Teaching English and Job Security

Is there job security when teaching English abroad?

People often ask me this question and my answer is usually, “Yes, and No.”

To a large extent it depends on your employer and the country in which you decide to work. The English teaching world is not really any different from working in your home country, there are excellent employers and there are shady characters you hope you never work for.

So, just like back home, take your time and select your employer carefully. See Checking your Employer’s Reputation on this blog.

It is up to you to create your “security”.

Easy enough answer, no?

There are many people in this business, and I am one of them, who will tell you that you should always consider yourself a “private contractor”. That you should always think of yourself as working for yourself. Don’t count on any one employer looking out for you or assuring your future. If you do, you will surely be disappointed.

Case in point: My best friend worked for a university in Korea for over ten years, only to find that they had decided to implement a policy which would limit foreigners to THREE years. At first, he was told that they would “grandfather” him into his position.

But the reality was that he had to leave. He had put down roots in the town where the school is and had made himself very comfortable in a good job. He did his best every year for the students and school. Yet, he found himself hustled out the door. Boooooo, bad school!

Year-to-Year Contracts

Year-to-year contracts are the norm in this industry and that should tell you something. Namely, that you should be prepared to hunt down a new job every year (but you won’t really have to). Some jobs, in some countries offer longer contracts. they are not rare but they are not really common either.

Though contracts for teaching English tend to be year to year, lots of people work for many years at all kinds of schools. If you do a decent job, you will usually be renewed.

It’s not all that bad

The good thing about all this is that, as noted in one of the subheadings, you will have to learn to create your own security. You will find a deep sense of satisfaction in building your own employment and financial world that is independent of your employer(s).

Don’t find yourself in the same boat as the people who worked for Enron or Worldcom, CitiBank, Bernand Madoff or even those who relied on defined benefit retirement plans from some of the largest corporations in the world. Take care of your future.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Learn to take care of yourself. It’s not a bad idea, it’s a GREAT idea.

If you intend to spend more than just a year or two abroad or if you surprise yourself and end up spending longer than you thought you would, get moving at educating yourself for long-term financial security.

I bought and paid off several rental properties to help provide for my old age (Yeah! You can do that while teaching English and seeing the world!) I am not rich but I don’t have to worry about my former employer(s) going bankrupt and failing to pay my living expenses.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Find out about medical plans independent of the minimal plans offered by your employers.

While you are young and healthy this may not be too much of an issue, but life can throw surprises and challenges at you at inconvenient times.

Because the cost of medical in many countries is much lower than in Western countries, you may find good quality insurance much less expensive than you had thought.

Carrying your own insurance usually makes it portable, so you are covered even while traveling outside the country in which you are working, which is rarely the case with employer provided insurance. That portability can also mean you are free to change employers and countries when and if you wish and still be covered – even between jobs.

Disclaimer: Sorry, but you know how the world is . . . so here I will say – don’t follow my advice, nothing is my fault if you create problems in your life and please read our legal disclaimer.

Is Teaching English Overseas Appropriate for Me?

Will I be happy and successful working abroad?

This is one question that only you can answer, but I will provide some guidelines and questions here that will help you take a solid look at yourself and come to a good answer.

Life overseas is not for everyone. It is a life full of wonder and new experiences, but along with all that also come some new challenges and difficulties. Sometimes even simple problems easily solved “back home” can br quite difficult to sort out abroad. Just getting a driver’s license in some countries is probably equal to getting a bachelor’s degree.

What are the things to consider?

Do you have a family that you are responsible for? How would they feel about moving overseas and living in a foreign land? Things often don’t work well unless everyone is on the same team.

Do you have a spouse or partner? How would s/he feel about giving up their job? Will she be able to find work overseas? Is she interested in teaching English also?

Do you have children? How will you educate them while overseas? How might they feel about giving up their friends? Educating children while abroad can be a very expensive proposition. International schools charge huge fees for their (usually) corporate-sponsored families. School fees can easily exceed what the ordinary English teacher earns each month.

