Seven Vital Tips for Getting a Job to Teach English Abroad

teach english abroad

This post was updated on September 25th, 2017.

At any given moment, there are an estimated 250,000 Westerners around the world teaching English.  There is a good chance that you’ve had a friend, relative or acquaintance that currently teaches or has taught abroad. If you’ve come to this post, you are most likely thinking about jumping continents yourself for at least a year and possibly longer. I can’t blame you. I taught in Japan for four years and it was an awesome experience. As an ESL instructor in the United States, I’ve come across hundreds of teachers who’ve taught on pretty much all continents with the exception of Antarctica and Australia. I am not even sure if those are still considered to be continents.

Let’s assume that the SEO magic of Google has landed you on this post because you are in the process of looking for a job teaching English overseas or least entertaining the idea. Whether it is a career change, a yearning for adventure, a wariness of Western PC culture, escaping from a bad relationship or a chance to learn a foreign language, you find yourself here. Most likely, you’ve encountered a few job boards, seen advertisements for teaching English abroad and may have already spoken to a couple of recruiters. I am assuming at this point you are feeling somewhat overwhelmed and unclear of where to start. The reality is that there are literally thousands of English teaching jobs abroad. The problem is that it can be difficult to decipher from your home country which companies and schools abroad are legit. When I say legit, I am not so much referring to schools paying teachers on time. The vast majority of schools, 97 percent, definitely pay their teachers.

The larger issue might be finding a school or company that treats its teachers with respect, dignity and offers opportunity to grow. We all want to be treated fairly in the workplace and have the ideal working environment. Unfortunately, the ESL/TEFL industry as a whole does not have a great record of employee satisfaction. The reality is that even if you land a position at one of the better schools, you may leave after a couple of years feeling slightly disgruntled and a little pissed off at the management. Don’t let this deter you from teaching English abroad and it shouldn’t. If you have been following my blog, you know that I make an effort to speak the truth and offer honest advice. Don’t misunderstand me, there are some great schools out there. However, you cannot always expect to work for a fantastic institute when it comes to teaching English abroad. The reality is that teaching English abroad is more about the experience of living in another culture, acquiring a new language and meeting a lot of interesting individuals from all walks of life. Anyone that tells you that they are teaching abroad solely for the purpose of ‘teaching’ is full of a lot of hot air. In fact, I wouldn’t put much trust in these types of individuals.

Although there are plenty of jobs for teaching English abroad, finding a position that fits your needs can be quite difficult and time consuming. Securing a job is in many ways like shopping for a new car. It’s at the same time exciting, yet tedious, tiring and unnerving. Just as you go through car lots trying to pick out the right one that’s within your budget, but also attractive, you will also sipher through a seemingly endless sea of recruiters and global corporate institutes that seem all too eager to get you in the door signed and then have nothing to do with you. The bottom line is that you need to find the best position according to your qualifications, but also in a city and a living situation in which you feel comfortable. One bit of advice I can tell you when looking for a job teaching English abroad is don’t be rushed by a sly car salesman. Instead take your time and work with schools and recruiters that listen and answer your questions. On the other hand, you can’t be too picky and eventually have to just to bite the bullet. With all of this mind, here are some tips to follow when applying for a job teaching English abroad.

1. Get your shit together!

It’s not the good old days of 2007 anymore when one could just stroll into a country unprepared, unruly and completely irresponsible and still land a job within a week simply because you speak English. Unfortunately, times have changed. If you want to make it in this new world order, you will need a little organization, wit and persistence. Whether you are teaching English aborad or writing javascript, every industry to some extent is saturated and competitive. However, do not confuse this advise with a lack of opportunity. Whether it be teaching English or building custom websites, there are still plenty of opportunities right in front of us, but you need to first understand that the game has changed.

