Teaching Abroad: A Step-by-Step Guide for Non-Native Speakers

Teaching English abroad has become a popular way to travel the world. It allows travelers of all ages to experience new cultures, while at the same time maintaining an affordable lifestyle. Becoming an EFL teacher (English as a Foreign Language, or: ESL; English as a Second Language) not only allows you to see more of the world, it allows you to immerse yourself into cultures you might otherwise just pass by.

While you certainly don’t have to be a native speaker to work abroad as an English teacher, the market does have a strong preference for those who are. Much has been written on how you can get your career as an English teacher started, but there are quite a few differences in applying for a job as a native speaker and as a non-native speaker.

This guide, created by an experienced teacher who has been through the same adventure you are about to embark on, provides you with a step-by-step guide to start your career in teaching English as a second language, while helping you circumvent pitfalls and industry bias.

Table of Contents

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Step 1: Know your strengths

So, you’ve decided to become an EFL teacher! The decision to leave your old life behind and dive into the world of English teaching is already a great indicator that you are ready for a challenge. If you hope to get your career within the EFL industry started, it is important to first test your knowledge of the English language. Though it seems like an obvious first step, I have witnessed job applicants being refused based on their strong accents, insufficient language abilities, and the poor grammar choices they made during job interviews.

Non-native speakers often find their weaknesses in vocabulary and sentence structure, while their strength lies in grammar. Native speakers acquire their sense of grammar during their early lives, while non-native speakers actively learn and study the English grammar rules. This makes non-native speakers often more competent in explaining and reproducing language points in front of a classroom. Knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are will aid you in the development of your skills and help you to become a stronger competitor within the EFL market.

To determine your language ability you can take part in an accredited exam, such as the IELTs, TOEIC or TOEFL test. Taking an exam will not only help you detect your own strengths and weaknesses, but it will also add firm proof of your grasp of the English language to your CV.

Step 2: Get certified

A major step towards becoming an English teacher is to get certified. To choose which course to take, you first have to set your goals. Some schools will simply accept you with a TEFL certificate from an online course, but others might demand you to have a CELTA certificate as well as a bachelor’s degree in teaching. It is important to know where you want to teach, what kind of school you want to teach at, and what’s required for you to be allowed to teach there.

Of course, there are countries where such teaching qualifications are not required. In parts of South America and Asia, all you have to do is show up and start teaching. These jobs often come with a high level of job insecurity and low wages. The fact that a school does not require you to have any qualification in the language you are about to teach – or any teaching qualification at all – should already send up a red flag concerning the quality of the institution you are applying to.

To be able to apply for the much sought-after jobs in popular EFL countries such as Thailand, China, Turkey, and Mexico, it is important to get qualified. While there are small differences between TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), the terms are nowadays used interchangeably. The courses are often used to quickly achieve certification at a low cost.

More and more schools, however, deem the courses insufficient as a sole qualification for teaching. As the number of teachers looking for work increases, schools in countries all around the world are becoming more careful in their selection of who they hire. Since the differences in quality between the various TEFL, TESL, and TESOL courses taught is so extreme, there are a number of countries in which these degrees are not considered valid as the sole qualification of a teacher. When choosing a TEFL, TESL, or TESOL course, don’t just look at the costs, but also look at the number of teaching hours, the depth provided by the course, and the reputation of the teaching institution.

The CELTA course distinguishes itself from other certifications due to the fact that it is affiliated with Cambridge University. The courses and institutions teaching them are monitored closely by the university to ensure the quality of the training offered. CELTA is recognized in almost every country in the world due to its reputation for consistently delivering high-quality teachers.

Before setting your aim on a certain country or school, find out what the requirements for teaching there are.

Acquire proper certification to stand out between other applicants (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Step 3: Find out where you can teach

Once you know your strengths and you have acquired proper certification, it is time to find out where you can put your skills to use. Or, as a non-native speaker, find out where you are allowed to put them to use. Each school has its own policies for hiring teachers and is equally bound by the rules set by their government.

Some countries don’t allow non-native speakers to teach English in their schools. In Western countries, for example, the hiring policies are generally quite strict: many Western European countries will not even consider a native speaker if the applicant lacks a bachelor’s or master’s degree in (English) teaching. In other countries exceptions are made for citizens of certain nations: for example, some schools in Spain and Italy consider Dutch and Danish citizens to be native speakers as well, due to the general level of English spoken within their respective countries.

Countries that do allow non-native speakers to teach English are in turn becoming increasingly picky in who they hire, often demanding teachers to have either a TEFL, TESOL or CELTA qualification. The EFL industry is a tough market to compete in as a non-native speaker, but in spite of all the demands, there are still lots of opportunities for you to teach abroad as long as you come well-prepared.

Step 4: Make choices

What country would you like to teach in? Do you have a preference for big cities, or do you enjoy small towns? Do you feel more comfortable teaching children or adults? Would you like to be employed by a primary school, a high school, a university, an international school, or would you rather teach at a more selective private school? Will you teach for a few months, or are you considering to teach for several years? The list goes on, and we haven’t even started asking country-specific questions yet: for example, what cultures do you prefer to explore, what climate do you feel most comfortable in and what are the costs of living in the countries you prefer? Answering all of these questions will clear the path to achieve your goals, while navigating the sometimes overwhelming options of EFL teaching.

