What happens after TEFL?
April 21, 2010 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Five years out from my BA (in history, el oh el), I haven't been able to get any career traction and I'm looking at teaching English abroad as a way to get away and get a job. But what will happen when I come back and want to get a "real job"? And yes, I know that TEFL is definitely a real job--but will American employers think so?

Like the multitudes of liberal arts BAs (‘05), I’m floundering in assistantship and teaching English abroad looks like a way out—geographically and professionally—of the cycle of unemployment and underemployment. I know that I won’t be making big bucks, but I like to travel and this seems like a good thing for me right now. I enjoy teaching, I enjoy English, I’m into language-learning and linguistics, etc. But unless I plan to bum around teaching English forever (which I’m not ruling out), at some point I’d like to settle down and get a career going. Career-wise I’m pretty open (since I don’t have any significant industry-specific skills or experience) – I’d enjoy working abroad, or at home, in writing, communications, marketing, international policy, or… there are a lot of things that interest me.

My TEFL plan would be to spend a few-ish years, in a few different places, probably Europe (Western and/or Easter), Central Asia, North Africa. I’d pick up the local languages, which I can do easily, and hopefully make contacts in these places.

So my questions are:

1. How do employers view teaching English abroad? Do they see it as a slackerly waste of time—will I be right back where I started (at the bottom-most rung of whatever career I try to make my way into with a scattergun/brained work history)? Or will I be able to successfully spin some transferrable skills from it?

2. Is it possible to move laterally? For example, I just looked at a job opening for TEFL teachers at a "big" Saudi oil company -- can one get into a field/company through teaching English and then start in another direction?

3. Is teaching English abroad itself a career, meaning could I do this forever, like a nomad? Or have people leveraged their teaching positions into higher positions within education, eg, academic management or something?

4. What are things that I could do during my time abroad that would increase my employability on my return (besides learning the local languages)?
posted by thebazilist to Work & Money (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
With regard to your first question, I think most employers see programs like this for what they are: an opportunity to get out of un/underemployment and get a change of scenery, while picking up some skills along the way. Anyone worth working for knows that the economy is tough right now, and that this is a worthwhile way to spend some time. If I were looking at applicants, I would see this sort of experience as being more valuable than, say, cleaning toilets for 2 years, but less valuable than directly-applicable experience in the field for 2 years.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:54 AM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I know a number of people who taught English abroad for a few years and went on to be lawyers. Also, MeFi's Meatbomb is/was, I think, a career teacher of English--you might want to MeMail him.

As Craven points out, everyone knows the economy sucks now, and I don't think anyone is going to hold this against you. This could be a great adventure!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:01 AM on April 21, 2010

I have a relative who started out doing TEFL in Malaysia and then Germany - she is approaching her 60s now and is still in the same field (and has been in Germany for a couple of decades now). She has progressed from exclusively teaching classes to writing English textbooks, and designing and running courses to train TEFL teachers. She still does teach some classes though.

So it's totally possible to make a career of it. In general, this opportunity can be what you make of it - whatever you end up doing, make sure you spend some time noting what you're learning and how this makes you (more) awesome.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:09 AM on April 21, 2010

I know you said "besides learning the local languages" but don't underestimate how important and how difficult it could be...you'll be teaching at least 20-25 hours per week plus prep time, and there will be days when you feel you can't be bothered to then go on and study the local language but you really should and try and learn it fluently...could make a huge difference upon your return especially if it is Spanish, Arabic or Mandarin.
posted by the foreground at 9:30 AM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I only ever taught in China, so my answers might not apply to other places.

2. I've never seen people move from English education to other jobs in the same organization (a business that badly needs an in-house English teacher is not likely to be able to handle a native speaker, no-target-language employee on a day to day basis). I have seen people who were teaching English get jobs doing something else -- at least in China, lots of teachers have second jobs, and sometimes they pick up steam and become the first jobs. I've seen people open restaurants, do corporate speaking events, get into broadcasting, and other stuff -- but all at an entry level (or an investor level), and always locally. Teaching itself doesn't seem to help this process along, but it does provide some time in which to network and experiment, if your schedule's not too heavy.

