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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 (ESL), 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 may or may not be native English speakers, but a native or near-native level of fluency is typically preferred for TEFL teaching positions. They should also be able to clearly explain correct usage and grammatical rules to a variety of students. 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 homes, the homes of students, or public locations to conduct classes. TEFL teachers typically follow a curriculum (dictated by the school, language institute, or client) that includes vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation as well as other language skills. Like other types of teachers, TEFL teachers must create or adapt lesson plans for each class meeting, come up with creative ways to keep their students engaged, and monitor students’ progress through graded evaluations, presentations, and papers. TEFL teachers often have to teach students of varying levels and abilities within the same classroom.

The job description 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, or prepare students for a particular English competency exam. They might also cover English language history and the evolution of the language for more advanced students.

Job Requirements and Experience

Most international K-12 schools require a bachelor’s or higher degree as well as an active teaching license from the teacher’s home country. Some may prefer or require a related degree such as English or education. These schools may or may not require TEFL certification. The educational requirements for TEFL teachers giving private lessons (outside of K-12 schools) depend on the employer. Private TEFL teachers who work for language academies or institutes or are self-employed are typically expected/required to have a degree from their home country, but having a teaching license is less common and not usually required. Instead, TEFL certification is usually required for these teachers.

TEFL teachers should be prepared to work varying schedules, sometimes after hours or during lunch, or even on weekends. Sometimes businesses provide employees with access to English classes either one-on-one or in groups. These classes often take place before or after the work day, so teachers may work early in the morning and then again in the evening when their students have finished their work. Even teachers who work at schools or language academies 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 who work on-site at more than one location must also factor in unpaid travel time to and from students’ homes or businesses as they consider their schedules.

Teaching experience may or may not be required for TEFL teachers, but any experience you have in the field will strengthen your resume/curriculum vitae (CV), making you a more attractive candidate to employers and more competitive in areas with high concentrations of English teachers.

Helpful Skills

Effective TEFL teachers, like all teachers, should be well-organized, resourceful, and comfortable with public speaking. 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.

Successful TEFL teachers are often resilient and flexible as they will likely encounter difficulties and miscommunications in their new environment. 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. Fluency in other languages is not typically required for TEFL positions, though having the experience of learning another language can certainly help teachers empathize with the unique challenges and frustrations associated with other language learning.

ESL Degrees and Programs


How to Become a TEFL Teacher

There are numerous paths to becoming a TEFL teacher. Most people will complete the following general steps:

  1. Get a bachelor’s degree.
  2. Decide where you want to live and teach.
  3. Choose a TEFL program.
  4. Gain experience.
  5. Look for employment and secure a job.

1. Get a bachelor’s degree.

Most TEFL teachers have a bachelor’s degree. Many language schools, international K-12 schools, and other potential employers look for candidates with a bachelor’s degree. It is helpful if your degree is in education, English, English as a Second Language (ESL), or a related field.

2. Decide where you want to live and teach.

Another essential step to becoming a TEFL teacher is to decide on the country where you want to live and teach. You might already know the country you are targeting, or you might make a list of several countries you are considering and then narrow down that list. In any case, you must research the passport and work visa/permit requirements for the country in which you are going to teach. You will need a valid passport just to travel to another country to attend a TEFL certification program, and in order to live and work there after your tourist visa expires, you will need a work visa or residency permit in most cases. Some countries require the sponsorship of an employer (and, typically, a work contract) in order to legally work there. For example, TEFL teachers who are hired by a K-12 school, business, or language academy may be able to be sponsored by their employer for a work visa.

Other countries, including France and Italy, allow US citizens to teach on a student visa. Another option is to apply to teach through a program offered by the country’s embassy, such as the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program (NALCAP) in Spain, which places American teachers in schools across the country. Other countries, such as Germany, offer freelance visas for prospective TEFL teachers. There are numerous recruiting agencies in countries China, South Korea, and Japan that offer job placement and work visa assistance to prospective TEFL teachers. If you need help with the visa process, many TEFL programs might be able to help navigate it

3. Choose a TEFL Program.

As mentioned previously, TEFL certification is required by many employers, so it is common for prospective TEFL teachers to get certified before securing employment. 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 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.

