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Ask a Teacher: Is Getting a TEFL Certificate Worth It?

Is Getting a TEFL Certificate Worth It?

Hi Go Overseas!

I want to teach abroad and have read in a lot of places that you need to be TEFL certified to get a teaching job abroad. But they're really expensive, and it'd be a huge commitment for me to pay for one at the moment. So, before I bite the bullet and sign up for an expensive TEFL course I wanted to ask: are they worth it? Or can I get away with not having one?

Thanks!
- Confused about TEFL

Thanks for your note! If there's one question I get the most about teaching abroad, it's whether or not you need a TEFL certificate. This decision is an important one considering TEFL courses can cost from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

I’ll be the first to tell you that all the information out there can be pretty confusing. Do I actually need a TEFL? Should I apply through a program or just show up? How do I avoid getting screwed over? Trust me, I was there just a few short years ago. Here's what I've learned by going through the process myself:

What’s a TEFL?

TEFL stands for “teaching English as a foreign language”, not to be confused with TOEFL, the language test international students need to take to get into American universities. By taking the TEFL course and exam, you’ll show employers that you’re qualified to teach abroad, without needing an actual teaching certificate. With a TEFL degree you can teach anywhere from Asia to South America.

One of the greatest tips I ever learned was to NEVER ask “do you all understand?

There are many different types of TEFL programs. Some require you to be on site for in-classroom training, while others let you do it all online. My TEFL course was a mixture of both (called a hybrid TEFL in the teaching world). We took an online course and test, and then flew to China to complete our in-class training.

Does Your Country Require a TEFL?

What countries require TEFL certificates

Do you really need a TEFL? It depends. Some countries like China and South Korea require it, while others like Cambodia, don’t even require you to have a four-year diploma. If you have a specific place in mind, you can learn more about each country's specific rules through our detailed country program guides.

While South Korea is very strict on their TEFL policy, many people bend the rules in China. While you can definitely get a job teaching English in China without a TEFL, it will be difficult for you to find full-time employment, impossible to procure a long-term visa, and you may also be scammed since you’ll have no legal backing.

While some schools may be more than happy to hire you without a TEFL, these may not be the schools you want to work for. The reason they want TEFL-less you is either because they can’t afford a teacher with a TEFL or they can’t get a teacher with a TEFL to agree to work for them… or they just don’t want to deal with getting you a visa.

For this reason alone, I would 100% recommend you get a TEFL if you are planning on teaching in a country that requires one. You will command higher pay, which will more than cover your initial investment, and you'll find a better job that will be able to hire you legally.

If you plan on teaching in a country that doesn't require a TEFL, it's up to you whether or not you think getting a TEFL is worth it. In addition to government rules, there are many other reasons you might consider getting one (e.g. basic training on how to do a new job well).

Gain Valuable Skills and Confidence

One thing that many ESL teachers sometimes forget is that teaching abroad is a real job that strongly affects the lives of your students. While teaching abroad might be a fun adventure and an opportunity to travel, your job is to actually teach English, and that’s not something you should blow off or take lightly.

Chances are, you’ve never taught English as a foreign language before. While I’d tutored kindergartners in basic reading during my undergrad at George Washington University, I was ill-equipped to teach a class full of high school students. How do I make a lesson plan? What do I teach them? How do I manage fifty students in one class??

For the best jobs, a TEFL (and teaching experience) is a must, no matter what country you work in.

The TEFL teaches you all these things and more. Classroom management, how to create lesson plans, getting shy students to speak up, entertaining while educating… the list goes on and on. After completing the online TEFL, I felt much better about teaching in China. I no longer felt like I was in over my head, and I arrived in at my school ready to try out my new skills.

The purpose of the TEFL is to teach you to be a better teacher. Sure, you can figure it out on your own over time, but I still use the lessons my TEFL taught me. One of the greatest tips I ever learned was to NEVER ask “do you all understand?” Think back to your time in school. What self-respecting kid or teenager is going to admit in front of a class of 50 students that they have no idea what’s going on? Yeah, I thought so. The TEFL gave me other ways to check my students understood the lesson without putting anyone on the spot.

Become More Valuable in the Marketplace

Should I get TEFL certified

Even if your country doesn't require a TEFL, or you've found a school that is willing to hire you illegally without one, chances are you won't be as highly respected and your salary will be lower. For the best jobs, a TEFL (and teaching experience) is a must, no matter what country you work in.

That said, if you only want to teach English for a year, or part-time, it may not be worth the investment for you. I worked doing multiple part-time jobs while getting my Master's degree in China. While this is technically illegal, it is very common practice. None of these jobs ever asked me for my TEFL, and didn't care about it even when I mentioned I had one. They only wanted to know about my past teaching experience, and the age-range of my previous students.

Your TEFL will become much more important if you are teaching full-time with benefits. Are you relying on this school for a visa? Do you have a strict contract you can't break? Is this job providing you with housing and health insurance? In that instance you'll want to align yourself with a prominent school that has a great reputation among past teachers. To get a job at a place like this, you'll want to make yourself a strong candidate and TEFL will help you do that.

Should I Get a "Free TEFL"?

There are many different types of TEFLs, all at different price points and of differing levels of quality. My TEFL came free through my program, Ameson Year in China. However, I learned pretty quickly that there's no such thing as a free TEFL.

If you want to feel confident, make more money and improve your chances of finding a quality position, a small investment now will definitely pay off in the future.

Programs and schools may offer to pay for your TEFL certification, especially in places like China, where it's required. While it might seem like a nice perk, nothing is ever free. You are paying for that TEFL through a lower salary. With a TEFL already in your pocket, you can command a much higher salary than your friends who get one “for free”. These TEFLs usually pay for themselves in the first few months.

For example, my salary with Ameson Year in China was 5,000 yuan ($750 USD) a month including a "free TEFL", free housing, orientation, health insurance and a flight to and from China. On the other hand, Disney English requires you to already have a TEFL when applying, but offers 10,000 yuan ($1,500 USD) a month in addition to all of the other benefits! While Disney English requires you to work more hours a week, and possibly offers less vacation time, the salary difference is big. Look at the number break down:

  • 12 months teaching with Ameson: $9,000 - the cost of a TEFL course ($0) = $9,000 net
  • 12 months teaching with Disney English: $18,000 - the cost of a TEFL course ($1,500) = $16,500 net

The Takeaway

Is getting a TEFL certificate worth it? It really depends on your situation. If you plan to teach full-time in a country that requires a TEFL certificate, I would definitely get one. If you plan on teaching abroad for less than a year or part-time, then it's a good idea but not totally necessary.

Think of the TEFL as an investment in your teaching career. A few hundred dollars now will help you make much more throughout the year. A TEFL may also help you get a better teaching job where you'll have increased work satisfaction. However, if you only plan to teach part-time or for less than a year while traveling, the investment of time and money might not be worth it for you.

Do you really need a TEFL to teach abroad? Unless you have a specific country you want to teach in, the answer is no. However, if you want to feel confident, make more money and improve your chances of finding a quality position, a small investment now will definitely pay off in the future.

Look for TEFL courses now.

Photo Credits: China.
Photo of Richelle Gamlam

Traveler, blogger and serial expat, Richelle has been living and working in China for the last four years. From high school English teacher to college admissions consultant, Richelle has tried her hand at many different jobs in China. She spends all of her vacation days traveling Asia off the beaten path, and in her spare time, she loves to scuba dive, salsa dance and try weird foods no one else will eat. For more of Richelle's crazy misadventures, check out her blog Adventures Around Asia.