TEFL Teaching From a Teacher’s Perspective

I started TEFL teaching in 1992 and never have regretted it. It has given me the chance to travel and to spend long enough in any country to get to know at least something about the people’s way of life and their culture.

So, what are the good points and the pitfalls of TEFL teaching? Let’s begin with the reasons why people take up this kind of teaching: to travel, and because they like it. Why they take up travel is another point, and I think there is no one reason; everyone has their reasons. Some simply want to broaden their mind and see the world, others want to escape the nine-to-five boredom of the country they are living in, a third group don’t know what they want to do, even more can’t find a job in the country they come from, a further group love teaching and want to do it in a different location, and a few are recovering from a disastrous love affair or marriage. The list is endless, and the differing personalities of people who enter this trade/game, depending on your perspective, are also as varied. My personal reasons are not important here.

Now I am going to divide the types of teacher. I am not trying to make labels, just make it easier for people to see the choice and decide what option to take. I divide them into “Security conscious” and “Gung-ho adventurous.”

Security Conscious
How do you go about it? It depends what you want. I suggest that everyone do a TEFL course of some description, and get that under your belt because then you have a stronger bargaining counter with schools, and other people such as private students. But in many places you don’t have to have a TEFL qualification, and it largely depends if you want to take a chance. The trouble with courses is that they are expensive.
Here is a list of points for those who want to increase their chances of getting a job teaching English, bearing in mind that attractive destinations are often the places where there is the fiercest competition between teachers.

  • You need at least a month to do a TEFL course – the intensive courses are one month, the part-time ones are six months, and it’s recommended that if you go for a part-time one, you teach while you do it, and therein lies a vicious circle; you often can’t get a job without the qualification – it depends on where you do the course. So I recommend the full-time one.
  • Many of the reputable TEFL courses are highly professional and practical. These are very hard work, however, and you have to be prepared to shoulder a lot of criticism – we call it ‘teacher development’, which it is, to soften the blow, and to show it’s all done for the best possible reasons.
  • The main flaw in courses is that they are rather Euro/America-centric. After you have got your qualification, you will probably find yourself having to adapt to local conditions, and in some countries, you may have to abandon a lot of what you have learned because of the educational culture of that country. But bear in mind that the methodology taught provides you with useful basic tools for all classroom work, and ‘adapt’ is the motto.

To be a good TEFL teacher (for both security conscious and gung-ho)

  • Appear confident, even if you are not (and most of us aren’t). Timidity goes straight out of the window, or you go out of the window, and that applies as much to adult teaching as to the teaching of say, teenagers or children, who you will probably also have to teach. A teacher can hide behind a lot of methodology, but personality of all kinds is important, too, whatever they tell you. You can be a quiet type or a lively type, for example, but you need to give the impression you know exactly what you are doing, and that takes confidence.
  • Don’t have a chip on your shoulder about accents or other types of English than your own.
  • Genuinely love other countries and other peoples. No student likes to be told how awful their country is compared to Britain/America/Australia/wherever.
  • Love your language, without arrogance. There is nothing more inspiring to students than a teacher who really appreciates our highly idiosyncratic, vocabulary-rich and tense-rich language, mad prepositions, terrible phrasal verbs, and all. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up these terms before your interview on a TEFL course.
  • You don’t have to be a grammarian to be a good teacher. But you must be willing to learn the grammar yourself, however, as you move through the levels, and be one step ahead of students at least.
  • Be aware of your own mistakes in the classroom and try to work on them.

Practicalities of legal teaching in many countries

  • If you want to work legally, then check up what the minimum requirements for being a TEFL teacher is. In the old days, it was sometimes enough just to be able to speak English, but many countries now require a lot more than that. For example, all European Union countries require the minimum of a University/College degree, and most prefer those with a TEFL certificate. There are many restrictions on American, Canadian and Australians teaching in the EU, and in some EU countries it is impossible to work there legally if you are from those countries. There are ways of twisting the rules. If you can convince the school director of a reputable school that you are a fabulous teacher, then they might suddenly have a brother or cousin in the bureaucracy willing to look for ‘loopholes’
  • TEFL teaching is not somehow exempt from visa requirements, work permits, etc, unless you choose to work for a school that will overlook your dodgy tourist visa, lack of work permit etc. If the school doesn’t a) either deal with the bureaucracy themselves on your behalf, or b) in countries such as Italy or China where you are personally required to be present, send you and a local working for the school to help deal with the bureaucracy, then the school is probably ‘cowboy’. Sometimes, the bureaucratic red tape is depressing and hard work, (try teaching in Peru, for example), but it’s much safer.
  • Always check the contract carefully, even if it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. You mean business by this.

Gung-ho teacher (who I hope has read the above to acquaint himself with the options)

  • By definition, it’s chancy. You may end up working for a good school, but it’s more likely you’ll end up working for an appalling one. There are still a large number of TEFL teachers working illegally, or ‘moonlighting’ in various countries, and they manage to survive, and thrive on it. Working for a cowboy school does have its advantages; its freedom, its ‘adventuresomeness’, the lack of concern for teacher welfare. The latter is seen by some as a happy alternative to places where you are expected to be ‘developed’, because you really are then treating teaching as ‘just a job’. In some cases, you can leave when you like, or work for only three months here, three months there, etc. You might even be a ‘natural’, a seriously talented teacher who the students love, though you are still very much an amateur. Fair enough. But be aware of this fact: if you are working illegally, the employer can choose to exploit you mercilessly and then sack you, sometimes without payment. You have no redress in law to claim your money if you’re an illegal worker. And are you really concerned about the welfare of the students of your host country if you keep leaving them every three months for somewhere else? Have a look at the boards on Dave’s ESL Cafe for horror stories. They sometimes make very entertaining reading, but more often they make depressing reading, and they do not bode well for teachers in the cowboy side of the business. Even reputable schools get slammed there sometimes; though in the case of reputable schools, it’s often (though not always) sour grapes. Not always. So, be aware.
  • There is another side to the business which can be quite lucrative, and even legal teachers do it. Private teaching, usually one-to-one. Some people supplement their meagre travelling budget this way, but you need to be a really good net-worker to have enough private students seriously to keep body and soul together, and private students often cancel lessons at a moment’s notice.

Some people combine the security-conscious and gung-ho approaches.

There are some schools which use a Method, like the Berlitz or the Callan approach. I’m not going to condemn these, but by most accounts, they should be avoided. Berlitzsucks.com used to exist for a reason.

Whatever line you choose to take, you should be adaptable, resourceful, flexible and patient to be a good teacher. If you are impatient, forget teaching. Here are some more qualities useful for TEFL teaching: being a good actor, having excellent communication skills, knowing how to take the emphasis off yourself and onto the students (very tricky in countries like Japan, incidentally), loving travel.

To sum up: TEFL teaching is not an easy job, though it is interesting and can be great fun. It was once called the White Slave Trade by a cynical teacher. This is obviously an exaggeration, but it does need to be borne in mind. Be careful, even if you’re using the gung-ho approach, if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction in terms.