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The Beginner’s Guide to Teaching English Abroad: 12 Crucial Tips & Pointers

Have you heard through the grapevine that it's actually possible to get paid to live in Spain, Argentina or Thailand by working and teaching English abroad and thought to yourself, “I want to know how I can do that?”

Do you have friends or classmates that have taught English in Japan, China, or Chile, and wondered to yourself, “How can I get paid to live in a foreign country?” The truth is that you can, but like any great endeavor in life, moving to a foreign country to teach English requires research, planning and initiative. Contrary to popular belief, teaching abroad will not ruin your life. Here are 12 basic pointers to help you get started.

1. Know that virtually anybody can teach english abroad

With approximately 1 billion people learning English worldwide, the demand for native English-speaking teachers is insatiable and virtually any native or fluent English speaker can gain employment teaching English abroad. Remember this:

  • A background in education or professional teaching experience is not required to teach English abroad.
  • You do not need to speak a foreign language to teach English abroad.
  • Prior international travel experience is not a prerequisite to teach English abroad.
  • A college degree is not required to teach English abroad. In fact, even those without a college degree can realistically expect to gain employment teaching English abroad in up to 50 countries around the world from China and Cambodia to Russia, Argentina and Peru.

Remember that hiring standards will certainly vary from country to country, so remember to consider what countries you are qualified to teach in and how you can teach English abroad without a degree.

2. Research your tail off

If you plan to move halfway around the world to teach English, you owe it to yourself to research all aspects of your great international adventure to make it as rewarding and successful as possible. To start, Go Overseas has published tons of valuable articles on teaching English abroad.

When you're ready to start diving into program options, be sure to read reviews and weigh all of the possibilities. Salary, livability, time commitments, and the potential for an incredible and positive experience will all play major factors in your decision.

3. Make sure to earn your TEFL certification

Even though you don’t need a degree or professional teaching experience, if you want to teach English abroad professionally, you need to take an accredited TEFL certification course -- especially if you have no background in teaching English as a foreign language (our guide to TEFL helps lay this all out for you).

An accredited TEFL certification course (we have a full list of TEFL courses on Go Overseas) will provide you with the skills you need to competently run 4-6 classes a day, and will outline the best ESL teaching tools. TEFL certification will also provide you with a recognized qualification that most schools and language schools around the world seek when hiring new teachers. Remember, most schools around the world will not hire you off the street to teach English professionally simply because you are a native or fluent English speaker!

One of the biggest difficulties that new teachers face is the challenge of creating fun, engaging, and plenty of activities for the ESL classroom. TEFL courses will give you insight on the types of games and lessons that are successful with different age groups. Get a head start by reading our tips for lesson planning or take notes of the 10 best games for ESL teachers.

4. Consider whether to go with an organized program or independently

Many TEFL training schools do provide job placement assistance and it’s definitely something to check for when researching your options, because quality assistance should insure that you don’t have to pay for a job placement. Many top programs provide it for free with the course tuition. Others may charge additional fees for placement or assistance. Teaching abroad through an organized program is a great option for first-time travelers to a new region, especially if the local language is one you're less-than-absolutely-fluent-in.

For most people looking to go abroad, there are enough jobs and plenty of resources in the way of free job boards, recruiters, and other resources, that there really should not be a need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a placement. Also, programs that guarantee or receive payment for placements will limit you to job options offered by the program, which are a drop in the ocean of the thousands of job opportunities worldwide that you may be qualified for.

If you are looking to teach English in Asia, Russia or the Middle East, you may consider working with recruiters that interview and hire English teachers from the U.S., Canada and elsewhere on behalf of schools in these countries. Typically you should not pay such recruiters for placement. Working with recruiters can make the process of interviewing and lining up a position abroad as they can provide assistance and guidance with matters like setting up interviews and arranging documents for your visa. The key, as always, is to research and work with reputable, well-established recruiters.

Suggested Programs for Teaching Abroad

5. Remember: hiring and interview procedures vary from country to country

While there are always exceptions, in Europe most private sector language institutes interview and hire teachers in September and again in January. In South America, top seasons include February to March and July to August. Demand is so high in Asia that language schools hire year-around, as many do in the Middle East; in both regions many elementary and high schools recruit during the spring and summer for positions beginning in September.

It is also important to note that in Europe and Latin America, most schools interview and hire teachers face-to-face locally rather than recruiting them from their home country in advance. Exceptions include government assistantship programs in France and Spain, and many schools in Eastern Europe such as Russia, Ukraine and Turkey.

While there are exceptions, particularly in Thailand and Cambodia, most schools in Asia and the Persian Gulf will recruit and hire new teachers directly from their home country. This means that if you want the security of having a job waiting for you when you hop on a place to your teaching destination, you should concentrate your efforts in these regions.

