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Teaching English as a foreign language is big business. Coleen Monroe breaks it down to help you choose where you fit in.
The world wants to learn English

According to some estimates, there are currently 1.5 billion speakers of English in the world and up to two billion currently making the attempt to learn it. All the growth is likely due to its place as a 21st-century lingua franca in business, education, and international interaction (including the odd hostel kitchen interaction).

Not surprisingly, an entire economy has grown up around teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), and for the better part of thirty years, people have been moving to far-flung places to do it. A Google search is enough to bring up horror stories and more than a few shady-looking opportunities, but TEFL is more than the sum of its worst parts.

I am a holder of a TEFL certificate. I’ve taught or tutored English to adults and children on three different continents. I completed the English Opens Doors program through the UNDP last year in Chile, and I am currently teaching in a South Korean hagwon.

The experience of living and teaching abroad, especially teaching my native English, is one that has allowed a life of I would not otherwise have experienced. Below is a nonexhaustive list of the main requirements and differences I’ve experienced in each situation, and a few resources to help you find your place in the English-teaching world.


Meeting face to face with someone trying to learn English can be as informal as a conversation with a friend, or as formal as meeting at a set time to go over homework and grammar. I tutored an adult who was learning English in the US for a little over one year, and the experience was a rewarding first step into TEFL. Sometimes you can even trade English tutoring for room and board while traveling.

Requirements: Speak English reasonably well. No degree required.

Pros: As an introduction to teaching English, tutoring is ideal. Low-pressure, informal, often with an adult who has a vested interest in learning the language. You don’t have to prepare lessons. Your student is invested and will likely never throw spitballs at you. It can be more conversation than teaching.

Cons: You will most likely be volunteering, and if you are paid then you probably won’t be able to pay bills with 1-2 hours a week. Conversation partners can be flaky. Some cultural issues may arise and be difficult to communicate through due to the level of your partners’ English. For example, my conversation partner was from a conservative Muslim country, and meeting with a woman other than his wife outside the house was extremely uncomfortable for him at first. He couldn’t tell me about his discomfort until months later when his English had improved.

Get into it: Look for conversation partners among your local university’s international students, at English language schools and institutes, and immigration help centers. In the US there are many opportunities to work with adults who are trying to integrate and learn English after immigration.


It’s back to school. You walk into the building at 8:00 AM to screaming, sugared-up elementary students or surly and silent high schoolers. Prepare for a test of teaching mettle.

Requirements: Depending on the country, requirements vary. You must have at least an undergraduate degree in most cases. Some public schools also require a TEFL certification, CELTA, or even a TESOL degree. Some recommend at least a working knowledge of the native language. Others require a degree and passport from an anglophone country. Surprisingly few require criminal background checks, and you may find yourself arriving on a tourist visa only to figure out the bureaucratic logistics after you begin teaching.

Pros: Immersion in another educational system. Acquiring the language of the country in which you’re teaching. There’s a general baseline of integration into the community through the students and their parents (I often found myself approached by strangers when I taught in Puerto Natales, Chile on the street or in the grocery store, to have a brief conversation about their children). Done right, teaching in a public school can be one of the most rewarding experiences of one’s life.

Cons: Large classes, sparse resources, and a whole new educational system to wrap your head around. Prepare to be sworn at. Prepare for a lack of interest from the students and misunderstandings with the admins. Prepare, oh prepare, for the spitballs. Teaching in public schools is an eye-opening experience and it will inevitably challenge you. It may bring up memories from your own childhood that you hadn’t thought of in years. Many TEFL jobs in public schools are at least partly volunteer, and the pay can be low.

Get into it: Check out opportunities through BridgeTEFL, a TEFL-certification and placement company based out of Denver, Colorado and use’s Teach Abroad search engine. Keep in mind that public schools often lack the funding to be able to pay the big bucks, so look at volunteering options closely. They often pay you a stipend, but you should also consider saving up before you go (To give you a ballpark idea, my stipend in Chile amounted to about $5 per day for 35 hours of teaching and preparation per week).


The school has resources. It caters to fewer students because of the prohibitive costs that may be associated with it. Heck, it may even have its very own advertising team. Teaching in a private institution or school is markedly different from teaching in a publicly-funded one, and there are many differences in terms of expectations, working philosophy, and attitudes from students.

Requirements: Again, this depends on the country and the institution for which one teaches. Generally speaking, you need a clean criminal record, a Bachelor’s degree in any subject, and the ability to pass a drug test/health screening. Having a degree in English, a TEFL certificate, or experience teaching may help you to get a better paycheck.

