Life After (Language Center) TEFL

language center

by Kendal Rolley

Teaching EFL overseas can be an amazing adventure. Living overseas, experiencing new cultures and meeting (and teaching) amazing people are all ways to live a rich and fulfilling life. However, at some point, nagging doubts can start set in.  What about my future? Is this the life I want to always live?  What happens if I get sick?

For some of us,  the perception from family and friends back home that we are living some sort of ‘Peter Pan’ lifestyle can get very tiresome and frustrating.

While the desire and need for English instruction continues to grow across the world, so does competition. Competition leads to lower wages, leading to a poorer quality of the life we had once imagined. When I first arrived in Vietnam seven years ago, demand far outstripped supply. A friend, working for NGO, even recalls receiving a telephone message asking his girlfriend to come and work at their language center. When informed that she was back in England, there was a brief pause, then a job offer for him! Now in Hanoi, the market is, if not flooded, certainly much more moist.  

This article is not meant to dissuade you from continuing to teach EFL. It’s an important job, and provides great opportunities for the lives of your students (if you do it well!)  However, I hope to provide guidance and ideas for those of you who are worried about your future and wonder – what does life after (Language Center) TEFL look like?

Mostly, the biggest thing I hope you take away from this article is that there is no magic solution. Your future after Language Center TEFL will probably require you to put in extra time, effort, and money – at some point.

Career Opportunities

I have put together this chart to show common career pathways that I’ve experienced from friends and colleagues. The chart above is not meant to represent everyone’s experience, however from my knowledge of the post-TEFL pathways, this expresses my experiences with a few exceptions. For example, my friend and former boss Andy got his Masters in TESOL while working as the manager of a bilingual school, worked for language centers at a time while obtaining his DELTA, and has ended up in the management of a TESOL program at a solid university in New Zealand. Another ‘loophole’ has been teachers I’ve known at step 2A offering their services as substitute teachers at Upper Tier international schools and using that to bypass Step 2B completely.

The ‘Lower Tier’ universities represented in Step 2 can be deceptive. Having interviewed for such in China, I found that there had been multiple PhD applicants. I was told that speaking the language, having publications and emphasizing my focus on teaching rather than research may have won me the spot, which is reflected in the chart.  

As someone who is involved in hiring at a bilingual school (and often hires language center TEFL teachers looking for the next step of their career), I can tell you that subject focus is important. Often these schools, like mine, have pathways leading to GCSE or SAT qualifications – we look for a recognition of the challenge of teaching these subjects from candidates.  There are a few other things I look for in a candidate. Firstly, a clearly defined passion for subject area. Secondly, a sense of willingness to move beyond the clock-in / clock-out mentality of many language centers and understand that this is a school community. It’s especially helpful if you have another skill to bring, whether it be coaching debate, basketball or any other passion that may resonate with students. Lastly (and this is the largest issue I’ve faced with teachers transitioning), to understand that there is always a way to improve ourselves, and that being a ‘rock star’ teacher in a language center is not enough on its own in a school environment.

I hope to write a future post that explains, in more detail, some advice for places to look for career opportunities, no matter what stage you’re at in the chart above.

Some teachers, at a later stage of their careers have made a move to consulting. Jim Thompson has some advice for those moving away from EFL to consulting in his article here on TEFL magazine.

Note: *In regards to Step 3A, some international schools also require a degree in the subject being taught, rather than simply a BA

Using extra money to fund the next step

Whether thinking of relocating to another country, returning to your home country, or studying further to improve job opportunities where you are, money is often the determining factor.

For many people, even the thought of returning home is daunting from a financial perspective. Personally, I sold all my furniture when I left, and have images of myself, if I decided to come back, of lying on the carpet of a bare apartment while waiting for the money to fill the space around me. An option to gain extra money while living abroad and teaching TEFL is to find additional teaching opportunities. This could involve online teaching (although pay tends to be low). Another option is to find a tutoring/teaching niche, as discussed by Jaime Miller in a previous edition of EFL Magazine.

