The Adventure Chronicle

How to: Be an ESL Teacher

So, you want to be an ESL teacher. Since I logged countless hours on the internet looking for information on ESL teaching -from how to get started, to benefits, to “what it’s like”- I feel compelled to provide some information here for those of you in that same spot. I am by no means an expert on the subject, but between my research and my first hand experience, I think this post will be pretty valuable.
Who can do it?:

Besides some birthright, there is little stopping anyone from teaching ESL. All you need is a college degree and to be a native speaker (Canadian, American, English, Irish, a Kiwi, an Aussie, etc.). It helps to be as white as possible in Asia and it’s a good idea to look as clean cut as possible. Tattoos, long hair, disheveled appearance? No good here.

Getting Started:

Should I get certified? What certification should I get- TEFL, TESL, DELTA, CELTA? What school/company should I get it from?
This is perhaps the hardest past of getting started as an ESL teacher. There are so many ways to obtain a certification, so many different certifications, and so many internet sights contradicting each other on the importance of certification that it leaves your head spinning. Most of the emails I get from blog readers or friends from back home is “What certification did you do? What do you recommend?” The answer is complicated and depends on what you want with ESL. Here are popular scenarios and my advice.

A) I just graduated from school and I want to travel for a while before starting real life:
If this is you, I wouldn’t waste my money on expensive programs. Consider how long it would take to remake the money. A 1 month salary in Asian countries is probably around 1,000$ USD. Thus, to spend 1,000$ (plus expenses) to work for a month without getting paid (in person programs are generally 1 month long) for a 1,000$ a month job, means you could have just taken a badass 2 month vacation for what you’ve shelled out to be stuck in boring lectures. An online program would be fine and they are often priced at 200$. Worried about not “learning” how to teach ESL? Don’t be, unless you are doing CELTA, you wont learn anything in your 1 month course as it is. When I took one, we learned valuable skills like folding a piece of paper 28 ways, how to do traditional Thai dances, how to make a walking turtle out of cardboard, and the ever brilliant refresher lesson on “boulderdash.” The little we did learn (like a basic lesson plan) is good for about the first week. There are plenty of jobs in Asia, so in most cases, they are just looking for a certificate to pass you off to the ministry of education. In Thailand for example, there are jobs everywhere. You could probably come over, buy a “certificate” for 200$ USD on Koh San road, and find a job within two weeks. If you are thinking about doing one of these programs because they guarantee a job after word, I would be hesitant. You get no say in what job you take or the stipulations. So you will probably be stuck in some shithole part of Thailand (or China, or wherever) with nothing to do on the weekends, 25 classes a week, greeting obligations, English club obligations, Christmas obligations, etc. The language gap may be a little tricky when applying for jobs. But think about it, if it’s your first ESL job, do you really want to be working for someone you can’t communicate at all with anyway?

B) More rare, is the graduate who tutored, or did some ESL training in college and wants to keep going with it. I would recommend getting the CELTA. I have a friend from college who fit this bill and she decided to go with a lesser certification (Oxford Seminars) because she wasn’t sure how serious she wanted to be with ESL, just that she wanted to do it. Here’s the thing, a program that offers spaced out, long days of training can’t be very comprehensive and efficient (weekend courses like Oxford). Also, if you’re heart is in it just a little bit, you want to be good at it, and… it’s hard! So go get some good training. Besides, do the math. Even if a CELTA is 1,500-2,000$, you would already be paying 1,000$ to waste your time with this other program. Just pay the extra money and buy something of value. Worst case scenario, you decide it isn’t for you and you’re out 1K. But, if you do like it, you just saved yourself a lot of time and money by doing a program that was legit and necessary in the first place.

