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10 Questions to ask Before Teaching English Abroad

July 21, 2009
Beitang Students by Akira2506.

Photo credit: Joe Whittingham

More and more twenty-somethings, and even those of the earlier generations, are moving abroad to teach English.  There are many reasons for wanting to do this: 1. experience another culture, 2. learn a new language, 3. take a gap year before grad school, 4. take a break from your career, 5. or simply the need for something new!

As someone who has done significant research on programs for ESL abroad and is currently employed through an American program to teach English in Shanghai, I feel there are 10 key questions anyone considering teaching English abroad needs to ask when looking for a program:

1. What Education Level do I Need?

Most programs require you to have a bachelors degree (any major or concentration) to participate.

2. Do I currently need to be affiliated with a university?

Some programs, namely the Fulbright ETAs and the Luce Scholars Program, require you to be nominated by your school.  This can be as a graduating senior, graduate student, or sometimes a recent alum.

Additionally, some programs will only accept applicants from a pre-determined list of universities and others give preference or require applicants to certain positions to be alums of a particular university.

3. Is there an age limit?

Some programs cater specifically to recent college grads and young professionals and have an age limit of 25 or 30; however, a great deal of excellent programs have no age limit.

4. Are there any country-specific credentials I need?

Aside from 1. having a Bachelors degree, 2. being a native English speaker, and 3. having citizenship of an English-speaking country (there are programs for Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Australians), there are sometimes several other credentials needed:

For example, programs like Princeton in Asia or the French Teaching Assistantships require a certain mastery of the local language and experience with the culture, either through academic studies or previous visits.

Additionally, some programs give preference to those interested in pursuing a career related to the particular country (i.e. international relations, professor of country X’s history, etc.), while others actually prefer little to no exposure to the placement country (Luce Scholars Program).

Also, some programs require or give preference to those with a TOEFL or TESOL certificate and many others don’t or offer certification classes for a fee.  This is a good time to also ask: “Does the program include any training?” (such as courses in the local language, ESL training courses, or a pre-program orientation).

5. What fees, if any, does the program charge?

Many programs charge fees to place you with a school and for all of the other conveniences they may offer (i.e. visa applications, orientations, language classes, and in-country support).  Many times these fees, within reason, are worth it to avoid the headaches and lack of reputability of trying to secure a job overseas yourself.

However, do know that some programs, typically the most prestigious and sought after (Fulbright, Luce, Peace Corps), do not charge fees.

6. Will I be employed by the program or the school I work at?  Who will pay me?

Some programs serve solely to find you a position at a school and then you become an employee of the school, signing official employment contracts and needing to apply for a work visa.  Others place you at a particular school, and the program pays your salary (Fulbright ETAs and Luce Scholars).

Along with this is of course, “what will I be paid?”

7. Will my living accommodations be covered?

A great deal of programs negotiate contracts with the schools you teach at to offer you living accommodations free of charge.  This is good for several reasons: 1. you don’t have to look for and secure an apartment yourself (difficult even in your home country), 2. you are living rent-free, and your salary can go farther.

With this question should also be: 1. Are utilities (electricity, gas, water, trash) covered as well? 2. Is internet covered?  All of these things don’t necessarily need to be included, but you should make sure your salary is enough to compensate for them if they aren’t.

8. Will the program/my new employer help me secure the appropriate visa?

Securing a visa can be a pain, but many programs will take care of the entire process for you.  This is especially important if you will be needing a work visa or a residency permit as these are more difficult to obtain and of course require all of the necessary paperwork.

9. How long is the teaching contract for? Can it be extended?

Various lengths of program duration are offered.  Remember, you are teaching English; so typically periods are broken up by semester.  Some programs allow you to sign one semester contracts, while others require two.  Likewise, some programs only offer start dates in August/September, while others allow you to enter in the fall or spring term.

Year-long programs can range from nine to eleven months, so make sure this is in-line with your expectations.  Also, programs such as the Peace Corps require a 26 month commitment.

If the length is a deal breaker for you, consider some of the short-term volunteer opportunities abroad through organizations such as Globe Aware or Cross Cultural Solutions.

10. What other benefits does the program offer?

A lot is covered in this last question.  You will want to know if the program/your new employer offers some kind of health or travelers insurance.  Also, is your flight covered either in the program fee or by your school.  Many schools will reimburse you for all or part of the flight upon completion of the contract.

Also, does the program have an orientation either before departure, when you arrive abroad, or both?  This will be important for those who like a more structured environment and who want to build a sense of community with other teachers.

Will you be assigned some sort of liaison to help acclimate you to your new surroundings?  Many programs assign you a person who works at the school who is there to help you 24/7 with things like going to the doctor, or a misunderstanding with your supervisor, or simply feelings of loneliness.

Finally, a question to ask yourself:

11. Why are you doing this and what is most important to you in a program?

Everyone has different personalities and levels of experience when it comes to traveling and living abroad.  By outlining your goals and expectations for wanting to teach abroad, you can identify what is most important to you in a program.  That will help you decide what “the musts” are for you in a program.

*See the Resources page for a list of and links to very reputable programs for teaching English abroad.


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