TEFL for the “Non-Standard” Person

What if I am not young, white, thin, blonde, native-speaking, straight, or ?

The reality is that it is common in this business for some schools to want to hire blond, blue-eyed, young, thin and straight native-speakers. But, you will find a very wide variety of people in this occupation. Schools often have an “ideal” candidate – a stereotype if you will – in mind. And while not nice, this practice is legal in many countries, so we might as well be aware of it and create a strategy to deal with it.

That bland stereotype is often the one language schools try to sell to their customers (students or parents of students) of what they think an American, Aussie or Brit or someone else – looks like. I don’t mean to leave out the Kiwis, South Africans, Irish, Welsh, Scots, Californians or . . .

An even better reality is that there is just not enough native-speaking EFL teachers in the world to meet the demand, and even those racist, lookist, ageist, whatever-ist schools often find themselves very happy (and lucky!) to hire those of us who don’t fit their stereotype.

What if I am over 30, 40 or even 60 years of age?

I started teaching English in Korea at age 41, one month before my 42nd birthday. And, I had grayish hair and a white beard at the time. Right now, at age 58 and with thinning white hair, I still wouldn’t have much trouble finding a good job. I have worked with people over 60 years old and even met a teacher over 70!

Don’t allow your age to limit your goals. Luckily, us older folks aren’t usually asked to teach kindergarten (thank God!). If you are older, your broader life and work experience will often work to your advantage – don’t be afraid to use it.

What if I am not “white”?

Most countries are beginning to realize that the UK, Australia, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa – and other countries that speak English as their first language are nations of immigrants – and not “lily white” countries.

While teaching in Korea in 2005, I saw Chinese-Canadians, Hispanic-Americans, Black-Americans and just about every other kind of “ethnic mix” you might think of.

While it might take you just a bit longer to find the right employer, you really don’t want to work for the narrow-minded employers who would rule you out anyway. Persist and you will find the job you want. There are decent employers out there.

What about gay or lesbian or other “non-straight” people?

Many cultures are bit more reserved than Western countries about sexuality issues. While alternative lifestyles, preferences, etc. certainly exist, they are often hidden and not openly talked about. Many people find they need to exercise some discretion while working overseas. But, this is not always true.

Discussion boards can help you find out the best approach for where you want to go. Generally speaking, it won’t come up, unless you bring it up, so it shouldn’t get in the way of landing or keeping a good English teaching job overseas.

What if I am fluent in English, but not from a “native-speaking” country?

This can be a problem as some countries have a list of countries from which you must have a passport if you wish to legally teach English. Two countries that I am aware of that have such lists, at the current time, are South Korea and Indonesia. In some countries where they don’t have a list, there is often the mis-founded belief that you can’t be fluent in English without being a native of certain countries.

If you are fluent, then the best strategy seems to be to go directly to the country and interview in person, thereby proving on the spot that you have the requisite fluency for the position. Many countries are quite flexible and in my opinion, Thailand is one of the best at accepting non-native speakers as English teachers.

BTW, this direct interview approach also works well for us older teachers. If you directly interview with the school, they can see that you may not meet their stereotype of a cranky and tired old person. This same tack can also help other “non-standard” (whatever that is) people land jobs.

Often the #1 hiring criteria is that someone be friendly and easy to get along with. A personal meeting is almost always the easiest way to prove that characteristic.

Got it?

The whole point of this page is to say that anything about you that you might be concerned about, should not really be a worry. But . . . do ask on the discussion boards about possible difficulties. Generally, you’ll find people very encouraging and you’ll often hear from others just like you.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Don’t let anything get in the way of your dream of a life overseas.
It is out there if you want it. Life often checks to see just how much you want something and won’t give it to you if you don’t persist.

TED’s Tips™ #2: A personal interview often overcomes barriers.
Certainly in Asia where “getting along with people” and being friendly are top criteria for many jobs, it is worth applying and interviewing in person.

A great and fun blog to check out is The Black ESL Teacher.

Please suggest others and I will post them. The blog above makes me think of doing The Old ESL Teacher . . .

Author: Ted

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

33 thoughts on “TEFL for the “Non-Standard” Person”

  1. Your advice is very helpful! I wanna teach English abroad but problem is I’m non-native. Could you pls give a list of countries that also have jobs for non-native speaker? ..cause my second problem is I’m Thai 😛 !!

