Want to explore new places and challenge yourself too? We reveal how teaching English as a foreign language can help to fund your next adventure...
Two dozen pairs of little eyes stared up at me as a queasy terror pooled in the pit of my stomach.
“Hello!” I said, waving at the stupefied toddlers. Then the screaming started.
The poor kids, who had never seen a foreigner before, were terrified: who was this giant babbling gobbledegook at them? What was she doing here? The short answer is: I was their new English teacher.
There’s a perception that teaching English is just for gap year students and graduates looking to boost their CVs and earn a bit of money. But that’s not the whole story. Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is becoming an increasingly popular option for a career-break – or even a full-scale career or lifestyle change. The reasons for turning to TEFL are as different as the destinations you can end up in. You may want to use it as a way to earn money while travelling; you may have always wanted to try teaching; it might be time for a new start; or TEFL’s appeal could lie in the chance to move abroad.
Your experience will depend on several factors. The most obvious are what country you decide to work in and how confident you feel about teaching. But you’ll also need to think about what age and level of students you want to teach, the type of institution you want to work at and the level of support you’d like in the classroom.
As exciting as jetting off to live and work in Cambodia or Costa Rica sounds, remember that teaching English is a job, not a jolly. You might be teaching in the evenings, at the weekend, on odd days or at unsociable times, in the middle of nowhere. Your classes might be huge and under-resourced; your assistants might be disinterested; the school’s standard disciplinary system might shock you; your kindergartners might toddle off to have a wee in a bucket in the corner of the classroom. Every day can bring a new challenge – that’s what makes it exciting.
Whatever your motivation, and wherever you go, the two most important things you need are enthusiasm and fluency in English. The next step is to get a qualification.
If you want to dip your toe in the waters of teaching before committing to a TEFL course or job, consider joining a volunteer project, many of which include an element of informal English teaching, even if that’s not the main focus of the project. As an example, planmygapyear.co.uk (winners of the ‘Volunteering’ category in the Thailand Green Awards 2012) organises a range of responsible and ethically run projects, including Teaching Assistant programs, in 18 countries; these can last from a fortnight to three months or longer.
For many volunteers, the most in-demand skill they can bring to a project is their ability to speak English. Philip Russell, co-founder of planmygapyear.co.uk, explains, “The projects we support could never afford to employ Western English teachers. And the older the volunteer, the better – as they’re more mature they can get a lot out of it.”
When you’re ready to get qualified, the main thing is to do your research – there’s no single governing body for TEFL. “You need to make sure a provider is accredited,” explains Helen Hargreave, from TEFL training provider www.onlinetefl.com. “Generally speaking, the longer a TEFL provider has been going, the better: you know their tutors are good, they’ve got a good support base, links to schools and that – within the TEFL community – people will recognise your course.”
In the UK, the three main qualifications you can take are TEFL, CELTA (accredited by Cambridge University) and Trinity CertTESOL (see below). The second two are level 5 qualifications, the equivalent of a teaching degree, but you won’t necessarily need to attain this level to get started.
The industry standard for getting a job teaching abroad is about 120 hours study time. However, this can vary – especially if you have previous practical experience. You don’t need a degree either, although your options will be mud more limited; when jobs ask for one, it's usually in order to obtain the right working visa.
If you want to start earning but don’t want to go it alone, consider an internship. The pros of this approach are: you’re only tied to a short contract (four-six months); your placement, accommodation and paperwork are sorted out for you; and there’s a dedicated support network in-country plus plenty of other interns to share experiences with. The downsides?
Internships can be expensive, you don’t have a choice of placement (city or students) and your ‘living allowance’ will be much less than what a teacher employed directly by the school could earn.
If you want to fully take the plunge, start checking online job boards to contact schools and their recruitment agencies directly (see below). This way you can choose the institution that you work for, and have a greater say in the ages and levels of pupils you teach. Other perks include getting the highest wages possible and often reimbursement for your flights.
Note, you will be committed for at least one academic year, and there may be financial penalties for breaking your contract early. You’ll also bear the burdens of handling the bureaucracy and negotiating with the school – often at a distance and possibly with a language barrier.
Heading back to the classroom might seem daunting, but (pardon the pun), teaching is a truly educational experience. Whether you see it as a way to broaden your travel experiences, a chance to challenge yourself, or the start of a new career, get into TEFL and you’ll find what’s true of travel is true of teaching: you never stop learning.
If you're hoping to find work while in-country, time your arrival to match peak hiring times – ie. the start of the academic year or the second term/semester.
Graduate adventure:Xenobe Purvis, Volunteer teacher, Vanuatu
“The remoteness of the country appealed to me. I taught the entire Year 4 and 5 syllabus – everything from English and maths to things like ‘trees’, ‘the sea’ and ‘goats’. My sister was teaching in Japan at the same time and we set up a pen-pal scheme between our students. That went down very well – the children had never received post and were thrilled at the letters, photos and origami they received!”
Top teaching tip?
“Go with an open mind – and lots of games up your sleeve.”
New start: Hayley Barr, Intern, China
“I decided to teach English after my divorce and my first holiday abroad alone. At first it was just to earn money to travel, but now I feel like a real teacher. When I arrived at my school, I had to do a demo class in front of my boss and it was dreadful! He told me I would soon learn if I wanted to – and I did learn.”
The most rewarding thing about teaching English abroad?
“Having a close relationship with my students – many I now consider my friends.”
Career change: Briona Cable, Independent CELTA graduate
“I worked as a graphic designer for over ten years but I wanted to get more out of life; I wanted to see more of the world, and to live and work in different countries. Two months after completing my CELTA, I found myself in Vietnam having been tempted by a job with one of the big-name franchises in the TEFL world (International House). I used my experience there to secure a job with a school in Portugal, then used IH’s internal transfer system to move to Poland.”
The most rewarding thing about teaching English abroad?
“Being able to change people’s perception of language learning. Adult students in particular have often had very negative past learning experiences. There’s nothing more satisfying than having self-professed haters of English tell you they enjoyed a lesson.”
Wanderlust contributor Clare Wilson spent six months teaching English in Hevei Province, China. Follow her adventures on Twitter: @clarewilson86