Sign Here, Please: Tips for Understanding your Teaching Contract
[Disclaimer: These are general tips. For more accurate legal advice specific to your situation, consult an attorney.]
It’s the moment you’ve been hoping for. A real job offer for teaching English as a foreign language! From an organization overseas!
Buy the ticket and get on over there, right?
Well, yes, start looking at your flight tickets. But while you do that, also find out about the practicalities of your job. A reputable school or language training institution will be able to offer you a contract before you leave your home country or if you’re already overseas, before you begin teaching.
Contracts around the world are as diverse as the people writing them, but a solid TEFL contract should protect both you and the company you’re going to work for. It should include at least have the following points:
Basic Elements of a TEFL Contract
- Your salary and overtime allowances, including what currency you’ll be paid in
- Your expected hours per week or per month
- Your days off
- The duration of your obligation, including specific start and end dates
- Public holidays: are they paid at a different rate if worked?
- Personal leave and sick days
- Visa information: will the school provide your visa? Or facilitate it if they don’t do everything?
- Additional “perks,” like housing, airfare allowances, local language classes or health insurance
- Ways to end the contract and consequences for breaching the contract (for both sides)
Now that I’ve listed all these components of a good contract, I’m going to tell you something that might seem contradictory at first: Yes, you should have a contract. But, it’s not always the most important thing.
Other Cultures May See Contracts as Guidelines, not Commandments
In the West, we say “someone is as good as his word,” meaning that if you promise one thing but deliver another you’re a no-good, rotten scoundrel who deserves to be flayed by Komodo dragons and forced to watch others eating ice cream while he only gets lukewarm tapioca pudding. But in other cultures, a contract is sometimes seen as a set of guidelines rather than the rules of the game. So, you may find that your actual working conditions are not the same as what is promised in the contract when you arrive. Should you be upset about this? That depends on the situation and if the variances between the contract and reality have any true impact on your quality of life and enjoyment of your new job. If you’re promised one salary and given a different one, then you probably have a right to be upset—unless, of course, they’ve decided to pay you more.
So, I’ve heard new TEFL teachers moan, why do schools even bother giving a contract if they’re going to change everything around? Because most countries require a signed contract before giving foreigners (that’s you) a working visa. Some schools do it because they think they should. Some do it for no reason I can think of.
Other Items You May Have to Sign
That caveat explained, here are some other points you may expect to find in your employment paperwork with a new school. They may or may not be listed in the contract itself—sometimes they’re folded into appendices or other agreements that you’ll have to sign.
- Non-compete agreements. These might state that you can’t work for other schools during your contract, or that you may not share out lesson plans or other branded institution materials.
- Paydays. The when and how of your payment. Will they open a bank account in your name? Will you end up with bricks of cash every month?
- Withholding salary. It’s not uncommon for schools to withhold some of your first salary until you have passed a trial period. If you’re worried about what this will do to your financial stability when you arrive in-country, try to negotiate.
- Expectations. This is a very general category, but some schools and training centers have quite specific things they expect from their teachers (like how many minutes before class you should arrive) and they will list them here.
- Code of Conduct (including dress code if any).
- Required training. If the school is requiring you to do extra training (and its usually a good idea), will they pay you for it?
TED’s Tips™ #1: Go over your contract carefully, but also understand that some cultures regard contracts differently than we do in the West. Just because something is or isn’t in your contract may not mean that its set in stone.