  2. For Ranya and agSimpson and Alan,
    The best way to deal with discrimination is to apply for jobs IN PERSON – not from a distance. Go there – apply face-to-face. What this does is emphasizes your human-ness and accentuates your fluency in the language – and distracts from those other things that some people think are important but are not.

  3. Hi Ted!

    I just discovered your blog, it’s such an interesting read. Thanks for all the great tips you give. I am about to do a TEFL course next spring in order to prepare myself to live in Korea (where my boyfriend is from). I was hoping to be able to find a teaching job there. However, I am not a native speaker (I’m from The Netherlands) and now that I’ve read that you can only work legally in Korea if you have a native-speaker nationality, I am guessing this would be a big problem for me?

    Like you said, I could just visit schools in person and try to land a job that way, but even if that worked, I would not be able to work legally? When I was last in Korea I spoke to some people who knew non-native speakers working as teachers, so it must be possible somehow, but I don’t want to have an illegal job… Do you have some ideas about the possibilities in Korea for people like myself? Thanks a lot!

  4. Hi Evelien,
    Your best bet is probably to contact a reputable recruiter such as Korvia or Footprints and ask them pointblank if you can legally teach in Korea. But, as with all things immigration in almost all countries – where there is a will there is a way. Larger schools will often know a way around such rules. For instance if you worked for a school that specializes in one type or another of language training – you can sometimes, in some countries, be hired as a “trainer” rather than as a “teacher”. You might do exactly the same job but the immigration requirements would be different.
    This is one reason why the direct apply-in-person approach works better than the apply-from-a-distance approach – the school can see you, know that you are enthusiastic and energetic and fluent – and that will motivate them to find a way to employ you.
    I hope that helps.

  5. Thank you Ted for your quick response!

    I was hoping that by obtaining a TEFL certificate I would have some possibilities despite not being of one of the desired nationalities, but it seems it won’t be so easy to land a legal job in Korea. But you’ve given me some hope that it’s not totally impossible. Thanks for your tip about the recruiters!

    I’ll continue to follow your weblog. Have a good weekend!

  6. I am currently interested in teaching english in South Korea. I am a lesbian and would be travelling to South Korea to teach with my girlfriend. We are concerned about the climate towards lesbians in the area. Does anyone know what the current attitude towards open lesbians is in South Korea? I appreciate any information you can give. Thanks.

  7. Hi Sarah,
    I spent six years in Korea and it is a very conservative and conformist culture. You will need to exercise discretion at work, but if you are living in Seoul or Pusan and hanging out in the university districts, probably no problems. Especially as women in Korea often hold hands with their female friends or even a bit of snuggling or resting one’s head on another’s shoulder is not unusual.
    BUT – to keep your job – I would not raise the issue or allow it to be raised at work.
    And, one caveat is that foreigners are always observed closely and held to a stricter standard, as you are a guest in their country – so I would still be careful.
    Be aware also that foreign teachers gossip a lot and what gets passed along to your employer and how they will react if it does . . . I hope that helps a bit in understanding how it works.
    Regards, Ted

  8. I was heartened by your comments on age. I’m a very young looking 60-year-old American with a degree in English Ed. After teaching for two years in Thailand I’m contemplating a move to Korea, for better teaching conditions and salaries. I plan to retire at 70. HOWEVER, what I’m finding repeated online makes my age look like a immovable roadblock; such as this I copied-and-pasted here:
    “Employment by Age and Size Preference:
    The Korean state government presently has a capped age limit of 45yrs for employment in the present English Program in Korea government state school scheme.
    Because the retirement age is 60 years any person over 60 will not qualify for a work visa.
    Most employers are somewhat reluctant to employ any candidate over 45 years of age, even with good teaching qualifications.”
    So… what say you?!

  9. Hi Jim,
    I’d say don’t apply for a job in the “English Program in Korea government state school scheme”.
    But there are plenty of good Business English jobs in Korea where a bit of gray hair is an advantage. A few schools in Seoul specialize in Business English or in teaching adults – Pagoda is one of them – apply there. Know also though that it might require you to go in PERSON and to do a face-to-face interview. Primarily so that they can see that you are full of energy, eager for and capable of teaching. And some employers also want to know if you are flexible and can handle feedback or criticism or if you are a defensive cranky old fart. Yeah, some of us older guys are! Not me and you though . . .
    Just as a fairly standard rule – I would think that after about age 52 or so, you need to expect to do in-person interviews on the scene. Being hired from abroad does become quite difficult from that point.
    BUT – by age 60, Jim – you already know that life throws some crap at you from time to time and you only need to learn to work around it.

