As a retired English teacher with a lifetime of working with students aged five through 75 – and with many years’ experience in teaching English overseas – I’d like to address some popular misconceptions about this line of work. For nearly ten years I taught English as a foreign language in a major Central European city, and prior to that taught adult ESL and high school English in the United States and Canada. When teaching in Europe, I taught Business English inside companies, community-based English to small business owners and general English to adults and children inside their homes. I experienced all aspects of day-to-day living in a foreign culture, and formed relationships with people who will remain lifelong friends. Based on these experiences, I’d like to set the record straight on what it’s really like to teach English overseas.
Myth #1: You don’t need any qualifications to teach English overseas.
In reality, there are two teaching certifications that are recognized internationally by language schools and other institutions, CELTA and TEFL. Reputable employers overseas will generally only accept teachers with CELTA certification, although some agencies will accept TEFL. However, the most respected and established programs will hire CELTA-trained teachers only.
I decided to take both of these international certification courses. The first, CELTA (Cambridge English Language Teaching of Adults), was a full-time six-week program in Rome, Italy, on behalf of Cambridge University in Great Britain. I was admitted already having a teacher’s license, an education degree and several years of experience in teaching English. Following CELTA, I also became certified in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) through a full-time course for five weeks in Prague, Czech Republic.
As an experienced and licensed teacher, my reason for acquiring these international certifications was that they are required for overseas teaching jobs. Further, both CELTA and TEFL provide useful tools that are valuable even for experienced teachers. However, if you are thinking about TEFL, I would recommend caution, avoiding online TEFL training altogether. Both CELTA and TEFL are fairly expensive, but you will definitely get more bang for your buck with CELTA. In teaching overseas, you will soon learn that Great Britain rules, particularly in Europe, and most employers will not be interested in a teacher without this Cambridge certification.
Myth #2: You don’t need any experience to teach English overseas.
If you want to find a stable and reputable employer overseas, you must be a professional. Your job will be to teach English as a language, which means that you must be very competent in teaching the mechanics of English — specifically grammar, formal business writing, reading for comprehension, industry-specific vocabulary, listening and pronunciation skills. You will be working in environments that demand confidence and expertise, and where professional experience is both expected and required.
Foreign companies invest significant time and money in employees’ English language instruction. As a result, they demand professionalism in their teachers. For example, I worked daily inside a variety of companies where my students ranged in competency levels from absolute beginner to advanced proficiency. I was required to develop customized course curricula, materials, and lesson plans for individual and group lessons on a daily basis; there was no “cookie cutter” approach that would have been effective. Because I had been teaching English for several years before working overseas, I was able to meet these needs instinctively, and I was, for this reason, a much-requested teacher.
Myth #3: Teaching English is a great way to travel and see the world.
Unfortunately, this idea is also somewhat far from the truth. First, foreign employers demand stability and commitment on the part of their teachers. For example, many of your students will be preparing for Cambridge University English exams. These exams require rigorous time and focus (generally several months or a full year) for preparation, and if you start working with these students, you must be committed to helping them achieve their goals. You can not do this by strapping on a backpack and heading off to the train station every couple of weeks.
Second, while teaching English overseas is very rewarding from professional and personal points of view, the reality is that it is a job that does not pay very well. If you have experience and qualifications—and you are working with a reputable employer—you will be able to live in a foreign culture at a level slightly above subsistence. This means that you will be able to afford rent, utilities, cell phone, Internet, healthcare, groceries, transportation and moderate entertainment, but you will not make enough money to travel frequently or luxuriously. It’s just a reality of the job, and those who choose to teach in a foreign culture must simply be willing to accept this.
Myth #4: Teaching English overseas is a piece of cake.
Occasionally younger people who lack teaching credentials, but who desire to “travel,” are drawn to the idea of teaching overseas. After all, what could possibly be easier than to stroll into a group of non-English-speaking professionals and launch into a monologue about the Superbowl or World Series? Wrong. This scenario would result in nothing more than a sense of hopelessness for both “teacher” and students alike. Adventurer-seekers will be happier sticking to hiking trails and youth hostels. Their interests will not be met within the professional environment of companies that are investing considerable portions of their budgets in training employees to become world-class communicators.
Further, the issue of “trust” as the basis for this form of teaching is crucial; your students must be able to trust all aspects of your teaching. Learning a foreign language can be very intimidating for students even though they are professionals within their lines of work. They are very open to learning from you, but in return you must have something tangible to offer them – i.e., your expertise and your commitment to their success. Basically, your success as an overseas English teacher will depend on three main factors: 1) having a solid grounding in all English language skills including advanced grammar, writing, reading for comprehension and language structure, as well as an understanding of basic business principles; 2) having lesson planning and time-management skills; and 3) having an attitude of “My goal is your [i.e., students’] success.”
Finally, as much as you will love living in a foreign culture, you will always be a “foreigner” there yourself. While the experience is an unparalleled way to add depth and perspective to your life and work, there are many differences that over time will cause your thoughts to drift toward home. Daily transactions that you take for granted and don’t even think about in the United States can be challenging events in another country. (I once dyed all of my towels, tops, socks and underwear black by not having been able to read the “laundry powder” label.) New friendships will be exciting and treasured, but you will inevitably miss the familiar support of long-term friends and family. You will be tempted by all of the magical aspects and attributes of your foreign surroundings, only to remember that your modest salary really has to be held in reserve for your next rent and utilities payments.
The job of teaching English overseas demands the same preparation and commitment that teaching in one’s homeland does, as well as personal qualities of flexibility, creativity and the ability to fend for oneself within a foreign society. Teaching overseas was the most satisfying role of my teaching career, but if you are seriously considering it, keep in mind that you need credentials, experience, a solid grounding in all English language tools, self-discipline and the willingness to put your students’ needs before your own desire for adventure.