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Teaching English as a Foreign Language

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As the name suggests, a teacher of English as a Foreign Language teaches English overseas to children and/or adults wishing to learn the language. These teachers are very often, although not exclusively, on a gap year or volunteering placement. As a result, they tend to be young, with the majority in their late teens or twenties.

Teachers of English as a Foreign Language provide both children and adults in other countries with an invaluable tool that will last a lifetime. It is helpful, particularly in developing countries where tourism may be in its early stages, for people to be able to speak good English. As well as helping others, there are less altruistic reasons for becoming a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. Many individuals who intend to become teachers in the UK choose to go abroad for a short while to develop their teaching skills. This experience can prove to be priceless when applying for either a PGCE course or a teaching job.

There is no reason why both sexes cannot become teachers of English as a Foreign Language but the ratio tends to be slightly more female-orientated. This may be because females often have more of a social conscience than males and so are more likely to spend gap years volunteering and helping others, rather than trekking through the Sahara!

Unlike teachers in British schools, teachers of English as a Foreign Language educate people in a variety of environments. In some developing countries, classrooms as we know them in the UK simply do not exist. Therefore, teaching may take place outside or in the private accommodation of the teacher or student.


The salary for teachers of English as a Foreign Language will vary greatly from job to job. Various factors influence the rate of pay, including the economic status of the country and the number of hours worked per week. The i-to-i TEFL website states that individuals can earn up to £1000 per month. However, many teachers of English as a Foreign Language receive no pay and, after paying for flights, vaccines and placement fees, actually end up paying thousands of pounds to teach in a different country.


Teachers of English as a Foreign Language must:

  • Research and prepare lessons. There is no curriculum to obey and teaching materials are sometimes non-existent so this can be a time-consuming part of the job
  • Teach lessons to students in a range of age-groups
  • Organise extra-curricular activities, such as sports groups
  • Be prepared to offer private tuition to enthusiastic individuals
  • Be prepared to become an integral and active part of the local community, particularly in developing countries


Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) qualifications can be gained during a weekend course. Individuals can choose to attend a 20 hour course that will teach English grammar and practical teaching skills. The course costs £210 and is on offer at various locations around the UK throughout the year. There is also a 40 hour course that provides 20 hours of intensive grammar training for an extra £40. For £340, you can choose the 80 hour course, which includes one-to-one guidance from a tutor. One of the most popular courses on offer is the 100 hour course. This includes a TEFL job placement service, grammar training, and one-to-one guidance. TEFL qualifications can also be gained online, through a variety of courses. There are also specialist qualifications on offer, which help individuals to develop specific teaching skills. These include ‘Teaching Business English’, ‘Teaching Large Classes’, ‘Teaching with Limited Resources’, and ‘Using Audio and Video in the classroom’.

Another qualification on offer is the CELTA (the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults). The full-time course lasts for 4 weeks but can be taken on a part-time basis over several months. The courses are on offer at a variety of locations but are all validated by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. A less popular qualification is the CELTYL (the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Young Learners). This still takes 4 weeks to achieve but those individuals who have achieved a CELTA qualification can take an extension course in just 2 weeks.



Teachers of English as a Foreign Language should be:

  • Equipped with a good grasp of grammar and the English language
  • Preferably a native English speaker (although this is not absolutely essential)
  • Enthusiastic
  • Caring
  • Confident
  • Respectful of other cultures and people
  • Resilient
  • Independent
  • Willing to rough it in living conditions different to those found in the UK
  • Able to improvise, since teaching materials may not be adequate

Working Conditions

The working conditions for a teacher of English as a Foreign Language will vary greatly depending upon the country. Teaching in Madrid is going to be a very different experience to teaching in a small village in China. Teachers located in developing countries must be prepared for long drop toilets, an absence of running water, and the local wildlife (indoors and outdoors) which often includes an unnerving array of rats, spiders, and snakes!

There are no typical hours of work for teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Some placements will demand no more than a few hours per day, whereas some teachers will find themselves on the go from the early morning until the evening.


No experience is necessary but it helps to have had previous experience working with children or large groups of people. Standing in front of a group of unruly foreign teenagers is not a good time to discover that you don’t have the confidence to take charge.


Teachers of English as a Foreign Language can choose to organise their own placement, go with a charity as a volunteer, or go with i-to-i who offers to organise a paid teaching job abroad for individuals who complete the 100 hour combined TEFL course. This free placement service attempts to locate teachers in the country of their choice.

