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Teaching English as a Foreign Language Abroad

It was nearly two months before graduation and I was still spending a lot of time in Socky O’Sullivan’s office–that is my advisor. I searched endlessly on Google, trying to keep from having that what-am-I-doing-with-my-life panic attack. Socky had been encouraging me to teach abroad in Asia, so I determinedly applied to the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program in Japan. Yeah, I did not even make it to round two.  As an English major with good grades, high involvement on campus, and Japanese heritage (which I blatantly tried to use to my advantage in my application), I did not take the news well.

Graduation loomed ahead. After talking with a friend of mine, who was looking to get his Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate in Prague, I started thinking about doing the same. In the end, ironically, I moved to Prague, while my friend went to France. I earned a Trinity CertTESOL, found a great job shortly after, lived in Prague for two years, and moved to Madrid this past September to continue teaching. In your face, JET.

I get a lot of emails with questions about living abroad, getting certified, and teaching–and so have a lot of the teachers in the Rollins English department. So, I have compiled a list of steps to take to help you get your exotic journey started. (I could write a whole article for each topic below, but I will attempt to be succinct.)

1. Decide on a continent.

Asia: high pay, average to high workload. The advantages to teaching abroad in Asia are (1) you do not have to have a TEFL, (2) Asia is more exotic, and (3) most programs will help you with visas and settling in (if you are lucky, you might even have airfare and housing provided). The biggest disadvantage, however, is that it is far away–really far away. Therefore, teaching in Asia is expensive to visit home, and you will have to engage in some work if you want to pick up any of the language.

Europe: history, average to low workload. The advantage here is that you have already likely studied a language that will help you with learning the language of your new home. Additionally, cities like Paris, Madrid, and Munich will not be too much of a culture shock. On the other hand, you need to be a little brave when you start out, as there will not be a program to support you. You almost always need a TEFL; it takes up time and money, but it is extremely useful.

Central/South America: I do not know much about teaching here, except that the market isn’t nearly as big, which means you will have to work harder to get started. I recommend beginning in either Asia or Europe, then exploring the Americas once you have some experience.

2. Choose a TEFL course.

If you are set on going to Asia for just one year then coming home, you can skip ahead to Step 3.  In Asia, you don’t really need a TEFL.

There are many roads to teaching abroad. You can mix it up any way you want: You can teach in Asia, then move to Europe, do a TEFL there, then work in Europe; you can move to Europe, do a TEFL course, then work in Europe; you can move to Asia, do a TEFL there, work in Asia, then move to Europe and work there; or you can do a TEFL in the U.S., then move. TEFLs are all one-month courses and have similar prices. There are online TEFL courses, but I encourage you to find one in a classroom. While online courses might be cheap on Groupon, they are not always recognized by employers.  Moreover, they leave you with no actual classroom experience–meaning that your first day on the job is your first day in front of a class, ever.

Here is the hierarchy of TEFLs: online < typical classroom < Trinity < Cambridge. I went with Trinity, though I have never worked a job where typical TEFL would not have served. However, some language schools do ask for applicants with Trinity or Cambridge TEFL certificates.

3. Look for a job.

You can start by looking at some websites, such as Dave’s ESL Cafe (great for jobs in Asia), or Google “ESL jobs” and go from there. If you are going the TEFL route, you can get a feel for what’s ahead, and start to narrow down locations. Feel free to send out CVs*, but do not expect a lot of responses until your TEFL is finished. Embellish your CV. Have you tutored at TJ’s writing center? Make it sound like you are a failing student’s saving grace. Worked in a summer camp? You have experience handling large groups of children. Worked for the ‘Spur? You are a grammar wizard. See what I mean? Send your CV to every ad that interests you.

If you do a TEFL outside the U.S., keep your mind open about staying in that city. It is a lot easier for someone to hire you when you are already there and ready to start. I had originally planned to begin work elsewhere in Europe, but Prague ended up being a much easier place to find a job. Plus, you will find that the more experience you have, the pickier you can be. So, maybe save your dream destination for a little later.

4. Research visa requirements.

Asia: If you are going to Asia, you probably need to get your visa before you arrive. Do some research. If you are working with a program, talk to them about it. If you are lucky, they well guide you through the whole process.

Europe: If you are all kinds of fancy and have an EU passport, skip ahead, and know that I am extremely jealous.

But, if you are like me and have a boring, blue, American passport, start taking notes. If you are going to Europe, you can make use of the 90 days that we are allowed in the “Schengen zone” on an automatic tourist visa. However, if you have applied for jobs from the U.S. and have a position ready to go, you can start the application from the embassy nearest you. I went to Prague on my 90-day tourist visa, used 30 of them on TEFL, realized I wanted to stay in the Czech Republic, and applied from the Czech embassy in Vienna. You usually need to apply from outside the country you want to be in; after all, you are not supposed to be working there yet. In Europe, it’s possible that your employer will offer visa assistance, but if not, you can certainly do it on your own. Be prepared for a few frustrating moments and finding your patience wearing thin with bureaucrats. But if all else fails, hire one of the many services that exist for assisting foreigners with visa applications.

5. Find the balance between tourist and native.

Be aware that this is a step up from studying abroad. This is the time to learn how to navigate cities on your own, use public transport, have a regular job, pay rent, etc. Moving abroad does not mean you have to become a different person, but the best experiences abroad always come from making the effort to adapt yourself to your surroundings. Learn some of the language, take walks and look for signs of how the city has grown and changed, try traditional foods and their modern spin-offs, and make local friends. After you’ve been abroad for a little while, you’ll begin to hide in the corner seat, when big groups of study abroad kids get on public transport and talk at volumes that suggest they have rented the whole bus for their own private party. Do not be them. Respect the people around you. Many times, they can tell you are a foreigner before you even open your mouth. They will appreciate your efforts to do something as simple as speaking at the same volume levels as they do.

There are some very easy places to live, like Paris and Madrid. But, jobs are difficult to come by in those places. Instead, be prepared for living somewhere like Seoul or Prague. The languages are harder, and there are more tourists passing through than foreigners living in those cities. Yet, that has two advantages: (1) it is easier to make friends because you’ll find that foreigners band together, and (2) when you speak to someone in Korean or Czech, they will be impressed and often praise you for learning the language–even if all you managed to do was butcher your way through, “I would like the chicken, please.”

I hope these tips have helped you decide that yes!, teaching English abroad is the next great thing you’re going to do. Check out these websites for more information, and good luck!

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