When Evan Sider started his first job teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) in Korea in 2020, he was excited by the prospect of teaching young children and teenagers. But there were a few challenges the Charlottetown, P.E.I resident experienced that previous TEFL teachers had never encountered. Take face masks, for instance.
“Having to wear a mask at school actually made things especially difficult because a large part of teaching a language is speaking,” he says. “If half of your face is covered, it becomes more challenging for students to pick up on facial expressions, mouth movements and sound queues, which we generally just process subconsciously when speaking our native language.”
Sider’s experience of teaching a language while concealing his face is just one example of new challenges in this sector - and, of how creative, innovative and patient TEFL teachers had to become during the pandemic.
For those interested in heading overseas to teach English as a foreign language, it’s important to understand how the profession has changed since the pandemic, including what challenges lie ahead and where teaching skills are in high demand.
Are TEFL teachers still in demand?
The demand for TEFL teachers’ considerable skill sets remains steady. The International TEFL Academy’s most recent report, TEFL & ESL Teacher Job Market Report for 2021-2022, estimates that there are more than one billion English language learners worldwide and reports that the global demand for English teachers is high. That’s consistent with what foreign governments are saying.
Although the pandemic illustrated that online learning is an increasingly popular option, many schools and governments still prefer to bring TEFL teachers into their countries instead of relying solely on remote connections.
When asked if government-based TEFL recruitment programs like EPIK were still a priority for the Korean government, representatives from the Korean Embassy in Canada spoke of the importance of in-person opportunities:
“The Korean government is keen to promote people-to-people exchanges with Canada,” said a representative. “The EPIK, along with other various programs, serves as a great opportunity to develop cultural exchange between Korea and abroad and to raise mutual understanding between Korean and English-speaking cultures.”
However, high demand hasn’t meant smooth sailing—or flying, for that matter—for teachers over the last few years. Public and private schools around the world were subject to closures, lockdowns and additional restrictions. Language instructors were not always considered essential workers and visas were delayed. Quarantining remained a possibility, even when teachers were vaccinated and had a negative PCR test.
However, despite these complications, large government recruitment programs such as EPIK (Korea) and JET (Japan) remained busy in 2021 and 2022. Both are actively recruiting in 2023, and successful candidates with work visas are able to enter their respective countries.
New challenges and benefits
Sider found a silver lining among the challenges of teaching during the pandemic.
“One positive aspect of the pandemic was that it allowed me to engage with my students through a unique and shared experience that crossed cultural and national boundaries. We could have interesting conversations and talking points,” says Sider, who taught in Jeju, South Korea for a year.
John Skutlin is currently teaching in Tianjin, China. Much like Sider, his experience of teaching during the pandemic was filled with many challenges and a few bright spots.
“When the pandemic hit in February 2020, all teaching immediately shifted to online,” says Skutlin. “Being able to work at home and save time and money on commuting has certainly been a benefit, but the loss of face-to-face interactions with students and the ability to directly intervene in their learning on an individual level has been to the detriment of some children’s language education.”
What trends can teachers expect?
The collective experiences of our interviewees line up with several industry trends predicted in TEFL & ESL Teacher Job Market Report for 2021-2022. Technology is expected to continue to shape and even dominate the teaching profession, from traditional online classes conducted over Zoom to seeing more AI-based language learning apps.
It also anticipates that personalized learning will continue to be important. Whether it’s private lessons paid for by parents eager to accelerate their child’s opportunities, or breaking up the traditional classroom structure to have the kind of conversations Sider referenced, personalized learning will be important.
Top destinations to teach English in 2023
One of the most popular TEFL destinations, recruitment programs such as EPIK remain strong and steady in Korea.
Known for being a good destination for saving money, schools typically cover the cost of both airfare and housing for teachers. Salaries are generous and completion bonuses equal to one month’s salary are common. Not only that, but travel opportunities to neighbouring countries are excellent, while the quality of life in Korea is superb.