Pros: Many times private schools have more resources available than public ones, and you may find that there is adequate planning time built into your actual schedule (which may or may not be the case with a public school). Organization tends to be a bit better, and the students may have a higher level of English fluency than in a public school. They will often provide your housing and may even pay for a flight overseas.

Cons: You may find yourself in a business masquerading as a school, with such a focus on keeping students and parents happy that it’s hard to actually teach. Some private institutes have a bad reputation of working foreign teachers too hard or providing crap-ass accommodation. Also prepare for the visa process to be slightly more difficult than for a public school. A few countries have had issues with supposed English teachers sneaking into the country and turning out to be from the Yakuza or Russian mob, so the restrictions are getting stricter.

If you were lucky enough to be born into speaking the language that a quarter of the planet is trying to learn, it’s possible for you to hone skills and make a career out of TEFL. You just have to find the right fit.

ESL Teaching


About The Author

Coleen Monroe

Coleen Monroe is a Colorado native who has left a trail of new homes for herself around the world, from Italy to Chilean Patagonia. She travels for depth of experience, not breadth of countries visited, and always seeks the narrow path. Follow her newest adventure in Suwon, South Korea with her personal blog.

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  • Viva

    Great breakdown of the options out there for TEFL teachers. I would definitely say that Asia is a world unto itself in terms of TEFL culture, no? But I am always so intrigued to read about other doors that have been opening across the globe (i.e. eastern Europe, South America). 

    Despite some difficult days, I wouldn’t trade my time teaching in a rural Korean public school for anything! Kudos.

    • Coleen Monroe

      Where did you work? I live outside Seoul and the city gets to me sometimes. I think i might have preferred a rural school again. 

  • Nima Heydarian

    What countries in South America would you say teaching English works best for travelers?

    • Coleen Monroe

      Something I did not address specifically in the article is that sometimes people get caught up in teaching for traveling’s sake and miss out on parts of the experience as a result. What I mean is, don’t expect TEFL to be a year-long vacation. 

      South America in general tends to be more flexible in my experience than this part of Asia, but it really comes down to the placement and the contract you sign. 

  • Turner

    How’s the hagwon working out?

    • Coleen Monroe

      Overall it’s amazing. I like the support that mine offers and the resources that they offer. 

  • Bruce Jones

    Nice article.   This is a great one on “7 Key Tips to Evaluating a TEFL / TESOL Training School”  This is extremely helpful to know before deciding on which TEFL company to take classes with. 

  • Marie Lisa Jose


    Great piece. I just got accepted to the Open Doors program. I cannot tell you how excited I am!

  • TravelnLass

    As an EFL Teach at a private school in in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I can attest to most all the points here – great synopsis!

    I can only add…

    Nope, teaching EFL abroad is NOT a “vacation”.  A GREAT way to see the world (via a base in Southeast Asia or wherever and making short forays into neighboring countries and/or teaching for 6 months or so, and then moving to teach in a different country – a method of “slow” travel that I can HIGHLY recommend), no doubt about it.  But teaching EFL is hard work – definitely not a walk in the (backpacking) park.

    And even in highly regarded private schools, necessary lesson planning is NOT build into the schedule (read: you get paid only for “contact hours” w/ the students – not for lesson planning, nor meetings, nor – often mandatory – workshops, etc.)  In short, as a newbie teacher, trust that even a goodly wage will swiftly dwindle to half or less per actual HOUR you put into your job.

    Still… your cost of living in Asia, etc. is likely 1/2 to a THIRD that of the U.S., U.K., Australia, etc.  So you can definitely tuck away a goodly sum each month (or pay off those huge student loans).

    Yep, EFL teaching requirements and perks vary GREATLY throughout the globe.  Most legitimate schools will require at least a B.S. and an accredited TEFL certificate (I highly recommend the month-long CELTA, arguably the gold-standard of such certificates).  With it, a native English speaker w/ at least a B.S. – in ANYTHING – can pretty much name their price in most any country in the world.  Indeed, a CELTA or comparable will do much when negotiating pay/perks.

    Which brings me to:  Indeed, pay varies greatly ’round the globe.  Personally I chose Vietnam ‘cuz the pay is much higher here (min. $20/hr. w/ a CELTA, in a land where the cost of living is peanuts) than in say…  Costa Rica (a beloved country I’ve visited many times and speak fluent Spanish but alas – EFL pay is much lower there – more like $8 per hour.)

