Getting started with a teaching career is a fairly simple process.  There are a few pieces of paper to satisfy the bureaucratic hurdles needed to teach in a foreign country. 

The primary document you’ll need to teach abroad is a TEFL, TESOL or CELTA certificate.  Any one of these documents opens the door to teaching in a foreign country and provides the necessary basic skills to get started in an educator capacity.

Secondly, you’ll, of course, need a passport with the correct Visas intact.  A passport to go abroad is absolutely essential.  However, work visas are a bit more of a judgment game.  In countries with strict visa regulations such as Korea, it is absolutely imperative you have a legitimate and valid work visa, rather than a murky tourist visa.  However, other countries, such as Colombia are somewhat more lax in regard to this.  If you’re caught, you may have to pay a fine and get deported from the country.  In some countries, teachers consider this worth the risk and others deem it unacceptable.  Always keep in mind that recruitment agencies are under a lot of pressure to bring in teachers as quickly as possible and will ask teachers to fly in immediately while upgrading their visas at a later date.  This can be done in certain situations, but it opens especially first time teachers to a lot of manipulation and problematic work circumstance.  Here at Teach Now, we strongly advocate for the legitimate visa process.

  • A Bachelor’s degree or equivalent also qualifies you to teach in a much wider market.  It is important to note that a Bachelor’s degree isn’t a strict requirement for many countries and those countries where it is a requirement will accept a bachelor’s degree in any field (not necessarily teaching or English).
  • Emergency documents are your next most important items.  These include a folder of hard copies including identity information, emergency contact numbers, medical documents, travel insurance, extra passport photos and color copies of your passport, degree and other documents.  These make the visa process a lot easier and provide fallbacks of information in an emergency.  Likewise, it’s a good idea to scan these documents to an encrypted stand-alone flash drive to print out backups as needed. 

These are the core documents needed to teach abroad.  Other paperwork can be acquired as needed depending on the country and job involved. 

Let’s also consider the more ambiguous and less-tangible requirements a teacher should have.

  • Patience: It is very difficult to live in a country where all of your information is translated unless you have a fair amount of patience.  Likewise, your students will rarely understand you for the first few weeks, likely due to your unique accent.  Having patience will provide enough time to adequately adapt. 
  • Temperament: Living abroad is going to bother everyone at some point.  People often talk about culture shock when entering a new environment.  And this is a valid aspect of living abroad.  But the things that usually really irk people when living abroad aren’t big things, like car culture, different languages or food.  Instead, the much smaller daily things tend to bother a person.  Elderly people cutting in line.  Scooters driving on sidewalks.  Not being able to find a drip coffee anywhere.  Oreos with the wrong flavor.  A solid, calm temperament helps with the culture shock hurdle.
  • Social Tendencies: The biggest danger to a person living abroad is self-imposed hermit-lifestyles.  It’s very easy to hole up inside and stay comfortable away from that strange, alienating outside world when living abroad.  But the mental strain and loneliness can be a problem.  As such, expats with stronger social tendencies tend to do much better when living abroad. 

And that about sums it up.  If you head abroad to teach with these tools in your utility belt, you’ll likely do fine.  Teaching abroad is not a particularly demanding field. Indeed, most expats are passing along skills they’ve honed or been capable of since they were very small children.  So gather your documents, ask expats that have gone before you for advice and enjoy your adventure.

My TEFL certification is 120 hours but the program I do offers more.  Should I pay more for a higher accreditation and will this get me more money?

The short answer is “no.”  Generally, a TEFL, TESOL or CELTA can range from 60 credit hours to over 200.  However, 120 is the minimum requirement for most hiring agencies and no matter how impressive your certificate is, you’ll likely start out in an entry position, just like any other teacher starting out. 

That’s not to say more credits isn’t better: You’ll gain more knowledge, experience and be a more competitive candidacy for any given job.  But most salaries for teacher abroad are determined by the country in question and the amount of experience the teacher has.  A certificate is just your first step to getting accepted into the field.

For example, a teacher starting out may look to Asia (specifically South Korea, China and Japan) for relatively high salaries in the ESL market.  These salaries will be similar for all teachers with no experience, but will gradually get higher as teachers gain more experience or move to a more competitive city.  Likewise, certain countries, such as Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations don’t really hire teachers at all unless they have a bachelor’s degree in their field or already possess two years of teaching experience.

