TEFL If You Don’t Fit The Stereotype

Fluent English Speaking Silurian Seeks TEFL Job

When new teachers go looking for their first job Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), they are sometimes unpleasantly surprised to find out that some schools have an “ideal” candidate in mind – one who fits a certain stereotype. A lot of schools base their marketing to students around photos of teachers who are young, blond, blue-eyed and thin. The impression is given that they are also native speakers of English, and probably heterosexual.

That said, rest assured that TEFL teachers are a very diverse bunch. The trick is getting a school to hire you if you don’t fit the mold.  And yes, discrimination in hiring is legal in many countries. Fortunately it is out in the open rather than hidden (like in many of our home countries). So, here are some tips for strategies to get around the stereotype and to get your dream job abroad.

Realize that in the world there are not enough native-speaking EFL teachers to meet demand and even schools who expect all English speakers to be picture-perfect blonde bombshells will often find themselves pleased to hire those of us who don’t fit the stereotype.

What if my 20s are long gone?

First of all, remember age is nothing but a number and don’t let it block your aspirations. I started working in Korea the day before I turned 42. At the time I had graying hair and a white beard, but I still got hired. Now, I’m 60 and have thinning white hair (still have a white beard!) and I still wouldn’t have too much trouble finding a good job. I have worked with teachers who are over 60 years old, and have met a TEFL teacher who was more than 70 and still teaching.  Don’t get me wrong.  I would probably need to use a different and more focused job-search strategy than a younger person, but find a job – I could.

One good thing about being a more “mature” teacher is that we aren’t usually asked to teach kindergarten. Plus, our broad experiences will open doors that younger teachers won’t have.

What if I don’t look “white?”

Countries are starting to realize that the countries that use English as a first language, even Britain, the USA and Australia themselves, are nations of immigrants and that you can’t judge a native speaker by the color of their skin.

When I was last working in Korea in 2005, I met Asian-Canadians, Hispanics, black Americans, Chinese Canadians…and many more TEFL teachers who are racial or ethnic minorities in their home countries and at variance with the stereotype for which schools often – initially – search.

If this is your case, then you should be prepared that it might take you a smidgen longer to find the right employer overseas. But then, you wouldn’t want to work for the kind of small-minded boss who might discriminate against you anyway. Keep looking and carefully considering employers and you’ll find a good one.

What about LGBT teachers?

You may find that some foreign cultures are more reserved about sexuality than we are in the West, to the point that gay or lesbian people of that country hide their preferences and avoid discussing it. TEFL teachers who are LGBT may find they need to exercise discretion while working overseas, depending on which country they choose to teach in.

I recommend researching in on-line discussion forums before going overseas. Find out what country you will be most comfortable in. However, because this issue rarely comes up in a job interview, it shouldn’t be a point for or against you in securing your dream TEFL job abroad.

What if you speak English fluently, but don’t have a passport from an English-speaking country?

Know in advance that some countries’ governments have a list of nations from which you must hold a passport in order to legally obtain a teaching visa. South Korea and Indonesia both have such a list, for example. In other countries that don’t have this requirement, you may still come across the belief that it is impossible to be fluent in English unless you were born in an English-speaking country.  Even native speakers with a passport from a “preferred country” can expect a pointed question or two if they were born overseas (nomad parents leading the way?!).   This is because your country of birth is noted on your passport.

So, if you are indeed fluent, then one strategy is to go to the country in which you wish to teach and apply for jobs in person. In this way, you’ll be able to prove that you are a viable candidate for the job. You’ll also find that there are some countries that are very accepting of non-native speakers.

By the way, older teachers also benefit from this direct approach.  Tthat way the school can get a measure of your energy and your personality and won’t stereotype you as a tired old grump (especially males).

I feel that the Number One job-getting strategy is that you be friendly and seem easy to get along with. And of course, if you are meeting the interviewer face to face you’ll be set to show off these characteristics.

OK, then?

I hope that after reading this post you’ll realize that anything you may have been concerned about before really shouldn’t be too big of a worry for you.

TED’s Tips™ #1: You can do it! Don’t let anything get in the way of your dream to teach overseas.

I find that life sometimes just puts a barrier in front of you to see how badly you really want to reach your goals. Persist, persist, persist.

TED’s Tips™ #2: A face-to-face interview helps a lot.

Especially in Asia, where the idea of “getting along with people” and being friendly are all-important to bosses, it can help you out to apply for jobs and go to interviews in person rather than on-line.

Check out this great blog: The Black ESL Teacher written by someone who knows how to make it work.

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.