As a non-native speaker, it might be difficult to land a dream job in your country of choice right off the bat. To build experience, great opportunities lie in temporary teaching jobs at (residential) summer schools in Europe. A residential teaching job in the United Kingdom will pay around $530,- (€450,-) a week. Since the summer schools offer free food and accommodation, you will be able to save quite a bit of money during your stay.

British Residential School
The lively world of residential school teaching in the United Kingdom (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Step 5: Apply for jobs

Once you’ve chosen which country you want to teach in, it is wise to search for a comprehensive list of all schools that offer EFL jobs within that country. A good source for such lists is ESL Base. Sending open applications through the schools’ websites can be a fruitful undertaking. By applying directly at the schools, you circumvent competition coming from websites listing jobs.

Of course, these websites shouldn’t be ignored. Major sources of EFL vacancies are Tefl.com, Dave’s ESL Café, and ESL Jobfeed. Applying to vacancies posted on these websites will allow you to tailor your applications to the specific needs of employers. Browsing these websites as a freshly certified non-native speaker can be quite demotivating, as many – if not most – vacancies require you to be a native speaker with at least 1 year of experience in teaching English. Generally, this is just a way for schools to reduce the number of (unsuitable) applicants. Ignoring each of these seemingly demanding vacancies might leave you with very few teaching opportunities. Keep in mind that with a neat CV and a strong motivational letter, schools are generally willing to give you a chance even if you don’t fully meet their requirements.

Once you start applying for jobs, make sure to keep track of all the applications you’ve sent out, and the responses you received: this will allow you to form better insights into the job market and help you improve further applications.

The application process for EFL jobs is comparable to that of any other job. However, be aware that job interviews within the EFL industry might range from five simple questions to grueling 1,5-hour sparring matches compassing anything from personal questions to extremely specific grammar questions. It would be wise to compose a list of potential questions and think about the answers before you engage in your first match. Also, when applying for a job teaching children, expect to be asked personal questions relating to your sense of responsibility, trustworthiness, and your experiences in taking care of children.

Step 6: Overcome industry bias

When it comes to teaching English abroad there are still many unspoken truths about who schools prefer to hire. It is important to know that even though your English might be on par with that of a native speaker and you have acquired certification, schools might still prefer hiring a true native speaker. The concern they have with considering a non-native speaker is that the applicant might not have an adequate level of English. Especially when the amount of applications is great enough to allow schools to be picky, the applications from non-native speakers will often simply be skimmed off the top.

To overcome industry bias, it is important to be able to show potential employees your qualities. Build a strong CV, indicating your qualities relating to teaching, and write a comprehensive, but not overlong motivational letter. When a potential employer shows interest, always push for a telephone or Skype interview to make sure you can show off your skills.

EFL Teacher CV
A strong CV can help you overcome industry bias (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

One very persistent unspoken truth within the EFL industry is a rather controversial one: the issue of racism. Especially in Southeast Asia, the EFL industry is ruled by a strong separation of races. In Thailand, research was conducted among the parents of primary school children to see which type of teacher they preferred for their kids. Parents were shown three fake teacher profiles with pictures and credentials. The first profile showed a picture of a well-dressed black man with a master’s degree in teaching English. The profile document showed a picture of a Thai woman with a bachelor’s degree in education. The third profile showed an unkempt white man, with no specific teaching certification. The parents were then asked who they would pick as their child’s educator in the English language. The slobby white man was the top favorite.

No matter the credibility of the research conducted, it does capture the underlying spirit in many EFL markets. To overcome industry bias, it is imperative to strengthen your position within the EFL market with a neat CV, an engaging letter, and above all, a strong, thought-out, and well-stated motivation. Once you’ve convinced a potential employer you are the man or woman for the job, they will embrace you no matter who you are, or where you come from.

Step 7: The fine print

Congratulations, you secured yourself a job offer! The next step is to negotiate the terms of your contract and to sign on the dotted line. Some schools might offer to refund your flight or promise you other attractive bonuses. Usually, these are paid at the completion of your contract.

Contracts differ just as much as the schools themselves. In Europe, contracts are often very elaborate and have strict rules and regulations concerning employer and employee protection. Contracts coming from Asia and South America might in turn leave you flabbergasted by the lack of protection you have as an employee. Cultures and laws differ, and it is important to keep in mind that despite the sometimes odd terms found within these contracts, rules are more flexible in lesser developed countries than in the west. Of course, it is always important to read any contract attentively. If necessary, you can ask if some adjustments can be made.

Today's Homework 'Always Smile'
It’s all part of the exciting EFL game (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Step 8: Go, teach!

You signed your contact and booked your flight. This is what you’ve worked towards all this time! Whether you chose to teach in a small school in the heart of Africa, or joined the ranks of a luxurious international school in Bangkok, your adventure is about to begin! Make sure to pack appropriate clothes for teaching, a computer for lesson planning and research and a camera to capture to experience you’re about to embark on… Good luck!

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