Exciting adventures, vibrant places, interesting people: as a teacher of English as a foreign language (TEFL) abroad, you could have it all. So what’s preventing so many people wishing to work and travel abroad from following their dreams? For many, it’s the family commitments, for others it’s the fear of the unknown.
Moving away from family and friends and leaving your home country is a big step and it can be a scary – if not risky – move. Feeling a sense of guilt is perfectly normal, and it might make you wonder if you would be able to keep your relationships alive while you travel. You might think that you are being selfish for wanting to achieve your goals, but staying where you are – if you are unhappy about it – might feel like a waste of time in the long run.
Living and working abroad can present a series of unexpected challenges, like finding accommodation in the most unusual places, but it is also one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences you could possibly have both on a personal and a professional level. As with any new adventure, preparation is key. Although different kinds of trips require different plans, there are a few tips that can be applied to any kind of travel.
Choose carefully what to pack
The must-haves, but easy to forget are:
- Documents. This includes passport, bank cards, original copies of your qualifications. To be on the safe side, store digital copies on a cloud-based storage platform.
- A guidebook. When you first arrive in a new country, you might not know many people who can suggest where to go and what to see. Although relying on the World Wide Web can be tempting, a physical guidebook will give immediate access to the most useful information whether you are connected to the internet or not.
- A phrasebook. The chances of you having an internet connection as soon as you arrive at your destination are slim. Avoid feeling isolated by having a phrasebook at hand to make first contact with the locals.
- Tech. Smartphones, tablets and laptops are part of everyone’s daily life and you’re unlikely to forget them, but chargers are often left behind. Remember to get a plug adaptor in your country, where it might be cheaper and easier to find.
Your everyday essentials may vary, depending on the country you are travelling to. However, here’s a general reminder of useful items you might need:
- Local currency or dollars. While it can be dangerous to carry around large amounts of money, it’s useful to have some cash in the local currency or in dollars.
- Suitable clothing. Think about the weather of your new country when you pack your clothes, but keep in mind their culture. It’s important to show respect and sensitivity wherever you go.
- Pictures of your loved ones. Remember to pack some pictures of friends and family to put up in your room. This can help you get through those pesky moments of homesickness.
- Favourite snacks. You might not be able to get your favourite biscuits or crisps abroad, so remember to take some with you to keep you going for a while!
Teachers are renowned for being prepared at all times. However, here are a few items that you might not have thought of:
- Whiteboard markers. You should always have a few markers of different colours when you go to your classes as they aren’t always available.
- Other stationery. Paper clips, post-it notes, and blue tac are TEFL teachers’ best friends. They have multiple uses and can turn many activities into games.
- Mini-whiteboards. These are optional, but they can be very useful if you teach online. In classroom-based teaching, they can promote group work and collaborative tasks.
The actual journey to your destination can be a long one. Remember to:
- Have a good night of rest before you set off
- Find some time to take breaks
- Bring healthy snacks and drinks with you
- Keep an eye on your posture to avoid back pain
- Engage your brain in some interesting activities, like crosswords or audiobooks.
Planning your teaching destination
You might think that you can just decide where to teach English on a whim – and you could do that – but it is a good idea to take a few points into consideration:
- Your qualifications. Is your bachelor’s degree enough to teach English as a foreign language? You might find that holding a university degree can be required in some countries for VISA purposes or to teach at a state school or university. However, in many countries Higher Education qualifications aren’t necessary.
Nowadays, an accredited TEFL qualification can be more important than a degree. Looking for a teaching job without a TEFL certificate makes for a very challenging job hunt and it isn’t recommended.
- Nativespeakerism. Although the situation is gradually changing and fewer organisations advertise posts for ‘native speakers’ only, such requirements might come from the country itself. However, from Europe to South-East Asia, all the way to Central and South America, there are plenty of countries that welcome non-native English teachers.
- Age. Many countries have an age limit for their teachers, local or not. Therefore, it is important that you do your research about the country you would like to move to, to avoid disappointment. However, some countries see personal and professional life experience as an advantage and do not impose any age limit, like Thailand, India and Nepal.
- Students’ age and class size. An aspect of your daily teaching life that you should consider before choosing your destination is what age groups you would like to teach. You can choose from preschool/kindergarten (3-5 years old), elementary (6-12 years old), and high-school (13-17 years old) learners or university-level (18-25 years old) students and adult learners (18+ years old). Be honest about your preference and inclination: not everyone is comfortable teaching a class of screaming children.
The size of your class can change considerably, from 12 to 50 students per classroom, depending on the country you teach in. Teaching larger groups can be daunting for newly qualified teachers. However, one-to-one classes – although they might seem easier to manage – present their own unique sets of challenges. Take a look at the TEFL Org guide to see what teaching abroad really entails.
Prepare for the unexpected
While it is impossible to prepare ahead for any circumstance, it is worth making your plan as detailed as possible. A TEFL qualification is a good starting point to understand if teaching abroad is for you, as it equips you with the knowledge and tools to start teaching with confidence from day one.