TEFL Teaching Contracts

Sign Here, Please: Tips for Understanding your Teaching Contract

[Disclaimer: These are general tips. For more accurate legal advice specific to your situation, consult an attorney.]

It’s the moment you’ve been hoping for. A real job offer for teaching English as a foreign language! From an organization overseas!

Buy the ticket and get on over there, right?

Well, yes, start looking at your flight tickets. But while you do that, also find out about the practicalities of your job. A reputable school or language training institution will be able to offer you a contract before you leave your home country or if you’re already overseas, before you begin teaching.

Contracts around the world are as diverse as the people writing them, but a solid TEFL contract should protect both you and the company you’re going to work for. It should include at least have the following points:

Basic Elements of a TEFL Contract

  • Your salary and overtime allowances, including what currency you’ll be paid in
  • Your expected hours per week or per month
  • Your days off
  • The duration of your obligation, including specific start and end dates
  • Public holidays: are they paid at a different rate if worked?
  • Personal leave and sick days
  • Visa information: will the school provide your visa? Or facilitate it if they don’t do everything?
  •  Additional “perks,” like housing, airfare allowances, local language classes or health insurance
  •  Ways to end the contract and consequences for breaching the contract (for both sides)

Now that I’ve listed all these components of a good contract, I’m going to tell you something that might seem contradictory at first: Yes, you should have a contract. But, it’s not always the most important thing.

 Other Cultures May See Contracts as Guidelines, not Commandments

In the West, we say “someone is as good as his word,” meaning that if you promise one thing but deliver another you’re a no-good, rotten scoundrel who deserves to be flayed by Komodo dragons and forced to watch others eating ice cream while he only gets lukewarm tapioca pudding. But in other cultures, a contract is sometimes seen as a set of guidelines rather than the rules of the game. So, you may find that your actual working conditions are not the same as what is promised in the contract when you arrive. Should you be upset about this? That depends on the situation and if the variances between the contract and reality have any true impact on your quality of life and enjoyment of your new job. If you’re promised one salary and given a different one, then you probably have a right to be upset—unless, of course, they’ve decided to pay you more.

So, I’ve heard new TEFL teachers moan, why do schools even bother giving a contract if they’re going to change everything around?  Because most countries require a signed contract before giving foreigners (that’s you) a working visa. Some schools do it because they think they should. Some do it for no reason I can think of.

Other Items You May Have to Sign

That caveat explained, here are some other points you may expect to find in your employment paperwork with a new school. They may or may not be listed in the contract itself—sometimes they’re folded into appendices or other agreements that you’ll have to sign.

  • Non-compete agreements. These might state that you can’t work for other schools during your contract, or that you may not share out lesson plans or other branded institution materials.
  • Paydays. The when and how of your payment. Will they open a bank account in your name? Will you end up with bricks of cash every month?
  • Withholding salary. It’s not uncommon for schools to withhold some of your first salary until you have passed a trial period. If you’re worried about what this will do to your financial stability when you arrive in-country, try to negotiate.
  • Expectations. This is a very general category, but some schools and training centers have quite specific things they expect from their teachers (like how many minutes before class you should arrive) and they will list them here.
  • Code of Conduct (including dress code if any).
  • Required training. If the school is requiring you to do extra training (and its usually a good idea), will they pay you for it?

TED’s Tips™ #1:  Go over your contract carefully, but also understand that some cultures regard contracts differently than we do in the West. Just because something is or isn’t in your contract may not mean that its set in stone.

TED’s Tips™ #2:  Use your intuition when dealing with your new employer and don’t forget to research any employer online and by contacting current or previous staff members before accepting a job.

Teaching Internships in China


Just How Long are TEFL Contracts?

The Long and the Short of It . . .

What if I only want to go abroad for a few months? Or a few years? What if I want to spend my life doing this?

Sometimes I hear from people who want to dip their toes into the ocean of possibility that Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) provides, but who don’t want to commit to a long-term contract. Other times, I hear about teachers who are tired of the uncertainty of three- and six-month contracts, and yearn for something a little more promising in the time department.

