Job Security for the EFL Teacher

I’m often asked: “If I go overseas to teach English as a foreign language, will I have any kind of job security?”

When answering, I usually say, “Yes . . . and no.”

A more in-depth answer to this question needs to take into consideration what country you’re going to be working in and who your employer will be. It’s good to realize that the TEFL industry is not so different from any other.  There are great bosses who will do right by you and even a few shady schools that you should probably think twice about working for.

The best way to guard against losing your job through no fault of your own is to choose your employer with care.

We each make our own “security.”

I often think it helps for TEFL teachers to think of themselves as private contractors – in charge of their own working futures and working for their own benefit. This may help you in being vigilant to look out for your own best interests – which, sadly, your employer may not be doing (and probably is not doing in any country – even in your home country).

Take for example, the unfortunate case of my best friend. He had been working at a university in Korea for more than ten years. Then, one day he learned the institution had a new rule: foreigners could only stay working there for three years.  He’d already been there for so long that at first he was told he could be “grandfathered” in and could continue working there. Of course he wanted to stay because, after so long, he’d put down roots in the town and was comfortable in his “good” job.

But, even though he’d done his utmost every year to please the school and benefit his students, he was soon out on his ear. Boooooo, bad school!

Be Ready for Turnover

In the TEFL industry, it’s usual for teachers to sign one-year employment contracts. While teachers who do a good job are usually offered a renewal contract, the point is that most teachers should be prepared to search out a new job every 12 months. Of course, you will sometimes see contracts for longer (or shorter) time periods, but the worldwide average seems to be 12 months.

But That’s Not Always a Bad Thing

However, taking care of your own future by checking out your employer before signing a contract and being prepared to move on if need be and, essentially, creating your own security, is a good thing. You will have confidence and satisfaction in yourself, and you won’t find yourself in the same pickle as did the employees of Enron, Worldcom, CitiBank, Lehman Brothers etc. Those poor people had relied on defined benefit retirement plans, generous wages and figured, because they were working for some of the largest or wealthiest corporations in the world, that they’d be safe. Be smart, keep an eye out for your own future stability.

 TED’s Tips™ #1: Take steps to take care of yourself. It’s some of the best advice I can give.

If your plan, like mine, is to spend more than a few years teaching abroad, then you should start looking at ways to provide your own long-term financial security.

I chose to work where I could save real money and then purchase rental properties to help provide for my  retirement. They didn’t make me a millionaire, but I won’t have to worry about whether or not my old employers’ pension plans will really cover my living expenses while I age.  I’ll still be able to eat . . .

TED’s Tips™ #2: Seek out your own medical insurance coverage. Don’t rely on your employer to do this.

Remember, life can surprise you (in many ways!) and sometimes these surprises will be inconvenient, possibly even unhappy. It’s better to be prepared.  Depending on what country you’re living in, the cost of insurance may be quite affordable. What I recommend is buying portable insurance – this means you will be covered even when you travel outside the country in which you work. It also means that you will be free to change employers and countries when you wish and you would still be covered by insurance in the event of your unemployment.

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How Important is How You Look in TEFL?

Dressing the Part

TEFL Newbies often ask me how important it is that they dress up for their teaching jobs.

When I hear this question, I know the asker has forgotten the Number One Rule: Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) might be fun, but it is still a job. It is an industry. It is not a get-out-of-dressing-up-free card. You do not pass “Go!” or collect $200. In fact, if your appearance is sloppy, you may not be collecting any wages at all.

And so, as with any job you would have where you deal with people, yes, your appearance is important.

But I’ve got my own style!

Abroad, I tend to find that teachers hold a more highly regarded social position than they might in the West. Because of this, schools (read: your employers) may have a strong, definite opinion about how they would like their teachers to dress and groom themselves.

Now, many Westerners have grown up aspiring to achieve that “rebel billionaire” cool factor. We also have nice sayings about “not judging the book by the cover,” meaning that dress and overall appearance don’t measure our characters, personalities or even professionalism.  But, if you’re going overseas to work, you should realize that in other cultures appearances are very important.

Korean Couture

To illustrate the importance of how you look to foreign employers, consider this common Korean saying:

“The first impression is everything.”

To Koreans, by and large, appearances are critical. But don’t think that this is the world’s only example of deep-rooted cultural belief that “the clothes make the man.”  When I lived in Africa, I’d sometimes see men wearing spiffy three-piece suits step out of their small mud huts!  Women in beautiful cocktail dresses and high heels too.

