5 lessons I've learned in my 5 years of TEFL


It all started five years ago.

In May 2011 I quit my job in London and completed my English teaching CELTA certificate.

Since then I have:
  • Spent a year living in Buenos Aires, three in Mexico and 2016 in Spain. 
  • Taught personal classes, in company classes, in schools, academies and in universities.
  • Given classes to 6 year olds and 76 year olds.
  • Dealt with near-illiterate adults and 9 year olds who can hold a conversation.
  • Taught students from as far afield as Botswana, Hungary and Thailand.
  • Helped students improve career prospects by passing English exams.
. . . and I've probably put some people off English for life. 

Here are five important lessons I have learned in my five years teaching:


1. Get to the heart of the matter:

It is important to know what is central to the job, as there are so many different types of jobs within TEFL. What can you bring to the job, and what will you get out of it?

We can all get carried away with the conditions of each job - the pay, the hours, the paperwork, but the best package doesn't always make for the most rewarding job.

It is common to hear about teachers going to Saudi for the money, or because they pay for your Masters Degree, but I have yet to meet or even read about one single teacher who enjoyed it. If you are going to spend two years of your life in a desert for an extra $15k a year, then you value your time very cheaply.

At the core of each teaching post are the students' goals and motivations, and understanding what you can bring to the table will help you to select a role right for you.

  • Shaping a small part of the development of a significant number of students is best done in a school classroom.
  • If you want a mentoring type role, then one to one classes are a great option.
  • If you want a support network of teachers to bounce ideas off which can help you improve, then working in a bigger department is essential.
  • Helping disadvantaged students can be rewarding even though they show slower progress.
  • And if you want to see fast progress, challenge yourself and work with advanced levels, then teaching adults is for you.

I pride myself on being adaptable, but the jobs I have enjoyed most were not necessarily the best looking on paper.


2. Countries are complex:

Countries are different, areas within countries are different and above all, jobs are different.

I often get questions like "What is teaching English like?" as if one person's experience can sum up a whole industry. It is a bit like being asked "What is Italian food like?"

Well, there is a huge difference between ordering fresh pasta prepared in Florence and eating Heinz ravioli from a tin.

Whilst you can categorize TEFL markets to some extent (Spain is mostly kids and teens preparing for Cambridge exams), countries are too complicated to talk about as whole entities.

Schedules, facilities, attitudes, people, cost of living and the culture of places are so different in different part of each country, you just can't generalise. The UK is linguistically, ethnically and religiously quite homogeneous. Working in countries where this is not the case will challenge your perception of nationality.

People always want the simple answer . . . "How's Spain?", well it depends where you are!

Spain has five languages, two independence seeking states, islands and enclaves across two continents and is one of Europe's largest countries. It is quite varied!

It is of course important to do as much research as possible before taking the plunge, but there is no substitute to being on the ground and getting to know a place. Here are my thoughts on getting into the profession.


3. Career or career break?

In short, it depends what you want it to be. While I think TEFL probably starts out as a career break for most people, employers in other sectors probably won't value the time you spend abroad teaching, so get busy teaching, or get off the bandwagon!

With such a high turnover of staff many English teaching jobs are not aimed at enticing good professionals to develop their skills and stick around for a number of years. The nature of work abroad means that the droves of college graduates and career-breakers are willing to take up short term posts and companies are keen on keeping wages low and continuing the recruiting cycle rather than creating a more stable industry. This article offers an interesting viewpoint.

Like any career, TEFL is something that you have to throw yourself into if you want to progress. There are plenty of opportunities to network at events, and take courses for professional development. I have dabbled in publishing and translation as an way to make extra money, and these are just some of the paths you can take to branch out of the TEFL tree. Unfortunately, blogging hasn't turned out to be too profitable yet!

Many teachers worry about getting 'trapped' in TEFL. This is the situation where you lack the experience to do anything else but can't change jobs due to low wages and living costs. I would say that you are responsible for managing your own career development and finance. It is possible to comfortably support yourself as a teacher, and even save, but it is certainly not a career for making a lot of money.


4. The highs and the lows:

Living and working abroad without a large support network will provide you with the highest highs and the lowest lows.

In the last five years I have probably met triple the number of people that I had in the 25 years before that. 

You can build up a group of wonderful friends all over the world, and your outlook and personality will undoubtedly be positively affected by these people. It is immensely gratifying to share experiences and your culture with others, but you have to be wary that you feel more open to different mindsets, you might find those at home become more closed.

The downside can be that your acquaintances are fleeting and you can't connect in your relationships as deeply as you can with those who know every line from Alan Partridge or who the hell Rick Waller is.

Another high for me has been overcoming the challenge of living abroad. Whether you are learning the language, trying to socialise or just getting through the paperwork, making it work in another country will make you feel like you are capable of anything.

Teaching pupils (those not learning through choice), can be difficult. I certainly don't blame teenagers for wanting to be outside kicking a football around rather than practising listening exams in a classroom. Teaching will certainly test your patience, especially in those jobs where you are effectively a badly paid babysitter. Parents seem much more willing to pay others to bring up their children and the children nowadays have a greater awareness of their own power. I have read about many teachers who struggle with problem students because parents act solely like customers and push all of the blame back onto the school.

Some low points for me have been seeing how unjust the world can be. If you are born a white English speaking male, you have won the life lottery. Being English natives allows us the opportunity to travel and soak up the world, but I have encountered so many good people whose situation at birth have taken their options away. Sitting through 100 presentations about Mexican students' dream lives brought me to tears because they were all incapable of wanting more than they had. Ignorance is not always bliss.


There is one thing that makes all of this worthwhile. The students of course! They can drive you mad but I do genuinely get a great satisfaction from affecting these little buggers' lives, I can tell you.

I feel like I have more impact on the world every day, than I did in all of my years crunching advertising research numbers.

Students progress slowly when learning a foreign language. However, English is taught through games, dynamic class activities and through a huge variety of topics. As an English teacher, you have a unique opportunity to teach life lessons to your students.

Teaching about history, different cultures and problems they might encounter will give you the feeling that you're really helping these little people develop their minds. And they will teach you plenty too.

Some of my ex students are starting new lives in other countries, speaking to foreigners for the first time and some are even the first family member to graduate university.


The future: 

This summer I will be working in the UK, then heading back to Spain in September to start  a new job in Pamplona.

I can't say if I'll still be teaching in five years, but I have no plans to stop just yet. Next year I'll be taking a Spanish qualification as another string to my bow and may look to take a further English teaching qualification after that.

My next stop will be a trip through Belgium, Holland and Denmark to see some friends before heading back to England for the summer.