TEFL : 6 Things I Learned from Teaching English

Aya Kurteva

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Read Time: 6 minutes

I think one of the most daunting things about finishing university is the inevitable and all-consuming question: now what? 

We have so many options: travelling, placement jobs, masters or even starting everything from scratch again at university. I chose to do a TEFL. 

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is a teaching certificate which enables you to teach English in various schools and academies around the world. The most common one is the 120 hour certification that can be completed online. All you need is your laptop, a few extra hours a day and the willingness to learn a new skill.

Taking this step is big. You complete your online course and then what? Where do you start? How do you decide where you want to teach? What should you watch out for? There’s a lot of information online and so many different schools, I’ve compiled a list of my top tips to help answer some of these questions for you.

1. Start Straight Away

After you’ve completed your TEFL, get teaching RIGHT AWAY. There are many online teaching opportunities to help you start working from the beginning. Not only will this make you a more attractive candidate when applying for jobs in different countries, but it will also give you the skills and experiences to step into a classroom confidently. Moving to another country is an exciting experience, so imagine moving and starting a completely new job? It’s phenomenal and enriching, so try to get a head start from your laptop at home.

2. Research your schools

When you get your job offer, make sure it’s in a country where you can see yourself living. Things like public transport, cost of living and political situations really affect your quality of life. Numbeo is a great website for this, allowing you to compare and contrast your wage with cost of living. 

3. Don't be shy to ask your employer

Say you get the job offer but you want to make sure that the salary stated is before or after tax: ask! What I find helpful is to ask for the email addresses of existing teachers in that school and get into contact with them to ask about their experiences. It’s also a nice way to meet some of the people you’ll be working with before you go! Don’t forget that your employer also has a duty to you, don’t be scared to set boundaries and a precedent, trust me, it will help you form much better relationships in your workplace.

4. Immerse yourself in everything

Say YES to new adventures, foods, cultures, and people. You are not just a tourist in a new place, but you are also teaching and working in a whole new culture. Be open-minded and willing to adapt yourself to different ways of living. This was a tough one for me at first. One of the things I struggled with in México was ideas of time. Growing up in South Africa and England, you can imagine that when you have a meeting at 4pm, you are usually there five minutes early and even feel guilty if you are the last one to show up. In México, a meeting at 4pm means that you’ll see the first person at around 4.35, if you’re lucky. This applies to classes as well. I had students coming in half way through a lesson and sitting down without saying a word, like it was the most normal thing in the world. It could be easy to take offence but in Mexico, this is the most normal thing in the world. Always try to see these differences in a positive light. My students may be late but they always stay after class to chat with me and give me homemade food from their grandmothers. Be open to different ways of communication. It’s really quite beautiful.

5. Language

I’m not saying you have to be fluent in Portuguese before you go to Brazil or fluent in Korean before entering Seoul. Of course not. What I’ve learnt is that people usually appreciate the effort. Even if you can only say a few words in a given language, when you try,  it is always well received. After all, you are a language teacher. Putting yourself in your student’s shoes can only help you. For me, it was invaluable. I’d been obsessed with Spanish for a long time and spent every day trying to speak to people from my neighbourhood when I was in Mérida. It was extremely rewarding. Also, from a teaching perspective, it made it easier for me to explain certain mistakes my students were making because I could see how they were translating it from Spanish. However, I want to emphasise that this isn’t the ‘make or break’ for a good teacher. You can still be a fantastic English teacher without knowing your students’ language: things like patience, kindness and engaging lessons are far more valuable qualities when it comes to teaching.

6. Just try it

Maybe you think teaching isn’t for you because you have no idea how to explain the difference between the present simple and the present continuous. Don’t worry, I had no idea before I started either. Maybe you think that traveling for a few weeks is fine but living far away from home for an extended period of time is too much. Well, you won’t know until you try. After all, everything is just a plane ride away even if you realise it isn’t for you. I remember walking into my first ever lesson, heart pounding and sweating in the 30 degree heat. I was greeted by fifteen smiling faces who offered me iced tea that somebody’s aunt made and they told me to sit down and tell them everything I knew about Europe. Take your time. Just try it.

When I graduated from the University of Leeds, I was overwhelmed. I knew I wanted to travel but I also wanted to pave a career for myself. I thought that these were two separate things. TEFL showed me that I could do both. Of course, you can get your teaching certificate and travel for a year or two before you go down a different path; that’s the beauty of it. However, I discovered a love for teaching the minute I stepped into my first class in an English academy in Mérida, México. I spent over a year there, teaching adults and small children. I can honestly say it was the best year of my life.

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