Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad  FacebookTwitterGoogle+  
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A path to an English language school in Guatemala
A path to an English language school in the mountains of Guatemala.

Most of us go straight from high school to college, setting aside dreams of adventure travel, garnering ourselves descriptors like “responsible,” all the while hoping that our summers might be filled with trips to Europe, jaunts through Central America, or beach-hopping the islands of Southeast Asia. However, one responsible move leads to another until ultimately we hardly have a chance to see the world.

Then, we finish our studies in college or at the university. Our folks are understandably anxious to see their young academic superstar succeed, with distant relatives asking all those what’s-next-on-the-agenda questions, but after four (or more) years of study, for many curious college students the last thing on our minds is dedicating our lives to a career, cubicle, and mortgage. But, with the responsible choices completed, a university diploma in hand,  reality beckons.

Unfortunately, many young academic superstars (or even run-of-the-mill students) finish school only to find those piles of books replaced by piles of debt, with traveling their last concern. Most get to work to foot the bill, and adventure travel is a distant ideal. There is another option: Before you start doing the “responsible” thing again, pack your bags and become an EFL teacher instead.

What is EFL? What is an EFL teacher?

EFL is shorthand for English as a Foreign Language, and an EFL teacher basically travels to distant countries to teach people to speak English. It seems a bit exotic, a stretch from that bachelor’s in biology or comparative Native American literature, but the truth is that most EFL teachers are fresh-faced twenty-somethings right out of university with expertise ranging from Star Trek reruns to rocket science. 

Though the majority of EFL academies require college degrees, what really qualifies the EFL teacher as an “expert” in the field is that he or she speaks English fluently, natively, like someone who has been doing it their whole life. Generally, EFL teachers are employed to be conversationalists and provide real practice to the ever-increasing masses of people in almost every far-flung corner of the earth who want to learn the one thing you never needed to study: to speak what still remains the worldwide language.

Like it or not, fair or not, some of us were fortunate enough to grow up with English as our native tongue, and now, the world becoming global, people web-connected, conglomerates multi-national, millions upon millions of people want to learn English. They need teachers, and most companies are looking for young, excited graduates who can commit to short-term (a year or less) contracts to live abroad, receive an above average salary for those working in the country, and spend their first year “out in the real world” actually out in the real world.

How to Become an EFL teacher?

There are varying degrees of requirements necessary in order to become an EFL teacher. Some people can manage to qualify for a job straight out of high school, simply by being brave enough to go somewhere and look for work. Even with their apparent lack of post-secondary education, they can still speak their own language with more ease than most well-educated foreigners. Just being present is enough for some places. However, the standard is a university degree in any subject, a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate, and a willingness to go abroad.

Most TEFL certificates require about a month to earn. Certifications denote that you’ve learned some rudimentary teaching methods so that you aren’t just thrown in a classroom with no experience regarding how to make lesson plans, lead activities, or speak slowly, clearly, and repetitively. Quickie courses are offered online, seemingly more official routes can be taken at universities, but perhaps the best way is to start the adventure early by going to one of the thousands of certification programs abroad, many of which offers job placement services after you complete your course. 

The courses can cost as little as a few hundred dollars online (i-to-i is reputable and easy on the pocket book) or can be full-blown adventures with accommodation-included in just about any country you like (check database sites like TEFL International to get started as well as TransitionsAbroad.com's teaching English abroad section, which lists the majority of the most important programs worldwide inclusive of many in-depth first-hand reports from participants). Most TEFL companies offer job placement assistance at the completion of their courses, but EFL jobs are in abundance and can also be found readily at sites like Dave’s ESL Cafe. It’s as easy as that.

Can I Do This? What To Expect?

Yes, you can do this, and you will be surprised how easily once you’ve set the ball rolling. EFL positions are among the most plentiful, consistent work opportunities available. The job market only seems to grow from year to year, with more countries pinpointed on the map. Most employers aren’t interested in your GPA or extra-curricular activities, and they often celebrate the fact that you can’t speak the local language, as most EFL classes are expected to be taught 100% in English.

First of all, you can expect great pay, enough to live comfortably in whatever country you’ve chosen, and travel during your vacation time. Many companies supply an apartment, or at the very least help you locate one, as well as handle interacting with the landlords, assist you with setting up utilities, teach you how to pay bills (or do it for you), and open a local bank account on your behalf. If a visa is required, then your academy or school will generally pay the cost and do the bulk of the necessary paperwork.

You can generally expect to be treated well and appreciated. Even though you are new to this field, most people respect the fact that you’ve taken the leap, moved across the world (or at least beyond your borders), and they appreciate that you’ve chosen their country in which to work. The local staff will be friendly, curious about you, your impressions of their country, and why you chose it. Most likely, there will be some kind of informal program for helping you acclimate to the new surroundings. 

The Upsides of EFL

Besides the pay, TEFL provides teachers with extensive exposure to another way of life and an incredibly international set of friend sets, an experience every bit as reminiscent and communal as high school or college. The beauty is that EFL is real work and  a genuine job experience that doesn’t just go on the CV but still truly impresses future employers. Perhaps, the most important, though obvious, benefit to teaching abroad is that it temporarily suspends the plunge into corporate life and career-track positions which some are not anxious to take when just out of school and longing for a sense of freedom. In sum, teaching EFL is a means but usually not an end. The answer, so often now a cliché,  as to why so many people want to travel abroad is to learn about other cultures. Truthfully, short-term visitors generally see only the polished parts of cities, visit historical clutter in tourist zones, but miss out on the bare bones of what life is really like daily: going to the supermarket, commuting to work, interacting with people not in the tourist industry, discovering the relaxed areas of your local neighborhood, whether it be a local café or bar, the eclectic restaurant, and produce markets. Such immersion into daily life is what teaching abroad allows, and it is a rich, deep experience that can’t be duplicated in the standard week or two trip.