Do you have debts that must be paid while you are overseas? If so, choose your country carefully. In some counties it is easy to save US$1000 a month, in others you can live well on the local economy, but it will be difficult to save more than for a ticket “home” once a year.

Are there special medical issues for you or your family that must be considered? This is sometimes an easier issue to deal with abroad. Medicines and medical care in some countries can easily be only ten percent of what you might pay in a Western country. But, some countries won’t have the latest in cutting edge medical care and drugs. If you have chronic or complex medical issues, check with your physician first and double check what is available where you intend to go.

Do you have the financial reserves to return to your home country and re-establish yourself if things don’t work out? It is good to have a little emergency cushion, just in case.

Have you ever taught before – do you have any reason to believe that you might enjoy teaching English? Teaching is a “helping” profession, do you enjoy working with people?

Have you ever traveled or lived overseas before? Did you enjoy it? This isn’t a “have to” but it does help you know. I went to Africa at age 37 only having been across the border to Mexico for a few days. Wow! What a transition. But it worked out okay – for me. It might not for everyone.

Would you find the daily problems of living and working overseas frustrating – or a refreshing challenge? Life’s daily frustrations don’t go away just because you are living in another country.

This list is only a beginning – as individual as each person is – so are the questions that need to be answered in making this decision.

What qualities are needed to succeed?

My observation has been that people who succeed in TEFL overseas have the following characteristics and knowledge:

They have reasonable expectations about their new occupation and what it can and cannot provide for them.

They understand that their new country is not like their home country. Solutions to problems that work at home often don’t work overseas.

They realize that problems they had at home will probably also exist overseas.

They know they will have good days and bad days, just like back home.

They know they may experience good bosses, bad bosses, good jobs and bad jobs, just like back home.

They are flexible people who can roll with surprises and “punches” and can bounce back from a bad situation.

They are willing to work under different cultural expectations, willing to follow different cultural work rules.

They are not generally moody or depressed people.

They view their success as a personal challenge.

They spent a considerable amount of time researching their move, before they moved.

TED’s Tips™ #1: While it is useful to seek other’s opinions on these issues, listen to your heart. Is this something you really want to do? I had dreamed of living abroad for years and years before I finally made the move. It was in my heart to do it. If it had not been, I would not have survived those two years in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

TED’s Tips™ #2: This doesn’t have to be a decision forever. If you find you hate it, you are still free to return home. Few things in life are totally irreversible.

Your First Job Abroad

Accepting that First Job Teaching English Abroad

What to ask – How to decide

Getting that first serious job offer is a very exciting thing! But, after you dance around a few moments – stop and catch your breath and start to think about things you must know before making a final decision.

You got the offer, but should you accept it? This section is designed to help you know if you should take that job or not.

Don’t be shy, there are important things to know before moving yourself halfway across the world (if you are to be hired directly from abroad). But, don’t ask all the following questions in one shot. You’ll scare your potential employer. Spread them out a bit.

Some important questions to ask:

What is expected of me on a daily basis?

How many classes a day will I be expected to teach?

How long is each class? Is each class considered “one hour” even if it is only 40 or 50 minutes long? Some schools will pay you for a full teaching hour even if the class is only scheduled for 40-50 minutes. Others will pay you only 5/6th of your hourly wages for a 50 minute class. This often depends more on the country than the individual school.

Will I be expected to stay at the school even when I don’t have classes? Will I have “Office Hours” that I need to keep?

Will I have responsibilities other than teaching? Will I be paid for that time? Like cleaning your classroom or the school, recruiting students, evaluating students for placement, handing out flyers for the school, etc.

Does the job provide housing? Is it furnished? What does “furnished” include? How are the bills paid and who pays them? How far is the accommodation from the school? Is it easy to get to work from there? Do I have to pay a deposit for my housing? How big is it? Will I have to share my accommodation? Are there any required monthly fees I must pay for?

Who is my boss? To whom do I report? Who evaluates me? Who decides if I am doing a good job or not and what criteria is used to decide if I am successful?