3. I do not recommend doing this forever. There is always a demand for young/fun teachers, and there's always a demand for well-trained teachers: once you turn about thirty-five or forty, the other teachers your age will start to be people with actual teaching degrees from the US -- they'll be professionals who worked full-time teaching in the US, and if you're walking around with a TEFL degree, you won't be, by comparison (I don't mean any disrespect to TEFL holders, but I've seen universities take retired high school teachers and totally green 22-year olds before they a TEFL holder). The way the market is here, I think you'll always find work -- but it might increasingly turn out to be dead end work.

4. On the local languages thing (which you specifically exclude but I think is one of the only big opportunities for ESL people who don't want to do ESL for the rest of their life), don't get taken in by any 'free language learning' perks without getting specifics -- language classes vary incredibly in quality, and if they're going to make language class part of your benefits package, check the classes out as carefully as you can. Don't be afraid to fire teachers or demand more.
posted by Valet at 9:52 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to clarify -- "besides" learning local languages means "in addition to." I am way into learning local languages, and the native languages I can pick up will probably guide where I decide to go. Otherwise I'd just teach ESL here in New York.
posted by thebazilist at 10:02 AM on April 21, 2010

I've done this, and I agree with the others. I'll just note that you can't pick up languages "easily" if you're taking about fluency in languages like Mandarin or Arabic. You're not going to learn those languages in only a few years.
posted by smorange at 10:09 AM on April 21, 2010

i taught in japan right after i graduated. but i saw it as a gap year, not a career. when i came back to the US it helped because i first got a job at an asian art gallery (we dealt in some japanese art so my language skills came in handy), and then afterwards worked for a japanese company, so having worked in japan also came in handy. my current job, when i was hired, they were thinking of branching more into the japanese market, and it's an asian company, so having already worked for an asian company was a plus.

seconding the recommending not doing it forever. the people i know from the program i did who have been most successful saw teaching abroad as a gap year type of opportunity before grad school or kicking the career into gear. the people who seem to still be doing it in their late 30s and 40s are looked upon as being kind of weird. it's like seeing someone doing your campus job in their 40s for a living or something, if that makes sense.

your mileage may vary based on which country you go to and what you want to go into after. learning another language helps only if you work for a company that has need for that language in america. also, i was already very japanese-capable before moving there, living there just helped my speaking a lot. all the people i knew who didn't know japanese before moving there didn't make enough improvement (despite ambition and study) with their language skills to be of much use to a company. basic greetings and a 10 year old's vocabulary aren't going to help in the international business environment.
posted by raw sugar at 10:10 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who taught English in South America and Asia for three years before returning to North America, where she's now teaching English in university and office settings, and finding enough contracts to constitute a full-time gig. It helped that in her third year of ESL teaching ab road she got into a program involving teaching English to adults, which seems more translatable for recent emigrants in North America.

Just an FYI that teaching English in Europe is often tougher and less lucrative than in Asia. I posted some info on English teaching in France here.
posted by nicoleincanada at 11:09 AM on April 21, 2010

To clarify, the gist of that message was that teaching English can in fact be a career in your own country, if you pursue it the right way.
posted by nicoleincanada at 11:09 AM on April 21, 2010

In terms of lateral moves/earning more money/planning for the future, teaching English or not, there were two key strategies I saw people use successfully (I lived in Japan, but did not teach English):

1) move into a specialized field: do not teach kiddie English, teach in-house at companies. Move into editing. Focus on technical work. It pays better abroad and can give you experience in related work on return.

2) start your own school, either one aimed at conversation or one with a specific twist. A friend of mine started a English-class-by-skype company recently and is doing well enough to stop working as a manager at a regular English school.

Also, you will not move laterally in the same company you teach in-house, as other said. But NOTHING is stopping you from networking with other expats or with others in your target industry.
posted by whatzit at 12:46 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I taught in South Korea for three years. It was the best time of my life, and the idea that it could somehow hinder you in the future is just nuts. I came back and spent some time as a youth care worker before getting a job with the federal government. In fact, I think that it probably helped me to become a foreign service officer. I went with some close friends and one became a bank manager, one a psychologist, and two went on to become full-blown teachers. I know others who became journalists, musicians, a jeweller. It's just travel and killing time. If an employer is going to look on an experience like that with disdain it wouldn't be a job worth having.

As far as money goes, generally Asia is better. I saved up a fortune and lived like a king while in Korea. Europe can be harder, as far as I know, due to lower relative wages and a higher standard of living.

