An Introduction to Teaching English Around the World (TEFL/TESOL)

A girl sitting against the sky.

This article is a very user-friendly introduction to Teaching English Around the World.

That is, heading off for a year or so to a foreign country and teaching English to people there. Or even staying at home in your own country and teaching English to students who come over to learn the language.

There are many thousands of English teachers right around the world (one estimate puts the number at well over half a million) and there are many millions of students learning English.

This article explains it all. It will tell you what exactly English teachers do, where they do it and how you can be part of the English teaching world and live and work almost anywhere on earth - while you make a real difference and change people's lives.

Introduction to Teaching English

One of the most common reasons for moving abroad is to work as an English language teacher. You can find schools teaching English in pretty much every country around the world and many of them employ native English language speakers to do the work (i.e. people who grew up speaking English).

There are thousands of English teachers in every corner of the world and still many jobs available for newcomers without experience. For the teacher it not only offers a fantastic opportunity to live and work in another country and experience their culture, but also a lot in terms of job satisfaction.

When you see a class go from speaking and understanding nothing whatsoever in English to having conversations and discussions with you, it’s a great feeling!

This article introduces the subject and will give you a good idea of the opportunities out there as well as what you need to get started in the industry.

Before Beginning

Before getting into the real nitty-gritty, here’s a quick word on acronyms‏‎ you’ll find here which are common in the industry.

  • TEFL‏‎ - this stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
  • TESOL - this stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
  • TESL‏‎ - this stands for Teaching English as a Second Language.

These 3 acronyms mean pretty much the same thing: teaching English to people who grew up speaking a different language.

Qualifications for English Teachers

Although each country has its own specific requirements for English teachers, generally speaking there are 2 qualifications you will need to teach English around the world. Most schools ask for:

1. A Degree

The degree can be in almost any subject as it is usually required for the visa only and is often a legal requirement for the country you're going to for the work permit. Note that by degree this normally means a 3 or 4 year degree and not an Associates degree which is usually not enough.

Regarding the subject of the degree, you will find teachers with degrees in all sorts of subjects not necessarily related to teaching or English. You can meet teachers with degrees in Engineering or Sociology or Ancient Greek or Drama teaching English!

(However, as you might imagine, schools tend to look more favorably on degrees in English or language related subjects.)

Note that if you do not have a degree there are still some limited opportunities for teaching abroad. See TEFL without a Degree‏‎ for more on this.

2. A TEFL Certificate

TEFL Certificate* is the second usual qualification you'll need.

* Note that it's common to see this called a TEFL certificate, TESOL certificate or TESL certificate - they are all basically the same thing!

The certificate is awarded after a short course which will teach you the basics of teaching English. A good course will not only cover how to teach the language but also look at teaching skills such as classroom management and so on.

Some courses are either held in-house or - like the ICAL TEFL Certificate Course - run online. Prices vary with online courses running at around $265  (€200 or £155) and in-house courses starting at around $1000 USD (€791, £636).

For more on qualifications, see Qualifications for Teachers‏‎.

Speaking the Local Language

Oh, and one common question we are often asked is, "Do I have to Speak the Local Language?‏‎". The simple answer is, "No!"

You don’t need to speak Russian if you’re looking for work in Russia‏‎ or Chinese to work in China. The general principal of teaching English is that you and your class only speak English when you’re together so don’t worry if you don’t speak anything but English yourself!

Where to Teach

While you’re getting qualified you can be deciding where you want to teach. As we mentioned in the introduction there are English schools right around the world and you can find work almost anywhere. The major areas of teaching English are explored here:

English Speaking Countries

Although there are job opportunities in English speaking countries, they tend to be filled by local teachers who are (generally) well qualified and have experience. What often happens is that a teacher will head abroad for a few years when they first start out and then return home to work after a while. Thus in countries like the UK‏‎ and the USA‏‎ you will find a lot of experienced English teachers chasing too few jobs.

Newcomers to teaching therefore usually find their first job abroad.

Continental Europe

There are several major areas in Europe. Demand for foreign English teachers in Scandinavia is fairly low since English is taught to a very high standard in state schools. In the north, Germany‏‎ for example, schools look for very professional teachers with experience; often teaching Business English‏‎.

In the past new teachers looking for a first job would head off to the south of Europe, notably Spain‏‎ or Greece‏‎. Jobs here now are more a of problem due to the economic crisis but places like Turkey‏‎ are still thriving and demand for teachers in the Balkan countries is growing.

One important point about Europe is that most countries (including all those mentioned above) are part of the European Union‏‎. Schools here tend to favour teachers who have a passport from an EU member state; this effectively means that by far the majority of teachers working in Europe come from the UK‏‎ or Ireland‏‎ as they can live and work freely in any EU country. American, Australian or Canadian teachers will find it very difficult to find work within the EU.

