I remember when I first considered teaching English eight years ago. At that time I was working at an upscale steak restaurant in Chicago. It was a pretty good gig, really. I made a lot of money, I had a lot of free time, but it wasn’t stimulating enough. I wanted more: I wanted to feel like I was making a difference, to challenge myself and to go on an adventure.
It was a tough decision at that time to decide whether or not TEFL was something I’d be good at, or even like. Before paying for the TEFL course and buying that expensive ticket abroad, I wanted some assurance that I was making the right decision. In the end, I just jumped into the profession and took my chances. It worked out for me, but I’ve seen many teachers come and go who definitely had made the wrong decision. Read on for my advice on whether TEFL is right for you.
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Do you have the right personality?
It may not seem like that big of a thing, but personality plays a huge factor in TEFL teaching. There is no one particular formula for what makes a great teacher, but there are some things you should be honest with yourself about. One such thing is whether or not you are sociable enough for the profession.
I don’t necessarily mean that you are particularly outgoing and always the life of the party, what I mean is that the idea of standing in front of a room of adults (probably older than you) doesn’t scare you to death. Likewise, it is necessary that you have the social skills to at least LEAD a conversation with a private student. I had never considered myself that outgoing before I started teaching, but now I am definitely more comfortable with groups of people I don’t know, and starting conversations from dust. Can you visualize yourself teaching a room full of people or does that seem impossible?
Other personality traits that are useful in the TEFL profession are patience, empathy, creativity, and adaptability. Regarding patience and empathy, one thing that takes some time is to realize just how difficult it is to be in a classroom where the only language being spoken is not your own. It’s extremely stressful to be put on blast by the teacher and asked to do something that you don’t understand. It’s important that you, as a potential teacher, have the ability to look at things from the students’ point of view. It’s crucial that the teacher not to get upset when students (adults or children) are not doing exactly what you had planned for them to do.
As for creativity, I find that my own has been the most important currency in my teaching. Every day I sit down with a book and find the language points of the lesson. Then, every day I need to somehow turn these into an engaging lesson full of relatively new activities that the students will like. If you are a creative person, this is a lot of fun. If you lack that spark, in my experience, you will find teaching very challenging.
You may say you’re a steak and potatoes kind of guy (or girl), but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find steak and potatoes in your new TEFL location. You may say that you don’t teach children, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be asked to do so at some point in your new job. Both with the job, and with travel in general, a bit of adaptability is necessary. You are quite literally stepping out of your comfort zone when you take on TEFL for the first time. Can you embrace it?
Do you have the right motivations?
There is an excellent private school in Hanoi, Vietnam named Marie Curie. This school is extremely expensive by Vietnamese standards and difficult to get into. For the most part, it is full of upper-class Hanoians: lots of doctors and lawyers. So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed that, teaching in the same school as my teachers, was a group of volunteers who were teaching for free.
I talked to one of them and asked her about what she was doing. She told me she really wanted to help the poor people of Vietnam so she had joined a program (which will remain nameless in this post). I looked at her, then down onto the courtyard from the eighth story modern classroom with an interactive whiteboard. Just outside of the courtyard parents were picking up their children in Mercedes. Where were these the poor children she was referring to?
I’m not saying that working for a charity is a bad thing. By no means. I’m not even saying that there aren’t charitable opportunities within the profession, because there are. What I am saying is that if you are being paid a reasonable amount of money, this is not charity. Most TEFL jobs are just that, jobs. Your motivation should be about doing that job well, bettering your teaching skills, and it’s ok to consider the money involved (most jobs allow you to save a good deal). If you aren’t interested in money at all and truly want to do something for a charitable cause, I urge you to research the institution thoroughly.
There’s no right answer for what should motivate someone to start teaching, and I’ve heard many different ones. For example:
“Where else could I get paid to play with children and toys all day?”
“I met my husband and I didn’t know the language of the country well enough to get a different job, so I did my TEFL course.”
“I love the feeling at the end of the day, when I see how my students language skills have grown, it’s like farming.”
“I love to travel and TEFL gives me the chance to get to know the locals.”
Honestly, I think these are all valid reasons. What’s yours?
Do you have the time and money?
Ok, it’s time for a real talk. If you want to 1) take a TEFL course 2) buy a plane ticket to a foreign country and 3) set yourself up in that country you are going to need some savings. I pride myself on being pretty frugal when I have to be, but I spent about $3,500 dollars on those three things when I first started teaching. These days, there are cheaper courses available and a lot of this varies depending on where you are going and what kind of deals you can find. Still, if a younger sibling were to ask me, straight up, how much money they would need, I would tell them they AT LEAST should save $3,000 USD.
It’s a great investment because you will definitely make that money back and then some. If you need to take out a loan, and you’re pretty sure that TEFL is for you, I’d recommend that you do it. There are lots of jobs available and as long as you have the right qualifications, you shouldn’t have a hard time finding one.
In terms of time, I’d recommend you at least block off a year and a few months for your TEFL experience. My story is that I was just planning on teaching for six months…that was eight years ago. The bare minimum, to make your initial investment back and to have a good experience that involves some traveling as well as teaching, is about a year. Also, most of the legit jobs are one-year contracts anyways. If you do something as a backpacker (teach for a few months) that is the type of school you’ll end up at. Very few teachers I know have had good experiences with these institutions.
Do I have the right qualifications?
Many people ask the same questions:
- Do I need a TEFL to teach English?
- Do I need a degree?
The answer to both of the above is no. You do not NEED these things to teach English abroad, but it will severely limit the countries and schools at which you can work. You are likely to find a job where you are paid under the table and where you will have to pay to leave the country every time your tourist visa runs out. Also, consider the types of places that are willing to let you work illegally. Do you think these will be the legitimate institutions?
I may be over-simplifying it, but I’d highly recommend at least getting your TEFL. Why not contact some of the language centers in the country where you are planning to work and ask about what qualifications they require of their teachers? Every country and school is different; do your research. Â With all of the advice that I’ve given above, I think the key to making this decision is, to be honest with yourself. If possible, try to watch a TEFL style class in the place where you currently live. This will give you a valuable insight into the profession.
Have you already decided you want to be a TEFL teacher? If you want a step by step list of how to proceed to become a teacher, click on the free download below. In this resource, I’ll walk you through the whole process.