How much sick and vacation time do I get? Who decides when I can use it? Can I use my vacation time all at one time? Does it accrue monthly or can I only use it at the end of my contract?

Is there a bonus or gratuity payment at the end of my contract? How much is it? How is it determined? Bonus payments are standard and required by law in many countries but employers sometimes pretend that it is something nice they are doing just for you . . .

What teaching resources does the school provide? Teacher’s manuals? Photocopy machine? Who regulates its use? OHP? Internet? Great for lesson plans and finding activities., Computer? Printer? Paper? Chalk/Markers? Really! Some schools don’t provide even the basics or make it so difficult to access them that you will go ahead and buy them yourself. Not a super big deal if everything else works fine.

Is there air conditioning and/or heating in the classrooms? This can be important! I still remember asking my very first EFL employer in Korea for a heater for the classroom on a bitterly cold morning and my employer with frosty mist coming from her mouth said, “It’s not cold”! So, I taught with a heavy coat, long johns and mittens . . .

How many students are in a class? How are they placed or evaluated for placement? There is a big difference between 100 people or 5 in a classroom – I’ve taught both. One requires a lot more preparation than the other.

How do we decide if the students are progressing or successful? Does everyone pass or are you supposed to implement a strict grade curving system? A grade curving system usually means you will need a very well organized testing system that is thorough and fair. Language schools tend to just pass everyone.

Will I have a work space available at the school? A desk, an office?

Are there other foreign teachers at the school? Can I talk to them before I make my decision? Red flag the job if they don’t want you talking to existing or previous teachers, but do realize everyone has a different experience abroad – so take any opinions under realistic consideration.

Those basic questions should help you get started.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Find out as much as you can about the job BEFORE you accept it. Once you are on the scene is too late.
Obviously you can’t find out everything and much of what you find out will be filtered either by your employer or by the good or bad attitude of an existing teacher.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Understand that each individual’s experience abroad is unique and individual.
What others hate, you may love. Every school – good or bad – will have past and present teachers who love it and hate it. Your job is to interpret what they say and translate it into something that is meaningful and useful to you. I have certainly worked at schools where some of the teachers hated it and I loved it. Much of this is about an individual’s attitude toward life in general and you will need to filter out the attitude to get to the specifics of how a school operates.

Checking your Potential TEFL Employer’s Reputation

How do I check the reputation of a TEFL school employer?

This post is for Tricia – who asked the question in the “Request a Topic” section – I hope it helps answer her questions.

It’s important to check the reputation of your employer. You can ask directly on the Internet’s discussion boards, but there are at least two problems with that approach. First is that people with bad experiences tend to dominate the discussion boards.

Good for them, they want to warn you off of something that didn’t work for them. But there is an imbalance on the discussion forums – the happy people are out living their lives and enjoying themselves. The unhappy people are busy trying to burn a former employer.

This is not to say that there are not employers who should be “burned” – but understand the imbalance and what is going on with discussion boards.

Second, the Internet’s forums can’t know every school in the world.

So, bottom line, your best bet is to talk to the other foreign teachers at the school where you intend to work.

Ask! Be sure to ask more than one teacher at that school. Be aware that everyone has a different and very personal experience abroad and while one person loves the job and employer, others may not. Ask more than one person. Ask specifically what they like or don’t like about the employer. Interpret what they say as to what might bother – or not bother – you.

Wages and Salary: Some employers, in some countries, are well known for not paying on time, or paying less than was originally agreed to. Be sure to check this issue with the current employees. A very good friend of mine once worked for a school with these problems, but stayed for several years knowing – from talking to others and over time seeing it – that the employer always made good on amounts owing – at the end of the contract.

Problem? Yes, but she loved the job and the students, so she tolerated it knowing the money due was coming. And she was paid in full at the end of her employment there. It worked out just fine. And she saved an additional bundle courtesy of the employer holding back some of the funds.

Is a contract worth the paper it is written on?

In some parts of the world, particularly Asia, contracts are looked at as “flexible” instruments – quite a different understanding from how we view them in the West. Once again, ask the current employees if the contract is followed – and if not, why and how it is violated.

