Photo: Climate Kic

How to Become an ESL Teacher

by Ash Merscher Nov 23, 2017

So you want to be an ESL teacher? First of all — that’s awesome. You’re in for some life-changing experiences! But making the decision to become an ESL teacher abroad packs a lot of emotion: excitement, anxiety, nervousness, and even some frustration. The process can be a little intimidating as you start to research and prepare. But the rewards you’ll reap will far outweigh the challenges. Every country is different, and many programs within a country can also differ. There’s a lot of information out there, which can be overwhelming.

Here are 7 general steps to get you started.

1. Get certified.

This is a no-brainer. No matter where you teach, some sort of certification is either required or encouraged. The most common certification is TEFL, which is also the cheapest and quickest route to go. But not all TEFLs are created equal. It’s tempting to just get the 20-hour course that is equal in cost to your weekly coffee indulgence, but the general rule is at least 120 hours. Don’t skimp; you’ll open more doors with more hours.

However, if you plan to pursue this career long-term, you might consider a CELTA. It’s more expensive and time-consuming, but programs that tend to pay more and treat you like an actual teacher (as opposed to a teaching assistant) will favor those with a CELTA. You can study in your home country or even start your travels early by studying for your CELTA abroad.

2. Get some classroom experience.

For the record, I was not a teacher before teaching abroad. You don’t have to be, but any classroom experience you can gain prior to your departure will help you. For me, I knew I wanted to teach in primary education, so I asked a third-grade teacher at my local elementary school if I could observe a few lessons. I got to see what it was like to be in a classroom, watch a teacher in action, and it looked great to put the experience on my applications.

3. Pick a country.

With all the excitement around moving abroad, it can be easy to think that any country will suffice. But it’s actually quite important to consider your preferences (weather, diet, cultural norms, etc.). With that being said, try not to pick a country that totally resembles your homeland; this experience should (and will) challenge you and push you out of your comfort zone. There are safety issues to consider as well. Do your research. Some of the most common countries to teach abroad include Vietnam, South Korea, China, Spain, France, Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Brazil. But the list is truly endless!

4. Research your programs

Every country and every program is different. But generally speaking, you have a few options with your programs: public/governmental programs, private placement programs, or try your luck and go alone. (This is general information. It’s impossible to be specific for every country, so again, make sure you do your research!)

Public/governmental programs: In many countries, the government hosts English teachers in public schools. You apply through the government, are placed in a city/school, and that’s about it. There is either very little or no assistance at all within these public programs. You have to do the rest yourself, including all your immigration paperwork, which can be tiresome and stressful in a foreign language. You’ll also have to secure your housing and purchase your flights. But thousands of people go through these programs each year, so rest assured that it can be done.

Private placement programs: These programs have pros and cons. The biggest con is the potential of a large placement fee. It can vary from a couple hundred bucks to more than $2,000. Yet some private programs don’t have a fee and will even reimburse you for your flights. So it just depends. However, usually, these programs secure your job, provide accommodation, give you health insurance, handle all your visa paperwork, host you for an orientation, do your taxes, and offer in-country support all year. So depending on the price, it may be worth a little investment for some peace of mind.

Go alone: I have watched people frolic into a country with no cares, no papers, and no job offer. They seriously hustle, applying to every school they can and eventually get a job without much fuss. Some countries (mostly in South America) do not have official programs in which to apply, so this is your only option. It’s a tad risky since you have a limited amount of time to be in the country, so the clock starts ticking the moment you arrive.

To compare: My first placement was in Hungary where I paid a $2,500 fee. I know, it’s ridiculous and, trust me, I will NEVER do that again. For Spain, I went through a public program and ended up paying about $850, including flights, all on my own. A big difference in price. So my advice is to consider your options. Placement programs can be very helpful, but there really is no reason to pay as much as I did in Hungary. Learn from my mistake!

5. Sort your paperwork

If you are opting for a placement program, this will be much easier. You will receive all the information you need from your program — if not, bug the crap out of them because there will be timely tasks you need to complete prior to leaving your country.

The paperwork differs a bit from country to country, program to program. Again, research is important here. As an example, in doing all the paperwork for Spain on my own, I relied heavily on my Spanish embassy for help. I also joined a support group on Facebook, which provided a wealth of knowledge from people who had already been through the process.

In order to complete my paperwork, I had to collect the following, which are requirements for a student visa specific to Spain:

  • Criminal background checks for any place I lived in the past five years (for me, that included the U.S. and Hungary) — with an Apostille (which is an authentication in Europe).
  • An official medical certificate (with an Apostle), which included three visits to the doctor for testing, observations, and a chest x-ray.
  • Proof of employment (for Spain, you must secure a job assignment prior to applying for your visa).
  • Proof of financial means and health insurance.

On top of all that, I had to get the background checks and medical certificate translated into Spanish by an official, licensed translator. Only after I secured all these documents, could I even make my appointment to apply for the visa, which I had to do at my assigned Spanish embassy.

That is just one example from one country. It’s all different; so again, research, ask for help and be patient.

6. Start saving

Teaching ESL abroad will include some startup costs: obtaining your certification, buying your flights, and surviving during your first few months. You are usually paid once a month, and depending on how long your paperwork takes, you might not receive a paycheck until your second or third month. This is more common if you are working with a government or publicly funded program.

In Hungary, I was paid partially by the government, and I didn’t receive my first paycheck for months. During that wait, I appreciated those four exhausting jobs I worked to build my savings! The more savings you can manage, the better. As each economy differs, the amount you’ll need will differ too. For Hungary, I brought about $1,500. You’d need less in South East Asia or South America, but more for Western Europe.

7. Practice patience

This will come in very handy, trust me! I have so many interesting stories from my experiences trying to understand, accept, and adapt to cultural differences. The best tool possible? Patience. The way in which a foreign country approaches education will be very different from your home country. Not every country prides itself on being efficient within your specific definition of efficient, and it may not even be considered a valuable asset. So try not to compare everything and be patient with yourself.

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