Career Progression

There is no official career progression for teachers of English as a Foreign Language. However, they could eventually rise to a more senior position in a language school abroad, or return to the UK and teach TEFL courses. Teaching English abroad also provides a large amount of transferable skills for other careers.



Also known as…

  • English tutor

What’s it really like?

Charlotte Cook, 21, is a teacher of English as a Foreign Language and has recently returned from spending 3 months teaching in Madagascar.
Charlotte Cook

What made you decide to become a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language?

I wanted to take some time out after finishing my English degree and wanted to visit a part of the world that I had never been to. I had never taught before and thought it would be a good experience to teach English in a poor community. After spending three years living and studying in Cambridge, I felt that I had lived a pretty privileged existence and wanted to give something back!

Veiw from a balcony

How much did you pay for your placement?

I went to Madagascar with The Dodwell Trust and the placement itself cost £1100. My flight was almost £1000 and vaccinations and malaria tablets added a further £500 to the bill.

What sort of community did you teach in?

I taught in a small, remote rural town, called Tsiroanomandidy, famous for its cattle markets. It was a real culture shock seeing the poverty there but many of the local people showed real kindness to me, giving me little gifts like a piece of sugar cane or a few bananas.

What sort of training did you undergo?

As I discovered, not all organisations provide the training they promise but luckily, I had attended a TEFL weekend course a few weeks before I left the country and this gave me the confidence and skills to stand up in front of a room of young Malagasy children!

What age group did you teach?

I taught all kinds of people whilst on my placement. As it was the school holidays at the time I was in Madagascar, there were no formal school classes. However, I taught at a youth centre, which had children from the age of 4 to the age of 21! I also taught adults of all abilities, including the local police force.

Did you encounter any problems teaching?

The biggest problem was the lack of a common language. Some of the adults spoke French to some extent but I hadn’t spoken any French since I was 16, so this was slightly frustrating. The teaching materials were a further frustration. One policeman whom I taught had an English textbook which he was learning from. Unfortunately, this book seemed to be about 50 years old and mentioned vocabulary such as ‘blotting paper’ and ‘ink well’. I found it very hard to explain to the policeman that I didn’t actually know what blotting paper was used for because it had been largely redundant in the UK for decades! Due to the high demand for learning English in Madagascar, class sizes could be uncontrollable and contained a huge variation in ability. This made teaching very difficult as some students found the material too easy and some found it far too difficult.


Can you tell us about a typical day in Tsiroanomandidy?

After having been awoken by the local wildlife (pigs, zebu and cockerels) at about 6 in the morning, I would walk to the youth centre in the middle of the town. I taught English to children here from 10 until 11 every day. After the class, I would play ball games with them for an hour on the football pitch outside. I would walk back to my accommodation via the market and pick up some food for lunch and dinner, before preparing my afternoon lessons. Between 2 and 3 every day, I taught an adult class at the local Department for Education. After this, depending on the day’s timetable, I would either cycle to the police station to teach the police force for an hour or teach some local girls at my house. Preparing and cooking dinner in an extremely primitive kitchen took up most of my evenings and I was usually in bed by 8 or 9.

What were the highs and lows of teaching there?

The best thing about the job was seeing dramatic improvements in certain students. One of the policemen whom we taught was barely able to say ‘hello’ when we first met him. After about 2 months of lessons, he was able to participate, to some extent, in a lengthy conversation in English. One of the pupils who attended the youth centre was desperate to go to America to study in Tennessee and the progress he made was very rewarding to see. Getting involved in the local community was great too. I was invited to a traditional ceremony called ‘the turning of the bones’. During this ceremony, the remains of ancestors were exhumed and wrapped in new shrouds before being transported to family tombs. The relatives of the ancestors made me feel part of their family and it was an amazing experience which no tourist would have been able to witness. The downside to the whole experience was the sexism and racism on display from some members of the community.

What advice would you give to someone considering going abroad to teach English as a Foreign Language?

Do as much research as possible into the organisation that you intend going with. Get personal recommendations if possible or ask to be put in touch with former volunteers. The most important thing is that you have proper support on the ground. We were meant to have a “host” living next door to us but after the first few days he went abroad. The implications of his absence hit home later in our placement when we had been away for a weekend in the rainforest and returned to Tsiroanomandidy to discover that a curfew had been imposed. We had two close encounters with groups of armed men, trying to get back to our accommodation, which was obviously a terrifying experience. One lot tried to force their way in and we were left feeling lucky to have survived. If you feel unhappy about the lack of support, complain, and don’t give up until the situation is resolved. Nobody wants to feel like the spoiled European, whinging about third world conditions, but it is not worth putting your life at risk.

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