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8 Simple Things You Need to Know Before you Teach English Abroad

Want to teach English in a foreign country? This is what you need to know.

So you want to teach English as a second language. First, congratulations. Second, just so you don’t harbor any illusions you must be fully aware that what you have done is nothing special — except for having a vague curiosity about the world we live in.

You should get a few things clear first: teaching English abroad is a great job that will pay well, allow you to work twenty hours a week, and travel the world. These things are all great, but after that it is the end of the line. You have little job security, no sort of retirement or pension bonuses, and the occasional periods of madness when you realize that you are only passing on something you already inherently know. Teaching English is not rocket science and no one will laugh at you when you make present perfect jokes or point out how their tenses didn’t match in their clauses.

So you still want to do it? I have devised a scientifically accurate eight point checklist to make sure you are ready to make the leap.

1. Do you have a pulse?

Okay, ESL schools are great at pretending in job interviews to really care about the students progression and proper classroom etiquette and demeanor, etc. Oh, and believe me, they reference check you and your supporting documents. I believe in a conscious level they do but in reality of it is numbers that dominates their decisions — as in numbers of students and numbers of dollars (yen, won, yuan, rials, etc.) falling into the coffers at the end of the day.

The proof is in the pudding whenever a teacher calls in sick. In theory, schools keep an up to date list of emergency teachers that can be called in on short notice. In practice, they will take a hobo off the street if said hobo is able to string together a set of sentences and somehow get the class to laugh. This leads directly to my second point….

2. Do you own or would you be willing to try on a monkey suit?

I think most teachers around the world have some variation of the monkey suit. You normally teach a class for four-five hours a day, depending on the school and the course load, and, let’s face it, you aren’t going to teach grammar that long. Students pay to have some language learning and some fun. They won’t write postcards about the future continuous to their parents (i.e. The school will still have me paying bills until 2020) but will gladly tell their friends about the teacher who taught them that zany, crazy game that made the whole class laugh and gave them the best story over lunch break.

As a side note, many teachers seem to believe the monkey suit is best donned when coming to class with a bit of a hangover, as it masks any bad behavior from the night before and makes the admin staff think you are dedicated and passionate about teaching.

3. If not in possession of a teaching certificate, then go and get one

I prefer CELTA. I actually believed the course was great and really raised my level of teaching. I know, I know, the criticisms: You don’t need it, it is an expensive waste of money to a company that is churning carbon copied cookie cutter teachers all teaching the same thing, etc. I understand these points, but politely disagree.

I think a classroom teaching certificate (not an on-line one) introduces you to enough theory about language acquisition and also prepares you for the pressure of walking into a classroom with dozens of waiting eyes fixed upon you. Because, let’s face it, we make a lot of jokes but these young adults pay a lot of money to study English and a few are really counting on these classes to improve their lives. In exchange, you get long weekends and a healthy pay rate. I think you owe it to them to be qualified and professional.

The ESL world gives you a lot of leeway but I don’t have much time for people who want to make a quick buck and think they can consistently teach class hungover. Give your students some love and appreciation. Learn about different theories and how speakers of other languages are taught and get a certificate, because, if nothing else, it pays for itself with your increased salary — and, besides, if all else fails, you still have the monkey suit in the closet.

4. Get to Asia, quicksmart

It seems that the best way to get an ESL job is to already have or have had another ESL job. Well, to accomplish that feat then one must get to Asia where, provided you have a bachelor’s degree and, let’s face it, are white and reasonably good looking, you are basically already employed. Really, the decision is yours: China, Korea, and Japan are the most respected and ‘stable’ places to teach, while places like Vietnam and Indonesia have some very interesting opportunities.

As always do your homework. However, I sincerely believe at least a year in Asia is a fantastic way to learn about yourself, another country, and get paid reasonably well at the same time. It also gives you a lifetime of memories and a point of reference for all the other weirdos you will meet in this industry. I guess as a traveler by heart I can’t ever not recommend someone to go overseas. I see no drawbacks and it might truly decide if teaching is right for you after all.

5. Don’t take yourself too seriously

The world is full of abject weirdos and teaching ESL encompasses more than its share. One lesson I took from CELTA is that it is 90% the students responsibility to learn English and 10% the teacher’s. So you are off the hook! No, not really. But as Molly Ivins famously said, “You are not the cosmos.” Your class, school, your anything will fall apart if you are not there [see #1]. You have the good life and enjoy it. Work hard, laugh with your students, empathize with their frustration, become their friend, but also sadly realize that someone else could replace you and do the same.

This is either a liberating or damning realization. I mean, really, the whole fear of death is centered around realizations such as these. So you can choose to let it get you down and bum you out or you can turn the situation around on itself and just laugh at it and, somehow, you will find your students laughing with you. And honestly, these are the moments where somehow it all seems so worthwhile. There is a certain satisfaction about leading 12 people to an emotional high where you can have a sense of a communal achievement, no matter how abstract. It’s these moments that lead you to believe that you are great and wonderful and are the cosmos, and that this job has meaning. It can really be an intoxicating experience.

But then the next class half the students are asleep and the other half are absent for some inexplicable reason.

6. Write one sentence for each of these tenses without looking anything up:

Present Simple:

Past Simple:

Future Simple:

Present Continuous:

Past Continuous:

Future Continuous:

All the Perfect Tenses:

All the conditional Tenses:

Before jumping into a class, brush up on your grammar (a teaching course will help) and don’t be afraid to carry a Murphy’s around and openly consult it in front of your class. Which of course leads to point #7…..

7. Learn what Murphy’s is and buy it

Raymond Murphey put together a legendary textbook of English grammar. Just buy it, take it with you wherever you teach, and use it. >Get a Murphey’s English grammar textbook here.

8. Take advantage of the perks ESL teaching offers: part-time work at full time pay

So get a hobby and do it. Learn the bass, write a dipshit blog, or look at summer camps in random places and do them. Last summer I went to Korea for a month to teach in a summer camp and it was really f’cking brilliant. Actually, come to think of it, teaching English is a good way to have time to learn about a particular country. Go camping, go hiking, take photos in a cemetery, do what you can do… as you only work half of what everyone else does!

Get your English teaching credentials now!

Vagabond Journey has recently partnered with Star TEFL to offer their 140 hour online TEFL certification course for just $199 — a big discount, as it sells for $425 on their site. This certification course offers plenty of user-friendly material, tutors to help you through the process, email, chat, and phone support, feedback on your performance, and you can complete the course at your own pace. Upon completion of the course, you will receive an internationally recognized TEFL/ ESL/ TESOL certification. You can take advantage of this 53% discount by ordering this course directly from Vagabond Journey. Contact us at vagabondsong [at] gmail.com to find out how.

We also recommend i-to-i TEFL courses. My wife took their 120 hour course, which taught her a lot and has always worked well at getting her jobs abroad. Take a look at their offerings here.

After you have your teaching certification send me an email and I can help you find a good job in China!

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Filed under: English Teaching, Lists, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Lawrence Hamilton is a freelance journalist focusing on South Asian security situations and border disputes. has written 51 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Lawrence Hamilton is currently in: Dunedin, NZMap