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Q & A: Should I Teach English as a Second Language Abroad?

Naosuke Ii

By  June 3, 2015

Part one of a three-part online discussion panel on TEFL.

Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL or TEFL) overseas has long been a rite of passage for North Americans. Every year, recent graduates—both those unsure of what they’d like to do and aspiring teachers alike—head South and East to start off their careers abroad.

But should teaching abroad be a fallback career? And we’ve all heard horror stories—what’s really the best way to find a job overseas?

This month, our online discussion panel of travel experts includes:

Aimée Chow taught English as a Second Language to pre-schoolers and elementary school students in Seoul, South Korea from 2009 to 2011. Today, Aimée works in Career Services with Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she coaches university students from all over the world on managing their job search process, including resume development, networking strategy, practice interviews, and building an effective LinkedIn profile.

• A graduate of Carlton University in Ottawa, Joanna Lane first taught English as a Second Language in Taiwan eight years ago. Since then, her international career has spanned from Singapore to Toronto. She now resides in London, UK, where she works in publishing.

Aclipse recruits adventurous university graduates to teach English in Asia, primarily in Korea and China. All of Aclipse’s recruiters have years of experience and assist applicants throughout every step of the application process.

What type of an individual would you recommending teaching English abroad to? What qualities does a successful TEFL candidate possess?

Aclipse: We are currently hiring for jobs in both China and South Korea. In China, our client prefers teachers with one to two years of experience, whereas our client in Korea does not require the applicant to have any teaching experience. In general, we look for recent college graduates, ages 22 to 27.

Regardless of destination, what we do look for in a candidate is that they are passionate, want to immerse themselves in a new culture and, most importantly, that they want to make a difference in their students’ lives.

Joanna: First and foremost, a successful TEFL teacher overseas is open-minded! Teaching English overseas can be many things, but it will never be what you expect. It will probably be better—but prepare to be surprised one way or the other, to look at the world and realize what is possible.

"Whether you want to be a teacher in the future or not, teaching abroad provides you with valuable professional skills."

Situations may not be optimal; you may arrive in Taipei during a typhoon, carrying the final dose of your rabies vaccine after your leg got caught between two stray dogs in Costa Rica, only to find yourself put up in hot, sweaty flat with no cold water or air-conditioning—and it's your birthday. A successful ESL teacher is confident in his or her abilities to cope with these situations and succeed.

Most ESL teachers are very laid-back, in it for the life experience as opposed to the job itself, and up for a big adventure any day of the week. The ESL community in most receiving countries is very vibrant and the social part is a huge draw—extroverts and highly sociable people will do well, although balance is key—you do have to go to work in the morning, after all.

Aimée: The qualities of a successful TEFL abroad include openness and curiosity about the world and new people; patience for different learning levels and styles; critical thinking skills to evaluate cultural differences and how to adjust behaviour; resilient, resourceful, and creative in the face of challenges; lack of sense of entitlement.

Sometimes, university or college students graduate and, uncertain what to do next, apply to teach English as a Second Language abroad. What should those individuals consider before they commit to teaching overseas? 

Aclipse: While we realize that some people apply to us as a fallback career, we want them to consider a variety of things before applying. The first is that applying to teach abroad is a time commitment. Not only does it take time to complete the application, interview, and obtain the proper documents to teach abroad, but all of our clients also require a one-year commitment. We want the applicant to be aware that this isn’t a job they can do for a few months while they try to figure out what they want to do for a career.

With that being said, teaching abroad is a great way to begin your professional career. Whether you want to be a teacher in the future or not, teaching abroad provides you with valuable professional skills, such as managing a group of people, becoming comfortable with public speaking, working with people from a diverse set of backgrounds, and becoming better with time management skills—in terms of both preparation and ways to utilize class activities.

Joanna: It's important to think about how long you realistically want to be away. My experience in Taiwan was that most teachers stayed either a year, or never left. Teaching abroad for a year or two is a great learning experience—it gives you great life skills, sets you up well for things like teacher's college, and depending on where you are, allows you to travel extensively during your free time.

Living in Asia especially is very inexpensive and you can live very well for cheap—it's pretty tempting to stay for a long time, but it's worth thinking about the other kind of real world experiences you may be missing out on when you're away, including other academic endeavours or professional opportunities or internships. Teaching abroad looks great on a resume, but many teachers who stay out too long come home only to find that they don't have many other marketable skills, and it's hard to find a good job.

Aimée: Being uncertain about what to do next is okay, but never stop planning and thinking about your future. While some people end up teaching overseas for 10-plus years because they love it, others do it because they don’t know what else to do and feel trapped. This has the potential to breed resentment toward their colleagues and host culture, which is unfair.

If you don’t plan to stay longer than a couple of years, plan your exit strategy and maintain your networks back home. Keep in touch with friends and former colleagues or classmates over LinkedIn and Twitter, and continue building and articulating your skill sets for when you do return home or discover your new home country and career path. Invest some of the money you earn teaching into career counselling.

Stay tuned for more next week, when our experts give their advice on how to land your first teaching job abroad.


Want to ask our experts for more advice (and maybe win some prizes in the process)? Join Verge MagazineAclipse and HI Boston for "Teaching English Overseas" Twitter chat on Wednesday, June 3. Log on at 3:30 PM EST and look for the hashtag #travelwithpurpose.

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Published in Editor's Desk
Jessica Lockhart

Contributing Editor

Although Jessica has travelled to more than 30 countries, her favorite place to throw down her bag is still her hometown of Cold Lake, Alberta. A freelance journalist, Jess has worked for international development organizations and tour operators. She’s conducted workshops in Vanuatu, perfected the use of a satellite phone in the jungles of Guyana and supervised teenage pool parties in the Dominican Republic. Although she's based in Toronto, Jess works remotely from all around the world.

Website: www.jesslockhart.com

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