Tips for new TEFL/TESOL Teachers

When I was preparing to teach in Korea, I remember being completely overwhelmed with the prospect of going to a foreign country without a 100% guarantee my endeavors would work out. Searching the internet for recent and non-biased reviews of programs, locations, and jobs could be disheartening. There are a million different perspectives out there, but it pays to do your research.

I’ve received a number of inquiries from readers asking to further elaborate on my teaching experience in Korea as well as any advice I could offer about TESOL and its many derivatives. So here you go, a couple of tips from a former educator on how to get the most out of your impending TESOL experience.

General Advice for Finding a TEFL/TESOL Job

My desk.

My desk at SLP.

Get Certified. It does not matter if it is labeled TEFL/TESOL/TESL as these are all interchangeable. Most countries require a minimum of 100 hours. There are plenty of options out there for you to choose from (internationalteflacademy.com, oxfordseminars.com, teachaway.com, americantesol.com). Programs are offered stateside, online, or in a different country, depending on your situation and specific interest. Most of your time will be spent reviewing the structure of English. (Please note, you can complete online certification while teaching in some countries.)

*As a former educator, I would highly advise you to find a program that spends more than half an hour on classroom management and teaching strategies, as these are the most crucial tools to have in your arsenal.

Ask Around. While most TEFL courses offer some kind of career placement service or assistance, it never hurts to ask someone who isn’t interested in taking your money. Maybe your friend knows someone who went abroad. Maybe you’ve read someone’s blog. Maybe you’ve been pouring through the forums over at Dave’s ESL Cafe. Real feedback and advice from real people. Ask for it. We’re happy to share.

All The Pies. Put your fingers in all the pies you possibly can. My first round of teaching, I only worked with one recruiting agency since I knew a friend who’d used their services. The second time around, I worked with at least three recruiters while also emailing schools directly to find the best deal for me. Most recruiters need to make a quota, but if you’re not certain you want what they’re offering, tell them. It’s okay to say no. Don’t be afraid to look at all your options.

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My little bear class. :)

Build Your Resumé. If you have never taught before in your life, now is the time to get a taste for it – not when you deplane and are assigned your first class. If you know you want to work with primary and secondary students, volunteer at a summer camp or after school tutoring. Childcare totally counts here. If you want to teach adults, see if the local community college needs tutors. Not only will you arrive at your new position with an idea of what to expect, your employers will value you far more than if you’d come with no experience.

Advice for Teaching English Language Learners

Classroom Management. How you respond to situations in the classroom can make or break you as a teacher. While everyone has their own style, my general rule of thumb is to have high expectations, clear communication, and an approachable attitude. If you find your class uncontrollable, check one of those three aspects. Are your expectations too low? Are you not following through with classroom consequences? Do you view class time as a chore? No matter their age, students are perceptive. They will test the limits you give them and follow the example you set.

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A sample of WIDA Can-Do Descriptors for grades 3-5.

Language Levels. Depending on the country and school, you may have a vast mix of language ability levels. You should not expect each student to perform on the same level as every other student even if they are in the same class, it is unrealistic and unfair to the students.

There are 4 Language Domains: Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. When people learn a new language, they first excel at listening and speaking, followed next by reading and writing. Asking a student to retell a story versus asking them to rewrite a story are two very different things. A student can seem fluent with a high listening and speaking score, but may be far lower on their reading comprehension. For this, keep in mind, “What is fair is not always equal, and what is equal is not always fair.”

*Check out the WIDA website for a more in-depth look at language domains and can-do descriptors. The descriptors enable teachers to individualize learning plans for the success of each student.

Do Your Homework. It never hurts to read a book about education. How Children Succeed by Paul Tough is a good one. I’ve built up quite a shelf over the last few years, so if you would like a more specific recommendation, please leave a comment.

Respect and Encourage Them. They are learning an entirely new language. That’s hard! Give them the respect they deserve, regardless of whether they are 5 years old or 50. Never admonish a student for trying or making mistakes.

Advice for Living and Working Abroad

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Goji Temple, Tokyo, Japan

Know Your Destination. First, it’s going to be a lot easier to find a job if you have a specific destination in mind. Second, read up on the country’s culture and history. You’re not just there to travel and run about (which is a key fear of several schools); you are there to educate. That’s not limited to your students. Educate yourself as well by finding books that take place in that country or were written by people from that country. Go to the festivals and celebrations. Spend time on Google Maps to get a feel for the layout of your city or town. Take a new route to work or to the grocery store every few weeks if you’re able. Talk to the locals. If you don’t speak their language, find a group of older locals and hangout with them. It is terrifying and hilarious and you’ll come away with some great stories.

Check Your Expectations. Why are you going? Be honest with yourself. Will you like it? You’ll go back and forth on this one. It’s called culture shock, let it happen. You are going to experience it whether your want to or not. It’s normal, and you’ll get through it, I promise. Will you talk to your friends and family every day? No. Not unless you make a conscious effort to do so. And it’s okay if you don’t. Will I finally find myself? Maybe, but that’s up to you. It shouldn’t be the primary reason for you to get a job in a foreign country. Will I love my students? While I certainly hope so, at the very least, you’ll have quite a few you won’t forget. Will everything be as awesome/terrible as I’ve read online? Yes and no. You control how you respond to the world around you. A lot of times, we make mistakes. Take everything you hear and read about your new home with a grain of salt, and observe it for yourself.

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You got this! (Vitamin C drink in Korea.)

While this is definitely not an exhaustive list, I hope it was able to assuage some fears and encourage a few dreams. If you have more specific questions, please leave a comment.

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