Trying to explain what exactly my profession is and what job exactly suddenly me the impetus to leave the USA is hard to explain in 3 words or less. Responding with “TEFL” just gets me a confused expression. “Teaching English” is close enough and people understand it so I usually go with that. However, “Teaching English” doesn’t explain everything. Here I’ll go into detail about what “TEFL” is and how it differs from being an English teacher at home.
The acronym TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. The jobs defining characteristic, other than usually being in a foreign county, is the instructor not being a licensed teacher. The requirements most countries have for a teaching English visa are a Bachelor’s degree, a TEFL certificate or previous experience, and having a passport from an approved country. The specifics vary country to country but those are the common requirements. Notably and importantly a teaching license is not required.
While TEFL is an area you can get licensed in to teach as a regular school teacher colloquially TEFL refers to an English teaching job outside of your home country through a government program or at a private academy. The stereotypical TEFLers are recent college graduates that use English teaching at a kindergarten as a way to travel and save some money for a year or two.
However, in spite of the stereotype TEFL jobs run the gamut from kindergarten instructors with barely any credentials or oversight to managing directors and high end Universities that require a Ph.D or private tutors that accept only students they like. However, most jobs in TEFL are teaching jobs with students in primary, middle, or high school.
In most Asian countries students need to pass series of exams in order to get into good Universities and gain an opportunity to pursue the career they want. English is one of the big subject areas in these tests. Along with that English is seen as a desirable skill due to the necessity of speaking the language if the student wants to go into medicine, science, business, etc. Because of this cultural and educational focus Asia has the most jobs for TEFL and creates a focus on younger students. If a student starts learning at the age of 5 they will be better prepared when they are eighteen because of continuous 13 years of study.
This need to learn English and parents desire to see their kids succeed makes an opportunity for foreign instructors. Asian education systems place a heavy emphasis on grammar and written work. Oral speaking and creativity fall by the way side because of this setup. Schools and private academies hire NETs, native English teachers, in order to give students a speaking model and an opportunity to practice actually speaking the language which happens woefully infrequently otherwise.
Despite the high demand for NETs, countries, schools, and visas make it abundantly clear that someone teaching TEFL is not a licensed teacher for good or ill. The various countries have special visas for people coming to teach English, Korea’s E-2 for example. The official job title in most countries is “English Instructor.” Because of this lack of specialized qualification and many TEFLers being recent graduates TEFL teachers often get looked down on for “not being real teachers” sometimes by people back home and sometimes by people in the country they are living. Compounding this is the tendency for private academies to use foreign, white, westerners as a marketing gimmick and letting the teaching fall behind. However, if you’re in a classroom with students it doesn’t matter what people say, you are teaching students all the same.
So why go through all this trouble to teach? The most common reason is getting to travel and live abroad. Honestly, the requirements for the Visa are low and easily obtainable as any college grad from a primarily English speaking country qualifies. Recent college grads looking for a gap year or two are the most common workers in the TEFL industry. Due to the need to lure people from home typically the pay received for teaching is at or above what a native teacher would make. Combine this with lower cost of living and teaching abroad becomes a reasonable way to travel and save money.
Getting to live abroad for a year, travel to new places, and save money are all part of the allure of picking yourself up and leaving. While it’s not all sunshine and roses most people manage to accomplish their goals. I've done many things I never would have done if I had stayed in the United States.
In the next article I’ll cover pros and cons of TEFL as a job along with more details of the requirements to get a work Visa in various countries.