Ok, there might be a a few schools that still exist which will hire a meandering, slightly insane, back-packing Westerner, but not nearly as many these days. Although the TEFL industry remains quite unregulated, it has become considerably more organized in recent years. This change is both welcomed and unwelcomed. It’s good because working conditions have improved, teachers almost always get paid on time and most institutes around the world honor their contracts. On the flip side, more uniformity and regulation equals more red tape, hoops to jump through and too many agonizing Skype interviews with some mid-management hack on the other side of the world. More importantly, there are also more Westerners these days that want to teach English abroad. While plenty of positions remain, institutes in countries like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and to a lesser extent in China have wised up and now realize they can be much more selective. Back in the day, schools in South Korea and Japan were practically begging Westerners to come and teach for them. That is no longer the case.

In today’s market, private language institutes and public school programs have the upper-hand, which means that you have to be prepared when applying for a teaching position. Yes, you have to actually make an effort, including you blue-eyed Western devils. The world has changed quickly during the past decade, which entailed a drastic change in the market as well. If you want to teach abroad, make sure to have an updated resume just as you would back home. Be sure to write in a respectful way when communicating through email just as you would for a position in your own country. Don’t just assume that you will be hired because you have a university degree and are a native English speaker. Check out an earlier article I wrote, 5 Cardinal Rules for Teaching English Abroad.

2. Have a few professionally looking headshots

Coming from the political correct and easily offended West, it may be difficult to fathom why one would have to submit a headshot when applying for a position. However, this policy is ubiquitous throughout all of Asia, the Middle East  and to a lesser extent in other parts of the world. While people would be in a uproar in America and claiming discrimination, including a photo in a resume is standard in countries, such as China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and so on. Not just for Westerners, but for everyone. Is this practice discriminatory? Of course it is, but remember that you are the one who wants to teach abroad in another country. Their country means their rules and some practices have to be accepted. With that being said, make sure you have at least two professionally looking headshots of yourself. A photo taken on a smart phone is fine, but it should be from the shoulders up. If you are a man, put on a shirt and tie, shave, comb your hair and smile. Remember, its not a mug shot! Don’t let them know who you really are until you first land the job and visa! If you are woman, dress in business attire, fix-up your hair and show those beautiful white teeth! It’s important to always look energetic and healthy in your photos. Don’t use a selfie or a picture from a party or social event. Have a friend or family member help you take the photo and use a well-lit background. If you have piercings, take them out. If you have visible tattoos, make them invisible. If you have a tattoo on your face, it will be difficult to find a school that will hire you!

Unfortunately, submitting a photo also allows schools and institutes to discriminate against applicants of color and ethnic background. However, don’t let that discourage you getting a job abroad. When I taught in Japan from 2007 to 2011, there were plenty of non-white teachers in even smaller cities and many of them had some of the best positions, including university teaching positions. On the other hand, if you are some clean cut looking white guy or white woman, remember that the world is changing at a rapid pace. Don’t expect to get the best positions simply because of what you look like.

3. Plan at least 3 to 6 months ahead if you want to teach English abroad

If you are like me and center your life around the concept of spontaneity, it’s not always easy to plan so far ahead. The reality, however, is that landing a job overseas or at least one that really meets your standards can take some time. The chief issue is the time it takes to process a visa. Depending on the country, this can take anywhere from one to three months and possibly longer. While places like Japan and China generally take no more than a month, getting a visa  in South Korea can take a while. If you are planning on teaching in South Korea, you will need an apostille FBI background check if you are from the United States and something equivalent if you are from another English-speaking country. You will also need an apostille university diploma. While South Korean immigration is the most strict in Asia, most other countries also require some sort of criminal background check.

If you are planning on teaching in the Middle East, getting a visa for Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates is about as tedious as South Korea or even more so. Besides planning ahead a few months, it’s best to have some funds saved up regardless if you have a job beforehand and paid airfare. Things happen when live abroad  and likely you will want to splurge and enjoy the nightlife a bit when you first arrive. If you are flying into a country on a tourist visa  without a job, plan to have at least $5,000 to $7000 and $2000 to $4000 of additional funds if you’ve already have a gig secured.

