A few things you should know before signing up for that TEFL certificate

I was somewhere in France when I decided I wanted to give teaching English abroad another go. The way I committed to the decision was to sign up for a TEFL certification. It had been years since I’d taught abroad before and I knew the market had changed, that a TEFL certificate was now required for many teaching jobs, and I also knew putting some time and money into my decision would make it that much more real.

Thing is, though, I knew that I already qualified for many teaching jobs abroad, that a TEFL certificate would help, but that I also belonged there. But…not everyone does. This isn’t a judgment I’m making. The fact simply is that a TEFL certificate will not be enough for most jobs, that it should be viewed more as a bonus to your CV rather than a qualification in its own right.

Let me put it this way: when I arrived for my first TEFL certification class it became clear that, out of about twenty of us, only five or six would ever qualify for a meaningful job teaching English abroad. And, in fact, as far as I know, only four or five of us actually did do any teaching abroad.

So, if you’re considering teaching English abroad and planning to do a TEFL certification, read on before signing up.

Nearly all (good) TEFL jobs require a degree

Remember how I said it became clear that fully three quarters of the people in my TEFL certification class would never teach abroad? That’s because that was the number of people who did not have a university degree. It seems to be a fairly common misunderstanding that a TEFL certificate is the main or even sole requirement for teaching English abroad. Even a good friend of mine, upon hearing about my experiences teaching in Bangkok, said maybe he’d give it a try, too. It felt rather terrible having to tell him that, given he didn’t have a university degree, he simply wouldn’t qualify for any good jobs.

Now, are there some people who do teach English abroad without a degree? Sure. A few countries have different requirements (Taiwan, for example, accepts associate degrees from the US), but most people without a degree simply work under the table, meaning illegally, meaning for schools or companies that are willing to hire teachers without a degree. And what kind of schools or companies are willing to do this? Usually bad ones. So is it possible? Yes. Is it advisable? No. Especially not if you’re actually serious about teaching English abroad.

Simply put, many if not most countries where you might want to teach English abroad require a degree as part of the work visa process. Without a degree you cannot get a work visa for that country. In some cases your degree must have been obtained at a university in an English-speaking country (more on this in a moment), and some jobs will even require a specific major, though this is rare.

And, remember that, even if a country does accept teachers without a degree, you’ll likely be up against applicants who do have a degree and, well, guess who has the better shot at a job? In fact, these days, some jobs even require CELTA certification or a Master’s degree.

You might think that, well, if these things are a requirement for teaching abroad they should also be a requirement for the TEFL certification course but, uh, no. They’ll take your money either way and then tell you during the course that, sorry, you probably won’t be able to find a job in Korea or Vietnam or Malaysia or China or whatever. They aren’t trying to cheat you (they don’t know if maybe you plan to get a degree later, or maybe you’re getting your TEFL for other purposes), but nor are they going to warn you ahead of time.

Bottom line, if your goal is to teach English abroad but you don’t have a degree, don’t bother with the TEFL; it simply won’t be enough and you’re better off saving your money.

Your passport and citizenship matter

Out of the fifteen or so people in my TEFL certification class who I figured would never teach abroad, three of them would be out of luck due to their passports. Though I do think it’s unfair, many countries require that foreign teachers of English have passports from one of the “Big Seven” countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, or the US. If your English is flawless but your passport is Indian…unfortunately, you likely won’t qualify for many TEFL jobs. Just as with the university degree, this citizenship requirement is for the actual work visa, and so it is a requirement set by the country and not the school. So, not only do you need a degree, not only does that degree have to have been obtained in an English-language university and/or in an English-speaking country, but your yourself need to be from and have a passport from an English-speaking country.

I personally don’t think this particular rule is fair, given that there are plenty of people from other nations who speak excellent English (and plenty of people from the above-mentioned countries who speak execrable English), but the fact remains that if you don’t have a passport from one of the above countries you may want to save your money and skip the TEFL certification classes.

The course itself will not teach you to be a teacher

Okay, so you have a degree and your passport is from one of the countries mentioned above and you still want to get your TEFL certificate so as to learn to be a teacher. Uh, yeah…that likely won’t happen. If you have the primary requirements (the ones I talk about in the first two points) then getting a TEFL certificate is a good idea. It will absolutely look good on a CV, might help you get a job, and may even be a requirement for some jobs (more on that in a moment), but it will almost certainly not teach you to be a teacher. Most TEFL courses are designed to be an overview of what it’s like to teach abroad. You’ll be given a few good ideas and teaching tools (I learned an ice breaker activity there that I still use to this day), you’ll also be given some info on requirements for certain popular destinations, and you’ll likely discuss aspects of culture shock and other things to consider before pursuing life in another country.

But, no, you won’t come out of it a fully formed and qualified teacher. During my TEFL certification course we spent about an hour on lesson planning and we each presented two lessons, meaning a total of about an hour of actual teaching practice. This is a good intro but it is not enough to actually learn about what it is to be a teacher.

