How do I get started teaching English in Asia?

“How do I get started teaching English in Asia?” I see this question being asked a lot on travel sites all over the Internet.

andrew blindfolded bystudents in thailand

Where do I go? What do I do?

Back in February 2009 Tanya and I did a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) course in Chiang Mai, Thailand,  got jobs and spent the rest of the year teaching in the area. Here is some stuff we learned.

Is this advice suitable for everyone?

No. TEFL teachers can be separated into several tiers. The top tier are career teachers who have also completed a TEFL course and who are looking to gain employment at an international school possibly while still in their home country. This advice is not for you. However if you are not a career teacher or you’re looking to do a TEFL course in a foreign country then find employment at a local school this post is definitely for you.

Do I need a university degree?

Yes and no. In many places you need a university degree to get a work permit. If an employer isn’t going to be able to get you a work permit then why would they hire you at all? Also, there is frequently an assumption that anyone who did not go to university is fundamentally uneducated. You may be smart, highly literate, well read and worldly despite never having gone to university however you may not be perceived that way. It is frequently possible to get work without a degree however your list of potential employers will be much shorter and your ability to gain legal employment with a reputable employer may be severely restricted.

So what advice do I have to give?

Do a TEFL course

Even if you are a professional teacher do a TEFL course. Teaching English to students you have no common language with is very different to teaching students you share a language with. If you have no teaching experience then it should go without saying that you need some training. Chances are that when you get your first teaching job you will suddenly find yourself shoved into a classroom full of students and it will be assumed that you know what to do.

Do a TEFL course in your target country rather than at home

That way your practice classes will be with locals and your instructor(s) will have lots of advice about the local community. An in country TEFL course will give you the chance to get advice on everything from finding housing and job hunting to dealing with the local police.

Do NOT do an online TEFL course

The practice classes are the most valuable part of the whole experience so you’re likely short changing yourself. Plus, the kinds of places you will want to work hire English teachers all the time and are familiar with most of the TEFL courses out there. If you take a shortcut here you are fooling no one.

A typical TEFL course is 4 weeks long and is 5 full days a week. Be wary of anyone trying to sell you on a shorter or less intensive course. You’re getting a crash course in teaching and it should be intense. Your course should involve an English grammar component, lots of general “how to teach” instruction and a number of supervised practice lessons with actual students which is particularly important if you haven’t managed a classroom full of students before.

Appearances are important

Once you’ve graduated and are looking for a job remember that appearances are really important in a lot of places. I’ve heard of perfectly able but scruffy looking people having trouble getting a decent jobs while someone who looked respectable got stopped in the street by a total stranger and offered a job.

Be prepared to do lots of leg work

Some places don’t advertise jobs and expect teachers to take the initiative and physically show up looking for work. Its tough getting dressed up and walking into school after school to hand in a resume and hopefully chat with whoever hires the teachers. Its tough but sometimes necessary. Everyone I know who committed to visiting every school in town got a good job. Those who made half hearted efforts frequently wound up accepting low paying jobs or jobs from shady organizations that they would have preferred to turn down.

What about CELTA?

CELTA (pronounced selta) is the University of Cambridge’s TEFL certificate. It is one of the most well known courses and is arguably the gold standard TEFL course. If you are serious about teaching consider doing CELTA. It does however have some downsides. It has a reputation for being highly academic in tone. Lots of theory and writing to be done. Its also a standard course around the world meaning there’s little modification of the content for local conditions.

Tanya and I considered following in my father’s footsteps and doing CELTA however we ultimately decided to go for a certification offered by a much smaller organization. The Siam Educational Experience is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Their course incorporated some instruction on Thai culture, practice classes with local young children, high school students and young adults and even assistance navigating the sometimes troublesome Thai visa system.

Choosing an independent organization was a bit of a gamble but one that ultimately paid off for us. John at SEE was excellent and not only did his best to turn us into teachers in very short order but also helped us understand the local culture and get jobs at local schools.

And in conclusion…

I hope this has been helpful. The most important piece of advice I can give you is to just do something. Once you’ve started out on your adventure you can figure out the rest :)

tanya and andrew with their faces painted by their students

Since writing this post I have also written an extremely comprehensive 38 page guide to getting started teaching English. Click here to get the guide to Teaching English in Thailand

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About Andrew

Andrew is a computer programmer and one time TEFL teacher. He is part of the Moodle development team producing course management software for schools and universities all over the world. He checks Tanya’s spelling and produces youtube videos of variable quality.