    Likewise perks vary.  Some will offer accommodations (though do be wary of the quality) and/or at least one way air reimbursement, etc.  While in others, such perks are definitely not the norm.

    (which reminds me – imho, I would not recommend agreeing to an EFL job from afar.  It might seem scarey to move abroad w/o one, but trust that you’ll have many options, and will be far more likely to find a good gig, when you can personally see the school, their resources, the offered accommodations if any, meet the admins, etc., etc., etc.  Seriously.  No way do you want to sign a year-long contract from afar, only to find that it’s verily a NIGHTMARE to teach there.)

    That said, also, private tutoring can be a nice sideline (after you have some experience w/ a school and can build your own network of recruits.)  Shoot, Southeast Asia is RIFE with those desperately seeking to improve their English.  As a native speaker w/ an American accent (which seems to be preferred here), I could have all the work I want here in Vietnam.

    But again I must stress:  don’t come over here w/o a degree, nor any legitimate EFL training, and expect to do well.  And whatever you do:  DO BE SURE to have a goodly little $AFTEY NET (at least a ticket home and a grand or two) to see you through should hard times hit and/or you find the life of an expat isn’t for you.  The very LAST thing you want is to find yourself stuck in a  bad teaching job (or worse, nobody will hire you) in a foreign land with no bread to get out of the country.

    Surely don’t mean to wax negative here.  Teaching EFL abroad is a most FANTASTIC way to live – for 6 months or a LIFETIME!  Indeed, I only wish I’d done this sooner! ;)

    Sorry to wax so wordy here, but I’ve learned ever so much from personal experience teaching here in Vietnam.  In short – yes, yes, teaching abroad is a fantastic option.  But nonetheless a MAJOR step not to be taken lightly.

    • TSwiss

       Hi, Appreciated you post very much and was wondering if I could ask for some tips please? I’m moving to Switzerland in the Fall to be with my significant other. Was thinking I might try to teach English informally to private students. Was thinking I might want to get a certificate to be able to offer a higher quality of lessons for my own enjoyment and theirs, and to set myself to possibly teach later in a school. I have an MA degree in History and background in Latino Studies so potentially could also provide unique content for some learners. Anyway, I see you mention CELTA as a high level certification. Hearing these circumstances do you have any tips for me?

  • TSwiss

    Ugh, why do I type so fast?! And leave a trail of icky typos?! 

  • ESLinsider

    I’d agree with some points of the comments. Teaching and living abroad is different compared to traveling. It’s more permanent like and it becomes more routine.

    While a CELTA is considered the creme of the crop it isn’t the be all end all. TEFL certificates in my experience aren’t any guarantee of getting a better job, making more money or necessarily becoming a better teacher.

    Sure you may find a job that will pay you more because of it, you could get a better job and it should make you a better teacher. But for me it didn’t make much if any difference. If I was to do it again I would have skipped it altogether. There’s plenty of good free info out there.

    I have written a number of articles about this that you can read.

  • Kilimanjaro19

    Some good advice from someone who is obviously a seasoned teacher and traveler. I’ve been teaching a whole range Chinese students for the last year here in Beijing and I wouldn’t trade it for the world! From a high powered forty-something lawyer who knew three words of English, to high schoolers who didn’t realize I knew how to swear in Chinese too, if you’re looking for an adventure then TEFL is the way to go. Glad there are others out there who have had their ups and downs too. Teaching isn’t for everyone but once you find the right group of people, culturally speaking, and the right age group it’s really a joy to see people become excited to share their stories and lives with you. 

  • ESLinsider

    “Surly and silent” haha, I didn’t teach high school students in Korea yet I did teach middle schoolers  and I thought some of them were kinda like that. I prefer teaching kids.

  • Mali

    Personally i don’t think teaching english is a practical paid job option whilst abroad. I do however see the benefits of volunteering with local communities however in all honesty most people teach abroad to extend their vacation period or ultimately stay in idyllic surroundings for as long as possible whilst discovering new cultural aspects and just enjoying their time with different people. Teaching abroad as a means to live is a completely different scenario and the charms and freedoms of travel quickly get replaced by compromise and priority.  

  • ESLinsider

    TEFL and TESOL certification is synonymous and while there may be differences in the courses between providers, the meaning is the same. CELTA is considered the creme of the crop in certification. A degree in TESOL or a teaching degree (certified teacher in your home country) is even better.

    But in most of Asia you don’t actually need one. And there’s no guarantee that you will make more money if you have one of these.

    I have written a number of articles about these.

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