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TEFL Teacher Career Guide

TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) teachers typically work outside of the United States to teach English to students for whom English is not their native language. TEFL is closely related to, and sometimes synonymous with, teaching English as a second language (TESL), English language teaching (ELT), and teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), which are other terms to describe the teaching of English to non-native speakers. In general, though, TEFL commonly refers to teaching English as a foreign language in a non-English speaking country as opposed to the native country of the teacher. As such, TEFL teachers who are native English-speakers live and teach abroad. Continue reading for more information on what TEFL teachers do, how to become one, and teacher salary and job outlook.

TEFL Teacher Job Description

TEFL teachers focus on teaching students how to communicate in English, including building their skills in speaking, listening, reading, and writing in English. TEFL teachers may work at public or private schools, language academies, businesses, or non-profit organizations or as private tutors, using their own home, the homes of students, or public locations to conduct classes. The job of TEFL teachers depends largely on the needs of their students. Some adult students might have learned the basic mechanics of English in primary and secondary school, but feel uncomfortable communicating in English as adults. In this case, a TEFL teacher might focus on improving the speaking and listening skills of these students through practice with conversation-based classes. TEFL teachers with a classroom of children might focus on building students’ English vocabulary through play. Still other TEFL teachers may teach adult classes in a work environment to help students learn to communicate using English jargon associated with a particular industry, such as medicine or marketing. TEFL teachers often have to teach students of varying levels and abilities within the same classroom.

Since the industry often includes teaching adults, TEFL teachers should be prepared to work varying schedules, sometimes after hours or during lunch, or even on weekends. Also, even teachers who work at schools might not be able to schedule back-to-back classes; it is common for TEFL teachers to have gaps between their classes and, as a result, work sporadic hours depending on student demand. Private tutors must also factor in unpaid travel time to and from students’ homes or businesses as they consider their schedules.

TEFL Teacher Requirements and Common Tasks

TEFL teachers might or might not be native English speakers, but a native or near-native level of fluency is typically preferred for TEFL teaching positions. Fluency in other languages is not typically required for TEFL positions, though having the experience of learning another language can help teachers empathize with the unique challenges and frustrations associated with other language learning. TEFL teachers do not necessarily have to have a college or university degree, but a bachelor’s degree might be required, or at least highly desired, for some jobs. The most common job requirement for TEFL teachers is not a degree, but TEFL certification, which you can read more about below. Depending on whether teachers decide to work as part of a school or as self-employed private English teachers or tutors, TEFL certification might not be necessary. However, it is still a qualification that most TEFL teachers pursue, and the coursework usually offers necessary preparation for new teachers of English.

Common tasks for TEFL teachers, as mentioned above, depend on the level and ages of the students being taught, but in general, they will teach language skills such as vocabulary, grammar, and accent to students during their lessons. They might also cover English language history and the evolution of the language for more advanced students. The methods through which they teach these language skills will vary depending on the audience; for example, their lessons will be more play- and game-based for young students and more conversational or analytical for older and more advanced learners.

Like other teachers, TEFL teachers must create or adapt lesson plans (which might or might not be provided to them by the school in which they teach) for each class meeting, come up with creative ways to keep their students engaged, and monitor students’ progress through graded evaluations, presentations, and papers. Private teachers who do not work for a school might have less rigid lesson plans and can adapt the style of teaching to their students’ (or their students’ parents’) goals. Some parents might request, for example, that a TEFL teacher simply play with their kids and take them on outings, speaking to them only in English. With such a wide variety of needs from their students, teachers who are resourceful, creative, and adaptable probably have the best chance of success in this field.

How to Become a TEFL Teacher

TEFL certification can be obtained through a wide variety of organizations around the world, but not all certification programs are created equal. In fact, there is a lack of regulation within the TEFL industry, leading to a plethora of organizations to choose from, some of which–perhaps not surprisingly–are low in quality.1 This is why it is especially important to do your research when choosing a TEFL course. If you already have potential employers targeted, it is a good idea to check to see whether they require specific TEFL certificate qualifications. Most employers only accept accredited TEFL certificates (i.e., those that are internationally-recognized by one or more accreditation bodies). Accreditation bodies require common standards for TEFL courses, such as a certain number of training hours (commonly 100) and a certain number of supervised teaching hours (a minimum of six, but commonly up to 20). Choosing an internationally-recognized program means that your TEFL certificate will be likely to meet the hiring requirements for most employers.

