What if You Hated English Classes As a Kid?

Love What You Do (Even if You Hated English Classes As a Kid)

When I introduce myself as an English teacher to people who haven’t met someone teaching English as a foreign language before, they often get the wrong idea.

“So, you love Shakespeare?” they’ll ask. Or, possibly, “do you make your foreign students write book reports?”

They may imagine that I spend my free time composing sonnets, or debating the finer points of grammar over white wine spritzers with my other English-besotted pals.

The truth is, being an English teacher abroad is not about studying great writers or trying to get students to analyze Western literary tradition. Teaching English as a Second Language is more about communication than analysis—though there are of course, opportunities for this—and, surprisingly, many people who hated English classes at school when they were kids find themselves satisfied and happy as English teachers abroad. That’s because teaching people to communicate in a new language is a different skill than teaching native speakers to appreciate the advances and traditions of our own culture of English speakers.

Many people who are drawn to teaching English as a Foreign Language like it because they thrive on interacting with people, enjoy the challenges of coaching, and have a knack for being able to synthesize and simplify. Even though it helps to have an enthusiasm for the subject—English—the real thrills in the profession come from seeing a student’s eyes light up when they finally understand a tricky language point, and from watching a class improve its functional ability over a period of time.

Teaching English as a foreign language is often more like being a dance instructor than being the English teacher you remember from fifth grade. Your job as a new English teacher abroad will include introducing students to new steps (target language) and getting them to practice these steps until they can “dance” them fluently (use the language in practice).

So what does this mean?

So, does this mean that you can still teach English effectively if you have trouble telling a colon from a semi-colon, mix up your past and present tenses and favor the word “ain’t” in informal speech?

Be careful that you don’t confuse disliking English class as a kid with being an incompetent instructor of English as a Foreign Language. No matter whether you love English or just love the training aspect of being an English teacher, you’ll have to have the same proficiency in the mechanics of the language in order to teach it effectively.

As far as using regionalisms that we’re taught are “wrong” (like “ain’t”), as long as you don’t mind marking the differences between what you usually use when speaking and what is considered “standard English” for classroom use so that you can explain any discrepancies to your students, you may actually be doing your more advanced students a favor by giving them an example of “real” English.  However, it will be important for you to brush up on the gaps in your basic knowledge of the language, if you are missing any, so that you can be sure to present your students with accurate information. Just like any other job, teaching English as a Foreign Language will require learning some information to be able to do it well.  And, it will be important for you to know how to grade your language so that you can speak more clearly for lower level students.

TED’s Tips™ #1:  Teaching English as a Foreign Language is not the same skill as instructing language arts to native speakers.

TED’s Tips™ #2:  You’ll need to know the mechanics of the language (grammar and structure) in order to teach well, but teaching ESL is not solely about these bits you thought were boring when you were a kid.


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Staying Legal, Staying out of Trouble

Be Professional and Do It Right

In the country where I used to live, it was required that teachers of English have a university diploma and a TEFL certificate in order to get proper working papers.

Well, really, the above sentence should read “it was  OFTEN required” for teachers to have the proper credentials, as there were many loopholes in these regulations and some schools in the country were able to waive the requirements, and individuals who had experience in another field, for example, tourism could sometimes get jobs as “trainers” rather than as “teachers.”

And, even though I know what the black-and-white regulations are, I would often hear from teachers who tell me they found jobs teaching without a degree, or that they know someone who has worked there without a degree. The question that then comes up, is WHY do I keep on telling people that a degree is necessary for teaching English in that country!?

Here’s the answer: You don’t need a degree to teach English there. But, you do need a degree to teach it LEGALLY. If you look at the situations where people were teaching without a degree, it usually becomes clear that the person was working illegally.

Should this matter to you? Well, many people treat teaching English abroad as a way to travel and stay afloat abroad for a short time.  But even to people who aren’t treating teaching English as a true career choice, I do not recommend doing shady, risky or illegal things, especially because these activities will take place out of their home country. The same kind of people who do this are the people who end up on TV reality shows like “Locked Up Abroad,” crying to the cameras from their jail cells about how it just isn’t fair.

Just like in your home country, breaking immigration law and working without the proper working papers is a serious infraction. And why would you think otherwise? The two main countries that supply English teachers worldwide are the USA and the UK. Both of these countries have strict, difficult, exacting immigration policies. If it’s not a new idea to you that it’s risky for foreigners to work under the table in your home country, then it shouldn’t be a huge stretch for you to understand that the same risk applies to you when you work abroad without the right paperwork.

Unbelievably, I’ve even heard incredibly naive people who laughingly say something along the lines of, “Whatever, let them jail me! What are they gonna do? Throw away the key?” These people may be poking fun at it now, but they run the risk of finding out that foreign countries take their laws seriously and don’t care how long scoff-laws are imprisoned. And, these scoff-laws don’t realize how expensive it can be for friends and family to get someone out of jail in another country.

As you might be able to tell, I find this situation really frustrating. First of all, I feel like the whole EFL industry is brought down by people who work without the right papers. It tars all of us with the same brush. Secondly, people who are willing to work under the table make it possible for shady, unreliable schools to continue business hiring people “off the books.”