I think it’s particularly interesting to note that the Korean saying isn’t just that the first impression is “important.”  No. It is “everything.”

So, open the job market for yourself by dressing professionally. It’s not difficult to do this during working hours and it will definitely enhance your opportunities.

When you go abroad to live you will often realize that your ideals, however cherished, are not always the same as your host country’s. So, play along and wear the slacks, the tie, the nylons, the heels. This is the gateway to more and interesting things. If it helps, look at the dressing up as playing a culture “game” instead of just being a chore.

But what if I’ve got a tattoo?

It’s best to keep tattoos and other body art covered up by your clothing. There are cultures in which tattoos identify you as belonging to the yakuza, or mafia. Even in Thailand, where many local people wear tattoos, it still isn’t culturally accepted for teachers to have visible ones.

Foreigners, especially foreigners working in a respected job such as a teacher, should anticipate generating a fair amount of interest by the locals in their new country. People—even passers-by on the street—will look at you closely (not always critically), judge you and comment on you. Get comfortable with the idea of being fair game for the gossip mill.

If you’re working in a country like the one described, resist the urge to show off your body art or wear clothes that may put you in a bad light. In the West wearing what you choose may be a matter of principle, but other cultures may not have the same idea and will appreciate you conforming to their ideals. If you are not discreet, you could hurt yourself, and your career.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Play the dressing-up-for-work game. It’s worth it because you’ll get so much more out of your life abroad.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Anywhere in the world, the old rule still stands: Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.

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Is Teaching English Abroad Right for Me?

Can you build a happy, successful life working overseas?

A difficult question like this is one only you can answer for yourself. However, I’d like to offer some guidelines and questions that may help you find the best answer within yourself.

The truth of it is that expatriate living is not for everyone. In the best of times it is a life of wonder, excitement and new experiences. On the other hand, it also has its share of challenges, frustrations, and problems.

For example, some tasks that we’d consider to be simple to complete “back home” can take lots of time and effort to resolve overseas. Even something as functional and normal as obtaining your driver’s license in some countries can seem just as difficult as completing the requirements for a bachelor’s degree.

Eight Questions to Consider

Here are eight questions to ask yourself—to see if you are ready to move abroad:

1) Do you have dependents? How would your family feel about being moved to a foreign land? If your whole household isn’t on the same wavelength about moving abroad, you’ll be in for domestic strife as well as the pressures of your move.

2) Are you married or living with a partner? If you move overseas, you’re basically asking them to give up their job and friends to follow you. Will they be able to find a job abroad as well? Are they also passionate about teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL)?

3) Are your kids school-age? If so, how are they going to complete their education abroad? How will they handle moving away from their friends and resettling in a whole new environment? International schools exist in many cities abroad, however most of the pupils of these schools come from expat families who have the sponsorship (read: monetary backing) of the corporation who relocated the family overseas. These schools may ask enormous sums for their tuition—often more than what an ordinary EFL teacher earns.

4) Do you owe money at home? If you have to make payments on your credit card, mortgage or student loans while you’re overseas, you had better carefully plan what country you’ll be teaching in. In some countries, it will be possible to save up to $1,000 US per month or even more, but in others you’ll do well to scrape up enough cash to pay your ticket home for a visit once a year, even though by local standards you’re well-off.

5) Do you (or your family) have on-going medical issues? Now, in many countries medicine and medical care will actually be cheaper than you paid back home (and perhaps even a fraction of the cost). However, cheaper care may mean that you’re not getting modern care or drugs. It’s important to check with your physician before you go abroad, and also to double check what the medical situation is in the country you’re going to.

6) What’s your financial situation? Have you got enough monetary reserves to go home and set up again if things (heaven forbid) don’t work out at your first TEFL posting? It’s practical to have a cushion of money, just in case.

7) Why do you think you’ll enjoy teaching EFL? Have you taught before? Do you enjoy working with people?

8 ) Is this your first time abroad? Do you enjoy traveling? I left the US for Africa to become a Peace Corps Volunteer when I was 37 years old – what a transition that was! It worked out great – for me. But not everyone may take to traveling and the expatriate life like I did.

9) Do you embrace challenges? Living in a foreign country has its own challenges (and rewards) on top of life’s other daily frustrations. Will you find the combination of the two refreshing and reinvigorating – or just stressful?

Of course, this list of eight questions is just a starting point for you if you are thinking of moving abroad. Each person will have to consider their own individual circumstances to see if teaching EFL is the right plunge to take.

