A lot of my friends and acquaintances who keep up with my Instagram posts are really curious. You go to all these cool places. How do you do it? No, I’m not secretly rich. No, I don’t have a job as an International Spy of Mystery (although if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.) The short answer is: I teach.
When I tell people I’ve taught in Japan and South Korea, it’s very shortly followed by: How? As in, how did I get started? Below, I’ll detail some of the process.
1. Why. Well, the best place to start is to ask yourself why you want to live abroad. You don’t want to invest time and money into something you’re not serious about doing or incur the expense of flying home after three months because it’s not for you. So ask yourself: Have you always longed to travel, but never thought it was in your budget? Do you just want to see if you can live on your own in another part of the world? Are you obsessed with cosplay culture in Japan or Kpop in Korea? Are you in a relationship with an anime body pillow? No reason is really too niche or weird. If it’s any of these reasons, teaching abroad might be for you! (If you’re trying to get away from an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, maybe try deleting their number from your phone so you won’t be tempted to drunk dial them and cry-watch Under the Tuscan Sun on Netflix instead.)
James Franco, with his pillow companion, Kimiko, on 30 rock would be a perfect candidate to teach in Japan. (Just don’t mention it in your interview.)
2. Where. Where do you want to go? I’ll go ahead and let you know now that if the first thing that pops into your mind is “Western Europe” and you’re not an EU passport holder or a direct descendant of someone who is, you might want to reconsider. For Americans, it’s hard to teach in most EU countries because it’s hard to get a Visa sponsored. (Australia and other commonwealth countries will have an easier time.) There are places such as Spain, where visas are easier to obtain, but if you’re thinking Europe, just be prepared not to get your first choice of say, England or France. Even if you can manage to teach in Paris, you might not make enough to live on and definitely not to travel, which is the whole point, n’est–ce pas? Most Asian, South American, African, Eastern European and Arabic countries are in need of native English speakers, and you’ll find varying pay-grades and perks depending on where you go. So decide what you need to live and pay your bills and take the occasional trip or decide that you’re willing to live on less in somewhere like Thailand or Bali, but gain invaluable experience. (*Also worth noting that while places like Dubai pay extremely well, they can be extremely competitive and usually require 2+ years of teaching experience.)
You can still visit Paris! Consider studying abroad or a teaching program like TAPIF if you’re under 35.
3. How. Once you’ve made a decision, the next step is to earn a certification to teach abroad. You can choose from online courses, in class-courses or joint online/in-class courses. I’d recommend doing a joint one if you can – some hours in class and some online, for a minimum of 120 hours. I would stay away from the online certifications that you can get for $20-$50 on Groupon, as some of them might not be valid, and you’ll get what you pay for. (Also, paying more money means you’re more likely to use your investment and actually go abroad.) . You don’t need to be certified for all jobs overseas, but if you don’t have a lot of classroom experience or need recruiters to help connect you with potential employers, it’s invaluable. 120 hours seems like a lot, but for me it was two weekends in class at UIC and maybe about 20-30 hours online. Unlike a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, you can get your certification out of the way in 2 weeks to a month. I got my TESOL/TESL/TEFL* certificate through Oxford Seminars. Getting a CELTA* from Cambridge University is another option. Some schools prefer a TEFL or a CELTA, so maybe look into what works best for you. Schools in UAE prefer a CELTA because it’s closer to the British curriculum, but most schools in Japan and Korea prefer a TEFL.
PSST – Did I mention you should like kids? You should. Putting aside the whole travel aspect, you should at least have a passing tolerance of children, because you will spend a lot of time with them.
4. What now? Paperwork. Lots of paperwork. It took me longer to fill out the paperwork than it did to complete the course. It’s quite common for employers abroad to ask fairly personal questions on applications – like if you’re single, if you have any tattoos or piercings, if you have a history of mental illness, etc. – but don’t let these things turn you off. If it’s a tattoo or piercing they’re never going to see, don’t worry about writing it down. (Obviously, if you have a neck tattoo or numbers inked on all your knuckles, it’s worth mentioning.) If you were treated for depression in the past, but you’re doing fine now, don’t mention it. They only ask these questions because you’ll be working with children and also, by extension, the children’s parents – who want to see a smiling, nicely-groomed person caring for their kids.
It’s nearly over now. Just remember why you’re doing this – to see new places and experience new cultures – not to fill out paperwork for the fun of it, and you’ll be fine.
5. Who. Things will start moving quickly once you have submitted all your paperwork. The nice thing about going with an accredited TEFL company is that they will connect you to employers. For those who have their resumes thrown in the slush pile in their home country, it will feel really nice to be wanted by several different employers. Just make sure you want them too. You’re interviewing your potential employer as much as they’re interviewing you. Are you able to live on the pay? Did you get a bad vibe in the interview? (I’ve had a teacher tell me in an interview about how she stays out late drinking and rucks up to school hungover every morning. Needless to say, it wasn’t for me.) Are there any other perks – flights, housing, severance, pensions? (Maybe don’t have these be the first questions. Ask about the kids, the classroom size, the working conditions, etc). Also, don’t let pushy recruiters try to talk you into signing something you don’t want to sign. You will Skype with anywhere from one to a dozen schools. Dress nicely even though it’s on Skype. Don’t mention travel as being your top priority. Mention that you love kids! And that you’re really interested in the culture of that place. (But maybe save the body pillow discussion for later.) Once you’ve been offered a position and signed a contract, it’s quick work of getting your Visa, getting fingerprinted and having a criminal background check run.
And you’re on your way! If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer. Or, leave a comment if you’ve had experience teaching abroad – and how it was the same or varied from my experience.
*TEFL = Teaching English as a Foreign Language, TESOL = Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, TESL = Teaching English as a Second Language and CELTA = Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults.