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Before You Sign That Overseas TESL Contract...

by Anne Merritt Jun 17, 2009
Teaching abroad can be great….or horrible. Make sure you do your research before signing on the dotted line.

So you’ve decided to go teach overseas, you’ve read up on different countries, and maybe you’ve even taken a TESL course.

Foreign TESL jobs can open the door to travel and adventure, but no matter how lovely the country may be, it’s the job that will make or break your experience. And arranging a job from halfway around the globe makes it tough to tell whether it’s quality or not.

Some teachers walk unknowingly into poorly-run schools and have to spend months struggling with few resources, crowded classrooms, and dodgy pay schedules. Others make the mistake of assuming workplace practices are similar to those in their home countries, and are then hit with cultural barriers when issues like overtime and sick days come up.

Below are five tips to help you ensure that the job you’re about to take is credible and (hopefully) hassle-free.

1. Go over the details.

Most contracts will cover the policies for vacation time, overtime pay, and grounds for dismissal; all good rules to know, especially in a foreign culture whose work ethic may differ from yours.

If you’re signing up with a larger chain of language schools, your contract might simply say that these important details are administered “as per the policies of [Language School X].” Before you sign, find out what those policies are, and get them in writing. This can mean the difference between two days and two weeks of vacation time in a 12-month contract.

2. Ask about resources.

There are nightmarish ESL stories floating around involving untrained teachers being chucked into a classroom with no book, no materials, and forty pairs of expectant eyes starting at them.

Before you sign anything, ask about the materials used in your school. Public schools might have a set-in-stone curriculum, whereas private schools sometimes ask teachers to prepare all of their own lessons. A simple inquiry might save you the trouble of spending each day designing whole lesson plans from scratch.

3. Discuss the visa

Some schools will help you arrange a work visa in advance, while others will ask you to enter the country on a tourist visa and process the paperwork on their side. In the latter case, this can involve long unpaid days in bureaucratic waiting rooms, or “border runs” where you travel to a neighboring country and back in order to legitimize the new visa.

In any case, your employer should tell you what to expect in the visa process, whether the school will pay the fees, and how much work you might have to miss while this processing occurs.

4. Contact your predecessor.

Ask your potential employer if you can have the email address of the teacher whose job you’ll be filling. Write this teacher a simple inquiry about their experience, and why they’re leaving the position.

You’ll get a fellow foreigner’s perspective, and he/she can give you more general tips about living overseas, like what to pack or which Western items are rare/expensive in the place you’re interested in. Know that if you’re being hired by a new language school or through a recruitment agency, they might not have contacts to give you. If that’s the case…

5. Google

Try searching the name of the school online, and read the results with a grain of salt. There are discussion boards and forums aplenty in the ESL world, from Dave’s ESL Cafe to employer blacklist sites such as tefl blacklist.

Bear in mind a few things while you’re searching. First, people usually take to the message boards when they’re angry. For every teacher writing slanderous posts, there might be dozens of employees at the same school who are thrilled with their jobs, but keeping those thoughts off the Internet.

Second, try to get a sense of the person behind the complaints.

A lot of people enter the ESL field with more interest in travel than in education. Of course they’ll have trouble with the jobs, as they would with any teaching position, because it’s not the job for them. Private message or email people and ask them what they search for in a position, and why they did or didn’t like their previous job.

An overseas teaching position is one of the best ways to get inside of another culture, but like any experience of cultural exchange, it can be tricky, complicated, and frustrating as well as exhilarating. Do your research beforehand to ensure you’ll be off to a smooth start in the classroom.

Community Connection

Hey, all you teachers out there! Help those who’re thinking of making the plunge into teaching navigate the labyrinth of possibilities! Sound off about your experiences with different schools, contracts, and countries.

Thinking about teaching in Asia? Check out Matador’s guide to teaching in China, Korea or Japan.

If you’re just beginning to explore the thought of heading abroad to teach, look over these 8 hidden benefits of teaching English abroad to motivate yourself.

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