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Teaching English Abroad

The Most Accessible Employment for Those Without Special Training or Skills

The most readily-available overseas teaching opportunities are for English teachers. As people worldwide rush to acquire the new lingua franca of international commerce, diplomacy, and higher education, the main credentials you’ll need for many positions are to be a native speaker of English and to have a college degree.

Some programs are now requesting experience in Teaching English as a Foreign (or Second) Language, known by the acronyms TEFL, EFL, TESL, ESL, or even TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Formal credentials in TEFL can be gained in a 1-month course. This could open doors in competitive areas like Western Europe. Those with a master’s in TEFL, available through a 1-year program at many universities, can teach virtually anywhere.

Qualified teachers have still another range of options. Yet, other teaching possibilities, some of which we list here, exist for those with knowledge of special fields such as business, health, math or science (through the Peace Corps and Teachers for Africa) or for graduate students (through the Civic Education Project).

Earnings can be good in relatively wealthy countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In China, Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Newly Independent States, pay may be high by local standards but not sufficient for savings. Africa and Latin America are primarily served by volunteer organizations. Western Europe presents dim prospects for Americans (with some notable exceptions, such as Austria, Finland and France, for which there are official placement programs), because British and Irish teachers do not need work permits as members of the European Union.

In general, if your main motivation in teaching is to make a lot of money, you will likely be disappointed. In some cases the experience may even cost you more than you earn, but this is usually still far less than the cost of study or travel abroad. (Student loans can sometimes be deferred during volunteer work; inquire through your loan and program sponsors.)

Before You Begin

Before you begin your search, determine what you hope to gain from your overseas experience. Are your goals to experience a different culture? Gain language proficiency? Try out teaching as a career? How important is money—do you hope to make a lot of money, is it okay to break even, or can you spend more than you might make for the sake of the cross-cultural experience?

The answers to your money questions may limit your choices. The highest number of well-paying teaching jobs are in Asia.

Next, try to narrow down your geographic preferences to a few countries or regions. Do you hope to tie your experience to career objectives? How does this affect the money issue?

About a year before you begin teaching abroad, think about getting TEFL experience or a certificate. You will be glad you did the first time you face a class thousands of miles from home. Opportunities are available as a literacy volunteer or through local ESL programs for international students or refugees offered by colleges, schools, and religious organizations almost everywhere.

Finding a Job

One way to find an overseas teaching position is to apply through a U.S.-based organization. These usually arrange placement and provide for logistical matters, such as housing and a work permit.

The second strategy is to write directly to overseas schools. Chances of success are limited without going to that country for an interview.

The third strategy is to go to the country where you want to work and apply in person. The major downside to this is cost: airfare, housing (possibly paying several months’ rent up front), and the need to travel to a third country to get a work permit once you land a job. The total up-front investment required by this last approach could easily be $2,000-$3,000 or more—something to keep in mind when evaluating program fees.

We generally recommend applying through U.S.-based organizations rather than seeking a job on-site because of the uncertainty and expense of the latter two strategies. Most U.S.-based teaching placement organizations are small nonprofits, some staffed by volunteers. All (except for private language schools) view their primary mission as cultural exchange, not as placement agencies for well-paid overseas jobs.

Choosing a Placement Program

Programs vary widely in the fees, services, and assistance they offer. When choosing a program, inquire about: fees, salary, job placement, work permit, health insurance, housing, teacher training and materials, whether there is an orientation, and level of on-site support. It is better to be clear about these basics before you apply than to turn up and find you do not have a legal work permit.

Fees. What exactly do they include?

Placement. Find out who you will be teaching (elementary, high school, university students, or adults?) and where (a state school, private school, or for-profit language institute?).

Salary. How much and how often will you be paid? Compare your salary with the local cost of living.

Health insurance may not be provided by program fees, or you may be covered by socialized medicine available only in-country. Get an International Teachers’ ID Card from STA Travel (800-777-0112, www.statravel.com) which includes a minimal health insurance policy and gives access to student-rate airfares. Consider special comprehensive coverage for educators provided by such companies as HTH Worldwide (800-242-4178, www.hthworldwide.com, Seabury and Smith (800-282-4495 or 800-331-3047, or Wallach and Company (800-237-6615, www.wallach.com). Costs begin at approximately $50 per month.

Materials and training. If they don’t provide materials, what do they recommend to bring with you? Even if some training is provided, would it still be useful to get experience teaching or tutoring in the U.S.?

William Nolting is the International Center Assistant Director, Education Abroad at the University of Michigan and Work Abroad and International Educational Editor for Transitions Abroad.

Anthony Hand is a graduate student in the School of Information at the Univ. of Michigan. He is a JET program alumnus.