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Teaching English Abroad

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Is Teaching English as a Foreign Language Right for You?

Column and photo by John Clites
TEFL Abroad Columnist
4/1/2013

John teaching Mariana
John teaching Mariana.

Editor's Note: The following is John Clites' introductory column as our TEFL Abroad Columnist, where he will approach in practical ways issues relating to teaching English abroad. John has spent many years of his life traveling abroad, visiting 25 countries at last count. John has a particular penchant for travel off the beaten path and for mixing with the locals. Through the years he has sponsored numerous children abroad through Childreach.org, in Bolivia, India, Ecuador, and currently in Peru and Brazil. He has lived and taught English in Brazil since 2008, and has written a book on teaching English in Brazil.

Several years ago I ordered a print publication from Transitions Abroad about job opportunities around the world. I was somewhat disappointed to see that so many of the jobs were teaching English. While I had the desire to try living abroad, teaching English just did not appeal to me.

Fast forward: Not only do I now teach English in Brazil, but I also find that I sincerely enjoy it. I have even authored an e-book about the ins and outs of teaching English here in Brazil.

The truth? Teaching English is ultimately a job. However, it is not a bad job. For me, it is a not-too-difficult way to support myself here in Brazil, leaves me time to enjoy my adoptive home, and to immerse myself in the culture while respecting it and being respected by my students.

Why Teach EFL?

For me—and this is true for many if not most EFL (Note: EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language and means teaching English in a country where English is not a native language. We will discuss the alphabet soup of related abbreviations in a future article) teachers—teaching English abroad is honestly in part a matter of expediency. It is also a fairly easy way to learn about another country in some depth. If you have the itch to travel or live abroad, EFL is a way to scratch it. However, there are many other reasons why you might consider teaching EFL.

One important factor to consider is simply that there is a huge demand for English teachers around the world—meaning there are jobs. The U.S. economy continues to struggle. Recent college graduates in particular have suffered, with one in two either unemployed or underemployed. If you are having difficulty finding work at home, then it is nice know that there is work available for you, almost guaranteed!

While teaching English may not be at the top of your list of ideal jobs, it is perhaps greater in variety than you realize, and one or another may suit you. We will explore various types of teaching jobs in next month’s column. In addition, in today’s market, having some job looks better than having no job, both in terms of self-esteem and on your resumé.

While it is true that you will not get rich teaching EFL—how many rich teachers do you know anywhere, in any field? However, if you do your homework, prepare, choose judiciously, and market yourself effectively, you will find that you can live well, perhaps even save a bit. In addition, the non-monetary perks are often significant. We will talk about those below.

While you perhaps never thought of yourself as an English teacher (are you recalling tedious afternoons being bludgeoned with gerunds and intransitive verbs?), consider that, as a native speaker, you know the material. True, you will have to learn to teach what you know instinctively. However, at bottom, recognize that you possess a skill that millions of people in other countries desperately want, need, and will gladly pay for. English remains the lingua franca—the leading global language used in business, communications, and technology—so many people wish to learn it themselves and most parents worldwide want their children to learn it to enhance their future prospects.

As I intimated earlier, the truth is—huddle up here—most EFL teachers I know did not choose EFL as a profession because they necessarily felt a calling to it. They chose it—or simply fell into it—because it allows them to carve out a way of life. If you are a native English speaker, or simply speak it very well, then teaching EFL is quite probably the easiest way for you to find work abroad. There are plenty of popular and interesting destinations around the world from which to choose.

In addition, while teaching EFL is a job, and you will have to prepare and show up and be presentable, it is not the most difficult job you will ever have. I remember when I worked in the software business, going to visit disgruntled clients who were openly hostile to me—I was actually physically threatened on one occasion, and verbally abused on several occasions.

Now my students routinely thank me at the end of my classes. They often invite me to "happy hours" and to their homes for dinner. I was invited to the wedding of one student. Another even invited me to spend Christmas with him and his family, as he did not want to see me spend it alone. That may be the best aspect about teaching EFL: the relationships that you will make.

Here are a few more reasons to consider teaching English abroad:

  • You get to see, at more than a superficial level, another culture. As a teacher, what Transitions Abroad has long called "cultural immersion" is therefore far more accessible for those who seek an entrance into the daily life of the local community.
  • You can pick up another language—always a good job skill, and a good life skill.
  • You can buy a little time if you need it, until the economy at home recovers, or until you figure out what you want to do for the next 40+ years of your life.
  • You can scout other job or investment opportunities in another country. Teaching English can be a springboard.
  • If you are feeling stagnant and want a change, this job could be the answer. While I would not advocate teaching EFL simply to run away from a bad situation, there are times when we can benefit from a change of scenery.
  • Not to pontificate, but you will re-examine your priorities, which once in awhile is a good thing.
  • You will grow in self-confidence and self-sufficiency.
  • You will become a more interesting person by virtue of your new experiences.

