. Educational requirements for jobs can range from nothing but native-level English, any bachelor’s degree, any TEFL qualification, a CELTA or equivalent qualification, or a combination of these. A CELTA qualification or equivalent will make you a more attractive candidate for well-paying positions in government schools or reputable private academies.

Still, it’s definitely possible to find work with a cheaper qualification. More importantly, perhaps, is how the course actually prepares you to teach. Passing a few online quizzes after a semester of dry, self-managed theoretical study is not going to leave you feeling confident and well-equipped when parachuting into the potentially stressful environment of a foreign classroom – especially if you don’t have much experience public speaking or teaching.

The CELTA, by contrast, is a classroom-based program, with a heavy focus on practical teaching in front of real students. The skill set it provides is genuinely useful, and the extra investment in your own training means that you will be of real service to hardworking students who will be relying on you for the concrete improvements in their own lives that English proficiency confers.

Finding Work

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As with training – and if the visa requirements allow it – it’s possible to begin your search for a job the old-fashioned way after you’ve already arrived in a country and decided for sure that it’s the place for you.

But even if you do want to wing it, you’ll still want to look at country-specific industry websites and scan English teacher job boards to get an idea of the specific environment you’ll be heading into. Having a look on job boards for your countries of interest is also a good way to figure out what kind of teaching qualification you may need.

Crucially, English-teaching is a seasonal occupation in many jurisdictions and hiring only occurs at certain times of the year. This is less true of private academies offering short courses all year-round but is still an important detail to keep in mind when planning – particularly in conjunction with the dates you apply for in your visa and the processing time that can take.

Job boards often list rates of pay, so if you are hoping to save money, it’s worth looking into the economic situations of the countries you are considering. Japan, South Korea and China are all hot markets right now, and offer much higher salaries than Turkey, for example, which is currently experiencing an economic crisis. Of course, the cost of living varies substantially as well (another thing worth researching).

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The final thing to consider when it comes to employers is exploitation. Don’t naively assume that workplace conditions and culture are the same everywhere as they are in Australia. Understand, too, that, living in a foreign country without citizenship or language proficiency, you are both vulnerable to and practically speaking unable to access defence against exploitation.

Misleading conditions, confiscation of your passport (never allow this to occur) and withholding of pay are all forms of exploitation that can occur in the industry. Unscrupulous employers assume that, having already invested so much in the visa and flight over there, you will be far less likely to protest if things are not as you had hoped them to be.

Signs of a good employer are that they:

  1. Are recommended by a reputable third-party agency or placement program.
  2. Can provide you with full contracts (both originals and translated)
  3. Organize skype contact before-hand (interviews and demo-lessons)
  4. Have a professional, credible website or are well-regarded on other directories.
  5. Are happy to put you in contact with a current or former (ideally foreign) teacher at the school who can answer your questions.

Be aware, as well, that, having also invested time and energy into hiring you, employers can also make concessions if you demand them, or clarify miscommunications which do occur. The last line of defence that you must always maintain is your willingness to simply pick up and leave at a moment’s notice if things are not right.

Visas

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For many countries, applying for visas is a pain. There’s no way around it. Accept the fact that you will be sitting in front of the computer pouring over arcane forms with ridiculous requirements – not always in your own language.

Generally speaking, the wealthier and more developed a country is, the more stringent their visa process will be. Key things to keep in mind are that work and long-stay visas can (but don’t always) require:

  • An employer-sponsor (ie. An already secured job offer)
  • Bank statements proving a minimum level of funds (EU countries especially)
  • A police, background and/or medical check (which can take a long time to secure)
  • Basic language skills (rarely)
  • An application and processing fee – these can sometimes range into the thousands of dollars and are not always easily visible on documentation

Processing times can vary hugely – meaning that, amongst all the other variables, timing the approval and receipt of your visa alongside your departure to begin work can be a bit of a logistical nightmare.

Many countries – including Spain and Turkey – require you to apply for (or at least receive) work visas at their consulate in your home country. Meaning that if you are planning, like me, to simply set off and try and work it out along the way, you may need to plan a stop back home to finalize your preparations.

There are third-party websites that provide information about applying for visas, but the best place to start is to email the destination country’s consulate in your area for information. They may email you the required forms directly, or send you to a section of their website, or their government website for employment or immigration – which can be handy if none of it’s in English.

It’s certainly worth drawing up a timeline of key-dates to prevent you from forgetting, mismanaging or double-booking something that – six months out from your departure – may seem like a minor administrative non-issue but could actually be the determiner of success or failure.

I had my fair share of moments staring at a missed date on the screen or re-reading a missed requirement on a form and realizing I may have just bungled my dream and was doomed to live out the rest of my days as a janitor. I suppose the cold hand of dread griping at your heart in that moment is one way to get a rush, but it still gives me anxiety to think about so I wouldn’t recommend it. Trust me, when it comes to visas:

Plan meticulously. Triple-check fastidiously.

Useful Links

https://www.gooverseas.com/ – Comprehensive Guide to Courses, Internships and Volunteer Programs

https://www.teachaway.com/ – Jobs and Online Certification

https://www.tefl.com/ – English Teaching Jobs Board

https://www.oxfordseminars.com/esl-schools-directory/ – Worldwide Directory of English Language Schools

http://www.eslcafe.com/ – Dave’s ESL Cafe – a great resource in general for English teachers.

https://rmitenglishworldwide.com/celta – Where I did my CELTA, pricey but worthwhile.

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