Most EFL teachers spend a year or two on the job, working in high-paying countries to whittle their down school debts or live in warm tropical spots. Others use EFL to take a break from the typical rat race back home, still earning a respectable income but with less responsibility, shorter hours, and plenty of adventure. In the end, by displaying the bravery, resiliency, and ingenuity to work a year or two abroad, you’ve only made yourself that much more of an attractive employee, and one with some great stories for around the water cooler should you go that route.

The most obvious upside is that working abroad satisfies all those reasons you wanted to travel to begin with, whatever they were. It is hard to beat being abroad for months, puddle-hopping over to China or Panama for the long weekend, writing home to relay the most exotic-sounding tales, and other experiences that have just become normal life for you. Some people, this author included, never get over that feeling and become lifelong EFLers, jumping from country to country every year, and melting into a whole new scene. EFL jobs are easy to find just about everywhere.

The Downsides of the Job

Living abroad is not without its frustrations, not unlike living "at home." Work is work anywhere you are, complete with annoying bosses, set hours, pending deadlines, computer crashes, jammed copy machines, shaving, showering, brushing your teeth daily, having to find something to wear that doesn’t look too wrinkled… The mundane world is often painful, no matter the location. The real challenge with teaching EFL is the same as the upside: living abroad, away from family and friends, in a world that moves at a different pace than you’re accustomed to, functions under a different code of conduct. Oh, yes, and they don’t speak English, either.

As your time abroad extends, emails and communication with family and friends tends to wane, the same way it does when you leave the parent’s nest or go to college. Life back home will go on, and you’ll miss it. People will get married, move, find new friends and hangouts, and, perhaps most disturbingly, adapt to life without you. Such separation can feel a little more intense from afar because the old safety nets of mom and dad or best friend Bill or Sally aren’t there to soften the blow. Some people deal with it better than others. You’ll make new friends and it’ll be okay, but it won’t be the same. 

Ah, culture, the root and joys of good manners, then the person in front of you lets the door swing right into your face. The restaurant fills with the sound of people slurping noodles. It’s exciting and funny at first but becomes frustrating after a while. Most places forfeit ideas of personal space, pushing right up to perfect strangers, even in half-empty subway cars. “Lines” don’t form single file but rather exist as an elbow-throwing free-for-all. You’ll find yourself, for the first time, wishing to see a nice long line at the cinema when enduring chaos in some parts of the world..   

On a final note, the most obvious concern is the language barrier. Luckily, work is usually all in English, but outside work, life can be difficult at times, as most of us are usually too lazy or busy to become fluent in Russian or Thai. Instead, we are left with less desirable, more comedic modes of communication: calculator screens (for prices) and charades (you’ll perform, they’ll guess). But you develop skills quickly and pick up enough random vocabulary to accomplish the things you want to do. You learn soon enough that, though you’ve spent a few hours listening to those Japanese CDs, if the person you are speaking to can, they will immediately use English. 

A True Story

Just to reiterate, the whole process really is manageable. People from the suburbs with state college educations and no experience traveling, no exotic familial roots or international connections, still manage to become teachers abroad: I am from a town called Central on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I went to LSU and finished in 2000 with a humanities degree, at which time a spent I couple of years working (construction and food service), before deciding to leave the nest and go to the creative writing master’s program at the University of Memphis. When I finished that in 2005, I was left with the choice of extending my time in school, or becoming a part-time freshman comp instructor. Instead, I accidentally discovered a flyer when buying a vending machine candy bar which offered an option for moving abroad to be an EFL teacher.

Nervous and excited, I signed up for a three-week TEFL course in the Czech Republic, thinking, if I didn’t like it, I’d at least get my first trip to Europe out of the deal. The course ended up being great, and I discovered that life abroad wasn’t so difficult as imagined. Other countries did have groceries, coffee, and beer (irony intended). Public transportation meant there was no need to drive. The cafes and bars in Plzen were different enough to feel fresh and experiential, not just like being on a juvenile college bender. My trial month in the Czech Republic inspired a trial year in Korea.

In Korea, for example, I lived like a king, saving thousands of dollars while going out as often as I liked, traveling to several different countries in Asia, and living rent-free (Korean schools usually provide accommodations for their foreign teachers).  So I extended my contract for another year. When that year finished, I was ready for a change of scenery, so I went to Guatemala for eight months, then Turkey for ten months, and so on, until now, seven years later, I’m working a September-to-May contract in Moscow, Russia, with no plans to stop my life abroad. 

For years, I found ways not to take the plunge—college, money, fear—but, eventually, I found EFL, which somehow soothed all of those worries and smoothed out the path into the great unknown. I did hit some rough spots, got bored with jobs, ended up working too much, miss gumbo from time to time, but there is always the next new country to keep me inspired. I’m actually living the life of my dreams (and many others’).

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Jonathon Engels

Jonathon Engels has been an EFL expat since 2005, just after he earned an MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected life as an instructor of freshman comp. He has lived, worked, and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way between them. Currently, he is in Antigua Guatemala, where most mornings he can be found tucked behind a computer in the corner of a coffee shop. For more, check out Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad or visit The NGO List.

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