It’s a hell of a decision to leave home, and even more to leave your country. Your family members and friends will have reactions that may range from clenched-teeth support to outright condemnation, especially if you’re headed somewhere oft lampooned on Comedy Central. But thousands of Americans live in thousands of un-American places, and the number is growing. They do it regardless of risk and with an eye for the infinitely more valuable Columbian thrill of new lands, the intensification of experience, the expansion of your mental world through your physical, and of course, the food. "I have seen and experienced things," one teacher writes in her blog, "that other people only read about. Travel changes you, forever."
Joining the international teaching circuit does indeed have its share of hazards though. Due to the often-questionable legality of your employment, you will likely be without the full security and protection of a legal citizen, (should some unscrupulous employer decided not to pay you, for example). Nor should anyone expect riches in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) as paychecks generally hover above subsistence. But buck up! There’s a reason people come home with stars in their eyes, a spring in their step and new appreciation for life. So before you pack your bags, take some advice from those with trial and plenty of error behind them.
Unless interested in rural, third world locations, a TEFL certificate is essential. The document will greatly enhance your access to reputable schools that pay better, provide work visas and even health insurance. The best-known and highly regarded are the CELTA, Trinity certTESOL and the SIT TESOL certificates. Lasting as little as four weeks, training courses can easily be found in most major cities and range in cost between $500 and $2,000. If the cost of a program slumps your shoulders, look for schools abroad that offer both English and TEFL certification programs. Some will cover the cost in exchange for a two-year contract afterward. Online degrees are acceptable but not respected as they lack practicum, which is invaluable to producing quality work. A master’s degree, on the other hand, can get you work in a university prep school where the best salaries are.
The business of TEFL has grown up with the Internet and most postings are found there. Websites like tefl.com, tefl.net, eslcafe.com and www.eslemployment.com sort positions by country and include details (the more the better) regarding job tasks, qualifications, contracts and salary. Research the schools elsewhere with attention to employee reviews. Applications consist of two parts, the resume (C.V. in the metric world) and the cover letter. Don’t worry if you’re skint on experience as many places are happy to take newbies (and pay them less). The cover letter establishes your voice, attitude and character and carries a lot of weight if well-crafted. Grammar and spelling errors will only expedite it to the bin, so check it carefully. Once submitted, let the Director of Studies know directly.
Since most interviews occur long distance, the Internet (especially Skype) is the primary medium, so test your computer connections and software, as you want your first impression to be one of preparedness. Conduct the interview in a quiet room with a tidy background and dress business casual, (at least the waist up). During the 20 minutes or so, you’ll be asked about your background, certification and experience followed by a few situational "what if" questions. The content of your answers is as important than the way you answer. Are you a mush-mouth? overly giddy or giggly? Do you constantly fidget, pick your nose, cut off the interviewer, diss evil corporations, praise God? Stop it. Tact, propriety and diplomacy are essential to the job.
Packing your Bags
Congratulations on the job! Now it’s time to prepare. Pack light as it usually takes some time to settle down in one place. Superfluous materials can be shipped later or picked up when you visit home, although you’ll probably just forget about them. Besides, it’s more fun to shop there. Most important accessories? A laptop, Leatherman/Swiss Army Knife, dictionary, and a grab bag of favorite medications. Country guides are of limited value since they are designed for short-term tourism and books, in general, simply weigh too much. Check websites like expats.com and city magazines (if they exist) to get the inside scoop. Finally, bring enough cash (ideally about 2,000 dollars) to survive a month or two until your full paychecks start coming through. Some schools offer advances to new teachers but it’s best not to start in the hole.
Any legitimate school should meet you at the port of call, but bring phone numbers just in case. Assuming you’re tired from your long flight, you’ll be taken to your initial accommodation for some sleep. Don’t panic if it’s not the most comfortable as it is short term but don’t be afraid to let the school know. Diplomatic pestering works wonders and by this point they’ve invested in you enough to want you reasonably happy. Unless desperate, the school should give you a day or two to orient and acclimate before saddling you with classes, and then only a few at first. Better schools provide mentors, at least for the first few classes. Within a week or two, you ought to be working at full capacity, which is usually around 25 contact hours. Resist more.
Class and classroom
Class size depends greatly on school type. Proper Academic Institutions like universities have between 15 and 25 students, while private language schools less and often one-to-one. Any classes conducted at businesses themselves hover around eight. The classroom itself can consist of anything from your kitchen to a state of the art facility. In most cities, the average are equipped at least a white board, markers and a CD player. Countryside schools may have significantly less and require more creativity from the teacher. New teachers should begin a private language schools as the students are generally mature and hard-working and will allow you to make rookie mistakes.
If you are in your twenties, the majority of your colleagues will be like you, sewing your royal oats before putting down roots back home. The rest will be either some of the most fascinating people you’ll ever meet or the saddest. Some have "gone native" while many others are admirably seeking their second wind too lighten the heavy baggage brought with them. The majority will be men, but not by much. The developing world is still very much a man’s and your female colleagues often need thicker skins in cultures less respectful of independent western women. For others though, it increases your value. Finally, most schools often employ a smattering of natives who will work ten times harder than you and receive ten times less. Treat them well.
For the most part, anyone entering the business should forget any hope of financial gain. It does indeed come to some but no more than to aspiring actors in Hollywood. The best salaries these days are around Persian Gulf where schools offer upwards of $40,000 to $50,000 (tax free!), lots of holidays, free accommodation and flights home. Teachers working in the traditional locales of higher salaries, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, now must deal with higher costs of living. More economically depressed regions of the world usually offer something higher than the average cost of living, but still far below the US standards, which can make it hard to pay off any debts back home. University work in any country always pays more and is the best place to aim. Cash windfalls come from one place and one place only, private students. Although the ethics of obtaining privates are still debatable, the economic benefits are undeniable since they can be charged up to four times your school rate and still invite you to their summer villa.
To be sure, your first time abroad can be unnerving and full of things that go bump in the night, but once you’ve picked yourself up a few times, you learn not to fall so easily. An active social life is key to mental health so make every effort to be a good friend. A network of native friends is also immensely helpful as they’ll keep you informed, guide you through the often-intolerable bureaucratic labyrinths and reveal the hidden cultural treasures. Countryside teachers should expect more solitude and need to be tougher psychologically but no matter where you go, you’ll need significant internal reserves of motivation, energy, and optimism. You may find some at the parties and pub-crawls, but far more in the hearts of the people and genetics of their culture.