These issues should not always be the kiss of death for a potential job. Some small issues are not so important in the big picture if you really like a job, its location and what you will be doing and are getting paid.

TED’s Tips™ #1: My personal opinion is that too many people worry too much about “scams” and being hustled.

Yes, there are problems out here, but worrying about a “boogie man” behind every tree isn’t the solution either. People who worry too much, who are too suspicious NEVER leave home, never leave the confines of their safe, soft and boring worlds to get out and experience the bigger world out here.

I sometimes think that people who are overly concerned are really just looking for a reason to NOT go. That’s okay, they probably shouldn’t go as the real world out here is not the safe, cuddly and nurturing world they are looking for. It is a fantastic place – but by no means perfect.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Risk = Reward

Yeah, all this requires a leap of faith and much of your NEW experience will require that you kind of hold your breath and just hope it works out. And – 98% of the time it will. I can’t tell you the number of times I have signed blank contracts, forms written in a language I could not yet understand, even contracts that were different from my original one to “keep the authorities happy”.

I am NOT suggesting just signing anything that comes your way – I am suggesting that things often take a direction that we from the Western world are not familiar with and becoming outraged or going ballistic, leads to nowhere. Yes, you might end up at home and safe – but is that what you really wanted?

Know that probably 95% of schools pay on time, treat their employees fairly and follow the contracts that they have signed. You just don’t hear about them. Their happy employees are out enjoying their new world.

Reasonable Expectations

As I have been a website hobbyist for years, people regularly contact me with questions about teaching English abroad.

The reason this section is titled “Reasonable Expectations” is because those same people often ask very unrealistic questions about working abroad. It is as if all practical reasoning as been abandoned.

Statements and questions I have been asked include:

“Of course the school will plan long paid vacations as they will want me to travel around their country.”

“I don’t need to wear a suit and tie, do I?” this from someone who will be teaching at a university.

“How will I negotiate my ‘relocation package’?” from someone headed to a country that does not pay airfare, accommodation or other “relocation” costs.

“Should I ask the students any questions?” from someone who will be teaching Conversational English.

“I won’t need any training as we will just chat, right?”

So . . . it is time to set the record STRAIGHT. Teaching English abroad is not about YOU. It is about a school that has students that need your help.

Sorry to say, they don’t plan long paid vacations for you so you can “tour” their country. Nor do they tend to offer “relocation packages” unless you have a graduate degree and lots of experience.

And, sadly, YES, they might like you to wear a suit and tie.

And . . . students need to talk in your class – they will not be satisfied to just listen to you jabber about yourself.

Most students pay what is for them a large amount of money to have a seat in your class. And they will have some expectations about what you are to provide.

WHY would you suspend all the knowledge you have about how to seek work and how to succeed at a new job, just because you are heading abroad?

I would recommend that you still dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Some people in some countries will come to work in ragged jeans and a t-shirt. Does that mean you should? No!

If your host country counter-parts are wearing a suit and tie, you should too (common for university jobs). If they are doing the same job you are, dress as they do, not as your fellow foreign teachers do.

About the, “Should I ask the students any questions?” issue – please know that students need to talk – to practice talking and to get more experience with it. Are you really so interesting that people would pay to sit in a class and listen to you talk about yourself? Sorry to tell you, but probably not. Actual talking experience is exactly how students learn to talk. A bit like learning to ride a bicycle, you need to get on it and RIDE, not just talk about it.

What I am suggesting is that you learn more about teaching English. TEFL eBooks is a good resource. And that you pursue your new career with the same diligence and attitude that you would a new career “back home”.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Dress for Success.
This is YOUR career – don’t dress and groom as other foreigners do. Dress as your local counterparts dress or even one notch up from there.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Arrive prepared to TEACH.
The days of “chatting up” a class are LONG gone. Arrive on the job – ready to teach – ready to impart new skills for your students. Learn how to teach BEFORE you arrive. It’s not rocket science and just a bit of preparation will make you a much better teacher.