I think that people considering a stint teaching abroad often fear that others, particularly prospective future employers, might view it negatively, perhaps as an irresponsible lark. As someone who has done hiring, I can tell you that usually the exact opposite is true. An interviewer reading that you spent a year teaching in Taiwan, and speak basic Mandarin, is almost certainly going to be intrigued. You will stand out, in a good way. Time abroad demonstrates confidence and self-reliance. For a greater discussion of the upside to a stint teaching abroad, read this article.

Who Teaches EFL?

When I earned my TEFL certification (we will discuss in a future article the various certifications, and if you should pursue one), my class was approximately 70% in their early 20s, right out of college or with a couple years of work experience. The rest, like me, were closing in on middle age. For one reason or another, we wanted to strike out on a second life abroad.

Our backgrounds varied tremendously. Some had traveled or lived abroad before and had caught the bug. Others had never been anywhere, but were itching to see the world. Among those of us with significant work experience, there were a couple of certified teachers, a former salesman, a software consultant (myself), and a small business owner. The point: Many different types of people are drawn to teach EFL.

People are drawn to EFL due to different motivations. Some want to make a difference, some are in search of adventure, some are looking to buy some time until things improve back home, and some frankly are looking to put the past behind them. If there is one common denominator, perhaps it is that most are looking for something different from life back home. EFL offers that.

My Story

Some of you may relate to my story. I had a pretty good run in business. During the last several years as a corporate drone, I made good money. I had a nice house (nice mortgage, too), an SUV, money in the bank and some investments. But I was not very happy.

Work conditions had deteriorated over time. On the surface, things seemed well enough. I got along with my boss and worked most of the time from a home office, and I was compensated fairly. But the workload had grown steadily as more and more people were let go. My job was to deal with client issues. Sometimes I was the hero. More often I was the whipping boy.

I began to dread the start of the workday.

When the company I worked for was purchased, I was offered the option to stay on (working a still heavier workload of course) or to take a severance package. I chose the severance package. I was in good financial shape, no worries. I kicked back and waited to collect on my investments before becoming an ex-pat.

Then I was pummeled by the 1-2-3 of a hurricane, an overnight collapse in the South Florida real estate market, followed by plunging stocks. My plans of retiring early evaporated.

I stepped back and realized that the economy was going to take time to recover. I could stick around and hope for the best—but things were still sliding downward—or I could try my luck abroad. I made the decision to head to Brazil, a country I already knew.

I decided to teach English, primarily because I knew that there would be a lot of work. I signed up for a month-long TEFL program and soon after completing it, arrived in Rio. One week later I was teaching my first students.  

While there have been some tough days, I have never regretted my move here. I believe that I am probably better off than I would be back in the U.S. While the U.S. is showing some signs of economic recovery, things look relatively bright here in Brazil, the world's 7th largest economy, for those who teach English. Economic issues aside, I simply feel more at home here. I like the way of life and the culture. That is often difficult to explain to friends and family back in the U.S., but there are many teachers like me here with no immediate plans to return to their “home countries.”

I have a different life now. A simpler life. I feel more in control and more at peace.

What Can You Expect From the Job?

So, what can you expect if you teach EFL? Obviously, things will vary tremendously depending on which country you choose and the type of teaching you do. I encourage you to do your homework. You can begin right here on this website.

First, do not expect to get rich. In many countries, you will have to hustle just to cover your bills. In others, you can actually make a good salary with benefits and save some money. Give some thought to what you are really seeking. Do you need security or money to pay off student loans, or is a year in a tropical paradise very alluring to you even if you are just getting by?

Your daily schedule will depend quite a bit deponding upon the type of job you pursue. If, for example, you get a contract to teach in a primary or secondary school, you will have a regular schedule and a more or less “normal” job, albeit in a different country and culture. If, like me, you teach private students, your day will likely be a bit more fragmented, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. You may teach classes early in the morning, during lunchtime, and at night, but you will also have a morning hiatus to go to the gym when few people are working out, and another in the afternoon to run errands, plan lessons, or read a book at the beach or café. And you will probably have more free time than most people.

Whichever type of teaching you ultimately pursue, it is important to remember that teaching English is a job. Certainly not as demanding and certainly more rewarding than many, but realistically it is a job. You will have to prepare lessons, which takes time. You will have to show up, even when it is raining torrents. You will have bright students, and not-quite-so-bright students. If you work for a school, you will have a boss.

But on balance, teaching a subject that you know well to students who generally are quite grateful is not a bad existence.

And in the Off Hours?

As noted earlier—and I do not speak not about those who are volunteering to teach in developing countries for more altruistic reasons—for many of us teaching EFL is essentially a means to an end. It is a way to live for a more extended period of time in another culture of our choosing, preferably in a manner respectful of the culture and the locals you are teaching. Yet the allure of teaching EFL is often more what you do in your off hours.

EFL teachers come in different stripes. Many are younger and in search of fun and adventure before settling into a more traditional way of life back home. They may opt to share a house or apartment with many, keeping expenses low and working enough to pay the bills while leaving plenty of time for surf lessons or other adventures, and spirited nights out with friends.

