Thinking about Teaching English Overseas?

March 31, 2011

By Judy Smith

Teaching Chinese Drama StudentsAre you an adventurous person? Teaching English overseas presents an opportunity to immerse oneself in another culture for a year or more. You can travel around the host country during your free time, learn a new language, and become friends with local people—all while making a decent salary! I started working overseas in 1999 while in my early 50s after being unable to find a suitable job in Canada.

There are a lot of things to research and think over before committing to an teaching job overseas. Below I’ve listed information on the necessary qualifications, age limits, and the range of salaries. This is based on my research and experience as a Canadian working overseas. Be sure to double check the specific requirements in your home and host countries.


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Academic Qualifications

To teach English overseas you will need:

  1. A 4-year Bachelor’s degree. The degree can be in anything, but better jobs can be obtained if your degree is English-related or in Education; a Master’s or PhD will get you a high-paying job in a university or International School.
  2. Experience teaching is sometimes required, but not always necessary.
  3. A TEFL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate is often required, and will give you the boost of confidence required to teach. There are many ways to get a TEFL certificate:

Options for Obtaining your TEFL Certificate

  • A 4-6 week TEFL course certified by TEFL Canada is offered in most major Canadian cities. Make sure the course is certified by TEFL Canada, since it involves a commitment of time and money and will also give you the qualifications to teach ESL in Canada.
  • If you only want the certificate and lack the time or finances to attend in-class instruction, you can take the course on line. On-line courses are not always accepted, however, as they don’t include a practicum. One registered on-line course is ICAL.
  • Other TEFL courses not certified by TEFL Canada are less expensive and time-consuming but will not qualify you to teach in Canada.
  • TEFL (CELTA, DELTA) courses are offered in other places around the world like England, Spain, Greece, Thailand and Prague. These schools promise assistance in finding employment after the course; however it is impossible to teach in Europe without a Euro passport. Since it is relatively easy to find a teaching job in Thailand, the only reason one might take the course there is that the cost of living is cheaper than in Canada. None of these courses will certify you to teach in Canada.

Non-academic Requirements:

Teaching in Chinese SchoolTeaching ESL overseas is not for the faint of heart. If you have any psychological problems, they will magnify tenfold in a foreign culture. You need:

  • Self-confidence to survive in a foreign country for a year, where the culture, language, food and people are so different and you will not have the support network of family and friends.
  • A strong, loud voice and a commanding presence in the classroom. Students are often nothing like the quiet, obedient and enthusiastic delights in Anna and the King.
  • Health.
    • Other countries are not wheelchair accessible and often don’t have elevators.
    • It is possible to have a chronic health condition and work overseas, however you need to be knowledgeable about the condition and be able to control it yourself.
    • It is stressful to work away from home and without the support of friends and family. Stress can have an adverse effect on both our daily health and on chronic conditions. You need to some portable method for coping with stress: meditation, exercise, yoga…

Age Limitations

If you are younger than 55, you can get a job teaching anywhere except Japan, where one must be 35 or younger. In the Middle East, it is virtually impossible to obtain a work visa if you are older than 55. However, if you have a PhD in English or Masters in TEFL the employer might be willing to bribe the bureaucracy to get a visa for you.

If you are between 55 and 65 you can a job in Asia (other than Japan). If you are already over 65 it is extremely difficult to get a new job. If you are already working overseas you may be able to get your contract renewed. There were some teachers in their 70s in China when I worked there.

Documents required

  1. Notarized copies of your degree and certificates.
  2. A copy of your university transcript.
  3. A copy of your passport page (Your passport must not expire in the year you will be away.)
  4. A recent criminal record check (within the past 3 months)
  5. Three reference letters or contacts.
  6. It is helpful to have a Skype account, as many employers want to interview you on line.

NEVER send original documents. After you arrive, you will need to hand over your original documents to apply for a work visa, but these must be returned to you immediately. Avoid any employer who will retain your passport for the duration of your stay.

On a similar note, refuse to pay an agent for services. Agents are paid by the employer.

Salaries and Benefits

The salary depends on where and for whom you are working. At the present time, the highest salaries are in the Middle Eastern countries like Saudi, Oman and The Emirates, and range from between $2500-3600 CAD per month, including air fare, accommodations, medical insurance and a paid 6-week vacation. The lowest salaries are to be made in Russia, China and Mexico, and waver between $500-1200 per month.

Most employers offer accommodation, health insurance and visa coverage; many provide return air fare, either up-front or by reimbursement. Accommodation varies from an attractive 3-bedroom house to a one-bedroom walk-up infested with cockroaches. You need only bring your personal effects; all other requirements for daily living are provided.

Be Brave But Be Careful

Not all employers are created equal. Some promise the moon but offer you a bite of cheese; some don’t pay on time, if at all. A written contract is worth no more than the paper it is written on. Will you sue for breach of contract? Good luck. We are guests of the host country, and exist under the umbrella of the employer. When that umbrella is taken away, so is our visa. We must return home; the employer stays to fight the battle. “Bad” employers count on the fact that a) lawyers in a given country will almost always protect their own people, and b) it is impossible to lodge a law-suit from another country. In the hundreds of law suits which have been initiated in South Korea, for example, not one has been won by the teacher. You might as well toss your wages into the China Sea.

What can you do to protect yourself from an unscrupulous employer?

  1. Check the forum on Dave’s ESL café. Compose a question about the employer. Some countries have a list of employers who have been “black-listed” by other teachers.
  2. Ask the employer for a reference from a teacher who is presently employed by them. Talk to the teacher by telephone or by Skype after hours.
  3. If you have an interview with the employer by Skype, follow your instinct: Is this someone you can trust?
  4. If push comes to shove, make sure you have left yourself an exit. You don’t have to stay but you do need to make sure you have adequate funds to go home, you have a home to go to, and you have your passport in hand. You will not be the first teacher to do a “midnight run.”

This information is not intended as a scare tactic. In fact, during the 12 years we have been teaching overseas we have had only one negative experience. Have we been lucky, smart, or are stories from other teachers greatly exaggerated? It is impossible to tell, but I always succumb to the old adage: It’s better to be safe than sorry.

If you feel like working overseas is something you would like to pursue see the 2nd part of this series for information on finding a job overseas, the financial considerations of working overseas and advice on packing for a year.

About the Author: Judy Smith is Canadian living overseas teaching English as a second language. Along with her husband, Roger, they have taught in China, South Korea, Omun and Thailand.

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  • Davis Smithe

    Thank you for your article. However, some of your information is not up to date. The organization that sets professional standards and certifies ESL teachers is TESL Canada, not TEFL Canada. Additionally, the CELTA is a recognized teacher-training program in Canada, and allows you to teach at almost any language school, including those regulated by Languages Canada. Please see the website below for more information.

    Thank you

    http://www.tesl.ca
    http://www.languagescanada.ca
    http://www.cambridgeesol.org/exams/teaching-awards/celta.html

  • http://www.stjobs.co.kr Andrew P

    For those of you hoping to teach English in Korea, you can go to

    http://www.stjobs.co.kr

    and register your resume there. Employers and recruiters will view your resume and contact you or you can look at the job postings and apply by email 🙂

    Good luck!

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