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Teaching English as Foreign Language Abroad for North Americans


Woman at a market in Vietnam where demand for ESL teachers is high.
View of a market in Vietnam. The demand for English teachers is high is this growing economy. Photo courtesy of ITTT.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is a booming opportunity for Americans and Canadians. From China to Chile to Vietnam, demand for native-speakers of English is remains very high. So is interest, particularly among recent college graduates who wish to see the world long-term, career-switchers, and retirees. The attractions are many, but so are the challenges and, more so than ever before, the requirements. DO your homework and DON’T take anything for granted.


DO orient yourself to the opportunity that is teaching English abroad, both the rewards and the challenges. The prospect of TEFLing often appears rosy, but the experience can be anything but for teachers who do not fully prepare themselves. DON’T take anything for granted. Research everything from the climate of your destination to the contract that a school is offering you. DON’T rely on anybody’s opinion or word. Check and double-check and be prepared to be patient.

DON’T be paranoid but DO be vigilant. There are more good schools than bad, more happy teachers than disappointed ones. Some teachers get lucky, some don’t. The surest and most sensible thing to do, however, is to make your own luck. Set yourself up for success! For starters, DON’T assume anything. This is particularly important in matters pertaining to visa processing. DON’T get tricked into teaching on a tourist visa or, worse still, being forced to use fraudulent documents to obtain an actual work visa. Before you even start applying for positions, find out which countries you can legally teach in. In many countries, it’s not so much about getting a job, but getting a legal (and enjoyable, professional, etc.) one.

DO network with other teachers to confirm normal conditions and normal practices for a particular teaching destination and DO continue visiting sites like Transitions Abroad which provide information and advice on teaching English overseas. DON’T, however, confuse neutral sites like this one with those associated with a particular program or service. In the world of TEFL, the line between fact and fiction can be fine and the distinction between information and advertising is easily blurred.

With that in mind, DO familiarize yourself with the lingo of the industry. An understanding of the acronyms and terminology related to TEFLing is vital to reading job postings, making informed decisions and presenting yourself professionally. DON’T be intimidated by what you find. Teaching English overseas is not nearly so complex an endeavor as the lingo of the industry suggests. Many acronyms are redundant and/or moot. DO be confident. Most people can teach English and teach it well. It has more to do with enthusiasm and aptitude than it does with formal education and acronym ability. DON’T, however, be cocky. Many teachers fall into the trap of seeing themselves as the West’s gift to the world when the reality is that we are the lucky ones. The opportunity to teach and travel simply because we happen to speak English is a singular one owing to circumstance, not divine right. DO keep that in mind and be humble, first in applying for a job and later in actually doing it.

DON’T forget that just because you can speak it, you’re not necessarily ready to teach it! True, teachers learn to teach by teaching, but the curve is steeper for those who do less to prepare, and it isn’t only the students who suffer. Many “teachers” go abroad only to return home shortly thereafter because they assumed too much and researched too little. Culture shock is an issue everywhere and every time, regardless of how much traveling you have done. Classroom shock is an issue as well. There is no such thing as English by osmosis. Your mere presence in the classroom will not miraculously transform those sitting before you into fluent speakers. You have a job to do—you have to teach! Where and how are two issues you need to think about and research.

When you picture yourself teaching English abroad, do you see a classroom with rows of desks, students in uniforms and you in front of a blackboard? DON’T! Most teaching positions are in private language institutes, not public school classrooms. DO remember that these institutes are businesses in the business of teaching English. They are located anywhere and everywhere English can be “sold,” from office towers to converted houses to on-site facilities in client businesses like boardrooms and staff rooms.

DON’T assume you can simply talk at your students and call it “teaching.” DO consider taking an introductory teacher training course. Good TESOL certificate programs will take your most important natural asset—the ability to speak English fluently—and train you to impart it to others, usually in 100 hours or so. DON’T just take any old course, though. Anybody can create a program, tag it with the TESOL acronym and start “training” teachers and presenting certificates. Even amongst the good ones, certificate reputation and recognition vary from country to country. A certificate’s worth is for the most part individually determined; there is no “best” certificate for every person and every place.

The bottom line, as always, is this: DO your research! The web is rife with discussion forums devoted to teaching English overseas. DON’T just read the existing postings: Ask questions! Your needs and goals are unique. This is no time to be shy or self-conscious. DON’T be intimated. There are no stupid questions, but there are—and forgive the harshness of the label—stupid teachers. In this day and age, there is so much you can do to orient yourself that there really aren’t any excuses for ignorance or ill-preparedness. Teachers who have “been there, done that” are a great place to start. Larger boards benefit from diverse and numerous usership and have the advantage of being for the most part self-regulating. That is to say, if someone posts something that is way off base and/or blatantly promotional or misleading, somebody else will more than likely reply and set them straight.

Know before you go. It’s that simple. Before you start applying for jobs you need to stop wondering. DON’T begin your job search before you’ve completed your research. DO, however, draw the line. You could research teacher training programs, teaching positions and job markets until the cows come home. You’ll know when you feel ready to take the next step.