Choosing a high-quality program also increases the likelihood that you will be well-trained and prepared for your future job as an English teacher. However, just as it is important to choose a quality program, it is also important to look for quality accreditors, as even these are not all created equal. Accreditors for internationally-recognized TEFL certificate programs are different from US accreditors that accredit American colleges and universities. Some reputable accreditors for TEFL programs include:

In addition, international TEFL courses offered directly through accredited universities are considered accredited programs by proxy. Well-known examples include:

  • CELTA Certificate: (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) offered through Cambridge University
  • SIT TESOL Certificate: Offered through the School for International Training (SIT)
  • CertTESOL: (Trinity Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) offered through Trinity College

Another consideration when choosing a TEFL certificate program is cost. The cost of a reputable, on-site TEFL course typically ranges from $1,000 to $2,000 and up for a four- to six-week program. Online programs may be less expensive. Since the cost of TEFL programs varies so much, be sure to research the school, reach out to former students, and check with your target employers to better determine the quality of the program and the value of your investment.

Beware of TEFL courses that are priced far below that of their competitors; this might be a warning sign of a low-quality program. Other warning signs of possible low-quality programs include an unresponsive or inaccessible staff, lack of accreditation, a short course length (fewer than 100 hours), a brand new program, and a lack of alumni to contact. Getting in touch with former students of the TEFL programs of your choice is an important part of evaluating the effectiveness and quality of a program. Reputable TEFL organizations will have a long list of alumni you can contact in order to get a sense of former students’ personal experiences with the program.

As mentioned above, most reputable TEFL certification courses are at least 120 hours in length, which are often accelerated into “intensive” programs that students can finish in around four to eight weeks of full-time study, or longer if attending part time. Many TEFL courses are offered in an online or hybrid format, but keep in mind that an in-person teaching experience component is almost always required. Following are the typical steps to becoming a TEFL teacher:

  1. Take a reputable, accredited TEFL certificate course of at least 120 hours.
  2. Within the course, complete supervised practice teaching experience (commonly between six and 20 hours).
  3. Begin applying to open TEFL teaching positions.

TEFL Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

The salaries of English teachers abroad have a huge range and depend on many factors, including the country, the demand for English in the area, the qualifications of the teacher, and the school or employer for which the teacher works. The way in which teachers are paid also varies widely. Some TEFL teachers are paid an hourly rate, while others earn a monthly salary. The demand for English in a given country fluctuates, but Asia and the Middle East are known for paying some of the highest salaries to teachers in the field.2-4

In the US, the best salary proxy is the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) category of Adult Basic and Secondary Education and Literacy Teachers and Instructors, which includes ESL teachers. These teachers reportedly earned a median salary of $54,350 per year in 2019.5 Teachers abroad might earn more or less than this amount, and the value of their earnings also depends, in part, on the cost of living in the country in which they teach. Even though the BLS projects a decline in these jobs over the next 10 years in the US, that does not mean that the demand for English teachers in other countries is declining.5 Talk to employers in the country in which you are interested in teaching and the TEFL program(s) you are considering to find out more about the demand for English teachers in the area.

Helpful Skills and Experience

Effective TEFL teachers, like all teachers, should be well-organized and comfortable with public speaking. They should have a native or near-native command of the English language and be able to explain correct usage and grammatical rules to a variety of students. Creativity is another helpful trait for teaching both children and adults. Creative teachers are able to mix up the way they teach each day, keeping the lessons fresh and interesting to best engage the learners. Since TEFL teachers live and work abroad, it also helps to have a natural curiosity and openness about other cultures and peoples. Teachers who are adventurous and interested in travel will be more likely to thrive in their new environment and more quickly assimilate to their new lifestyle. While teaching experience is not usually required for TEFL teachers, it can strengthen your resume/curriculum vitae (CV), making you a more attractive candidate to employers, especially in areas that have a high concentration of English teachers.

Additional Resources

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Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What qualifications do you need to teach abroad?

Answer: In order to teach English abroad, you will typically need TEFL/TESOL/ESL certification. A bachelor’s degree in any subject might also be required by some employers. Experience in teaching, apart from the supervised experience you will gain during your TEFL certification course, is not usually required.

Question: Can you teach abroad without a degree?

Answer: Reputable TEFL certification is often the main requirement to teach English abroad. Employers in many countries will hire teachers who do not have a bachelor’s degree as long as they have an internationally-recognized, accredited TEFL certificate.

Question: Does it matter whether TEFL teachers speak American or British English?

Answer: Not necessarily. Many students prefer to be exposed to a variety of accents, including both British and American (and others). TEFL programs often prepare teachers to teach both the American and British versions of a word a phrase so that students can learn both options. In general, most students and potential employers prioritize native language skills over a particular accent.

Question: How do I find resources for teaching English abroad?

Answer: Private teachers who aren’t employed by a school or other organization will likely have to come up with all of their own resources/lesson plans. Even teachers working in public, private, or language schools abroad might need to supplement the materials provided by the school with their own. There are many blogs and websites that provide free English teaching resources, including the British Council/BBC Teaching English, My ESL Corner, ESL Base, the Public Broadcasting Network (PBS), ESL Galaxy, ESL Partyland, ESL Video, and many others. Some students might have a specific goal in mind such as passing an English assessment, such as one of the Cambridge assessments. Preparation materials, lesson plans, and workbooks are usually available for purchase in this case, which can help guide your choices for resources to bring to the classroom.

Question: How do I find a job teaching English abroad?

Answer: Many TEFL programs offer job placement assistance for graduates. They often have relationships in place with area schools and other employers that favor graduates of their program over other candidates, and they might be able to put you directly in touch with those potential employers, kickstarting your job search. Other well-known industry resources for finding English teaching jobs abroad on your own include ESL Base TEFL Jobs, the Bridge TEFL Job Board, Teach Away Jobs Abroad, Go Overseas Teaching Jobs Abroad, and Dave’s ESL Cafe International Job Board. You can also search for jobs on our teaching jobs board.

Question: What does a typical day look like as an ESL teacher living abroad?

Answer: Your typical day as a TEFL teacher will depend on a variety of factors. One factor is the culture of the country in which you are living. Some countries, such as Spain, for example, have a long workday that starts late and ends late, with several hours off in the middle of the day for lunch. So English teachers in Spain may tend to teach classes during the early- to mid-afternoon and/or later in the evening. Another factor that impacts schedule is whether you work for one or multiple employers. Teachers working at one school or other businesses may tend to have a more consistent schedule than private teachers, who schedule their classes based on the individual needs of their students and who often must travel to the student’s home or business to conduct class.

Question: How do I become a TEFL teacher?

Answer: There are many paths to teaching English abroad, but almost all of them involve seeking TEFL certification. You should choose an internationally-recognized, accredited course that will adequately prepare you for the job and that will show potential employers that you are serious about your new career. A bachelor’s degree and teaching experience are not always required for teaching abroad, but they can definitely help you be a more competitive candidate.

Question: Do I need to take my TEFL course in the country in which I intend to teach?

Answer: No. Many TEFL institutes offer the same certification course at multiple locations around the world, so it is common for prospective teachers to get certified in the country in which they wish to teach, but not necessary. Other future TEFL teachers might prefer to take a TEFL course in their native country before moving to their destination to begin teaching.

Question: What is TEFL and what is TEFL certification?

Answer: TEFL stands for teaching English as a foreign language and it is often used interchangeably with other terms like English language teaching (ELT), teaching English as a second language (TESL/ESL), and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Technically, though, “TEFL” refers specifically to English language instruction in a non-English speaking country (a foreign country to the teacher). TEFL certification is the minimum qualification typically required to teach English abroad. The actual certification may be called TEFL, TESL, or TESOL, all of which (if reputable) qualify you to teach English to non-native speakers.

Question: Do I need to know the language of the country where I will be teaching English?

Answer: No! It might come as a surprise that TEFL certification does not include teaching participants the language of the country in which they will teach. Rather, most TEFL certification programs recommend that future teachers communicate exclusively in English to their students, no matter what their ages or English level. Even when the native language of the students is known, TEFL students are encouraged not to depend on that knowledge to directly translate for students, but instead to think of different ways (using actions, words, pictures, etc.) to describe the subject, word, or concept in English. In fact, future teachers learn during their TEFL course that knowing the native language of the students may even be more of a hindrance than a help! Once your students realize that you understand their language, they might depend on you for direct translations and be more likely to try to communicate with you in their native tongue. If you don’t know the language, you can honestly say that you do not understand, which can force students to think of other English words to use instead.

References:
1. ESL Base: https://www.eslbase.com/tefl/what-is-tefl-accreditation
2. Go Overseas: https://www.gooverseas.com/
3. International TEFL Academy: https://www.internationalteflacademy.com/
4. Teach Away: https://www.teachaway.com/
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Diploma Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/adult-literacy-and-ged-teachers.htm