So you want to teach English abroad?

teacher desk

Have you ever thought about teaching English as a second language?  Maybe you know somebody who’s already doing it and you would like to know the ins and outs of how to become an ESL teacher, too.

First, some terminology:

ESL – English as a Second Language

EFL – English as a Foreign Language

Some people would argue that  EFL and ESL are different.  I’m not going to go into that here, if it’s interesting for you then you can read about it with explanations here.  To me they’re close enough to the same thing.

For consistency, I’m going to use the term ESL.


TESOL – Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages

CELTA – Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults

DELTA – Diploma of English Language Teaching to Adults

TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language

There are others.

What is ESL?

ESL is teaching English to people who don’t speak English as their native language.  Either in an English speaking country, or in a non-English speaking country.

Where do people teach ESL?

You can teach ESL anywhere in the world where there is a demand.  There are often migrants, international students, temporary workers etc. living in your English speaking country who are interested in learning, or need to learn or improve, their English.  So you don’t even have to leave home to be an ESL teacher!  Or, you can travel abroad and teach almost anywhere in the world.

Why do people teach ESL?

For many reasons.  Read about why I became an ESL teacher in Moscow here.

Some other reasons could be:

  • wanting a change of career
  • spending a year abroad after finishing school and before starting university (gap year)
  • to study a new language/culture
  • wanting to live in a cold climate (if you’re from a hot one) – or vice versa

For every ESL teacher, I think there’s a different reason to become one.  The motivation to teach ESL is not the same for everyone.

How do I become qualified?

In most cases, prospective employers will need you to have a certificate showing that you’ve completed a training course to become ESL qualified.

The most common and accepted or recognised qualification is CELTA, by Cambridge.  It’s a 4 week full-time course (120 hours) with 6 hours teaching practice.  This is the minimum you should aim for.  You should have teaching practice during your course with real students (not your classmates from the course).  If you don’t want to do CELTA because it’s too expensive, or there’s not a course in your area, look for an alternative that offers 120 hours course time and minimum 6 hours of teaching practice.

Not all 120 hour courses are equal.  Do your homework before you pay.  Things to check are if it’s accredited and by who (CELTA is accredited by Cambridge).  Find out if it is going to be accepted by employers in the country you want to go to (check current job ads for the requirements in the countries you’re interested in).

Online courses are not very highly regarded, and some language schools will not consider applicants with an online qualification.

Cheryl teaching
Here I am in Moscow teaching a fun lesson all about Australia!

What other qualifications will I need?

To be able to teach in some parts of the world, you’ll also need a university degree, minimum BA, to be able to get the working visa.  In this case, it’s the government of the country you’re going to work in that requires it, not necessarily the employer you’re going to work for (although they probably have this in their list of requirements too).

If you don’t have a university degree, there are some countries who will still give you a working visa.  However, most of Asia is out if you want to work legally (and I’m not suggesting that you work illegally anywhere).  Some places that you don’t need a degree for the visa include Mexico, Nicaragua, Argentina, Cambodia and Russia.  This might change in the future, or might have changed already, so always check this before you start making plans to move if you don’t have a degree.

If you have an EU passport, you can probably find work in the EU without a degree.

What about my passport and nationality?

As an Australian passport holder, my biggest annoyance is that I can’t get a working visa to teach English in Europe.  That’s because in European countries, employers must first look for appropriate employees from Europe before looking for people from outside Europe.

That means that all the native speakers from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are going to get the jobs before they even look at me.  And there will always be native ESL teachers from those countries who are looking for work in Europe.

The exception may be if you have specific skills, qualifications or experience in an area of expertise that is rare and that nobody else has.  In this case, the prospective employer must make a case to the authorities and prove that they’ve looked in the whole of Europe and couldn’t find anybody to fill the role.  These are usually highly paid positions in universities for teachers who have invested a lot in their careers, with professional development, Masters degrees or PhDs, and with plenty of experience.

Unfortunately that’s not about me.

I’ve read that there are different regulations in Germany, where non-European native ESL teachers can get legal work there by going through some kind of registration process and providing plenty of documents.  I can’t tell you more than that, however, because I haven’t tried.  I’m sure you can find something about it online with a specific search for teaching English in Germany.

Ok, so that’s the more practical side of things taken care of.

Next question:

Is teaching ESL the right choice for me?