Package Preparation

Before you start applying, DO consider what you have learned from the orientation process and devise a personalized strategy for your TEFL job pursuit. You are unique, and so is the teaching market you are considering. DON’T let your experience in the North American employment market limit your approach (or your expectations!) in the TEFL job search. You’re about to go from being one of millions to one in a million.

First and foremost, reconsider your documents. Resumes, cover letters and even letters of reference all need to be updated and adapted. You are applying to do something new, something most new graduates have no experience with. DON’T worry about that! Be confident when preparing your application package. If you underestimate yourself, you will “underwhelm” your prospective employer. The following are some key “DOs” to consider when creating an application package:

1) emphasize the teaching aspects of previous employment experiences;
2) include experiences with ESL speakers regardless of the employment situation;
3) list previous travel experience and/or additional languages you have learned.

An overseas English school isn’t necessarily interested in how many videos you rented as a clerk at Blockbuster but they will definitely appreciate knowing that you trained new employees. By the same token, being a server in a restaurant might not occur to you as a highlight-quality resume credential, but if it involved ESL speakers as clientele, it quickly becomes one.

DON’T forget how different teaching English overseas is! Liabilities on your resume in the North American job market are often non-issues abroad. For example, employers at home are often concerned with how long you held a particular position and may not see previous travel experience (things like backpacking Europe for a month) in a positive light. They’re worried about stability and commitment and to them a series of short-term jobs and a tendency to travel doesn’t always sit well.

English school owners and directors will look at your resume differently because they are looking for someone different. They want a person who can teach English and live abroad for a year, sometimes even less. They have different criteria for determining stability and commitment. DO keep that in mind! Be enthusiastic in your cover letter, about teaching and traveling, and demonstrate an interest in the industry and country.

With that in mind, DON’T assume your existing references are adequate and/or applicable. Talk to them about teaching English abroad, the qualities and experiences that are most relevant, and ask them to write new letters that reflect both what you’ve done and what they believe you to be capable of doing. You’re looking for someone who can and will say, “I think Joe/Sue will be a great EFL teacher because…”

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, DON’T limit yourself to one resume or cover letter. Every job is different. For example, if you are applying for jobs teaching children, emphasize employment experience and personality traits that are relevant to your target learners. In situations where one is required as part of the application process, you may even want to have different photos to send; a more casual, fun-loving one for kids’ schools vs. a still friendly but more professional picture for institutes that teach business people.

The TEFL Job Search

Good news: There are more jobs than there are teachers, lots more! The job market varies from place to place of course, and there are certainly countries where teaching positions can be difficult to come by but, generally speaking, it is a job seeker’s market. DO keep that in mind and DON’T underestimate your ability to get any job. You’ll never know unless you apply.

There are two main ways to execute a TEFL job search from your home country; reactively and proactively. The reactive job search is likely still the more common, but the unique nature of TEFLing and the continuing boom in available jobs worldwide is making the proactive search more and more attractive. DO consider both and, depending on where you want to go, even a mixture of the two. DON’T limit yourself!

The reactive job search involves visiting websites and reading newspapers in search of listed TEFL job opportunities and then responding to ads for positions that are available. In doing so, teachers must apply as required by the advertising school. The pro to this type of search is that you know jobs are available because they are advertised. The con is that you have to choose from what’s being offered and, depending on what you are looking for, your choices may be limited.

DO keep this in mind: Use of the web as a job advertising medium is more popular in some countries than others. Job openings in Korea are regularly and copiously posted on major and minor job boards. Job openings in many South American countries, however, are not. It depends on the job market, the availability of teachers locally and many other factors. DO your research!

With that in mind, DON’T rule out alternative approaches. The proactive job search allows you to choose a region or type of school and target it with unsolicited applications. There are two main avenues to pursue in the proactive job search: One is to use a list of target schools (some you have to buy, others can be found in online “yellow pages” for target cities) and send them cover letters and resumes, regardless of whether or not they are currently looking for teachers. The other is to post a similar letter or resume on a major Job Wanted board or list yourself with a resume bank and wait for responses. DON’T list too much information, though! Most resume boards are open to the public. An email address is as much information as you should offer, and even then be prepared for spam. DON’T list personal information like your phone number, address or passport number.

Proactive or reactive, every job search requires consideration and preparation. It may also require investment and travel. If your dream job requires it, DO be prepared to actually fly to your destination and pound the pavement. In some countries and/or particular cities, your likelihood of getting hired will increase dramatically if you apply in person, on-site. You may look great on paper, but DON’T underestimate how much better (and more employable!) you’ll look in person.

Know before you go. DO your homework. DON’T take anything for granted. DO your research and DON’T forget to network. This article is rife with clichés and broad advice, but with good reason. Teaching English abroad is an experience unique to each person who undertakes it. You know your own strengths and weaknesses, what you are looking for and what you have to offer. Job markets are equally unique. Know yourself and know your destination.

Taking the time to orient yourself to the industry and the opportunity will improve your employability, decrease your anxiety and – hopefully! – set you up for an exciting and successful TEFLing experience.

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