C) You want to do it for a summer: WHY!? Go on vacation. Even though it’s not national defense or surgery, it is a job and that means there are obligations, effort, and stress. If you are thinking of going for a summer, you are probably looking at “voluntourism” programs. Why would you pay someone to do work? And, if you are going to, pick a cooler resume builder- refugee camps, wildlife reserves in Africa, an internship with an NGO in D.C or Geneva. All much cooler possibilities. If you do find one of the few “programs” that will set you up for the summer, really look into them. I almost did one in college but thanks to a protective parent, found out they were notorious for setting you up in crazy places, offering no pay, and cutting ties, leaving you stranded, once you were there. You do not want this unless you like 20 hr plane rides of depression.

If you think I’m being ridiculous and you definitely want a 1 month, in person program, than go for it. I will save you some trouble though and tell you that which you choose doesn’t matter. Don’t keep yourself up at night trying to figure out which is the best looking certificate to an employer. There is no difference, this isn’t college. If there was a ranking, Princeton Review would publish it. Pick the one that looks best for you, be that the cheapest, the program in the best location (they are often offered in very cool places), or pick one with some in class training. My program offered 1 week of instructor evaluated teaching, it was the only valuable opportunity offered, but even it wasn’t that valuable. The students were all well behaved and I taught the same basic class (different topic) each time- this is not the reality of ESL. 1st, the students have a lot of energy and don’t want to learn. 2nd, if you are teaching conversation (a class that meets once a week), you may be able to get away with 1 basic structure. But if you teach IEP (an intensive English class) and you see these kids 5 days a week, you HAVE to start getting creative to keep them interested (and do actual, boring, pound it out, textbook learning).

D) You want to teach ESL in Eastern Europe: OK, so Asian ESL is basically babysitting. In most cases you will have young learners still struggling to learn Thai or pubescent middle/high schoolers who just don’t care and wont pay attention to you. Serious English programs, like business English, find serious teachers- this is not you. So, there are very lax standards here (thus my recommendation on a cheap, easy certificate). From what I hear, Eastern Europe demands a bit more ability. I would look into that issue before deciding to cheap out. I just don’t know enough to tell you here.

Note: TEFL, TESL, TESOL, etc. are all acronyms for the same thing- teaching English to non-native speakers. They differ because there is no global standard or name for “TEFL” certifications. “CELTA” and “DELTA” are certifications with some bearing. They are certifications of a much more serious course offered by either Cambridge University or Trinity University.

Certification handled, how do I get a job?:

Use the internet, there are plenty of websites like that have job boards. Often you can conduct interviews, fax necessary papers and contracts, and arrange the job through the computer. But, I would recommend not doing this for the same reason I would be weary of placement agencies. A plane ticket to Asia is only 500$, come over here and spend a month on your tourist visa going to schools and applying for jobs. You can take the names and addresses off the net to find them and you can even send emails or make a call to schedule the in person meeting. This way you will be able to see your working conditions, meet the staff, and most importantly, have a realistic idea of your living arrangement and transportation needs (amongst other things). Moreover, the plethora of job boards should be used as a way to check schools/companies. Run a google search, are a lot of people complaining about working for them? Heed the advice and beware! Also, generally, if the job seems too good to be true, it is. They need teachers here, bad, but they are also not about to treat your joke-ass, inexperienced self like a hot commodity. No one is going to give you super benefits and high pay for your first job.
Getting Enough said.
Things to consider:

Remember that you do not get paid day 1. So, make sure you have some money saved up for living expenses, housing down payments, etc. when you get here. There are start up costs. Also, you don’t make much money, so don’t expect to save anything. You will make enough to eat and drink well, and just enough for a reward like a trip or two (depending on how you travel) during a break or after the semester.

