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TEFL-ution: The Changing Landscape of Teaching English Abroad

photo: Jian Bing Lee

By  Andrea Dinan January 8, 2014

Once, practically any native English-speaking Caucasian could land a job teaching English abroad. These days, that's just not good enough.

With the promise of an adventure abroad and making enough money to pay off her student loans, Christina Thacker signed a one-year contract to teach English in South Korea. A friend who was teaching there convinced her it was the opportunity of a lifetime—all she had to do was sign a contract and jump on a plane.

So Thacker headed off with her degree in Psychology and Criminology, a diploma in Public Relations and absolutely no teaching experience. After all, how hard could it be?

“I thought someone would be there to hold my hand while I went through all the stages of culture shock, learned how to teach, and began a new life—that certainly wasn't the case. It was quite overwhelming for the first month and I thought about leaving many times, but I was forced to grow up and take care of myself.”

The midnight run

English teaching was once seen as something you did as a break after university, or to clear your head for a year while you decided what you really wanted to do. Many who left home to teach overseas weren’t necessarily interested in the teaching aspect of the job. They were more interested in adventure, cheap travel and a year of relaxing. But faced with the unanticipated—and inevitable—challenges of living and working abroad, many did what became known in the industry as “the midnight run”— abandoning their employers, their contracts and their classrooms, and dashing to the airport in the middle of the night to catch the next flight home.

“I think that there were generally two types of people who came to Korea,” says Thacker. “Those who came to party and shirk responsibility back home, and those who came to learn about another culture and who took teaching seriously. I think I oscillated between the two.”

The case for a course

Ten or fifteen years ago, many others like Thacker didn’t bother to take a course to teach English abroad—nor was it expected. But taking a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) or TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) course may have spared many of them the urge to make a clandestine dash for the airport.

When Thacker left for Korea in 2001, the most common certification courses were five-day, 40-hour, intensive programmes. A small number of longer and more extensive courses existed at the time, but they were expensive, poorly advertised and primarily geared toward teaching at ESL schools in Europe or North America. At the end of the day, most employers outside of those regions didn’t differentiate between one certification and another.

Five-day TEFL programmes are still common. They focus on equipping prospective English teachers with a variety of classroom activities, lesson planning ideas and techniques for helping teachers overcome students’ shyness or fear and getting them to speak up in class. There is some teaching practice—typically role-playing with other teachers in training.

Tara Staden taught English in Korea in 2003 but, unlike Thacker, she decided that some teacher training was better than none and completed a 5-day course before departing. “I was surprised by the amount of information that was covered in five days,” she says. “I learned things that I would never have thought of such as, what to do when students don’t speak a word of English or that getting students to speak is difficult. And that my hairdryer won’t work in another country.”

Raising the bar

In the past, being a native English-speaker with a university degree was enough to land you a job teaching abroad. Adding a five-day teaching certification to your job application might have earned you an extra $100 or $200 per month in Korea, Taiwan or Japan. But the days when you could jump on a plane and teach English abroad with nothing more than a university degree or a college diploma are fading. Demand for English language instruction continues to grow worldwide as English becomes the lingua franca of international business, science and technology.

In countries where English language teachers are in high demand—like Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China—many employers now require teachers to have TESL training, even if it’s a five-day certification. In other countries—Saudi Arabia and Indonesia for example—the bar has been raised. In those two countries, as of 2010, teachers must have a certification that guarantees a minimum of 100 hours of training and at least six hours of supervised practice teaching actual ESL students.

For people teaching English in Europe, these standards have been in place for decades. The Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) has been offered since the 1970s and has been the benchmark for standards adopted elsewhere in the world. TESOL USA and TESL Canada have had similar standards in place for more than a decade for those teaching ESL in North America.

Teachers have typically gravitated toward schools in Asia, where demand is high, salaries are attractive and perks—like accommodation and paid airfare—are often included. But demand for English language instruction continues to grow worldwide as English becomes the lingua franca of international business, science and technology.

In Chile, Colombia and Mexico, English is a required subject in elementary and high schools. Elsewhere, native English speakers with TEFL certifications and experience in specific industries are being hired to teach mine employees in Venezuela, petroleum workers in Oman, or travel and tourism professionals in Costa Rica.

There has always been a demand for English teachers in Europe and, provided you are allowed to work legally in Europe, there are many opportunities for non-British teachers. Canadians are eligible for a Youth Mobility Visa for many European countries, allowing them to work for a year or two.

It’s not uncommon for teachers to discover, after a year-long overseas contract, that they truly enjoy teaching English, prompting them to pursue advanced qualifications, like a diploma or Masters degree in TESOL, in order to turn their short-term job goals into a long-term career.

For these people, teaching English in the classroom is only one option. They may also move into the role of recruiting and training prospective English teachers, developing curricula for teacher training programmes or managing a teacher training school.

Both Christina and Tara have continued to work in the English teaching industry. After teaching for two years in Korea, a year in Thailand and the past eight years in Poland, Tara upgraded her qualifications to a Diploma of English Language Teaching to Adults (DELTA) and works as an Assistant Director of Studies at a private language school in Torun, Poland.

Christina returned home and obtained a TESL Ontario certification, allowing her to become an instructor for Ontario’s Language Instruction to Newcomers to Canada (LINC) programme, which provides English language instruction to new immigrants. She now works as a LINC Language Assessor and adores her job. “I love to meet people and learn about different cultures. An ESL classroom is the perfect place to do that!”

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