Depending on the country you’re in, there may even be more off-beat opportunities.  I’ve done voiceovers for Vietnam Television programming and provided the narrative voice for IELTS instruction (this is the end of Section 2…).  Friends have starred as extras in Vietnamese TV productions, been hired to take other English-speakers on tours of Hanoi, or even been paid to travel around the country, staying in 5-star resorts to test the speaking abilities of their staff.  Unfortunately, probably because they’re so fun, none of these have really been exactly ‘high-paying’.

If you’re willing to accept that you’ll be extremely busy for a period of time, and you have an end-date in mind, it is possible to get through an intense period of extra work. A friend worked seven days a week in northern China for 6 months (his day job in an international school combined with extra tutoring) and used the cash he saved to fund the next step in his life, which involved him returning home for a time.

Depending on where you’re from, you may find ESL opportunities back home.  Also depending on where you’re from, this may be a financially rewarding career.

Glassdoor states that the average ESL teacher salary in the United States is around $47,000 USD per year, however this can vary wildly depending on where you’re planning to be.  In Australia, the average figure of AU$72,000 listed by payscale.com.au should be taken with a grain of salt as it includes registered teachers working within the Australian education system – the salaries paid by companies like Berlitz and Education First tend to range more between $37,000 and $42,000 AUD per year. The good news is really for those of you hailing from the United Kingdom, while TEFL jobs pay between a measly £3,000 up to £30,000 per year – there are programs designed to use your TEFL experience (and degree) and train you to become a fully qualified teacher in the British education system, while paying you to do so.  

Extra study can cost a lot of money, and even countries with subsidized or helpful university repayment options can stop being so friendly if you’ve been overseas for a while, and are no longer officially a resident. With the rise in externally-delivered online university qualifications, there’s never been an easier time to study while working. I’ve had friends here in Vietnam who have juggled families, work and extra study. They’ll be the first to tell you it’s not easy. But they all, without exception, got through it, and have gone on to get higher paying jobs, with excellent benefits. I studied my Masters of Applied Linguistics (part-time) via a highly-reputable Australian university while living and working full-time in Vietnam. In fact, the amount of real-life research and case studies I had access to here made me wonder how anyone could do a course like this while not studying abroad.  The paperwork was easy, the expectations clear, and while demanding at times, I didn’t have to physically go anywhere in order to complete it.  

I’d recommend trying to save the full amount for the course before embarking on it. That way, you won’t have to be pressured both financially and academically – one is enough at a time.  Once starting, gaining the qualification needs to be prioritized over work, as much as is financially possible for you in your situation.

Other ways of building your CV

It’s very common for a TEFL teacher to learn a bit of the language of the place they’re living, often just enough to get around. As a native-English speaker, it’s certainly easier to pick up the language if living somewhere where the lingua franca is a Latin-based one. However, you may find, depending on where you are, that the amount of TEFL professionals who speak it fluently is much, much lower. The opportunities for higher-paying management work as someone who speaks the language fluently (and thus understands working culture, etc. more) can be astronomical if you are willing to put in the effort and time.  

Free online courses offered by places like coursera or futurelearn have debatable direct value in terms of future employment.

However, they are also free, unless you decide to purchase certificates of completion. They can also send signals to a potential employer about your willingness to improve yourself. I did a course on intercultural communication and found it extremely relevant to staffroom life. On its own, it’s probably not going to be the thing that makes an employer choose me over someone else. However, it sends a tangible message that I understand the need for cultural understanding in a bilingual work environment, something which can concern future employers. This also applies to courses that may also apply to administrative skills, or generally demonstrating you understand Excel and Google equivalent ‘Sheets’.

If you’re further along in terms of study, you may find that publishing could be an option for you.  That’s what I’m doing right now, with this article, trying to build my CV. Those of you with post-graduate qualifications may find success in the world of academic journals. TEFL sites are always looking for writers to help others in the industry with methodology or experience-based articles. It’s also not just about writing them, but reading them, that can help you to survive and thrive in the interview process with a knowledgeable TEFL professional who is wondering whether or not to employ you.  

Overall, the best way to build your CV is to strive to be excellent at whatever stage of your career you’re at. Mostly, institutions will recognize someone who works hard, puts in extra work, and shows flexibility. This will lead to more opportunities and strong references.

Have you made the transition out of TEFL, or can think of more advice to share? Please write your experiences below!