Having said this, some European countries are not part of the EU (e.g. Switzerland and some Eastern Europe countries) and will still accept teachers from outside Europe.

For more on this, see Teaching English in Europe.

Asia

Asia is ideal for new teachers. Many of the jobs here ask for the basic qualifications but don't necessarily ask for experience. It is an ideal location to get your feet wet as a teacher before either moving up the career ladder or moving on to another location.

For the past few years the new emerging world market for TEFL has been China. A simple search online will bring up hundreds of jobs available there ranging from work in the big cities to small towns in the far end of the country. If you work there you’ll find teachers from many different countries alongside you. The conditions can range from the basic to the super-modern but it's also a place where you can make a mark as a teacher with plenty of opportunities.

Outside of China, and more developed in terms of English language teaching, the most popular destinations are Japan, South KoreaThailand‏‎ and Vietnam‏‎ although you will find jobs in many other Asian countries as well.

In the same way that Europe is a common destination for British and Irish teachers, these countries are popular with Australian, New Zealand, American and Canadian teachers although you’ll still find plenty of British and Irish working there too as well as teachers from other nations.

For more on this, see Teaching English in Asia.

America

Mainly popular with North American teachers are MexicoBrazil‏‎ and Argentina‏ although you will find teaching opportunities in pretty much every country in Central and South America.

For more on teaching in North, Central & South America, see Teaching English in America.

Elsewhere

The best paying TEFL jobs tend to be in the Middle East. Teachers here are usually well qualified and experienced and spend a couple of years working and making money before moving on; conditions here tend to be good but somewhat sparse for Western teachers so there is a fairly high turnover of teachers.

There are a few jobs available in Africa and work is available although it can be hard to find, especially online. Although in the future the situation may change, with the exception of South Africa‏‎ and the countries of North Africa, most countries in Africa either do not have the finance or infrastructure in place for foreign language teaching or are English speaking already.

What are the Schools/Pay/Conditions like?

Schools vary a great deal both around the world and within each country. In all likelihood you’ll be teaching at a private school which works outside the public school system, often supplementing its shortcomings.

The school set up varies from country to country and city to city. In richer and more developed countries you are likely to find school chains which are often large affairs – sometimes up to 1,000 students or more – with tens of English teachers and several different campuses. In less developed countries and smaller towns, schools tend to be much smaller, sometimes just a single teacher in a single classroom with perhaps 20 students in all.

It’s hard to generalize, but the average school is perhaps 200 students, two or three classrooms, basic facilities and three or four teachers in all (mostly locals; often schools will have just one English native speaker teacher).

The majority of students will be from 10 – 17 years old, though many schools also run English classes for younger children and older business people. And in case you are wondering, the students tend to be quite well behaved and there also tends to be much more respect for a teacher both inside and outside the school!

A typical working week would involve something like 20 - 30 classroom hours. You may well work slightly odd hours though: 9 to 12 in the morning and then again in the afternoon from 4 till 8. Split shifts like this are not uncommon in private schools.

Generally you’ll sign a teaching contract‏‎ for the school year. Although it varies by country, in most places this is from September/October to May/June. You may sign for 12 months but this will include all national and regulated holidays.

The pay is generally quite good by local standards. An entry level job will give you enough to live on, pay for a bedsit type accommodation (which is often organized by the school), give you a couple of nights out per week and enough for a holiday at the end of your contract.

The school will often organize basic health cover if the country you are in does not have a reciprocal agreement with your home country. Often - thought not always - your return flight will be reimbursed at the end of your contract.

Finding English Teaching Jobs

There are three generally accepted ways of finding work.

  1. Through an online advertisement. Many schools advertise their job online and a simple search will bring up suitable jobs.
  2. Using an agent. These will help place you in a school and help with sorting out paperwork. Note: reputable agents do not charge the teacher.
  3. Pounding the Streets. This isn’t to be dismissed immediately and a lot of teachers do this. If you know where you want to go but can’t find work there beforehand then you can take a flight over, rent a cheap room and see if you can find work on your own.

For more on this, see the main article, How to Find English Teaching Jobs Abroad.

And then...

...and then it’s time to buy a phrase book, pack your bag and go!

Although some new teachers will spend just a couple of years abroad working and then return home, many teachers will make a career out of it spending many years living and working in different countries around the world. English teaching can take you almost anywhere and it doesn’t matter if you are straight out of college or looking for a mid-life career change. English teaching can give you the opportunity to get out there, make a difference and enjoy yourself!

Teach and Travel as an English Teacher Abroad - a general look at the life of an English teacher abroad

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