Teaching Abroad: What I learned about the search for a TEFL job

Considering teaching abroad?

Well, I’ve been researching countries, cities and schools for about four months now, and have been applying for about three and doing interviews for two, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned along the way, in the off chance that it might help some of you. Before I get into it, this will only apply to those looking to teach abroad and I did not look into Europe or the Middle East, just Asia and South America.

Now, I taught in South Korea some ten years ago and, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the TEFL market has gone through considerable changes since then. Some things are still the same in that Korea is arguably still the largest market with the most opportunities, while Japan and China are also large markets. However, it seems China has overtaken Japan as the second largest market and here, I would say, lies one of the major changes.

China used to be that country you applied to when you didn’t meet the requirements for a job in Korea or Japan. Now, though, China’s requirements are on par with its neighbors. For one, a degree is absolutely necessary, though the major is of little importance. Furthermore, TEFL certification is also required and China actually expects 120 hours. Now, I’ve been told by a few recruiters that exceptions will be made for those with a relevant degree (education or English) but, otherwise, you’re expected to take an additional TEFL course online to make up for the missing hours if, like me, your certificate is for 100 hours or less. Additionally, applicants must be from one of six English-speaking countries. These requirements are set forth not by the schools but by the government, so there’s no way around them.

For those with the above requirements China has plenty of opportunities. I was offered multiple positions in the country but I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for living there, at least as a first year back to doing the TEFL thing. That said, the country is huge and varied and offers a good salary to cost of living ratio. Some, though not all, will pay for the flight and housing.

I didn’t look into Korea or Japan much but, as far as I could tell, their requirements are similar to China’s. Korea seems to still be one of the best places to go to make money and gain experience.

Keeping to the region, Cambodia and Laos offer a few opportunities, though these are of the volunteer sort, with lower requirements but fewer creature comforts and few opportunities to save money.

Vietnam pays ridiculously well and has some of the lowest cost of living in the region, but the requirements are steep: they routinely ask for two or more years’ experience and CELTA or Trinity, specifying that TEFL/TESOL is not enough. I did get in touch with one school in Vietnam, but they were in a very small town, which didn’t appeal to me just now. Otherwise, though I applied to multiple schools in Vietnam, I never got a single response. I plan to try again after getting a year’s experience.

There’re quite a few opportunities in Thailand, though most are in the Northeastern area, which is more rural and isolated. This may appeal to many but I wanted to have greater access to the rest of the country. Outside of the region along the Mekong, I came across many positions in mid-sized cities like Trat and Lopburi. There seem to be few jobs in the South or Northwest. In the end, I signed a contract with a school in Bangkok. The pay is decent but cost of living will vary depending on where you are. For example, most jobs in Lopburi paid the equivalent to about $1100 a month but rent for an apartment tended to be in the $120/month range. They don’t typically pay for flights or housing. Requirements in Thailand tend to be a degree (in anything) and a criminal record check. TEFL isn’t strictly required but it’s helpful.

Malaysia’s market appears to be similar to Thailand’s as far as the pay to cost of living and requirements are concerned, but I didn’t come across many opportunities and those I did see were mainly in Kuala Lumpur or around, in peninsular Malaysia.

The only jobs I saw come up in Indonesia (and there were a fair number), were with English First, but I’d heard bad things about the company as a whole (they also operate in China), so I decided to stay away. Most opportunities are in Jakarta or elsewhere on Java, with a few opportunities on Bali, likely in Denpassar.

Note that the school year in Southeast Asia starts around May, so most positions will be listed in January and February.

Moving to an entirely different part of the world: I actually began my search in South America. South America may be the best option for those without a degree, though the jobs will be just this side of volunteering, with little to no opportunity to save money. What I also found is that those willing to just fly down there and knock on doors, visiting schools and speaking to directors with your CV in hand, have a far greater chance of landing a job than people like me, emailing schools from Canada. I reached out to about 30 schools and got exactly two replies. I applied to schools in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Colombia and got nowhere. However, my understanding is that if I’d been willing to simply go down there I could have landed a job inside of a week. I can’t confirm that, though, and I wasn’t really willing to do it, but if you’re planning a trip to South America (and this all applies to Central America, as well), research a few schools first and email them to let them know you’ll be in the area then, once there, go meet with them.

Chile does have a program for bringing teachers in from abroad but it requires paying a recruitment fee of about $1200, which, again, I wasn’t willing to do. There is also a ton of opportunity in Colombia, given that the government has the goal of making the country bilingual by 2020, but this is only if you’re willing to work in public schools in rural areas for little pay (though there are some jobs in larger cities like Bogota). Greenheart Travel are a reputable organization that has partnered with the Colombian government to connect TEFL teachers, so they may be a good place to start. I considered it but a Colombian friend told me teaching in public schools there is a whole other ballgame and I thought I’d start with something a tad more “comfortable”.

So, there you go, that’s much of what I learned over the last four months or so of research and applying. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out!

Good luck!

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