You won’t get a definite answer to this question.  It depends on a lot of things.  You don’t need any teaching experience before you go into ESL teaching, but it will help if you’ve worked in some kind of teaching or training environment.  Or somewhere you’ve had to be a leader of some sort.  But a lot of different experience can transfer to teaching – being a parent, for example, is good pre-teaching experience.  Or baby-sitting, tutoring students etc.

And if you don’t have any experience except the 6 hours of teaching practice you had on your course, then you’ll learn on the job.

If you’re not comfortable speaking in front of a group of people before you start teaching, it will be hard to get used to.  For me, it was my biggest hurdle.  It took months and months of teaching to get over that fear of public speaking.

Pin me!

Do you know English grammar rules well?

If not, you’ll have to learn them.  You can’t learn everything overnight, or even before you land in the country of your new job.  You’ll probably learn most of the grammar rules on the job.  But you should make an effort to start learning the basics before you go.  During your interview, they will probably ask you some grammar questions, so you should do some preparation beforehand.  Hint – read up on ‘present perfect’, it’s a classic interview question.

Do you like a comfortable life?

If you do, then teaching English abroad may not be for you.  Living standards are often lower than in your home country.  Accommodation provided by your employer (language school or university) may not be what you’re used to, eg. limited facilities in the kitchen, or you may have to share a flat with another teacher.  Or you may have to rent a room in a flat with strangers.

Public transport may be crowded and dirty, or simply uncomfortable.  You probably won’t have a car to get around in.

Some other things to consider:

  • You may have to travel a bit, or a lot, every day to your students, with no compensation for travelling time.
  • You might not be able to find your ‘comfort food’ in your new country.  (I craved a simple sausage roll and hot chips with salt and vinegar when I first left Australia – now I crave different foods)
  • You may not be able to effectively communicate in situations like shopping, cafes and restaurants, buying public transport tickets etc.
  • You may have ‘split shifts’ – that is lessons in the morning (sometimes very early), then a few hours break before you teach in the afternoon or evening.  This can mean 12-14 hour days (from the start of the first lesson to the end of the last one).  Sometimes you won’t have time to go home for a rest, so you’ll spend a lot of time on park benches or inside cafes.
  • You may have to take public transport home late in the evening after your last lesson.  In a previous school I worked in, the last lessons finished at 10.20pm.  Fortunately I live in a safe city, where women are not harassed in public transport and it’s quite usual for women to be walking home alone at all hours of the evening without any problems.
  • You probably won’t be able to watch your favourite ‘local’ TV programmes/series (‘Neighbours’ anyone?).  Of course, this is becoming less of an issue because everybody watches things online these days.
  • Cultural differences like the amount of personal space, ‘queuing systems’ (people pushing in), ‘blame culture’ (blame/no blame/no responsibility), lateness (acceptable or not), level of politeness in social/public situations, to tip or not in cafes/taxis….the list is endless.

What will my salary be?

Your salary will be the same or more than the locals earn.  It might be a lot more depending on your location.  You will even be ‘rich’ in some places!  However, it may not convert well to your home country’s currency.  If the cost of living is low in your ‘new’ country, your salary will be low, too, even though it might mean you’re ‘rich’ in the eyes of the locals.  So, if the cost of living is high in your home country, it’s going to be difficult to earn enough to travel home regularly, to buy things at home, to pay off student loans, to support family back home, to pay your mortgage back home etc.  So don’t look at teaching ESL as a way of becoming rich.  I don’t think any of us do it for the money.

Some things you can research before you go, but others you will only find out after you get there.  You can’t prepare for all the differences or difficulties you will face in your new location.  So you should be ready for anything and be prepared to ADAPT and ACCEPT the differences you will experience, and the new rules (legal and social) that you will be living by.

It’s not easy.  Even after 11 years it’s not easy.  But if you are open to change, differences in people’s behaviour, different mind sets, and are prepared to lower your expectations and standard of living, you might just make a good candidate for teaching ESL abroad.

If you think that English teaching abroad is for you, go and take a look at my post about applying for jobs, CVs, and tips for interviews.

Have you been offered a job teaching English abroad?  Here’s how to prepare for the visa application and leaving your home country for your new adventure!

I hope to elaborate more in future posts about the ups and downs of teaching English abroad.  There’s so much to know about teaching ESL!   Please send me any questions you have, either in the comment box below or by email

I hope to hear from you soon!

~ Cheryl

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Author: Cheryl

I'm an Australian woman who is now living in a village in rural Bulgaria. I lived for 12 years in Moscow, Russian Federation, working as an English language teacher. My current loves are my husband and my vegetable garden.

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