An overview of TEFL

This article is aimed at new graduates who have decided to teach English overseas.  It’s a great decision: you can see the world and have lots of spending power.  You can also learn about the language and culture of another country.  In order to secure and settle into your first teaching job overseas, there are a few things you need in place.

Step 1: Get qualified

First, you need a bachelor’s degree in any subject.  Next, you must have a teaching certificate of some kind.  These are referred to as TEFL or TESOL certificates.  They are identical, although TEFL is now the more common acronym.  There are three main ways of gaining a certificate:

NB: Being qualified to teach EFL will not qualify you to teach in the public school system of your home country.

Online courses

I don’t recommend these for two reasons.  First, there is no way of gaining any practical teaching experience (i.e. standing in front of a class).  Second, you cannot always trust that the course is properly accredited.

Weekend courses

These are more useful that online courses.  The idea is that you spend a long weekend at a hotel.  Your fee includes an intensive two-day course.  Again, there is not always time for practical teaching experience.

University courses

You could enroll on a part-time MA TEFL/TESOL program.  As far as I’m aware, though, this is aimed at experienced teachers who are looking for professional development.  The other option is the CELTA.  This is the most respected, widely recognized teaching certificate.  My CELTA was a full-time, intensive course that lasted for a month.

Step 2: Choose a location

CELTA stands for Certificate in English language teaching for adults.  It qualifies you to teach English to students of any age, anywhere in the world.  For your entry-level position, however, your choice of location is limited.  I think there are two main priorities here: (i) cost of living, and (ii) demand for teachers.  Here are a few observations.

NB: Remember to check the accommodation type that is typically offered in each destination.  You may not want the stress of finding your own apartment.


Europe has the following advantages as an entry-level position: (i) there is no culture shock, and (ii) there is less of a language barrier.  There are, however, two major disadvantages: (i) cost of living is high and (ii) demand for teachers is low, which means employers can afford to be picky.  Most positions in Western Europe are for business English and not oral English.

The Middle-East

The big advantage of the Middle-East is that the pay is often very good.  There are a couple of disadvantages, however: (i) jobs often require at least two years’ experience and (ii) Westerners may find the culture to be too restricting.  Again, many of the positions are for business English and not simply oral English.  Also, don’t expect accommodation to be included as part of your contract.

South-East Asia (incl. China)

I recommend Asia for an entry-level EFL position.  There will be culture shock as well as a considerable language barrier.  Another issue is saving potential: it’s not always easy to save money (in real terms) because of how the local currency is valued.  But there are a few advantages: (i) cost of living ranges from affordable to very low, (ii) demand for teachers still outstrips supply and (iii) entrance requirements are often low and in some cases lenient.

Step 3: Choose a working environment

Now you need to decide if you want to teach in (i) public schools, (ii) private language schools or (iii) universities.  Two things to consider here are (i) working hours and (ii) your social life.  Here are a few pros and cons to help you decide.

Private language schools

Most EFL jobs are in private language schools.  Let’s take an example.  Aston English is a Texas-based company that has schools all over China.  Its headquarters are in Dalian and elsewhere there are just franchise schools.  Aston is a well-established company but there is little central control over the franchise schools.  So your experience as a teacher may vary considerably.  Other language schools may be small businesses.

Public schools

It is possible to be employed in the public school system of your chosen destination.  In Europe, immersion programs are slowly becoming more common.  This is where students follow their normal curriculum, but in a foreign language (usually English).  There is more public sector demand for teachers in Asia, where oral English forms part of the curriculum.  Even then, there aren’t many positions.  You have to wait until a current staff member leaves or retires.


Teaching at a university will enable you to deliver more meaningful, contextualized lessons to your students and you will have more freedom to decide what to teach.  Universities will offer you on-campus accommodation and you will benefit from a lot of vacation time.  There is not always the option of working many hours, however.  This means that you may feel the need to supplement your income by tutoring, or working part-time at a private language school.

Teaching English overseas may seem daunting, but if you break the process down into manageable steps it’s all very doable.  First, make sure you have the right kind of certificate.  Next, choose your location, based on (i) cost of living and (ii) demand for teachers.  Then, select which kind of school you want to work in.



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