“Korea has some of the prettiest beaches and trails I've ever seen,” says Sider. “It’s also known for some great food and nightlife.”
Learn more about teaching visas in Korea.
Japan has been a powerhouse in the field of TEFL since 1987, when it launched the JET program. Thanks to this program, interested Canadian candidates can often find former teachers in their own personal networks and get personalized advice before they go.
A fantastic destination for travel, food, and culture, those placed in rural areas might be able to save a significant part of their salary but those on the same income might struggle in pricey cities where rent can be wildly expensive.
Learn more about how to teach English in Japan.
While healthcare inequities remain, particularly between those with private versus public coverage, Chile managed the COVID-19 pandemic far better than many of its neighbours. This is extremely attractive for would-be teachers who are concerned about their health and safety.
With its easy access to outdoor activities and unique travel opportunities, this is an underrated destination that’s only going to grow in popularity. Teachers will appreciate that schools typically take care of the visa administration on their behalf (either a 12-month working holiday visa or a Subject-To-Work-Contract visa). While some interviews are conducted over the phone, in-person interviews are common. If you’re backpacking Chile and fall in love with the country, you might just be able to stay and teach.
Read the blog of a teacher working in Chile.
• Costa Rica
This gorgeous, ecologically-minded destination boasts a high standard of living, a strong healthcare system, a large expat community and ample travel opportunities. A typical workweek is under 25 hours and, while salaries are lower than in many Asian and European countries, the cost of living is lower as well. Flights aren’t typically included with salaries, but Costa Rica is one of the best TEFL destinations for affordable flights to North America, making a quick trip home for holidays a realistic prospect.
From a practical point of view, 90-day tourist visas are common for teachers working in Costa Rica. While it’s technically legal to work on these tourist visas (due to a loophole that doesn’t apply to most other professions), they do have to be renewed every 90 days.
If you love to travel, you might actually like the practice of doing “visa runs” but there’s no denying that it can be annoying at times.
Frequently cited by teachers as an excellent destination for work-life balance, Spain was a hugely popular TEFL destination before the pandemic. Travel restrictions strongly curbed opportunities in 2021, so a big rebound is expected in the next few years.
A typical work week is often under 25 hours, leaving teachers with plenty of time for rest, relaxation, and recreation. One of the most common ways for teachers to obtain a work visa is to become students themselves. Students enrolled at a recognized language school, university, or other program of study are allowed to work. In fact, organizations like the International TEFL Academy arrange visas that allow participants to study Spanish part-time while teaching English full-time. This is thanks to the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport’s Cultural Ambassadors program, which recruits and places native English and French speakers from the U.S. and Canada in positions as assistant language teachers in elementary and secondary schools.
Learn more about what it's really like to work as an Auxiliar de Conversación in Madrid.
• United Arab Emirates
Home to some of the highest salaries in the industry (plus excellent benefits and perks) the UAE can be a very lucrative destination for frugal teachers who are able to resist buying into the country’s luxury-oriented lifestyle. There’s a huge expat community, excellent transportation links and tons of multinational corporations, meaning no shortage of teaching positions beyond the typical classroom.
Applicants should know that, in addition to their TEFL certification, a Bachelor’s degree (or even a Master’s degree) in education is required for most jobs. Nearly all hiring takes place through advance interviews and hiring organizations arrange for successful applicants to receive sponsored work visas. This is not a destination where you grab a job on the fly.
The UAE is also one of the top countries for working abroad if you have a teaching degree. Read on to find out what other countries top the list.
How to choose your TEFL destination
In this ever-changing landscape, Skutlin has some good advice for would-be teachers.
“No matter what position you choose, look at the way a company or school treats its teachers. If you can, talk to people who actually work there and consider not only the location or pay and vacation days, but also the opportunities for professional development and career path,” he says. “TEFL is a stepping-stone to a future career, so be sure you find a place that will allow you to grow and develop in areas outside of just teaching.”Add this article to your reading list