Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is a growing industry in constant need of native and proficient English speakers to teach the language in schools and language institutes around the world. TEFL is a' lifestyle' job offering short-term or long-term career prospects to those who would prioritise the chance to live abroad, work with interesting people and enjoy certain freedoms living outside of the realm of 9-5.
Typical ads for a standard month-long TEFL certificate course tout the qualification as a passport to thousands of jobs worldwide. Unfortunately, whilst the bar for entry into the profession is not high, there are definite downsides – including modest pay rates (especially for less experienced teachers) and a career path with limited progression opportunities. These are the things you will need to weigh up. So, a career in TEFL might not be for everyone - but could it be for you?
On the Upside
Travel: The world is your oyster
With a TEFL certificate in hand, I went beyond imagining faraway places on the globe. I bought a ticket for Hong Kong, an excellent jumping-off spot for trips to Thailand, Mainland China, or the Philippines. But there are plenty of other options: maybe drinking coffee in an Italian café is more your style? Or is it surfing in Mali? Or snowboarding in the Alps? The choice is yours – and there will always be places where your English teaching skills are in demand.
TEFL teaching is your chance to live almost anywhere you want, to live the lifestyle of your choice, and to tick off bucket list experiences that go way beyond a typical holiday. Many teaching contracts are for a year - though they could be longer or shorter, and they often leave you free in summer to pursue other opportunities to earn or travel.
It’s great to be able to throw yourself into the local culture, challenge your preconceptions, and teach yourself to learn new skills. Even the smallest challenges can be rewarding. For example, I was always able to amaze waiters in Asia who were anxious to watch me eat rice with chopsticks. There was always something satisfying about being able to confound their expectations. And it's part of the unwritten contract between English teachers and language learners that, in exchange for learning your language, you take in a bit some of the local culture and traditions.
Learn a language or two
Another great thing about living abroad is the opportunity to learn new language skills yourself. Imagine taking the wrong train and having to ask for directions in a strange Chinese town. Or talking your way out of being fined by the notorious Budapest transport police for an 'invalid ticket'. These are the kinds of experiences where I learned (the hard way!) that the old adage 'everybody speaks English' is complete rubbish. Yet, these are the kinds of real-life encounters that will provide you with great motivation to use a new language in a place where it’s spoken every day. Succeeding will fill you with pride, enhance your life experiences and help you build your C.V.
Easy Career Option
Perhaps you have completed a degree with less than eye-popping prospects of graduate-level work at home. English language teaching is an option for those with more enthusiasm than experience. Language schools are always looking for friendly, patient, and organised people with good communication skills. You are just as likely to be judged on these soft skills as much as your C.V. And it’s worth remembering that, whether or not you stay in the profession, these are also the kinds of skills and experiences that are valued in a wide range of professions.
Meet amazing people
Teaching is a people-orientated job. The best opportunity to meet locals and gain access to their culture is by teaching them. You may even meet that one special person who will turn your life around – and you’d be far from the first or the last person to do so!
Whilst you are abroad, your English-teaching colleagues are likely to provide a community of like-minded individuals. Being a part of this community will reduce your cultural isolation and often leads to lifelong friendships and cherished memories. The profession attracts free-spirited and creative people and this, in itself, can be rewarding. You are almost guaranteed to meet musicians, writers, or actors and I, personally, can add to this list, missionaries, grad students, and comedians - along with the only professional clown I was ever likely to meet!
A Sense of freedom
The ability to have a passionate side hustle is one great benefit of the flexibility of most teaching schedules. You may have large blocks of time when you are not teaching and you can use this time for studying, novel writing, cafe hopping...whatever you want. Daytime hours are free if you are teaching evenings, for example. Or you can use that free time to earn some extra cash as a private language tutor.
You will find there is always a demand for private lessons. The growth of online teaching is a huge development in the profession and means the added flexibility of being able to teach to anyone from anywhere.
On the downside
With so many available jobs in exotic locations and flexible working options, TEFL might sound too be too good to be true. Sadly, many of the advantages of the job are linked to things you may love a little less about the job and the TEFL 'industry'.
The flip side of the flexibility that the profession offers is a lack of security; you may have poor access to social benefits, steady pay, or guaranteed working hours. That's because your employer is also seeking flexibility from you. Course enrolments fluctuate, lessons get cancelled. Fierce competition among private language schools can drive down wages and perks. In this climate that is a harsh reality that many teachers have had to face. Of course, just like in all professions, there are good and bad employers – if you are lucky, you will find yourself working in a school that makes teachers feel like valuable assets.
One of my wealthier students in Hong Kong once asked if I had a pool in my house. Who doesn't? Well, TEFL is no get-rich-quick scheme, that’s for sure. Of course, there are better rewards for teachers with advanced qualifications and experience, but you'll often start with just enough to pay the bills locally and to pay the entrance to a local public swimming pool!
I recall one memorable student – and a member of his nation's Royal family – who put his feet up on his desk in my lesson, declaring that he did not need to learn to speak English as that was a job for his servants. It’s a rare case but it reflects the high number of people learning English to fulfil the requirements of parents or employers rather than their own passions. As a lifelong student and teacher of languages, I have not always been able to pass on my passion to all the students in front of me.
Long working hours
Hours can be flexible. Great! But they can also be long and anti-social. Saturday mornings are a big day for lessons in many spots. That's more difficult when you've been also teaching on Friday night. Days can start early and finish late and travel to remote in-company lessons can eat up the downtime in between. These are conditions that teachers often discover only after they arrive abroad.
While you may enjoy your foreign lifestyle, you could also eventually tire of it. You may miss your favourite pub, favourite grub, or good friends at home. Get ready for the time when those friends and family inevitably tell you to 'come home and settle down!'
The truth is that TEFL will leave you a changed person. Despite the downsides, a career in TEFL offers life-changing rewards. Although it isn't the dream job for everyone, there is so much to gain in terms of personal experiences and development. You will find it’s more than just a job. It's an experience that can shape the rest of your life. It's just up to you to decide if that is the life you want to lead.
TEFL Toolkit provides online ESOL resources to help your students learn more effectively in the classroom. You can buy Teaching Ideas for English Language Learners and ESOL speaking activities from our shop, as well as Language Posters, novelty teacher gifts and more. Get in touch today for more information.
Written by the EiA Academic Team