What’s TEFL Really Like? 5 Uncomfortable Truths


 ‘What’s TEFL really like?’ is one of the most commonly searched terms on Google for TEFL.  It seems like a lot people are wary – and why shouldn’t they be? Promises of money, travel, beaches, and an exotic lifestyle often seem too good to be true.  What’s more, the internet is full of adverts suggesting you can ‘live like a king teaching English in Thailand’, often from companies that want you to buy their training course. So let’s get down to brass tacks. Here’s some of the honest issues you may face as a TEFL-er. 

1. It’s true you can earn good money, but it comes at a cost.

So in our neck of the woods (SE Asia, as it happens) there’s this idea that earning $20 an hour in a country with low living expenses suddenly makes you a millionaire. While it’s true that it’s much more than the local wage, it doesn’t mean you’ll be a rockstar. You’ll have a comfortable life and you’ll put away money, but life can also be expensive. Visa costs, airfares home, and even visa runs can be a heavy burden. And if, after a few years, you no longer want to eat $0.50 street food because it’s made you sick more times than you can remember, or you want high quality health insurance because too many of your friends have had their legs broken on a motorbike, or you want your own apartment and not a shared house, then your costs will continue to rise. You’ll still live comfortably, but it’s not the luxurious existence it seems like when you first arrive. And in fact, you can also end up doing very poorly if you’re not smart with your money. That’s why even though you can earn well, and save well, it’s not an unlimited cash cow. 
The same goes for Europe, too. You might find that at first, when you’re just visiting for a year or so, that life is cheap and you feel well-off, although probably less so than in Asia. Really though, there’s a difference in the cost of living well for a few years, and creating a life in a new country. Creating a new life, and making TEFL your career, means you’ll have to put in work, and you’ll have to plan for the future, which requires more savings. To get into the premier positions, like Academic Management, you’ll also have to invest in your qualifications – and Delta or an MA in TESOL ain’t cheap. 

2. People can judge you harshly

This is one we really, really don’t like, but it comes with the territory. Unfortunately, while many teachers are hardworking, professional and dedicated, there are always a few who spoil it. These teachers are usually as bad as the centers – which pay cash in hand and don’t ask for any commitment or qualifications. The only people who suffer really are the students, and the professionals whose reputation is damaged. Meeting these people can be almost as infuriating as being mistaken for one of these people, and it does happen. 
So the thing is, as a result of the few bad apples, it’s common for people to judge you when you mention you’re an English teacher, in Asia especially. Among the judgments we’ve read and heard are that ‘English teachers can’t do anything else’, ‘they just get paid because of their skin colour’, ‘they earn too much’, ‘they’re lazy, drunken backpackers’, ‘English teachers are losers’, ‘it’s not a real job’, and a host of others.
It’s really a shame, because all kinds of people teach. Hardened sales professionals who want a career break, schoolteachers who want to experience a new environment, office workers who want a career change, and plenty more. We once met an ex-CEO, with a top MBA, and presumably a large enough income to retire, who was travelling across Asia and teaching English for a few years. There are plenty of people who teach EFL for satisfaction and experience, not to make a quick dime, and certainly not because they ‘can’t do anything else’. The truth is though, you may have to argue this point with some of the people you may meet. It’s just the way it goes. 

3. You have to start from the bottom, just like everything else

Just like any other profession, you can’t start at the top. You need to put in some groundwork. Weirdly though, most of us who come to teach English and stick around for a while find ourselves promoted to higher positions pretty quickly. High labour turnover, combined with booming demand and lack of supply, means that if you put in a year of hard work, you might be able to take a step into management. But remember, it’s just that, a step.
Some people you see, assume they’ll be headteacher of an international school within a year, and that’s a common promise that we see on some courses, of excellent, lightning-quick career progressions in outstanding companies. Really, while your TEFL certificate or CELTA will set you up well for a career in education, and a year of experience will get you farther than in other industries You’ll have to start like everyone else – at the bottom of the ladder. What does this mean? Well working jobs that aren’t fun while you get to know the market, or feeling out different companies, age groups, and class types. Some of our friends had to start out in classes of  up to 50 pre-school aged kids, with no resources, in 40-degree heat, and no air conditioning. Luckily, they were able to transition out of that pretty quickly, after they gained a little experience and knew what else was on offer.
What we’re saying is remember not to set your sights too high, too early. You might have to slug it out at some less than ideal jobs for a while until you know what you want and where to get it.

4. You might end up in a location you don’t like.

We don’t want to be too negative, but this is the reality of teaching English abroad. Some of us can get work in our dream location, and some of us take a gamble on anywhere and end up loving it. Equally, if you take a chance on a new city, it can always go wrong.  You could find an excellent job in a town you’ve never lived in, and then when you get there it’s a poor place to live. What’s more, going through an agency can sometimes mean you’re farmed out to somewhere you didn’t really want to be. Some people sign a contract to work in a capital city, then find out they’re actually 50km out in a rural area. This is all part of the gamble.

On the flipside though, if you really don’t like it, you can look for work elsewhere, or try another location. The point is, it takes some time and some experience to know what you want and where to find it. This really depends on you, because some people fall in love with places that others hate. If you’re thinking about taking a gamble on a new place you’ve not been before, just make sure you read the fine print in your contract about your working address, and don’t sign up for more than a year at first. 
NB: While we’ve focused on the fact that you could end up somewhere you hate, don’t feel too discouraged. It’s a risk, but you could luck out. You could end up in a small town, in the far north of Malaysia, which turns out to be unspoiled paradise. You could find a Turkish village you never want to leave, or a sprawling Asian metropolis that you love to get lost in. The risk is part of the adventure.

5. It’ll be worth it

So we’ve painted quite a bleak picture in a lot of ways. You’re probably envisioning yourself broke, lying in a shack in rural China being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and snacking on plain rice with soy sauce for every meal. We want to tell you that really, that’s possible, although unlikely.
What we really want to say here is don’t believe the adverts that promise you paradise. You won’t hit the jackpot financially and you won’t necessarily be living out your days on a tropical island. In reality, teaching English is a career. It’s a career with tempting benefits, good hours, and an exciting, adventurous lifestyle. It’s a career that can make your life more interesting, and your work more fulfilling. But it’s not exempt from downsides – now if you can handle those downsides, and be realistic in your expectations then you may just be ready to begin your journey. It’ll be worth it.