For more details, take a look at our guide to teach abroad hiring seasons and application deadlines.

6. Plan to break even financially in Latin America and Europe

This means that even as a first-time English teacher teaching in Argentina, Spain, Czech Republic or Ecuador, you can expect to earn enough to pay your bills - rent, food, daily transportation, etc. - and live comfortably, though modestly. This means that you’ll be able to travel and go out on the weekends and engage in other personal pursuits like taking language lessons. However, in these regions you shouldn’t expect, at least at first, to be making enough salary to put money in the bank at the end of every month.

7. If you want to make more money, head to Asia or the Middle East

Most people don’t go into teaching for the money, but if you’re looking to make enough to save for extra travel or to make student loan payments, concentrate on opportunities in these two regions. In major Asian nations, even first-time English teachers typically make enough to save 30%-50% of their income after expenses, and often receive benefits like free airfare and housing. Monthly savings typically range from about $400 a month in a nation like Thailand up to $1000 or more in South Korea.

For even more lucrative contracts, consider Persian Gulf countries in the Middle East like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, many, though not all, of these positions require professional teaching experience, an advanced degree in education, or a teaching license.

8. Consider volunteering

Volunteering may not offer the financial benefits that teaching professionally does, but it can still provide an incredibly rewarding international experience. It’s also a viable way to teach in some regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, where paid positions are far and few between. Finally, it’s perfect if you’re only looking to go abroad for three months or less or if you seek to teach English abroad without a TEFL certification.

9. Set a realistic timeline and plan ahead

Getting a job and moving half-way around the world to teach English is not like choosing which parties you’re going to hit this weekend or selecting what you’re going to wear to the gym – it’s not a spur of the moment sort of deal. While hiring cycles and procedures vary worldwide, you should usually plan on taking 3-6 months from the point when you begin your TEFL certification and job search to actually getting on a plane and taking off to go abroad and begin your teaching job. In some cases, as when applying for government public school programs like JET in Japan or the assistantship programs in Spain and France, the process of applying, interviewing and making travel arrangements may take 6-9 months or even longer.

10. Be prepared for start-up costs

Teaching English abroad may be the most cost-effective way to live and travel overseas for an extended period, but like most major undertakings in life, it requires a degree of financial planning. Major start-up costs typically include:

  • TEFL Certification: $1,000 - $2,500 for a fully accredited online or in-person class – trust me, it’s worth it.
  • Transportation to your destination country: typically $300-$1000 for North Americans traveling to other continents.
  • Support in your new country until you start getting paid: even if you have a job waiting for you when you arrive, you won't typically get paid on your first day of work. These expenses can range from $500, if your housing is provided and your job is pre-arranged, to $3000 if you need to support yourself in a major European city while you interview for a position and rent an apartment.

Remember that start-up costs for teaching English abroad in Asia are typically lower because in most cases you will line up your job in advance, so you don’t have to support yourself while interviewing locally as you would in many European and Latin American countries, and many schools, particularly in South Korea and China, cover airfare and housing costs.

11. Engage your friends and family

You will need their love and support, and in some cases, their advice and financial assistance. At the same time, don’t let their fear of losing you stop you from going abroad – Mom will just have to understand that you’re going to miss a Thanksgiving or two.

The good news is that thanks to technology, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch from all corners of the globe. Email, Facebook and other social media make conversing and sharing photos a cinch, and with Skype, you can enjoy video calls with friends and family as often as you like, for free.

12. Be open-minded and flexible

If you won’t even consider teaching anywhere but Paris or Dubai, you’re only cheating yourself. The fact that you may not get a job on the Champs Elysees should not stop you from experiencing the adventure of living and traveling abroad, whether it be in Turkey, Thailand, Argentina or anywhere else. Also, bear in mind that you are not limited to one destination – you can always teach in one country or region and then move on to another and as in any field, the more experience you gain, the more opportunities will come your way.

Essentially the only way that you can’t teach English abroad is if you don’t have the initiative to make it happen – so let’s go! That means researching your options, getting a TEFL certification and putting together a timeline. Be realistic and organized, but don’t hesitate to broaden your horizons and take chances either. Moving abroad is meant to be adventure, so embrace it!

Photo Credits: Travel to Teach.
Disclaimer: We have paid relationships with some of the companies linked to within this article.
John Bentley

John is a Senior Admissions Advisor at the International TEFL Academy. He holds a BA from Harvard University in Middle Eastern studies and a master’s in Journalism. John was an author for the Egypt-Israel edition of the Let's Go! travel guide series. He grew up in Egypt and has traveled to more than 50 countries. Find John on Google+.