If you’re a college graduate, a native English speaker, and more than ready to jam-pack your dusty passport with a smattering of new visa stamps, then Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) might just be the career move for you.
In the last decade of mounting global economic crises and dwindling job markets, the field of TEFL has developed into a teacher’s training and career-advancing paradise. While jobs at the top of the TEFL pyramid can be tough to get, the booming industry is loaded with plenty of entry- and mid-level positions requiring a minimum of experience and credentials.
In fact, the two main criteria for finding your first job are 1) having a 4-year university degree, and 2) being a native speaker of English. After that, your credentials and years of experience generally determine the kinds of jobs you can go for.
I started out in TEFL by taking a job in South Korea. I was 42 years old and looking for a fresh start, a new direction in my life. Some would say I was a loser, and that would have been true. But life is full of broken losers who have the chance to put their lives back together again. No matter what your current problem of situation is, it’s never too late to start over.
So, whether you’re a fresh college grad ready to see the world or a middle-aged burnout looking for a change and a different direction in your life, here’s how you can get started in a new career as an EFL teacher. And remember, if I can do it, so can you!
First things first
Get your resume/CV up to date. Put your education first, followed by your job experience. The most important thing is to show that you have a BA or BS from an accredited college or university. If possible, try to get your first job through a recruiter. The one I used in 2002 was Asia-Pacific Connections, which is still around and recruiting for Korea.
I got lucky enough to meet the owner of apc in person, in Eugene, Oregon, after I responded to his job posting in the free alternative newspaper, Eugene Weekly. With no teaching experience and a spotty CV, it might have been hard to get an interview, much less a job offer, from the recruiters and schools featured on the top website back then, Dave’s ESL Cafe.
Today, hundreds of jobs on dozens of TEFL websites can be found with eager recruiters and solid information about how to find your first job. Since 2002, college and university EFL programs have exploded with EFL training and career options for a new breed of grad looking to travel, party, learn about new cultures, and gain valuable work experience while paying off those pesky student loans.
Do the research
Before you accept a letter of agreement or teaching contract, make sure you know your recruiter is on the up and up. The Internet is filled with TEFL horror stories and blacklists of the best teaching-overseas-intentions gone bad. Ask your potential schools and recruiters for direct emails of teachers currently working at the school. Search blacklists and teacher discussion forums before you sign on the dotted line.
Follow the rules
The main countries where TEFL teachers are needed and hired follow different rules of recruitment. Most good recruiters, however, should take you through the hiring steps, help you get your visa, and pay for your airfare upfront. My first school paid for my flight (one-way), picked me up at the airport (the old Seoul International) and put me into an apartment (3-bedroom shared with two other Americans) on my first night of my arrival.
Learn the ropes
Try not to set your expectation too high for your first gig. Just make sure the job is legit and includes the basics like airfare, housing, a set schedule, and regular salary payments. You’d be surprised at the number of shady schools and recruiters out there just waiting to rip off the next TEFL eager beaver.
Once you get your first job, which in my case turned out to be a private, after-school institute called a hagwon, be patient, hang in there, and take your on-the-job teacher training one day at a time. I had a typical hagwon schedule, teaching children aged 7 to 15 in the afternoons and evenings from 1:30 to 9:30 PM. The kids can be a handful, and at times it can seem like gloried babysitting, but if you focus on having fun and stick to a career plan, believe me, you can make it out alive.
Follow the yellow brick road
With one year of classroom experience under their belts, many EFL teachers move on to their next job. Some, however, choose to stay at their first school for several years or more. At my first school, an SLP Institute, I know two teachers who worked with me in 2002-03 who were still teaching there in 2009! Where you go from your first gig depends on you, where you’d like to live next and what kind of students you want to teach.
I went from Seoul to Hainan, China, where I actually took a pay cut my second year to teaching kids 7-18 near the beach at a private academy in Haikou. During my second year as a budding TEFLer, I gained my first experience working with adults in a business or corporate setting. I also did some classes at a local middle school. As a rule, the more teaching you do, the better you become as a teacher. So no matter what kind of students you have, take advantage of every teaching situation to improve as a lecturer, presenter, and public speaker.
Keep your head up
There are some who pooh-pooh the ESL profession, using sayings like “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.” I say, “To each his own.” For me, becoming and being an ESL teacher has evolved as a freeing and fascinating journey of self discovery and personal job satisfaction. I’m now 50 years old and my main job is teaching university students in China. Next academic year (2010-11), I start a new gig in Xiamen, one of the most beautiful places to live and work in the PRC, teaching journalism and public speaking classes at the top university there.
As I mentioned, my main job now is teaching university students in China. However, with eight years of TEFL experience notched into my noggin, I now earn $20-$35 an hour freelancing as a hotel, corporate, and language school English trainer. Remember my second year in Hainan? That summer, I took a weekend job teaching hotel English at a beautiful beachfront resort in Sanya. Since then, I’ve continued to add valuable teaching experiences to my resume and added some much-need professional training including a 120-hour TESOL certificate course, a 1-week TEFL to adults course, and an IELTS examiner training course with the British Council in Guangzhou.
The more you learn and grow as an EFL teacher, the more you gain in terms of on-the-job earning power and potential. In fact, with the right combination of dynamic personality and EFL know-how, you can eventually write you own ticket on the TEFL trains of tomorrow.