So you’ve decided you want to teach English abroad. Here are some questions that you should ask before you accept that ‘dream’ job.
1. What age and level are the students?
You probably already have an idea of the age or level you’ll be teaching, but check anyway. If the school you’re applying to has lots of different kinds of classes then ask if they have some in mind for you. If you’re replacing a current teacher then they will be able to tell you exactly who you’ll be teaching. Think you’ll hate teaching Kindergarten or Business English? Better to find out now!
This is also the time to ask about average class sizes and what kind of resources they have. Teaching with a smart board full of songs and tons of worksheets is different to teaching with just a blackboard. In some schools the curriculum is a closely guarded secret, but if not then ask what books are being used and then check out a sample online. Good material makes classes more pleasant, cuts down your prep time, and generally makes your life easier.
2. What hours will I be working?
If you are working in a state school then you will probably work a fairly normal 9-5 schedule, but many private language schools want teachers to work evenings and weekends. Check how many days off you will have – some jobs only give you one day off a week!
Will you have to travel between schools, or just be working at one? Will you be expected to remain at the school 9-5 even when you have no classes? Will you have to set and grade homework or exams? Some schools require teachers to participate in staff meetings, parent-teacher meetings or extra-curricular activities. Check how often these are scheduled and whether you will be paid. Which brings us to…
3. How will I be paid?
Hopefully you have a rough idea of how much from the advert, but before you leave you need to nail it down. Check when you will be paid; many schools pay a week or two after the end of a pay period. For example, if pay day is April 10th then you will be paid for your work in March. This means if you arrive at a school at the beginning of the month it can be up to six weeks before you get paid.
Make sure to take enough funds to cover your expenses, or discuss with the school the possibility of an advance on your salary. If this seems depressing then remember that at the end of your contract the school will owe you a month’s salary – instant travel fund! Ask how much tax you will have to pay, and whether the advertised salary is before or after tax.
4. What about sick pay and holiday pay?
It’s unlikely you’ll be really ill, although teaching children often means catching all the colds going around! Some employers pay you for sick days, but it’s not common. Perhaps more important is what kind of support you will get from the school if you need to visit a doctor or the hospital – they may need to send somebody with you to translate! Ask about medical insurance, but also get your own before you travel.
Ask too about how much holiday you will get and when. You’re going to want to travel a little and see some of the country while you’re there, and you can’t do that without a bit of time off.
5. Do you provide accommodation?
Many schools provide accommodation for their teachers, which is a lot less hassle than trying to find your own. Check if you’ll have flatmates, and ask about the heating and AC – I’ve tried to sleep in a tropical country in a room without air conditioning, and it is Not Fun. And ask how close the accommodation is to the school you will be working at – you don’t want to be surprised by a two hour commute!
6. What do I have to do to get a visa?
Some countries have more stringent visa requirements than others. Even if your interview is successful, it might still be a month or more before all the paperwork is filed and you can book your plane ticket. Beware of any employer who says you can work on a tourist visa – they’re often lying. If in doubt then phone the embassy of the country you’re going to and ask them about their visa rules. If what the school says checks out then you’re good to go.
7. Who will my colleagues be?
If you go to a big language school there will probably be other foreigners working there who can help you settle in and show you a few expat watering holes. If you’re placed at a public school then you might be the only foreigner. Your preference depends on how much you want to learn the native language and immerse yourself in the new culture; more foreigners means more native English speakers to talk to and some comfort for home sickness, but it can also discourage you from learning the language and really understanding the country you’re visiting.
8. Can I take on private students?
Some schools don’t like you to take on private students because you’re taking clients away from them. Other schools couldn’t give a damn. If you’re expecting to supplement your income while you’re away by getting a second job or advertising for private work then check with the school first.
9. What’s the dress code?
You don’t want to arrive and find you’ve packed all the wrong clothes! Don’t assume you can just buy things when you get there; in some countries, particularly in Asia, it can be almost impossible to find clothes that fit, especially for those of us who are tall or, um, cuddly. Take comfortable slacks and at least five shirts, so that you can have a clean one every day during hot weather.
If you’re teaching children then take hard-wearing clothes that can handle lots of kneeling and being splashed with paint. Ladies, if you’re planning on wearing skirts then consider how much bending down or crawling around with young children you will have to do. Gentlemen, make sure to pack at least one tie!
10. Can I speak to a current teacher?
There are lots of things you want to know that a school will be unwilling or unable to tell you. Will I be paid on time? What are the management like and do they handle things well? What’s the accommodation really like? How much money can you save? What is there to do in the city? What kind of things are difficult to get hold of? I personally find it difficult to live without cheese, which in Asia often means shopping at special import stores. This is the kind of thing that only another foreigner will think to tell you.
If the school is unwilling to put you in touch with a current teacher this may be a red flag about the way they treat their employees. It doesn’t necessarily make them awful to work for, but proceed with caution.
I have been a TEFL teacher for 4 years and have taught in Poland, China and Turkey. I have also travelled around Thailand, Hungary and the US. I’ve been a vegetarian for more than ten years and have spent more time than I care to remember explaining to Chinese waiters that pork is not a vegetable. I also keep up a blog at www.teflicious.com