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Things to Watch Out for Before Taking a TEFL Job Overseas

In 2003 I moved to Istanbul for my first EFL teaching job, newly certified and full of hope and expectation. Ten months later I returned to America, disillusioned exhausted and in debt. Living in Turkey had been wonderful, with one major drawback: the school itself. After working seven days a week for a corrupt institution that violated nearly every term of my contract, I wondered how I could have missed the obvious warning signs early on.

Like many first-time English teachers, I was caught up in the excitement of the new job abroad, and failed to see the red flags. While the benefits of teaching abroad are numerous, the industry itself is rife with corruption. Teaching abroad is an exciting and rewarding experience. But take these precautions to avoid becoming a victim.

 End-of-Contract Bonus. Would you accept a job in your home country that instead of paying you a regular monthly salary paid you barely enough to survive with the promise of an enormous lump sum at the end of a year? Then why would you do it in a foreign country where you won’t even have legal recourse when that bonus is denied? Schools often use this tactic to prevent turnover.

 Visa and Airfare Fee Paid at End of Contract. The same rule applies here as to end-of-contract bonuses. If plane fare is offered, get it before you fly off. Insist on a legal working visa but if you agree to work illegally, get the visa money before you make your border run, or you may end up in debt.

 Overly Friendly Interview. Is your future boss your new best friend, full of enthusiasm and short on details? Your interviewer should provide clear, informative answers to your questions and be as concerned about your qualifications as you are about theirs. Hired without an interview? Another sure sign of a revolving-door outfit.

 Do You Have a Contract? Your contract should answer all questions about hours, salary, days off, healthcare, class size, duration of employment, and management expectations. You should receive this document by fax or email before you agree to employment. A school's refusal to give you one is a sure sign of a loser.

 Is Your Contract Legal? My contract had all of the above but since I wound up working illegally, it was useless. Beware of “good-faith agreements” or clauses that state the manager can negate the entire contract at his whim. (Yes, these do exist.)

 Teaching Hours. Some teachers can work 30 hours per week with ease, others can do only 15, but no one should be expected to teach seven days or more than 35 hours per week. Be sure that the school stipulates a guaranteed minimum number of teaching hours if you are paid hourly.

 Sickness Policy. Most schools do not provide paid sick days or leave, but they should have a clearly defined and reasonable policy that allows for sick days off without penalization. At my school, teachers were forced to provide a note from a doctor every time they were out sick. This involved a costly (and often unnecessary) trip to the hospital. One Teacher had a heart attack while working. The school volunteered to pay the $9,000 bill—and then insisted he begin working it off immediately upon release, despite doctor’s orders to rest. He’s still there, and has years to go.

 Training and Induction. Schools should offer a 1-week orientation, class observations of experienced teachers, and consistent feedback. Evaluations should be based on clear/cut criteria and standards explained in advance by the management. If these elements are lacking, it’s a sign that the school is more interested in turning a profit than improving the experience of its students or staff.

 Boss Who Does Not Speak English. The manager of your school is responsible for your salary, contract, residence, and schedule. If he or she doesn’t speak English (or pretends not to), you’re in trouble. Schools may have an interpreter who acts as an intermediary, but he or she is powerless in negotiation.

 Retain Your Passport. Your passport is the property of your government. Refusal to return it for the contract duration is not only an excuse for a school to keep you under lock and key, it’s illegal and a sure sign of a corrupt institution.

 Internet Rave Reviews. The Internet is a great resource for teachers and an even greater place for schools to plant rave reviews to lure unsuspecting newbies. One teacher recalls having received an email from a fellow graduate praising her school. “When I arrived at the school and asked him about the letter, he just sighed and said, ‘I guess I should tell you the real story.’” It turned out that the school was terrible; he was quitting, but he was paid by the school to write it.

 Mysterious Housing. If your school claims to provide housing, ask to see a photo in advance and try to contact teachers who live there. Do not give large deposits to cover potential damage.

 Materials. Does the school provide adequate course materials? Ask which textbooks they use and whether you’re writing your own tests and quizzes. Don’t expect schools to be up to Western standards, but insist that they show (or describe) materials well in advance.

 High Turnover Rate. Teaching normally has a high turnover rate, but when excellent teachers leave before their contracts finish, it’s a sign that the school doesn’t value its employees.

 Hands-Off Management. Does the school hold regular staff meetings where ongoing issues are discussed? Are teachers notified of changes to their hours and schedule well in advance? If the answer is no, you’re in for a rough ride. Talk to the current staff about how management works. If the school won’t let you contact their teachers, chances are they have something to hide.