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Washington and Lee University

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Alumnus Teaching English Abroad

Want to live and work abroad? Teaching English as a foreign language might be your ticket.

Jennifer Titus ’00

I was badly bitten by the travel bug so one spring term and a summer volunteering in London just weren’t enough for me. I knew that I wanted to live in Europe after I graduated in June of 2000, but with my limited foreign language abilities and virtually nonexistent experience in the working world, my dream seemed more than a little far-fetched. The Peace Corps was one option I seriously considered, however fears of spending the next 2.5 years of my life on an irrigation project somewhere near Abu Dhabi filled my head whenever I picked up the application form. Where could I find an entry-level job abroad that didn’t require such a long time commitment and gave me more control over where I ended up? For me, the answer was teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL).

What is TEFL?

Globalization has dramatically increased the importance of the English language for businesses around the world. Fluency in English has become a prerequisite for many jobs so more and more people find that they must attend private language schools to improve their English and remain competitive in the job market. There is a demand for native speakers of English to teach at these private language schools in nearly every country. Most schools look for new teachers to sign 9-month contracts (Sept-June or March-Dec), however some shorter contracts are also available, especially mid-year. These school-year contracts make for an easy way to get your feet wet as a teacher and try out living in a country of your choosing. They also provide the new graduate with a nice period of time in which to make the transition between college life and graduate school and/or the real world while experiencing a new culture.

As an English teacher you have the opportunity to experience life in the country where you teach and you also have the opportunity to meet other English teachers from around the world (people from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere) who make up the TEFL community. TEFL has its own unique culture as it’s made up of an eclectic mix of independent people who enjoy travel and adventure. Some teachers only do it for a year or two as a transition between jobs or schools while others have devoted their lives to the profession of TEFL. Teaching English is actually work and it isn’t ever easy. Students at private language schools are paying customers, relying on their teachers to provide them with language practice and expecting their teachers to actually improve their level of English fluency. Being a native speaker of English isn’t really enough to enable someone to be a good English teacher, especially when facing a classroom full of teenagers who’d rather be anywhere else rather than in English class for 90 minutes on a sunny Friday afternoon after they’ve already finished a full day at school, or a class of expectant businessmen who’d like to know when it’s appropriate to use the past-perfect passive tense. Teaching English as a foreign language definitely isn’t for everyone, an extraordinary amount of patience as well as a good knowledge of English grammar are essential.

Is teaching experience required?

Most reputable private language schools require that their teachers have some type of formal training in teaching. Some schools only look for native speakers of English with a university degree and a desire to teach (most of these schools are in Asia). The majority of schools ask that their teachers have completed a one-month TEFL training course. Most courses run during the summer but you can find a course almost any time of year. Courses are offered in major U.S. cities as well as in Canada, all over the U.K., and in a few other international locations. There are a variety of such courses advertised on TEFL websites on the internet. There are also a number of discussion boards and online articles giving advice on which course to choose. You’ll leave the right course with more than just a certificate saying you are now a qualified teacher of English as a foreign language. A good teacher training course will: a) give you more confidence in the classroom through real teaching practice and feedback on your teaching, b) give you practical advice, techniques, games, and activities to use in your classes, c) give you helpful tips for finding a position at a good school, d) make your resume look more professional, and e) help you to get a better paying job.

After doing some internet research of my own on the different teacher training courses available I chose to enroll in a CELTA course offered through Cambridge. The CELTA course is the most widely recognized and the most highly regarded of all the teacher training courses available. I attended the course in November of 2000 in Prague, Czech Republic and I found it to be quite challenging. The course schedule was very intensive since we were to cover 120 hours of coursework in only 4 weeks. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I gained from the course in that short month. I learned more about English grammar (modal and auxiliary verbs, non-defining and defining relative clauses, participle clauses, mixed conditionals, phrasal verbs, etc.) than I’d ever known existed. The CELTA course was very practical and I could easily apply what I’d learned once I started teaching my classes. Finding a job after finishing the course was only difficult because of the number and variety of offers I had to choose from. I applied to schools which had advertised vacancies on the internet and I was offered positions all over the world, in the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Korea, Mexico, and Chile, to name a few. I eventually accepted a job teaching English in Bydgoszcz, Poland and signed a 6-month contract there. It’s been one year since I signed that first contract and I’m still in Poland but I’m currently teaching at a different school in Gdansk.

How do I find a job that’s right for me?

To find a job teaching English you can either go to a country and start knocking on doors of English schools with your resume in hand or use one of the job boards on the internet. There are some important things to consider before you sign a contract. Teaching salaries vary from country to country and sometimes from city to city. Many schools offer a fixed monthly sum and paid holidays but few provide good health insurance coverage. Some schools provide accommodation for teachers free of charge while other schools leave it up to the teacher to arrange and pay for his or her own accommodation. Many schools will reimburse or completely pay for teachers’ round-trip travelling expenses. The number of teaching hours also varies from contract to contract, 24 hours a week seems to be the average here in Poland. It’s also important to think about whether you’d prefer teaching adults, children or business English. You might want to ask a potential employer about things like class sizes, in-school training, course books, supplementary materials available, and class schedules. Finally, not all schools employ their teachers legally because obtaining the proper work permits and registration papers can be a very lengthy process. Make sure you know what you are getting into before you sign any contracts and you’ll avoid problems later. If you are interested in learning more about TEFL I recommend you check out the following websites: www.eslcafe.com and www.tefl.com.

In general, the most lucrative places to teach English are Asia, particularly Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, and the Middle East. If you intend to pay bills back home while abroad you probably won’t be able to afford to do so anywhere else. You can live comfortably on a teachers’ salary in the local currency of most countries but you would probably struggle to pay bills at home due to the relatively low value of your wage in dollars. For example, it’s quite easy to live comfortably on a teachers’ salary in Poland. On such a salary you can afford to live in a decent apartment, eat out at restaurants quite frequently, go out to movies, bars, clubs and concerts, and travel during school holidays. Using Poland as a base, I’ve been able to travel to the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, and Russia.

Living and working abroad making local wages is quite different than travelling through as a backpacker. You have more time, and many more opportunities, to meet and make friends with the locals, learn a language (at least the basics) and customs, and challenge yourself. My experiences in Poland haven’t all been positive but even the difficult times have been valuable as they’ve given me a greater appreciation for certain aspects of life at home in America. Teaching English has been a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t trade my time in Poland for anything. The hardest part for me will be putting away my passport and returning to life as an American living in America.