Again, a TEFL certificate is worth getting, but mainly as a qualification to slap onto your CV, not necessarily for what you’ll learn there.

If you want a program that will actually teach you the craft of teaching, look into the CELTA.

Not all TEFL certifications are created equal

Okay, you have a degree, you’ve got a passport from an English-speaking country, you fully understand that a TEFL certification will not make of you a ready-to-rock teacher, and so you’re now ready to select your TEFL certification program. And now you realize that, woah, there’re a lot out there.

Firstly, you should know that TEFL and TESOL are essentially the same thing. One stands for Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and the other for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Technically these are different, as the TESOL can apply to teaching expats or new arrivals in your own country, for example, while TEFL is more specific to teaching abroad. If the latter is your goal, stick to a program that includes the acronym TEFL, specifically. That said, I have seen many job postings that lump both TEFL and TESOL together as a requirement or valued qualification. So it seems many employers see them as largely equivalent to each other.

You might notice, however, that many TEFL programs specify a certain number of hours. Most common are around 80, 100 or 120. This may matter a great deal to some employers (particularly in Vietnam, in my experience) and may even be a specific requirement. For example, my TEFL certification program was for 100 hours but to be considered for a few jobs I needed 120 hours, and so I did an additional online module worth 40 hours, bumping me up to 140 (and giving me a “specialization in teaching Business English” that I could add to my CV). So, when in doubt, take the course that offers the greatest number of hours possible, usually 120 but don’t dip below 100.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, a 120 hours sounds like a lot. How can you possibly fit that into your schedule? Well, first of all, the in class component of your TEFL certification course will almost certainly be done on weekends, over the course of four to six weeks. This will only account for a portion of those 100 or 120 hours, while the rest will be done via online modules. In fact, the online stuff will likely make up most of those hours. Rather hilariously, the modules will not take nearly as long to complete as the “hours” they are worth. For example, I completed the 40 hour module mentioned above in about three hours. But go ahead a rack up those hours because some schools do care about them.

However! Do not bother with a TEFL certification course that is 100% online! I don’t mean covid-born Zoom-based courses, those should be fine (it’s how I did my CELTA), but courses in which you simply answer questions and never interact with an actual human instructor should be avoided. They are a waste as they are simply not viewed as an equivalent to a course that includes at least some classroom component. Believe me, some job postings will even specify that they don’t accept TEFL certificates earned 100% online, regardless of the hours. Again, is it possible to find schools that will accept them? Sure. But if you’re serious about this, better do it right and keep your options open.

Your search will also likely turn up programs with different names like the aforementioned CELTA but also Trinity and maybe a few others. CELTA and Trinity are far more intensive and serious courses. They are viewed as the top TEFL certifications available to beginners and teachers with little to no experience. They are also far more expensive and demanding. My suggestion would be to start with a 120 hour TEFL, give teaching abroad a shot, and if you decide you want to pursue it as a serious career, get the CELTA. Another reason to get the CELTA is if you’re nervous about teaching and want to learn some actionable and usable skills that will come in handy in the classroom.

Use it as an opportunity to learn

This may seem odd because, well, why else would you be taking this TEFL certification course if not to learn. But, as I said, the information covered will be very basic and so you’ll need to put some effort into learning some valuable and usable stuff. Your instructor should be someone who has taught abroad (if not…uh, maybe ask for your money back) and so will know what it’s like. Ask them specific questions about specific aspects of teaching and living abroad. Start with things that might be on your mind, things you’re worried or curious about, but here are a few topics you should ask about:

Dealing with culture shock and living in a country where you don’t speak the language. Whether you’ve travelled a lot or not, living in another country is a whole ’nother beast. Your instructor can give you examples of situations they’ve had to deal with, tips on how to prepare, maybe a few things to expect.

Classroom management. This is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching: keeping students engaged and dealing with disruptions. Your instructor will likely go through this but, whatever they offer, ask for more. It’s important and will come up during interviews, too, so having a ready made answer despite a lack of experience will be critical.

Educational games and activities. You’ll almost certainly be teaching children or younger teens, especially at the beginning of your career, and so a good selection of classroom games and activities will be a life saver. And, honestly, games are great with any age group. As I said, I still use an ice breaker activity I learned in my own TEFL certification classes. So, however many games and activities your instructor shares with you, ask for more.

Deal with stage fright. It may seem odd but if you’ve never taught in front of a class before, it can be nerve wracking, no matter the age of your students. So volunteer to present in front of your fellow TEFL certificate chasers as often as possible.

Focusing on these aspects of teaching abroad while doing your TEFL certification will help in the long run. View your instructor as a resource for insight and ideas, someone who has been there and done that and can tell you what worked for them specifically, preferably with examples. They have a set number of topics they have to run through, but asking for more dealing with the topics above will better prepare you for your first time teaching English abroad.

In the end, if you have a degree and a passport from an English-speaking country, I do recommend getting a TEFL, as long as you view it primarily as an extra qualification to pad your CV and an opportunity to question and learn from your instructor. If you have any other questions, let me know!