Why TEFL Teaching isn’t all it’s Cracked Up to Be

Aoife Smith
Apr 21 · 9 min read

Here are ten points that not everyone thinks about before making the big decision to head out into the world of TEFL.

In recent years, the rise of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) careers has been increasing rapidly with a demand to match it. Ten years ago, moving abroad to a tropical destination to teach English was considered adventurous and even dangerous, now it is associated with boozy twenty-somethings who have no idea what to do and figure that the backdrop of Thailand or China, would be better than the rainy reality they face every day.

It is a common desire now, to experience a new destination, teach English and live the lifestyle they had only dreamed of, and it’s becoming more achievable and popular by the day.

With the necessary money, getting qualified as a (TEFL) teacher is surprisingly easy. You pay between 100 and 300 euro, download your course and complete your modules. Some more difficult than others, you have unlimited attempts to pass and when you do, you get a shiny certificate through the post box and voila, you’re a qualified (TEFL) teacher!

Then the application process begins — but what’s more important is the destination. Vietnam or Korea? Spain or Mexico? The world is your oyster (unless of course, you count English speaking countries or English-equipped ones like Germany or Scandinavia). Try hard enough and you can go wherever you like.

I’ve noticed that there is a type of hierarchy which groups the people to the destination they choose.

First are the serious, solemn ones, who want to make money and do it with class — these guys usually head straight for Dubai, China or Korea where they are at the top of their game.

Secondly, is the blowouts, usually the lost people who just want some fun or an idyllic tropical experience that will help find themselves (sometimes it works, others can come back with no money and a liver more damaged than when they left) these people go to Southeast Asia, i.e. Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia — it’s cheap, the money is good and you can party.

Then, there are the toe-dippers, who want to try but don’t want an immersive experience — something close to home but diverse enough that it’s exciting, but not overwhelming. These ones stick to Europe, namely Spain, Poland or France.

Lastly are the ones that truly want to help, that want to impact other peoples lives dramatically (Not egotistical, I hope) and try to achieve it through education. These people are the best ones, the ones that started the game and usually head to more downtrodden places — like Mexico, South America or Africa.

If you know me, you’ve already guessed that I fit the slightly anxious, unsure category and teach English in Spain.

I pictured colourful buildings, copious amounts of fruit, leisurely time, wine on terraces, lots of money and little hours. I got about half of that, and it didn’t necessarily amount to the killer combination I had dreamed of.

I’ve taught English for about seven months now, and I’m not the first of my friends to get a sudden inspiration to move abroad and get away. From the other side of these itchy feet, I have learned that TEFL teaching is enormously glamourized. Between the good and the bad, there is more than just sunny landscapes and tropical weather to consider. It’s important to think twice, which is exactly what the TEFL industry doesn’t want you to do. Here are ten points that I know not everybody thinks about before making the big decision to head out into the world of TEFL.

1. Who knew the English language was so hard?

This part of the job is easily the most glazed over yet important bit. People sit through the reams of grammar modules while doing the course, but immediately forget anything that semi-made sense until facing their first class about the present perfect tense with clammy hands.

The English language is tough, and I count my blessings every day that it is my native tongue and I don’t have to think about when I should say ‘I went’ or ‘I have been’. There are so many rules that they cancel each other out, and this is the part that I ironically find the most testing in the job. It’s meticulous and time-consuming to understand myself, let alone explain to students.

2. Students frustrations are yours too.

If you slip up and contradict yourself (a common occurrence) they will sense weakness and sometimes question you more, which usually results in a lot of ‘hold on, let me see…’ while you try to think of an answer to bluff yourself out of the hole that you’re digging.

But worse than this, is watching the students growing frustrations with themselves (and with you) when they do not understand or remember. It’s often a burden shared.

3. Teaching kids isn’t so easy.

Even if you have a natural talent for children, which I admit is a minor requirement when teaching English, keeping them interested and entertained is hard-hitting. I usually leave an hour class with kids exhausted like I used to be after a ten-hour shift, and with a pounding headache.

Another problem with children is that not only can they dislike learning English, they can also refuse to speak it. If you don’t speak their native tongue it can be tricky, and you can end up with a screaming six-year-old chanting Spanish.