  10. Hi Ted,

    I checked out your website and found a lot of insightful info. Here’s a question for you: I intend to teach (ESL) in Saudi Arabia. Would the Oxford Seminars (60 Hr) Certification work for me?

    Best regards,

  11. Hi Syed,
    If your goal is to work in Saudi Arabia, it might be useful to contact the either a recruiter for Saudi who will know what is required in such a course, or to contact a school or the Ministry of Education. Some places think 60 hours is okay, others want 100 or more hours. For the KSA, I don’t know their requirement. My understanding recently though is that many countries in the Middle East are now requiring TEFL Certifications, even for staff that have been in place for years. Oman, for example, is requesting a minimum 100 hour course, or so I was told by a couple people working there right now.
    I hope that helps. Oxford Seminars, to the best of my knowledge, has a good reputation.

  12. Hi Ted,
    I am 21 years old and currently doing a CELTA course, which, God willing, will be completed in 3 weeks time. I would like to work in Saudi Arabia as I am familiar with the culture (which may be a problem for some people) and perhaps even seek out a career in teaching English but at the same time attain high qualifications. I intend on going to Saudi after completing the one year I have left in my bachelors degree in Business Management from a highly reputable university in London. Perhaps I could teach for 2 years, save enough money, come back to the UK and do a PGCE or DELTA and then an MA in english Language teaching (if there such a thing).
    Your site is really great. Thank you for all your efforts, it really helps those of us who may not have the experience and wisdom in this field as you do yourself. I welcome any advice or suggestions you may have.

  13. Hi Elias,
    It sounds to me like you are on track. Yes, you will find good MATESOL programs around – and they will be far better for your career and skills than a DELTA or even a PGCE (just my opinion!). Good Luck! Ted

  14. There’s nothing more I want to do than travel and teach English abroad and I won’t allow the fact that I’m a lesbian to hold me back from doing it but, obviously, there are some concerns.
    I’ve been interested in teaching in South East Asia in particular – do you know what countries are more gay friendly?

    All the best,

  15. Hi Marlow,
    Thailand is probably one of the most accepting cultures in the region and if you stay in the big cities, you should never have a problem. Do know though, that pretty much all of Asia is more conservative than Western cultures. However, in the big cities – just as in the West – just about anything is okay if you find your niche. In terms of employment, particularly in schools you made need to be relatively discrete, but there is no need for anyone to discuss their most personal details at work. It really is only a Western notion that everyone needs to know everything about you. You should have no trouble at all. Good luck! Ted

  16. Hey Ted,
    I am 27 years old and I am about to start a teaching job in Buyeo. This will be my first time in South Korea and I am very excited about it. I’ve done a bit of research on the city and it appears to be very rural. While I am not thrilled about living in a rural setting, I wouldn’t mind spending a year hiking, scaling mountains, and experiencing the Korean country side. Do you have any experience with rural Korea?

  17. Hi Brandon,
    No where in Korea is very far from a big city. Korea has a VERY efficient and inexpensive bus and train system and I think that no matter where you find yourself located, you will probably not be more than one hour from a city with several million plus people population. So . . . during the week, you are busy working, but on the weekends it will be easy to blast into the big city and meet up with other teachers. I think too that even in a smallish town in Korea (“small” in Korea tends to mean less than one million people) that you will still find a community of teachers – if no where else but in the very school where you will be teaching. I have spent six years in Korea – three of them in a smallish town of about 250,000 people – where there was about 30+ Western English teachers. Even in that small town we have a thriving and vibrant community of FUN!
    Go – enjoy!

  18. Hi Ted,
    I am 58 years old and was laid-off from my job with a computer consulting firm last year. I have an MBA but no formal teaching experience. I spent most of the last year traveling throughout Latin America, learning some Spanish, and recently completed TEFL and teaching Business English courses. I’ve sent my resume to several recruiting firms and private schools in Korea, but have not received a response.

    I’m reasonably well-set financially and can afford to go to countries that pay poorly. But the age thing and my lack of experience seem to be problems. Which countries, in your opinion, are the least concerned about a prospective teacher’s age, yet offer a reasonable number of teaching opportunities? I’m ready to hop on a plane next week and go interview in-person.