These are general guidelines, of course, and some teachers starting out find much better or worse positions depending on their circumstances.  However, generally, a 120 hours teaching certificate is all you need to get your foot in the door before gradually working your way up.

What do you need to know about contracts and how can I negotiate?

Knowledge when dealing with a contract is paramount.  Most contracts will be provided in the local language.  The first and absolutely most important step is to get a mirror copy of the contract in your native language.  Signing any contract that you implicitly would have trouble translating is a bad decision.

Once you have a contract in front of you, be sure to look carefully at the following points of interest:

  • Working and teaching hours: An average teacher teaches 25 Academic Hours a week, with extra pay for higher teaching hours.  Classes take a lot of time to set up, grade and prepare, so the remaining 15 hours of work should be counted as “office hours.”  Make sure your hours are reasonable and doable.
  • Salary: Salary is your most important contractual aspect.  Your salary should be clarified as “before” or “after” tax.  You should also confirm the pay cycle of your salary to understand when you will be paid as well as the method of payment.  Most schools in Asia and South America deposit payments into a local bank you’ve signed up with, which may take a month or so to set up depending where you live.  Plan accordingly.
  • Lodging: Many contracts, especially those in Asia, provide free housing to teachers.  This may be a teacher dorm on campus, an apartment in the city or even a bed attached to the building.  In the event that they don’t provide this, many schools will provide a “housing allowance” to the teacher.  This is not true of all countries, so it’s important to identify where payment for lodging is going to come from.  Lodging allowances should be provided independent of salary on documents.
  • Reimbursement: A popular method for hiring a teacher comes in the form of “flight and visa” reimbursement.  This clause of the contract states that a teacher will be reimbursed for the costs of a Visa and the flight to their new country.  However, these clauses come with a lot of fine print.  Be sure to lockdown:
  • When the reimbursement occurs.  This may be upon landing, after one month of prohibition is done, halfway through your contract or even after your entire contract is completed. 
  • What documents are needed for reimbursement.  My first school required I keep my plane ticket for the first six months of my employment, along with my visa receipt, baggage claim costs, authentication of documents cost and the digital printouts of transactions.  Only after submitting all of these was I reimbursed, exactly six months after my starting day.

Always carefully read through your contract and if there are unfavorable clauses, you can always ask they be modified or edited out.  A school may not agree with this, but doing so gives a teacher a lot of control over an otherwise new and different situation.

Now, with a critical eye towards your document, it’s time to practice your negotiation abilities.

First, keep in mind that you should decide right away where and what age level you want to teach.  Recruitment agencies will attempt to steer you to their field, and by deciding what you’re looking for, you can remove a lot of confusing options out the door.  This also saves time by filtering out irrelevant interviews.

Consider carefully what age level you want to teach, followed by what places you’re interested in teaching and the city environment you’d like to live in.

Keep in mind that teaching in larger cities generally pays better while offering a higher cost of living.  Likewise, teaching younger students (especially those in daycare) pays a bit better than teaching adults due to the large demand provided by parents.

Once you’ve had some “practice” interview under your belt and you’ve posted your resume online and scoured the internet and recruitment agencies for more opportunities, it’s time to negotiate in earnest. 

A common business tactic, especially in Asia, involves demanding an answer immediately through a Skype chat session and getting the paperwork process started swiftly in the hopes of getting new teachers to follow along.  Never give an absolute yes and always express interest in their program and express a desire to get back to someone in a week. 

Write down the main aspects of the offer, most importantly salary and keep a careful eye on locations and amount.  Use this information through emails or video-chats to try to leverage a better offer aligned with the amounts other schools are offering.

In some cases, schools will back off entirely and seek a more affordable teacher.  In other cases, they’ll make a secondary, slightly higher offer.  It’s a good idea to contact teachers currently working in the city you’re looking at to gain an accurate idea of what the salaries are like in that area.

Once salary is confirmed and a date-time is set (usually the beginning of a school year or whenever a teacher can get their visa) spend the rest of your time negotiating the other aspects above (housing, reimbursement, etc.).  When you are completely satisfied with your contract, go ahead and sign it, both the English and local language copies.  Always send the signed copies back as a PDF to ensure the exact wording can’t be easily tampered with.

Be sure to save scanned digital copies and run the local language copy through a translation app to ensure the documents mirror one another.  You’ll likely need to reference your contract in the future and having a personal copy on hand is a must for any future negotiations.

On that note, you’re set to go.  Good luck on the job market.