How Important is How You Look in TEFL?

Dressing the Part

TEFL Newbies often ask me how important it is that they dress up for their teaching jobs.

When I hear this question, I know the asker has forgotten the Number One Rule: Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) might be fun, but it is still a job. It is an industry. It is not a get-out-of-dressing-up-free card. You do not pass “Go!” or collect $200. In fact, if your appearance is sloppy, you may not be collecting any wages at all.

And so, as with any job you would have where you deal with people, yes, your appearance is important.

But I’ve got my own style!

Abroad, I tend to find that teachers hold a more highly regarded social position than they might in the West. Because of this, schools (read: your employers) may have a strong, definite opinion about how they would like their teachers to dress and groom themselves.

Now, many Westerners have grown up aspiring to achieve that “rebel billionaire” cool factor. We also have nice sayings about “not judging the book by the cover,” meaning that dress and overall appearance don’t measure our characters, personalities or even professionalism.  But, if you’re going overseas to work, you should realize that in other cultures appearances are very important.

Korean Couture

To illustrate the importance of how you look to foreign employers, consider this common Korean saying:

“The first impression is everything.”

To Koreans, by and large, appearances are critical. But don’t think that this is the world’s only example of deep-rooted cultural belief that “the clothes make the man.”  When I lived in Africa, I’d sometimes see men wearing spiffy three-piece suits step out of their small mud huts!  Women in beautiful cocktail dresses and high heels too.

I think it’s particularly interesting to note that the Korean saying isn’t just that the first impression is “important.”  No. It is “everything.”

So, open the job market for yourself by dressing professionally. It’s not difficult to do this during working hours and it will definitely enhance your opportunities.

When you go abroad to live you will often realize that your ideals, however cherished, are not always the same as your host country’s. So, play along and wear the slacks, the tie, the nylons, the heels. This is the gateway to more and interesting things. If it helps, look at the dressing up as playing a culture “game” instead of just being a chore.

But what if I’ve got a tattoo?

It’s best to keep tattoos and other body art covered up by your clothing. There are cultures in which tattoos identify you as belonging to the yakuza, or mafia. Even in Thailand, where many local people wear tattoos, it still isn’t culturally accepted for teachers to have visible ones.

Foreigners, especially foreigners working in a respected job such as a teacher, should anticipate generating a fair amount of interest by the locals in their new country. People—even passers-by on the street—will look at you closely (not always critically), judge you and comment on you. Get comfortable with the idea of being fair game for the gossip mill.

If you’re working in a country like the one described, resist the urge to show off your body art or wear clothes that may put you in a bad light. In the West wearing what you choose may be a matter of principle, but other cultures may not have the same idea and will appreciate you conforming to their ideals. If you are not discreet, you could hurt yourself, and your career.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Play the dressing-up-for-work game. It’s worth it because you’ll get so much more out of your life abroad.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Anywhere in the world, the old rule still stands: Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.

Teaching Internships in China


Author: Ted

Semi-retired EFL teacher/teacher-trainer working and living abroad since 1989 in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.