  19. Hi Todd,
    In my opinion, you are taking the right action to solve the age discrimination problem. Your best bet in Asia is probably Thailand and Cambodia. Market yourself for Business English, but be open to any position to get your feet on the ground. In Korea, Pagoda some years back specialized in Business English and hired a lot of us older folks. You carry far more “street cred” in the Business English market than a 22-year-old newbie. But you are correct, you need to get some experience to get it rolling. Check this post out as well – here at TEFL Newbie:
    Go get ’em!

  20. Hi Ted,

    Recently I started to seriously consider the option of teaching English abroad to take a break after studying, while still doing an interesting job. I found your blog and it is very interesting and especially this post gives me hope as a non-native speaker!

    I am unsure as to what kind of course I should take, and I was wondering if you could give me some advice or maybe a web site where I could get more info. I am in a tight place for both money and time, so a mainly online course seems like a good option (with around 20 hours of face-to-face training, and 100 hours of online training). However, as I mentioned above, I am not a native speaker (I’m Dutch). On the other hand I do have a BA and MA in Linguistics, and I am currently in a second Master’s degree, also related to language, in the UK. I guess/hope those are reasonable advantages. Do you think, with my qualifications, an online course would be sufficient to land a job in places like South America or Europe? What countries would be more accepting according to you? Also, I read that TEFL certificates are sometimes not recognized abroad, do you know how I can find properly qualified insitutes?

    Thank you!


  21. Hello Tessa
    If you want to teach in Latin America – pretty much any online course will be fine. If you are going to teach in Europe a CELTA will be most helpful, though it is very expensive. In countries that don’t require a TEFL Certification – an online one is fine – from any company. Employers will just be happy that you have some training, rather than none.
    I hope that helps.

  22. Dear Ted,

    Thank you very much for your answer, I have finally decided to go with the online course and it seems to be a good choice for me!


  23. I am thinking of teaching English overseas…TEFL certificate? 60 hour? 120 hour? Earn in country? USA? 60 hour then join Peace Corps? I am 62 years young…still work full time…will someone hire me???

  24. Hi Jeanne,
    Yes, someone WILL hire you! Peace Corps is a grand option. I did it at age 37 and it changed the way I spent the next 22 years of my life. It can do that for you too! For anyone over about 55 (that includes me!), you need to overcome some age discrimination. Read this post on how to do that: http://www.teflnewbie.com/tefl-for-older-folks-advice-for-the-job-search/
    Training? If money is no problem, get a good 100+ hour in-classroom training in the country in which you first intend to teach. They can usually also help place you. If money is a problem – then go with a good online course like TEFL Boot Camp.
    Go get ’em youngster!

  25. Hi Ted,
    This article inspired me. I am Indonesian, and I want to “follow” your advice..:))
    Wish me luck..!!


  26. Hi Ted,
    Could you give me some advice to find an online “reasonable price” english teaching course that you think suitable for me..:)..?
    I m 45, and hv engineering educational background.

  27. Hi Ted,

    You advised me about 5 months ago to try teaching in Thailand. I want to thank you because I’ve been teaching at a Thai university for nearly two months and I’m greatly enjoying my life here.

    Mailing a lot of resumes from a distant country was doing me no good. Once I arrived in Thailand and was able to hand people my resume, it made a huge difference in getting considered for the positions I wanted.

  28. Hello, your post has been very helpful. I am very interesting about Korean culture and their language, that’s why I self study Korean. I want to teach English in Korea, however I am not a native English speaker although I have been living in the UK since my 13th birthday.
    Do you think I can overcome this problem by taking UK citizenship and obtaining an UK passport? Also, would my great interest in Korea outweight the fact that I am not a native English speaker?
    It would be helpful if you would send me an e-mail to sonialiskova@hotmail.com
    Thank you very much

  29. Hello Sonia,
    Fluent non-native speakers of English are welcome as teachers in many countries. However, there are a few which specify that you must hold a certain passport – typically USA, UK, etc. Some places will scrutinize that passport which will indicate the country of yoru birth. So – some discrimination there – but plenty of options still. Thailand and China are both quite open to fluent speakers of English that are not native speakers.
    Good luck!

  30. Hi Ted,

    I have TEFL and teaching Business English certificates, and would like to add a certification for teaching students to prepare for international exams such as TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, etc. I would prefer a classroom rather than online course. Any suggestions?


  31. Hi Todd,
    I am not personallly aware of any in-classroom How to Teach TOEFL type courses. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, I just am not aware of them. There are several good online or distance type program – TEFL Boot Cmap – Oxford Seminars and a few more.

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