Dressing for Success in TEFL

Appearance is Everything?

People often ask me if appearance is important in TEFL?

They forgot rule #1 – TEFL is a job, an industry. It is not something that was created for English speaking Westerners to go on a lark for a year or two.

Of course appearance is important.

What about tattoos or piercings?

Teaching tends to be a more respected occupation overseas than at home. And, as such, schools often have a strong opinion about your appearance and how they would like it to be.

In Western culture, we tend to pride ourselves on the “rebel billionaire” look, and we know that dress and appearance really don’t measure the quality of our character. But . . . in many other cultures – appearance is paramount.

A Culture Lesson

In Korea, just as one example, a common saying is, “The first impression is everything.” Appearances are critical in many cultures. When I lived in Africa I would sometimes be surprised to see a man come out of his mud hut wearing a three-piece suit!

And notice that the Korean saying was not, “The first impression is important.” It is everything.

Dress nicely and professionally. It’s not difficult and will enhance your opportunities.

Our ideals are often not theirs. Play along, do what is required. Wear the slacks and tie. It is the gateway to so much more. Look at it as a culture game rather than something unpleasant.

Tattoos and More

Keep them out of sight. In some cultures, tattoos are symbols of the yakuza or mafia. In Thailand many local people have tattoos and foreign teachers often think that it is then okay. But the people with tattoos generally aren’t teachers.

As a teacher and as a foreigner, in most cultures/countries, you can expect to be closely observed, judged, commented on – and just generally the butt of gossip. Get used to it, understand it, and deal with it appropriately.

I know for many people showing such things off is a matter of pride and principle. They feel they should be accepted for who and what they are.

But other cultures don’t often have the same idea. In their country, they would like you to conform to their ideals. You will, I promise, limit your career and opportunities [in many countries] if you are not discreet.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Play along, it is the gateway to so much more.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Just like “back home” dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

How and Where to Start Teaching English Abroad

What to Consider when First Seeking a Job Teaching English Overseas

Once you have made a final decision to look for an English teaching job and head overseas, it’s time to make a decision about where you would like to work and how much you would like to earn/save.

You’ll have to balance the two according to your qualifications, area of the world in which you wish to work, the general availability of jobs in that area and what your financial goals might me.

Here are some additional things to consider along the way.


You’ll also have to decide if getting some training is important for you – or not. If you do decide to get some training (good for you!), I would encourage you to get that training overseas, ideally in the country in which you intend to teach.

There are several reasons for this. First, it’ll give you a chance to live overseas and know better if you will like it (very different from vacationing or traveling overseas). It will usually also give you a chance to meet people who are already doing what you want to do and a chance to network for good jobs.

Another consideration is the opportunity to do your teaching practice with students similar to those you will teach on the job. Once you have a lot of experience this will not be so important, but as a TEFL Newbie – it will help you get up to speed much more quickly.

I’ve taught EFL in four different countries and students in each have their own unique pronunciation and grammar problems. Even experienced teachers take some time solving the new problems they are confronted with when they change countries.

One last super advantage, if you intend to teach in a country where it is common to have to interview in person, is that you will obtain in training a good idea of what students want, need, like and don’t like. Again, different countries and cultures can be very different.

Relevant English games built into your lesson are an absolute must in Thailand – but a bad idea in Saudi Arabia. It is best to know this BEFORE you interview or do a demonstration lesson.

In some countries a “demonstration” lesson is commonly requested as part of the interview process. If you have done your training in that country you will be far far ahead of the newbie who arrives with no idea of the common problems they will be faced with in the classroom.

Finally, TEFL training overseas is generally cheaper than taking it in developed Western countries and can be much cheaper by the time you add in the cost of food and board during training.

I believe though that the biggest benefits are networking and just getting a feel for life in another country.

Recruiters, or not?

One major decision that you must also make is if you want to use a recruiter or not. There are many people who are absolutely adamant that you should never use a recruiter. Some have had bad experiences with them, others believe you will find much better circumstances negotiating a deal on your own. Both ways are fine to me – I’ve done both.

I used a recruiter to find my first job. There were some problems, but the recruiter took care of all of them for me. It was very useful as I was not yet confident and really didn’t know much about the business – I was a true newbie – and the recruiter took some of the pressure off me.

Know that there are some recruiters out there, who just want to place you as quickly as possible and get their fee from the school. They won’t care if you are a good “fit” or not.

Try to communicate with the teachers at a school before deciding to go there, whether you use a recruiter or not. Are there problems there? What are they? Are they critical or minor? Are the teachers happy or not? Why or why not?

Other Issues

Take a look at the other pages on the blog and you will, over time, see many issues to consider and we will try to get to most of them early in the blog to help you know what to look for.

Some issues to consider right away though, before you tie down a job:

The types/ages of students you might be interested in teaching? Do you want to teach corporate executives, resort staff, kindergarten/preschool or even nursery students?

Should you set up your job before you go or not? This can depend a bit on the specific country and a lot on your personal self-confidence. Some countries will require you to be on the scene to be considered for a job, some tend to hire almost exclusively from overseas.

All these questions and many more are important and all will be addressed on this blog.

TED’s Tips™ #1: For your first country you might want to try countries that are well known as being “Newbie Friendly”. The Middle East and Europe are known as being difficult places to get started (argumentative and opinionated students).

China and Korea are probably two of the easiest places to get started. Both have cultures of respect for teachers, typically hire from abroad and pay for airfare and accommodation.

Thailand is a popular place for many new teachers, but is not one of the easiest places to work. The culture, food, friendly people and nice beaches tend to swing the balance to make it a popular destination. But you’ll have to be on the scene to land a job and pay for your own housing and plane tickets.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Sort out and stabilize your finances BEFORE you go. Know what your financial situation will be in your new setting. Not much could be worse than showing up and finding out you can’t meet those student loan payments and it’s back to Walmart for you . . .


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 . . .

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.