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The Lowdown on TEFL

by Coleen Monroe May 8, 2012
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.

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