Others may approach the job more seriously, as I did. I earned my TEFL certificate, arranged several interviews before I arrived in Rio, and was teaching straightaway. In a few months I had quit working at my last school as an employee, and have since taught only private students, working as my own boss.

That said, I have still had a lot of fun. Upon arrival, I shared a 3-bedroom apartment for several months with a couple of great guys. The apartment was located in Ipanema, two blocks from the beach. When I was not working, I was working on my tan or working out at the outdoor gym at nearby Arpoador Beach. We had a large circle of friends, Brazilians, Americans, and Brits, and that first year was one of the most memorable of my life.

One general truism is that you will probably have fewer physical possessions than your family and friends you left back home. You cannot bring it all with you. But you will find that you do not need your stereo when you have your iPod, and a smaller wardrobe means fewer decisions to make. You will have less stuff, and be happier and better off for it.

Relationships, conversely, will become more important. For me, moving abroad and being immersed in a new environment was reminiscent of going off to college—it was fresh, stimulating, invigorating, in large part because of the interesting people that I met and from whom I have learned so much. You will form friendships with locals, and also with ex-pats, who probably will come from many countries around the globe.

You may well find that by being immersed in another country and culture, other opportunities present themselves. You may begin to pursue work as a translator. Some teachers do small-scale import/export. You might find work as a guide or a bartender, or doing something related to what you did back home. I write on the side for websites, and have also written an e-book, with more planned for the future. But until you are actually on the ground, you cannot know what you will find. Read this article on seeking an international career for more on using EFL as a stepping-stone.

Whatever your job, and however you spend your off hours, I can promise you that you will grow, and probably much more than you would have had you stayed home. You will be thrown small challenges daily, beginning with dealing with the language and getting around. And if you can view these challenges as little tests or little adventures, you will soon realize how much you have gained: the basics of another language, increased confidence, greater self-reliance, greater understanding and empathy for the local culture and people, and a broader worldview.  

Can You Do This?

The odds are, if you are a native speaker, or at least fluent, and you are motivated, then yes, you can teach EFL. You do not have to have prior teaching experience. It does help to be adaptable and self-reliant, but if you are not so by nature, teaching abroad will certainly strengthen these traits.

As noted earlier, you already know the material cold. You have been speaking English as long as you can remember. Now, you will probably need to bone up on your grammar a bit. There are excellent books out there. Maybe the idea of teaching in front of a class intimates you. TEFL and CELTA courses teach you how to prepare lessons and offer you enough practice teaching such that you are not starting from zero.

Of course, there is a learning curve for any job. But with a modicum of focus you can quickly become an effective EFL teacher. I have coached a few new teachers, and what I tell them that seems to help the most is this: Always keep in mind that you are the expert. You know so much more about English than your students. So be confident. You will quickly begin to see the same issues again and again, and learn to deal with them and to anticipate them. You will actually become a teacher.

And—this is the great thing—foreign students as a rule are very appreciative. They are so happy to have a native speaker. My students routinely end each class by saying “Thank you, teacher.” If any of you reading this are currently teachers in the U.S., you may be feeling jealous. That kind of respect evaporated from most U.S. classrooms years ago.

It is a job, but as a friend of mine in Rio says, “I’ve worked for a living, and I’ve taught English. Teaching English is better.”

Setting aside the anticipation of teaching itself, you will also need to consider the move abroad. That has to be done first. It takes decisiveness and a bit of willpower.

I will say, as someone who has been through it, that making the move abroad later in life is not easy. Perhaps surprisingly, arrival and immersion in the new culture was not the biggest challenge for me: It was extricating myself from my old life in the States. I had to empty a 3-bedroom house of everything, and sell that house in a down market. I had to orchestrate the order in which I did things. There was a lot to do. But you will find that once you make the firm decision to go, everything becomes easier and things just flow. In a way, the process is cathartic.

And for you younger readers, the advice I offer here is: If teaching EFL is something that appeals to you, do it now. It is easier before you become entrenched in the day-to-day grind at home, have a corporate job, and a house with a mortgage, a car payment, two kids, a dog, a timeshare in Orlando and… You get the idea. Do not look at this work—despite what your parents may be telling you—as an irresponsible fling. You will in all probability come back a much more mature and well-rounded person than you would be had you stayed back in your home country. Potential employers will sense that. I sincerely wish that I had made the move when I was younger.

In Closing

Could teaching EFL be right for you? Only you can answer that.

When faced with an important decision, I like to take a piece of paper and fold it lengthwise. I then flatten it out, and on one side of the fold I write the pros, on the other the cons. It is surprising how often the answer becomes immediately apparent.

Remember, too, as you are considering a move abroad, that it does not have to be permanent.

On the other hand, once abroad, you may find that you are in no particular hurry to return home.

Author's note: this column has an interactive format, readers are encouraged to submit questions, suggestions, and commentaries in the comments section below, some of which we will address in upcoming issues of the www.TransitionsAbroad.com webzine.

John Clites currently teaches English in Brazil. He has written an eBook on the subject. You can read about his life and adventures in Brazil via his blog, johninbrazil.org.

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