Ten Characteristics of a Happy EFL Teacher

In my experience, the ones who succeed in TEFL overseas exhibit the following characteristics:

1) They have expectations, grounded in reality, about what their new job as a foreign teacher can and can’t provide for them.

2) They are sensitive to the differences  between their work country and their home country and they know that each country has different appropriate ways of problem-solving.

3) They know that, ‘wherever you go, there you are’ – which here means that personal problems at home will probably follow you overseas as well.

4) They know life is a mixed bag of good days and bad days; it’s the same both abroad and in their home country.

5) They know TEFL, just like any other industry, has its share of excellent bosses, but crappy ones too. The same goes for schools and positions within those schools.

6) They embrace flexibility and can adjust quickly to surprises and overcome bad situations with grace.

7) They are ready to embrace different cultural norms in the workplace and to accommodate different cultural expectations.

8 ) They are not usually moody or depressed.

9) They see their personal success as a challenge – not just coming from luck or coincidence.

10) They spent lots of time doing their homework, that is, researching TEFL and their move, before they jumped into the new profession in a new land.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Only YOU know what’s best for you. It’s helpful to ask around and do your research, but at the end you must be the decision-maker. Is moving abroad a personal dream of yours? I’d thought about going overseas to work for many years before I finally did it. When I did do it, it was a heartfelt decision.  Had it not been, I wouldn’t have made it through those two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.  Parts of it were pretty tough and I was not then and am not now – all that tough!

TED’s Tips™ #2: Your decision isn’t irrevocable. Always remember, that if you go abroad and everything goes wrong: you hate it, you hate your job, you don’t want to even see another English student as long as you live, you can always go home. It’s a simple fix.

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How to Wow on the TEFL Telephone Interview

The Internet has truly made the world much smaller.  No matter how far away from home you’re applying for Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) jobs, there’s an increasing chance you will have a telephone or Skype interview before you snag your first teaching position.

If the thought of doing an interview for your new field terrifies the (insert noun here) out of you, you can relax a little – it would be rare indeed for your prospective boss to try and trip you up by asking about an obscure grammar rule.

Why do they want to talk to you?

There are three common reasons a school would arrange an interview with you, either via telephone or video call with a program such as Skype.

1. Can they understand you?

If the school doesn’t believe that your English is clear and proper, then they will probably won’t be offering you a job. So, to make sure you sound your best, before the interview is scheduled to begin, search out a quiet place and banish all distractions. Adjust the volume on your phone or computer so that you can also hear them—remember it’s important for you to understand them clearly as well. During the call, slow down your speech and remember to enunciate.

2. Are you a polite and friendly person?

It’s not much of a stretch for a school to assume that a teacher who is not friendly and communicative during the interview will have the same demeanor in the classroom. They want to know that you’ll be interested in and engaging with your students—so answer your phone call with a smile on your face (yes, even if it’s not a video call!). If you don’t like people and enjoy talking to others, then it’s a sign teaching may not be the right job for you.

3. Do you ‘play well with others?’

The school wants to know if you will be an easy employee for them to work with. This is Asia’s Number One hiring criterion. Interviewers would like to see that you’re a flexible, patient person who can go with the flow. Not only is this an indicator of a good employee and teacher, but patience and flexibility are required if you want to live abroad happily. While there will always be cultural differences in the TEFL workplace, a savvy boss will want to see how well you might be able to deal with those when they crop up.

While in a Western job interview there might be some expectation for the prospective employee to be assertive and “stick up for herself or himself,” this is best avoided in a telephone EFL job interview. Instead of showing that you’re possibly an inappropriately assertive individual, it may just show them that you’re going to be a pain in the (insert noun here).

And, on that topic, TEFL newbies will find that they have more success when they approach a new job—and even the whole new country—with sensitivity and finesse. Try to problem-solve by working out difficulties and communicating with people rather than by trying to impose your opinions and viewpoint.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Speak slowly and clearly in your interview. Slang and idioms may make you seem unprofessional, or difficult to understand if the connection is bad. However, don’t swing too far in the other direction—you’ll look silly if you’re speaking baby talk to the interviewer.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Even though you won’t be in the same room as your interviewer, take some time to consider where YOU will be. Find a quiet place and adjust your headphones or speakers to the optimal sound quality before the call begins.

TED’s Tips™ #3: When the call comes through, answer the call in a friendly but professional way. Make like a telemarketer and smile while you greet your caller—even though they can’t see you. Phone solicitors know that smiling while you talk makes your voice sound friendly.

If you take these simple steps to heart, you’ve got a good chance of impressing your future boss and securing that dream job. Good luck!

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