The good news is, in the TEFL industry, there’s a bit of something for everyone.

Less than one year

It’s not always cheap for schools to obtain the relevant permits and visas for their foreign staff. Employers who don’t want the hassle and red tape will sometimes offer short-term employment to teachers coming from overseas to get around the long-term working visa problem.

I’ve noticed an increase in positions lasting less than one year and some might even reimburse the teacher for their airfare. A good place to start your search for short-term work is at TEFL Temp. And, if you can’t find paying jobs in your dream country for a short time, you may also consider volunteering there. TEFL Temp also offers hook-ups for volunteers.

A year or more

The industry standard is one-year teaching contracts. These are easy to find. And, if you do a good job, your employer will likely offer you an extension to your contract. Keep extending, and you’ll find your original year abroad can stretch to a fulfilling life-long career.

If you’re older

One thing to think about is that discrimination based on age can be common in parts of the world. Therefore, older teachers may find that they are offered shorter term contracts than they wish, or may be passed over altogether. That said, at the time of this writing I was 58, had white hair and—let’s face it—a few ‘laugh lines,’ but I could still find TEFL jobs in several countries. I was a late bloomer—I started in EFL at 40—and had no problem getting jobs in the beginning, either. However, know that the older you are, the more you may need to plan ahead for your job-acquisition tactics. For example, it may make sense for you to go to your target country before finding a job and then look for work once you’re on the ground and can prove yourself.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many older EFL teachers. When I was in Korea a few years back I met many teachers older than 40, and even a few sexagenarians. This is true in other Asian countries as well.

If you’re younger

More youthful ESL teachers will find themselves very much in demand. However, they’ll also probably be scheduled for teaching the youngest students a school has, as employers often think that the younger classes require more energy to teach and that older students may not respect young teachers enough. If you like teaching kids and you’re a young teacher, you’re in a good position for finding a great job, because children’s classes make up a lot of the market overseas.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Whether you want to be in TEFL for a few months or a few years, it’s all your decision. Pick a contract length and go for it!

TED’s Tips™ #2: Teachers who are in their fifties and above may need to plan on arriving in their target country and organizing their job search from the ground. Being able to give face-to-face interviews with prospective employers will demonstrate your energy and passion for teaching abroad—and will show your new boss that age really is nothing but a number.


TEFL Jobs and Contracts

Contrary to Popular Belief,
Contracts are not as Important as you Might Think

I read some promotional material today from a TEFL course provider and it was about checking on the details of your contract before being hired. I agree that you certainly need to check on the basic details of your contract before signing a deal and heading across the world to take up a position.

But, be aware that there is a bit of a problem in the thinking of legalistic and litigation minded Westerners when they start talking about contracts.

Away from the Western world, much more is done with a handshake and a smile. And if the agreement doesn’t work out, you vote with your feet, not your lawyer. In most countries including Western countries, only the lawyer wins. I’ve seen people spend thousands of dollars chasing hundreds of dollars. It just doesn’t make sense.

And, in fact, in most countries the best way to have your contract honored is to be willing yourself to go outside the contract and make yourself valuable to your employer. The benefits can be great. I was once given an end-of-employment bonus much larger than what the contract required. I’ve been given much paid time off that was not required in my contract.

But then I have never niggled over little things in my contract and I have, in fact, never had a serious problem with a contract. Sure, I was cheated by a school once, but that is only once in about 15 years of teaching abroad. And I harbor no anger or animosity toward that school, that culture or that country. Other than that one occasion, I’ve always been treated very fairly.

That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been cultural misunderstandings, miscommunications and other problems. Of course there have been. Life is life no matter where you are living. Some people expect that because they go abroad all the world’s problems will just slip away . . . . la la la la la . . .

Approach your contract as your employer sees it, as a working document. That’s all. Most non-Western employers do not see contracts as being written in stone. You give a little, you take a little. You give a lot, you will probably get to take a lot.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Go along to get along. Avoid the negative ninnies out there as their goal is usually to drag you down into their negative world.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Other than the basics of an agreement, don’t niggle too much on the details. That way your employer is much more likely to give you some slack when you want or need it.

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