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How to Teach English Abroad and Avoid Cowboy Schools

Planning is Essential

I entered the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) profession in 1995. In the dozen years since then, the industry has enjoyed historic growth. First, the Web is much more important now than it was years ago, and its predominant language is English. Also, international commerce has expanded and English is the lingua franca of business, tourism, and entertainment. As the influence of English expands, the number of students worldwide learning the language has increased. The rapid growth of a Chinese middle class that can afford to pay for English instruction has fueled the TEFL boom in that country. In fact, China’s need for EFL teachers outstrips the available supply.

The phenomenal expansion of the EFL industry should be welcomed as good news by EFL instructors, but the news is not all positive. Unfortunately, standards and working conditions for EFL teachers have not improved. Cowboy schools have multiplied and thrived on the EFL boom. South Korea has long had a notorious reputation in the industry. Recently, China has had a lot of problems with its language institutes. Although these two countries have had the most negative publicity, cowboy schools exist everywhere EFL or ESL is taught.

Whatever the location, these institutes routinely overcharge students and underpay instructors; both student and teacher turnover are usually high. These institutes are willing to hire “teachers” with spurious credentials, even passing off Italians and other nationals as native speakers to their unsuspecting customers. They are managed by unscrupulous entrepreneurs whose background in education is minimal or nonexistent. A managing director once told me: “I don’t care about the quality of teaching. The only thing I care about is making money.”

Cowboy schools do not always honor their contracts with foreign teachers, and they usually get away with it because the foreign instructors often do not have any legal recourse. Consequently, teachers who find themselves in untenable situations often find they have no choice but to leave abruptly before the end of their contracts. In fact, I personally know several Westerners who did this in South Korea.

As the author of numerous articles on TEFL, I sometimes get email inquiries about EFL employment. Unfortunately, the questions often reveal that the prospective teachers did not do enough research into the EFL job market or even their own motivations for teaching abroad. The first step in avoiding cowboy schools is to set your own goals for working overseas.

If your goal is financial gain, you will probably be disappointed. Salaries have not kept pace with the industry’s overall growth. Most Japanese language institutes still pay 250,000 yen per month. Thai universities have paid 25,000-40,000 baht a month for the last couple of decades. Even in the oil-rich Middle East, salaries for EFL instructors have depreciated in real terms in recent years. Nevertheless, it is possible to save thousands of dollars in the course of a year if you work in one of the following countries: Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia.

Most employers offer enough vacation time to enable you to visit interesting sites within the country or in a neighboring country. If this is your goal, it may be worthwhile to find an employer that offers contracts that are less than a year in duration.

Some would-be teachers are motivated by a desire to learn a foreign language. A year or two in an environment will give you the opportunity to at least master the language partially. This is especially true for a relatively simple language (e.g. Spanish). Mastering a complex language such as Chinese, however, requires more than one or two years for most people. Bilingual teachers are needed in schools throughout the United States, so time spent overseas is excellent preparation if your ultimate goal is teaching at home.

A number of altruistic people interested in teaching English abroad simply want to help the less fortunate. For such people, it is a good idea to check out the Peace Corps. The compensation/benefit package offered by the Peace Corps compares favorably to the paltry salaries offered by language institutes in many countries. Other volunteer positions, which require a shorter time commitment, are occasionally posted on Dave’s ESL Café or These positions are often for Latin America. Before applying for any of these openings, it is important to find out if the employer is a nonprofit organization.

After setting your goals, applying for paid or volunteer positions via the Internet, which is the most common approach, can be problematic. Schools that advertise the most frequently have problems recruiting and retaining staff. It is prudent to obtain a copy of the contract (in English) and peruse it carefully before agreeing to anything. Get written clarification of any ambiguous language and save it for future use if needed. Ask for the phone numbers or email addresses of at least two teachers who worked at the school previously. If the organization is reluctant to provide a copy of the contract or contact information for past teachers, search elsewhere for employment.

Many prospective employers conduct a telephone interview; this is your opportunity to ask questions. But you should get written verification, with a follow-up email, of any promises made to you during the interview. Key areas for clarification include housing, the number of hours worked, and work permit procedures. Is the housing private or shared? Who is responsible for utilities? Are the hours in the contract contact (i.e. classroom) hours or are office hours included in the total figure? How is overtime calculated? What are the procedures for obtaining a work permit and who is responsible for costs incurred in getting one? Disreputable employers or recruiting agencies often inveigle teachers into accepting a tourist visa. Upon arriving in the country, newly-hired teachers have no legal rights; thus they can be exploited.

Careful planning can make all the difference to your overseas teaching experience. Setting realistic goals and conducting a thorough job search will enable you to have a fulfilling and productive experience abroad. I wish I had done more thorough preparation before accepting my first position back in 1995.

For More Info

The International Job Forums of has information on many EFL employers as does ESLemployment. is the U.S. government site that has information on the typical problems faced by teachers in China and South Korea.

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