4. Scams are rife in this industry.

Increasing interest and partaking in TEFL courses and job-searching for jobs has, of course, led to an increase in scams, a predictable outcome of the greedy human race. I’ve heard horror stories of schools popping up and disappearing overnight, so-called companies falsely offering to reimburse flights and provide accommodation upon arrival, alleged organizers leading budding teachers down rabbit holes and long-term employees not getting paid.

Money naturally leads to corruption so watch out for any signs that don’t feel right and always verify before trusting. This investigative nature should begin upon enrolling in the chosen TEFL course, as a lot of the cheap ones can be lowgrade, also.

5. Don’t forget about ageism

Okay, nothing I have been subjected to, but from my personal research, and membership of different online platforms for teachers, ageism is widespread in the TEFL community. These schools desire perky, excited, young people who may take on more work than are willing and do it for less money than they deserve. They don’t want older, more intelligent and less impressionable people who are more likely to stand up for themselves and know their worth.

6. Travel and preparation isn’t exactly fun and games

Perhaps this one is particularly partial to me, but from what I’ve heard a lot of these jobs can involve an unprecedented amount of travel time and an unorthodox amount of preparation. I remember on my TEFL course, I learned that preparation time should take approximately twice the amount of time of the lesson itself and you should always have extra materials. And even if you do below the average amount of prep, you’re still looking at a lot of bonus unpaid hours.

If you hit the jackpot, your employer will provide you with all necessary materials, bankroll your prep time and create a workable schedule that manages your time ideally. If you’re like the majority (and me) you will spend a lot of time traveling, start from scratch and find (and pay for) your own teaching materials and have your preparation time creep into your own, unpaid, free time.

7. Not so sociable hours

For some, teaching in a school might mean school-time hours with evenings free. But often, English schools are set up to work outside of school and office hours, to fit students’ schedules after their normal working or schooling day, meaning a lot of evenings and weekends. If you think teaching is an escape from working late night hours in a bar (like me) it may be an improvement, but you find you're still working past 5 or 6 unlike your friends, and your evenings are not your own.

8. Money? What money?

The money is not as amazing as is perceived, especially in the beginning. It may be an improvement from your normal hourly wage, but with limited working hours, you’ll find your paycheck isn’t so impressive. With unpaid preparation and travel time, that number can seem even smaller.

If you get a job in the big leagues, I’m sure you will be salary-content, but those positions can be hard come by. Another consideration is tax, which can be higher than expected (especially in Spain!). For a lot of teaching jobs, the advertisements will promise an impressive monthly wage but often with tax considered and the impossible maximum hours, that number can be difficult to reach.

9. Private teaching

I used to always see private teaching as a handy side gig that would get you some easy money. When it becomes your full-time position, it gets difficult, fast. No colleagues, no manager to guide and help with queries, just you, your student and your metro card. Private teaching can be a horrible limbo in-between self-employment and no employment, ultimately being neither, with just an email address to answer to and a monthly payday. My main piece of advice when it comes to private teaching is to avoid it. Leave the private teaching as a side hustle and get yourself a school to report to every day.

10. It’s actually a little boring.

For a lot of the companies that advertise and promote teaching, you’ll find that their main selling point is escaping the reality of a 9 to 5 and moving to an exotic destination to begin a new chapter. They very rarely focus on the actual act of teaching and its day to day workings. It can be boring, and if your students don’t succeed, neither do you. This pressure may seem minuscule at first but as days progress it can become an unwanted pressure that manifests as a failure.

Ultimately, teaching isn’t for everyone, but it is a worthy experience, nonetheless.

It can be an amazing opportunity to learn a new culture and perhaps even a new language. It can be a new beginning or a much-needed break, and it can be eye-opening to meet, teach, and learn from people that you wouldn’t necessarily strike up a conversation with on the street.

It can encourage a new way of thinking, to match other minds, a time to learn about a language that is so often taken for granted.

Playing with kids is fun and talking with adults is interesting. The money isn’t all that bad and the preparation work is an informative and virtuous experience.

There are cons to every job, and lots of pros too. But with a rise of social media and the need to constantly document our lives, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing in a filtered lifestyle. We only see the best in other people’s jobs and experiences, and the glorification can leave people discontented and restless with a lifestyle they once loved.

We need to remember that everything is not as it seems and not so simple and that we should believe our research and our intuition over that one person’s photo, advertisement or experience.

Age of Awareness

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Aoife Smith

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Writer | Reader | Teacher | onebrokegal.com

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system