As for learning the language easily, good luck. After spending all day teaching one language (teaching is tiring as hell) the last thing I wanted to do was go to a classroom to learn a different one.

And you can definitely make a career out of it, although I think there can be a bit of loneliness with it. In certain countries you'll always be an outsider, no matter what. Leaving your home country forever is a big move, not to be taken lightly.
posted by fso at 12:53 PM on April 21, 2010

I am in Japan teaching English right now, so all of my experience is Japan-based. I work for a pretty big company that is contracted to put teachers in public schools. There is one guy in my current city who's been here for something like 10 years. At my last city there was a girl who's been here for around that much time as well (Both are married. The girl is married to a guy she met here, and I don't know about the guy). These people seem to be extremely passionate about teaching, which I think you kind of have to be to do it for that long and deal with some of the frustrations that come with it.

I am pretty sure all of the foreigners who are my higher-ups in the company (and the recruiters who interviewed me in the U.S.) started out as teachers, so there does seem to be some mobility in that regard? However, if you are trying to get into much higher positions you will (obviously) definitely need to speak the local language well.

I am having a great time here and would highly recommend it (and I plan on staying for quite a while, though whether I will continue teaching that whole time I don't know). After you've spent 6 months-a year wherever you end up, you can reexamine things and decide if you want to stay or if you're ready to go home and look for a "real" job.
posted by you zombitch at 11:07 PM on April 21, 2010

like you zombitch, I teach English in Japan, and I've been here for ten years. I also taught one year in China. One reason I'm still here, is, I think, because I've been here so long, I don't know what I would do back home. I don't know how eager an American employer would be to give a 33 year old with no work experience (other than EFL) a job, rather than a 22 year old.

That's not to say you can't make it a career. I'm good friends with several teachers in their 40's and 50's, though they all have MATESOL, and are teaching at the university level. I think, this year, I'm going to need to do the same to stay competitive, simply because there are a good number of ads that include things like 'age up to 30' in the copy.

I would, however, recommend against Japan right now. The economy, like everywhere, sucks. The thing is, in Japan, jobs like the one I'm in now, and most likely the job you zombitch is in used to pay much, much better than they do now. A good number of companies have realized that they can sell teachers like migrant laborers and get away with it. It's very much a race to the bottom in terms of salaries at the moment, so much so that some schools employ non-native teachers just so they can pay even less. And, just for fun, yesterday was the second time in two years that a large English school chain went under here. They've got roughly 2100 employees (no idea how many English teachers), and those who want to stay on will most likely get much worse working conditions under the new parent company. Those that don't will be more live bodies entering the horrifically shrunken job market. Personally, I'm working towards that 'what can I do aside from English' part of your question, and it scares the hell out of me.

tl;dr: Yes, it can be a good experience, you can develop some language skills (doubtful on fluency unless your an honest to god polymath), and experience working in a foreign culture shows that you've got some adaptive skills. Staying longer is possible, but honestly I'd recommend against it. New positions within the same company are exceedingly rare, but it's possible to gather work experience to enter another field.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:43 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

The problem with putting TEFL on your resume is literally anyone with fluency in English can do it. There's little to no vetting of teachers and overseas schools that teach English are often notoriously sketchy.

The exception might be JET, which is hard to get into and has a certain cache amongst people who are aware of it.

I took a TEFL certification course and everyone passed, including one person who could not teach (anyone who took English with her would have less accurate knowledge of it after the experience) and another who, despite her protestations that she was "English" spoke with a thick accent and was not entirely fluent.

Here's the thing: your future employability sort of stands on its own. Going abroad and teaching English is a crazy cool experience and it's not impossible that you might run into an opportunity while abroad -- say, you might become involved with a local organization that will hire you. However, largely going abroad is its own ends.

I'd absolutely skip Europe: it's relatively expensive but the pay isn't that great, and you are competing with a truckload of other people. Central Asia is probably a good choice in the sense that very few people make it out there. So many people go to Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, but few make it further inland. As far as North Africa is concerned, I can say that there are plenty of opportunities in Egypt but the pay is generally pretty lousy, although everything is cheap there and the people are warm and friendly. The Gulf states pay you very well but I've heard that the general environment there drains your soul.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:15 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

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