Teaching English as a foreign language or TEFL

One way to see the world is to teach English in foreign countries. You get to experience slow travel as you spend months or even years living in each place. For example I have a friend who spent a few months teaching English in Costa Rica whereas I have been teaching English for over 9 years in South Korea. Other people stick with EFL but move around (a few years in Thailand, then Korea, then Japan, then Saudi Arabia, etc.). Some of the most common countries for EFL jobs are in Asia with Korea and Japan offering the best money. China and Thailand are very common Asian destinations for EFL teachers as well. Americans have a tough time getting jobs in EU countries as the paperwork is much easier for people from the UK.

It helps greatly if you are a native speaker of English and in some countries you can start off with just a native accent and a college degree. Korean hagwons, for example, are notorious for hiring just about any white person with a pulse.

Undergraduate degrees

There is nothing to worry about here if you already have your B.A. or B.S. degree (though you will be expected to have one – not an Associate’s). Of course if it’s not too late, education degrees are helpful. English education is a great choice, educational psychology is good, etc. Some universities even offer degrees directly related to teaching English to non native speakers – look for names like TESOL, ESL, EFL, TESL, TEFL.

Interestingly though, most EFL teachers don’t have these kinds of degrees and they really are not necessary to teach English abroad.

TESOL certificates

While not required everywhere in the world, certificates are very helpful in getting ELT (English langue teaching) jobs. If you want to work in most European countries, a 4 week certificate course or better is a necessity. The two most recognized are the CELTA and the Trinity. Both offer programs all over the world and promise that the course is standardized so you should be able to take a CELTA anywhere in the world and get an equally valuable degree.

Two of the more famous schools for the CELTA are the British Council and International House. Doing the degree course can be a travel experience in itself as both the British Council and International House have branches running the CELTA all over the world. I did mine at International House Rome – Manzoni and though I thought most of the trainers were weak educators I did learn something and I loved Rome.

If you’re not looking to teach in Europe, many universities in America and around the world offer TESOL certificates. I am a teacher trainer for the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies TESOL certificate course, a program designed for non-native speaking English teachers.

There are numerous online certificate programs but I don’t know of any that carry the same weight as offline programs (because a good offline TESOL course will include some practical teaching).

Graduate degrees

My CELTA trainers made a big deal about how in Europe schools would rather hire an inexperienced teacher with a 4 week CELTA than with a Master’s degree because the CELTA has supervised teaching practice.

I’m not sure I agree with this philosophy because I learned far more doing my Master of Applied Linguistics than I did doing my CELTA. In Asia, at least, the best positions tend to be university ones where a graduate degree is either preferred or required. Some schools will settle for any graduate degree and some don’t care what the degree is in if you are an experienced teacher. However, the best degrees are TESOL, TESL, Applied linguistics, and various education degrees.

Working conditions & salary (in Korea)

Working conditions vary widely and I’m most familiar with those in South Korea where a teacher with no experience or qualifications is looking at a hagwon job. A hagwon is a private school totally unlike private schools in America. It’s a place where kids from pre- school to high school go (after school if they are old enough for public sch0ool – hence the split shift) to get extra study time in. The schools are often run by a person who knows nothing about education and they are often small (I worked in one that had 2 Korean teachers and 3 native English speaking teachers). It’s a different culture and hard to describe.

Depending on who runs the school you may be fine or you may have a tough time. The owner of my school was a real bastard who loved me when I first arrived but began to resent me when I started spending less time with him and more time with the friends I was making. Eventually it got pretty messy with me running to my girlfriend’s (now my wife) house at 4:00 AM one morning and him threatening to hire gangsters to come after me.

Almost everyone who has been teaching in Korea for a while has a hagwon horror story – it’s just part of the experience I guess.

At a hagwon you’re usually looking at provided housing (normally shared with one or two other teachers) for a 12 month contract with airfare to Korea taken care of. You’ll likely be teaching 6 days a week, about 30 hours a week. There is often a split schedule where you work in the mornings and evenings but not in the afternoons. Pay is generally around 2 million KRW/month – recently the exchange rate has been in the 1100 to 1200 KRW / 1 USD range. People sending money home to pay off loans or whatever need to worry about exchange rate fluctuations. You can save a lot of that salary if you want because taxes are low and cost of living can be quite low, especially outside of the big cities. You usually get a week for vacation.

If you have some teaching experience and a graduate degree you may be able to land yourself a university job. Here the salary is about the same on average but the teaching load is more like 15 hours per week. Normally you’re looking at a much better schedule, often 4 days a week. Vacation will be 3-5 months and it is paid so not only do you get the travel experience of living in a foreign country but you get some time freedom to travel during the summer and winter as well. Universities usually offer housing (not shared) but many do not pay for your flight. Also, many do not do phone interviews so teachers already in Korea have more options.

Note also that salaries vary widely from the average. I have a friend who was making 10 million KRW / month at a hagwon because the owners gave him a percentage of the tuition. He eventually gave that up to make 2.5 million /month at a university for the better hours and vacation time. Professors at the bigger name universities will usually get closer to 3 million / month and sometimes far more depending on experience. The salary can be augmented by teaching private lessons where it’s hard to pin down an average but most people charge between 25,000 KRW and 100,000 KRW an hour. Teaching privates is usually not allowed (by the contract you sign with your employer and by law) but it remains very common.


Whether you do it for a few months or for your whole life, teaching EFL can be a rewarding way to experience other cultures.

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  1. Sharon says:

    Very interesting article. Not sure if you mentioned it or not, but I’m wondering if you had to be fluent, or just familiar, with the Korean language? If so, where and how did you get that training? Since the students are South Koreans, I would think you would need to speak and understand their language. Also,how long are the contracts? With paid vacation time and a good salary for hours worked, the job certainly has great benefits.

  2. James Trotta says:

    Contracts are almost always 1 year in Korea. Korean language is not required and not even expected.

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