Ben McCabe looks at the advantages of teaching English as a foreign language, and dispels the myths that surround the profession.

With the recession meaning that jobs for graduates are scarce, many students are taking time working abroad before settling down into a long-term profession. Many choose to do this by teaching English as a foreign language. Prospective teachers, however, are often bombarded with more terms than you can shake a stick at – TEFL, CELTA, YLE, TOEFL and TESOL to name but a few – all of which appear to be meaningless. So what actually is the EFL profession?

I often get the idea that many people view EFL as some sort of mystical profession, something halfway between wise sage and journeyman nomad, travelling around the world and spreading your wisdom like a cloud of English-sounding dust. Others have a vague idea that it is a bit like being a contemporary English teacher, but not quite, and have no idea as to how you might get into it. Almost everyone agrees that it could be an amazing experience.

The Big Myths

The largest misconception is that you need to speak many different languages to teach English. You don’t. Almost all schools of thought agree that the most effective way to teach a foreign language is in that language (something that the school language departments around the UK might consider doing if they want to improve the ridiculously poor standard of foreign language acquisition over here). This means that your entire class would be taught in English, from when the students enter the classroom until the homework is up on the board (in English). No prior knowledge of the language spoken by the students is required.

Another myth is that you must have an accent the Queen would be proud of and be able to recite any obscure grammar point like a linguistics lecturer, otherwise there is no point trying to go and teach. This is completely unnecessary, as you already have the basic qualification by default: being fluent at English. We all know how to speak, and we know our own grammar (even if that information seems to be very well hidden). What you do need to learn is how to teach others what you inherently know.

So what do I need in order to teach?

Many people who know little about the profession ask if teachers have a ‘TEFL’. This abbreviation, meaning ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’ means very little with regards to qualifications, and only really stands for online or weekend courses held in the UK. While these can give you a taste of what you might expect, they are unlikely to stand you in good stead when looking for a job in the EFL market and will rarely give you any time teaching actual students.

There are two basic qualifications that are required for the majority of EFL schools: the CELTA, which is a University of Cambridge qualification, and the Cert TESOL, which is accredited by Trinity College London. Both of these courses typically run for four weeks (though longer versions are available) and cost about £1250. In a nutshell, these courses provide you with a basic grounding in teaching theory, while giving you the chance to practice your newfound skills teaching non-native speakers. This experience is particularly useful when applying for jobs.

This is the accepted route into teaching EFL, though not the only one.

So where can I go with EFL?

The beauty of EFL is that you can teach almost anywhere in the world, making it an ideal profession to travel with. The EFL world is transient, with people generally teaching in one place for a short period of time before moving on to another school in another part of the world. Because of this, there are always new opportunities and teaching jobs opening up all around the world, affording you lots of options regarding location.

By and large the most demand for EFL teachers is in Southern and Eastern Europe (notably Spain, Portugal, Poland and the Balkans) and in Asia (China, Japan, Thailand and much of south-east Asia). Choosing where to go can be tricky and it is important to find out what the general qualifications required in each particular country are. European schools will usually require a CELTA or Cert TESOL, while many Asian countries expect their teachers to have a degree, but not necessarily any teaching experience. These are not hard and fast rules and it is always worthwhile looking into whether a particular company will accept lower qualifications than they state on their website.

What type of work can I do?

EFL isn’t just solely about going abroad and teaching for a language school, though that is the usual route that teachers will follow. There are language schools dotted around the UK, while students taking a Modern Foreign Languages degree have the option of spending their year abroad as a teaching assistant for the British Council. The latter option is a handy introduction into EFL and a good way to earn some money during the year abroad.

Other opportunities can come from charity work. Nottingham student Lucy Hayes spent a year working in Namibia for the charity ‘Project Trust’, “Three of us ran a newspaper in accessible English for this town in the middle of the desert. We’d work on the paper in the afternoons, and in the mornings I taught in a crèche in the shanty town. There were about fifty 2-6 year olds sharing benches made of paint tins and wooden planks, inside a metal shack. Then we spent 2-3 days a week working at a massively overfilled High School as teaching assistants, helping kids who had fallen behind at school.” Lucy’s charity only runs courses for college-leavers, but there are plenty of other opportunities world-wide to get involved in.

First year Chinese student Esther Moss spent four months teaching English in Qing Dao in China. She spent the time teaching kids from the age of 9-12. “The younger students were chatty and naughty, but disciplined,” she says. “The teenagers were harder; often they would all be talking, and I’d have to shout over them. Then it is really hard work.”

So is English teaching worth it? “I would never take back the experience,” she admits. “It shows you what you can do under pressure and how you can adapt to different ways of doing things.”

Another, often overlooked, area of the profession is Summer Schools. These are based all over the UK (and in some other countries) and will normally run short 2-4 week courses throughout the summer. During a typical summer school, some time will be spent teaching and the rest will be taken up running activities (sports, arts, music) or going on trips with the kids. Summer schools tend to pay well and (the cheeky bonus) require less experience or training than a standard school. This gives you the opportunity to try EFL, without the daunting task of moving abroad, and provides experience should you decide to go for it and seek a job.

EFL doesn’t just need to be a short-term job, however. Jayne Copping, currently Head of Teacher Training at the Lewis School in Barcelona, explains the long-term opportunities.
“The opportunities in terms of career range from part-time teaching positions to consultants and authors, through teacher training and exams experts. There are even those who write EFL educational interactive software programmes, and adapt games for basic skills students such as West Nottinghamshire College´s ground breaking Never Winters Nights adaptation.”

Why should I do this?

“Why should you teach?” asks Andrea Hasapi, a CELTA teacher trainer when I pose the question. “You’re actually helping your students to learn, which in itself is something invaluable. It helps make their life and their jobs and prospects better; it teaches you people skills, you meet some absolutely wonderful people, and the teaching skills you acquire you can use in all sorts of future jobs.”

“I think there are lots of positives to TEFL,” adds Jenny Evans, an EFL teacher who has recently moved back to the UK and now works as the General Manager of Reach Cambridge. “If you get a recognised and respected EFL qualification you can teach English anywhere in the world, which is a massive bonus. It is also a lasting qualification you can use throughout your life for any given period. It allows you to develop your creativity, organisation, confidence and people skills. It is a vocation that is always in demand, and can be one of the most rewarding jobs you ever do.”

Useful Links
Cambridge ESOL website – www.cambridgeesol.org
CertTESOL Website – http://www.trinitycollege.co.uk/site/?id=201
The British Council – http://www.britishcouncil.org/
Neverwinter Nights – West Nottinghamshire College – http://nwn.bioware.com/players/profile_west_nottinghamshire_college.html

Ben McCabe

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2 Comments

  1. December 2, 2009 at 15:36 — Reply

    This is a very informative article – thank you. Do you have any recommendations for EFL courses in the US? I’ve done some general searches but would be interested in a some that others have experience with.

  2. December 5, 2009 at 11:17 — Reply

    good article as usual!

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