Accredited TEFL Certification Programs

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

Job Placement

Another consideration when choosing a TEFL certificate program is their job placement offerings. If you already have a target country and/or city in which you want to work, you should look for a program that offers job placement or hands-on assistance in your target country or city. Most of the time, this means that the certification program you attend should be located in your target city, as the program coordinators and teachers will often have established relationships with potential clients, businesses, and language schools in the area. The certificate program should also be able to help you navigate the work visa and permit laws required for that country.

Cost

Another consideration when choosing a TEFL program is cost. The cost of a reputable, on-site TEFL course typically ranges from $1,000 to $3,000 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.

4. Gain experience.

The next step before being hired is to gain teaching experience. Teachers who are certified to teach in the US already have teaching experience since certification always includes gaining supervised classroom experience. Similarly, becoming TEFL-certified also requires gaining classroom experience. The supervised experience you gain as part of your program will be invaluable as you transition to teaching on your own. Try to gain experience teaching English to all levels, especially the level and/or age group you plan to teach.

5. Look for employment and secure a job.

Finally, you will need to find a job teaching English in the country of your choice. Use all of the resources available during your TEFL program to make connections with language schools, K-12 schools, and businesses that might be hiring. As mentioned, many TEFL certificate providers offer job placement assistance as part of their programs. Other well-known industry resources for finding English teaching jobs abroad on your own include:

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 only salary proxies we have for TEFL teachers are the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categories of adult basic education, adult secondary education, and English as a second language instructors as well as elementary through high school teachers. Adult basic education and ESL instructors in the US earned a median annual salary of $58,590 per year in 2022, while elementary through high school teachers in the US earned a median between $61,690 and $62,360 per year.5-8

TEFL teachers typically earn less than this, especially private teachers working part-time. In addition, the value of TEFL teacher earnings also depends, in part, on the value of the currency and the cost of living in the country in which they teach. Even though it is difficult to come up with an exact figure for the job outlook for TEFL teachers due to the broadness of the career and the span of countries they cover, it can be assumed that as the demand continues to increase for English speakers, so will the demand for TEFL teachers. 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 pay and demand for English teachers in the area.

Additional Resources

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 and/or master’s degree might also be required. TEFL teachers seeking employment in K-12 schools may be required to hold an active teaching license in the US. Experience in teaching may or may be required, depending on the work environment and whether you are teaching in a school or privately.

Question: Can you teach abroad without a degree?

Answer: It is possible, but most employers require a degree–and often teacher certification–to teach. TEFL teachers of private lessons sometimes only need reputable TEFL certification to qualify for jobs. Even if it is not explicitly required, the possession of a bachelor’s degree or higher will always make you a more competitive applicant.

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 or phrase so that students can learn both options. In general, most students and potential employers prioritize native language skills over a particular accent. Some companies or individuals may favor one accent over the other and prefer a teacher from that country.

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, ESL Base, the Public Broadcasting Network (PBS), Voice of America, Linguahouse, 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. You can also search for jobs using popular job boards for TEFL teachers.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 getting your TEFL certificate does not include learning the native language of the country where you will be teaching. In contrast, many TEFL certification programs recommend that future teachers communicate exclusively in English to their students, no matter what the ages or levels of English. Even when the TEFL teacher knows the native language of their students, they are often encouraged not to depend on that knowledge to directly translate words or concepts for students; instead, they are taught to think of different ways (using actions, words, pictures, etc.) to describe the subject, word, or concept without falling back on the students’ native language. In fact, many 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 know 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, May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Adult Basic Education, Adult Secondary Education, and English as a Second Language Instructors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes253011.htm
6. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education:
https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252031.htm
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Middle School Teachers, Except Special Education: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252022.htm
8. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Elementary School Teachers, Except Special Education: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252021.htm