4. Do some research on the country where you want to live and teach English abroad

Let’s be honest, teaching English abroad is more about the opportunity to live overseas. As native English speakers, we are quite fortunate to be lucky enough to have the option to work abroad simply for the fact that our native tongue is English and possess a university degree, which is not much of an accomplishment in today’s ultra-competitive world. If you are going to live abroad, make sure it is in a place that you will enjoy. If your main motivation is to save some money, make sure it is in a place that is at least tolerable. If you have a disdain for anything Asian, as some Western women do, don’t get a job there. The West doesn’t need another hapless individual spreading unfavorable images of us in other parts of the globe. If you are a lumbering male buffoon that has no interest in picking up even basic Spanish, don’t get a job in Latin America. In other words, teach in a place where you will get on with the local population and relish the idea of experiencing something truly exotic, unique and memorable.

5. Have some knowledge of where you are going

Ok, this one kind of goes hand in hand with the previous tidbit and I’m just filling up space in the blogosphere. When you are applying for a job in say China, South Korea or Colombia, it will go a long way if you can convey that you are actually interested in the history, geography, politics, issues, customs, cuisine and language of that particular country. Teaching English overseas isn’t rocket science and many teaching gigs are quite easy. However, the biggest concern that most schools have is whether or not you will be able to finish out a one-year contract and many prefer if you can commit for two or three years. When you have a Skype interview for a school in South Korea, for example, they will definitely interrogate you to find out if you are truly interested in living in Korea for at least a year. It’s not a requirement to speak Korean, but letting them know that you have studied the basic characters of the Korean alphabet and have a borderline obsession for kimchi will make you a much more attractive candidate.

You may also like: The Best Countries to Teach English Abroad

6. Be prepared for a Skype interview if you want to teach English abroad

If you are planning to be hired  by a school or company from your home country, you will most likely have to endure at least one and possible two or three Skype interviews. Personally, I detest Skype interviews, but that it the digitized world we have created. I don’t know what it is, but I always feel awkward and clumsy whenever I’ve engaged in a Skype interview and I always suspect that there is a group of people in another room laughing at me. I can just envision them saying, “Look at this dumbass with his fake smile and awkward gestures. Ha-ha”. If you are like me, then you have to get over your fear of Skyping. More importantly, you should treat a Skype interview like any in-person interview that you would have in your home country. Yes, put on a shirt and tie if you are a dude, shave, take out that ridiculous nose piercing and pull up your damn pants! If you are lady, business attire, don’t show that obtrusive tongue piercing and comb your damn hair. It is also paramount to smile throughout the Skype interview. This is particularly true if you trying to get a job in Asia as most Asian countries are obsessed with smiling, which I guess isn’t a terrible thing. But it was always a problem for a stone-faced killer like myself when I lived in Japan. If you are bad at smiling, pick up on the fake smile technique.

You may also like: The Skype Interview; Getting hired To Teach English Abroad

7. Relax, don’t get stressed and don’t be so picky

The process of finding a suitable position can be time-consuming, tedious and bureaucratic when it comes to processing a visa. The best advice I can give you is to chill out and don’t get stressed. The reality is that you are never going to have the perfect situation. You may find a great school, but it might not be in the city of your choice or vice versa. Like I said before, if your first motivation for teaching abroad is to experience living in another country, then everything else will fall into place. Sometimes in life you just have to go with the punches, roll the dice and see where you end up. If you grew up with the overbearing security of the suburbs and went to a good college, then you need to understand that the world won’t stop for you. If you are planning on teaching abroad with little or no prior teaching experience, then you can’t expect to be offered the best jobs or top pay. In most cases, you will have to work for a mediocre institute for a year, network, make some connections and land something better your second year. The world is becoming excessively competitive and teaching English abroad is no exception.

Teaching English overseas can be a tremendous opportunity to see the world, meet a lot of interesting and partially insane people, eat things you never knew existed, wake up in a state of euphoria, learn who you are as a person and just live your life. I hope you have found this article useful. Feel free to leave a comment. Trolling is encouraged!

For more on teaching methodology, read Ten Rules For Being a Great ESL Teacher.

About JT 63 Articles
JT taught English for four years in Japan. He also has extensive experience teaching ESL in the United States. JT has also traveled throughout Asia and South America. He began JimmyESL in 2014 as a way to provide honest information for those interested in teaching English abroad. These days, he spends most of his time building Wordpress sites, blogging and teaching others the nuances of digital marketing.