TED’s Tips™ #1: I strongly suggest that if you go abroad to teach English, you do it legally. If you do not have a degree, then choose your target country carefully. There are places where people who don’t have university diplomas CAN work legally. Check out Latin America, Cambodia, Laos, parts of China, Indonesia and others.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Research, research, research. Before you pack up and move abroad, make sure that you can get the right paperwork when you arrive. The Internet has many websites that can help you determine what your legal status will be when you arrive. Job postings should also give you a clue: what paperwork or credentials are employers consistently asking for? If you see that all of the schools in your target area ask for degrees, then odds are you’re going to need one to get your working visa. You can start checking things out at ESL Jobs Now.



Standard of Living for English Teachers Abroad

 If I teach overseas, will I live well or suffer for my dreams?

Don’t worry! Usually, teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) make more money than does the normal John Q. Public in their host country. This means that most English teachers are able to support themselves in a style better than most of the locals. Sounds good, right?

Hold on a minute, though. What if Mr.and Mrs. Public live in a hovel, with a leaky, corrugated iron roof and a dirt floor (plus or minus a couple of chickens)?

It’s good you asked. Teachers of EFL may find that their quality of life is modest. But modest can also be good. Of course, this is going to be different in each country you visit in your teaching career. For myself, I have never suffered a poor quality of life. And I’ve seldom or never heard other TEFLers complaining about this issue.

That’s because, even in countries that don’t pay much, teachers can still get by (or even prosper) in the local economy.

What should you be aware of?

People say you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but if you’re taking free accommodation as part of your employment package, then you should be prepared for the possibility that it won’t be at the same quality level as something you would pick out for yourself.

It can happen that your housing looks like it’s in the middle of a slum, that’s happened to me, in fact. But, in developing countries, appearances of low upkeep don’t always signify crime-ridden neighborhoods as they might in the West. In most places you would go to teach (particularly in Asia) , it’s unlikely that crime will be a big problem in your city.

When I lived in Korea some of my friends lived in the kind of area that back home I’d never have ventured into after sundown. It was a rabbit warren of back alleyways . . . However, despite its dodgy looks by Western standards, this Korean neighborhood was a perfectly safe place.

In the West, the press focuses on troubled areas and ‘hot spots.’ But in reality, when you’re traveling abroad you’ll find many places, and parts of Asia in particular, much safer than your average Western city.

How it’s been for me

I have always maintained a good quality of life while living abroad. I’ve taught in Taiwan, Korea (two times), Saudi Arabia and Thailand. I have never deprived myself of food, amenities or good medical care. (And usually, that medical care is much cheaper abroad than at home!)

Except in Thailand, I have always been able to save money after my basic living needs were taken care of. I usually was able to save at least 800 USD per month, and sometimes even twice or three times that per month.  Wherever it is that your TEFL career takes you, your salary should allow you to have a good lifestyle and to be able to take local or regional vacations without hurting your bottom line too much.

Ted’s Tips™ #1: Do some research and check how much a job’s salary would work out to in local terms. You’ll see that some countries, even after your monthly expenses, you’ll be able to pocket 50 percent of your wages. That’s often a lot more than you could have done in your home country, even if the base wage is lower.

Ted’s Tips™ #2: Ask about local crime rates and safety levels. In general, Asia is much safer than the West. Be sure and research destinations first if you’re going to Latin America, where crime can be an issue


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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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Why Teaching English Might Work for You

Teach English: Live abroad, live the dream

Imagine living the dream: traveling, exploring the depths of the world, experiencing and learning new cultures, possibly saving up to US$1000 or more, paying off your student loans or debts and making unforgettable memories.

It definitely sounds like a dream, but it is in fact the reality of teaching English in a foreign country.

Do you still need to ask, ‘Why teach English?’

Craving adventure? Bitten by the travel bug, suffering from wanderlust? Many people are choosing to teach English in a foreign country to see and experience the rest of the world without digging into their savings.

It’s a great solution, a great recipe – a reasonable amount of money, heaps of life and cultural experiences added to the fact that you can really have an enjoyable time working as an English Teacher. A year abroad is like getting a four-year degree from the University of Life.

TEFL Newbie fully supports the idea of traveling while teaching and wants to help you with all the choices and decisions. All the questions can be overwhelming: Is teaching English the right thing for me? Will I be able to reach my goals if I’m going abroad? Do I have a realistic idea of what it is like to live abroad? Will the new working environment be too different from what I am used to with a lot of stress and problems? Is it the right time for me to go abroad?

There are changes. There are challenges. There are rewards!

TED’s Tips™ #1: Take note, life abroad can get addictive!

I have lived abroad for more than 20 years. I headed overseas as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1989 and again in 1992 as an English Teacher. I will always return to the USA, but just for a visit and seeing my family – I am experiencing life and enjoying every moment of living abroad and quite possibly will never live in the USA again.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Run toward life, not away

People who move to a foreign country as an act of escaping a problem or running away, will always take their problems with them and never learn to deal with them. People who move to a foreign country to reach a goal will most likely succeed and accomplish more than they came for.

TED’s Tips™ #3: Search, research and be realistic

It is important to figure out what kind of life you want when teaching abroad. The only way to get an overall idea of your new life and is to get an overall idea of the situation at the destination and then make the decision if you want that life or not.

I live on a tropical island filled with luxury resorts and have had a lot of questions over the years about jobs in these resorts. Expectations of these teachers are often way too high, thinking that they will get free lodging in a posh five-star villa, enjoy free “Michelin Star” meals and live it up in classy resorts.

If it sounds too good to be true, maybe it is.

Even though teaching in a resort is one of the best English Teaching jobs in the world, I’m sorry to burst your bubble . . . you won’t be living in that posh five-star villa and you won’t be enjoying free 5-course meals while toasting to living it up with expensive champagne.


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