What do you need to work in Asia. I am going to cover this issue from Thailand, but generally the process is the same. With paperwork proving validity of your school and a letter from them on your behalf saying that they want to hire you, you can convert your tourist visa to a non-Immigrant work visa. In Thailand thats a NIB, in China, it’s a Z. If someone is going to send you these papers to get said visa in the states, make sure you get the right one! Cengiz spent 150$ and countless hours of worry and rushing to get an NIB visa from the Chicago Consulate only to be issued a NI-ED visa- the consulate saw him as a student of our program, not a teacher (yet). This really backfired when he had to spend additional money and hassle making a visa run to Laos to get a tourist visa that could then be converted into the NIB visa (which also requires a fee). You will also need a work permit, but your school will help you file and attain this (note: another reason to be able to communicate, even just a little, with your employer). How long is the visa good for? That depends. Generally a work visa will be good for 90 days and can be extended twice if you make a “visa run” (traveling to a bordering country to then re-enter, and thus secure another stamp, allowing you to stay). In Thailand, you can avoid this hassle however, because your NIB visa will be good for as long as your contract with the school (this is a product of the work permit). You can check embassy websites to see what you need to apply for different visas; in general there is a form, a fee, proof of job, 2×2 pictures of you, proof of certification (including your degree), and potentially an official transcript. You will need your transcript and degree plenty, so have them on you, make plenty of copies of both, along with your passport, and carry plenty of pictures, they are needed for any official form you fill out. Letters of recommendation are also necessary for the ESL job search, so have several copies of 2 or 3.

For your first job, expect moderate pay and accommodation. Many schools will offer cafeteria food free of charge, which is nice. As you gain experience, you can look for flight reimbursement and higher pay. You get to travel to and live in exotic places (though note, it’s not vacation or Army Special Ops, just because you are coming to Thailand don’t expect to be living like Swiss Family Robinson in the jungle or some cool beach bungalow). Most likely, you will be living in a neighborhood that doesn’t see many foreigners and is not very glamorous. But you will be centrally located for easy, cheap trips to very cool and far out places. Cultural interaction: you want to learn a language or get to know what life is like in a different culture, this is the way to go. Working with kids- if you want to be a 1st grade teacher, that’s basically what you will be.

Working with kids. If you need to achieve goals and ‘always be closing’ to find reward in your job, ESL is not for you. It kind of turns your mind to mush because tiny gains require lots of work, but not all that much thinking. Similarly, you have to be ok with small goals and hazy rewards. You will not be turning kids into fluent speakers, so you have to be happy with a couple new vocab words here and there and sometimes it is easy to forget/not notice that progress is being made. Low pay. A different standard of living (I have no plumbing or kitchen, there are no sidewalks, and throwing trash out is the same thing as littering). Loneliness: the job can get lonely as it will take effort to find/meet up with someone that speaks your language, drinks your beer, or likes your food. Communicating is tough and will often have to be done at a very basic level and you will be deprived of many of the securities you had back home (no TV, mac and cheese, Guinness, movie theatre, etc.).
ESL can be the easiest or hardest job in the world; it all depends on who you are. You have to be able to let things slide and roll off your back, here in Thailand we call it “mai bpen rai.” And, even if you do like it, I would suggest not expecting every day to smell like roses and taste like sugar. But, there certainly are rewards, like experiencing first hand and being shown off at a King’s Birthday celebration. Standing front and center to local people doing traditional dances, songs, and alms giving is that sublime moment you hoped for when signing up. That first poop, without toilet paper, in a hole, is the story that will never die. Your first taste of scorpion, cockroach, or previously uneaten organ will stay with you. And, you can be damn sure that you will gain access to things no tourist ever has: neighborhood petanq games, cock fights, bull shitting sessions, faction fights, etc. Good luck on the ESL job search, I hope this helped.

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3 responses

  1. tonyztheelder

    Wow. Honest, comprehensive, and entertaining! Compare this to stuff on

    December 4, 2009 at 11:41 am

  2. Ted

    Very well written. Honest, informative and a great summary of useful information. What is your background story? Are you a teacher in Thailand or have you done that already and moved on? My wife and I just arrived in BKK and begin the CELTA this week.

    January 10, 2010 at 7:55 am

  3. Pingback: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep « RidingOutTheEconomy's Blog

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