Take a course in teaching English as a foreign language, and the world is truly your oyster

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Colette Walsh, 25, giggles when I ask whether she worked part-time during her Tefl course in Brighton. "I barely had time to eat!" she says. "That course was the hardest thing I've ever done. The learning curve was incredibly steep. It was much harder than A-levels or the degree I'm doing now."

Tefl (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or Tesol (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is, according to those who've done it, intense and all-consuming. But the pay-off is a passport to travel. "I taught in Madrid for a year, which was a fantastic experience," says Walsh. "And I'm thinking about China next. Tefl teachers can work anywhere in the world."

Doing a recognised course is essential for anyone thinking of teaching English in the UK or abroad, according to Sarah Wilson, a senior consultant at Cactus Tefl, an organisation that advises prospective English- language teachers. Cambridge Celta or the Trinity College London Certificate, Tesol, are the leading qualifications, she says. They take a month full-time or up to three months part-time.

Some schools do accept people without Celta or Trinity qualifications, but venturing off to Shanghai with only your charm to commend you is certainly chancing your arm.

A good Tefl course will give you a thorough grounding in grammar and teach you the essentials of classroom management and lesson preparation. It also gives students the skills they need to teach a variety of age groups and levels of language competence.

"You can be teaching a group of business people advanced English, followed by 12-year-olds who have barely mastered the basics, with just a 10- minute break in between," says Walsh. To get on to a Tefl course you need to be 18, and educated to A-level standard.

Most British towns have language schools offering Tefl courses, but it's also possible to qualify abroad. ILA Vietnam, for example, runs Celta courses throughout the year and helps with placing newly qualified teachers in schools in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Obviously, setting off for Hanoi is a bigger step than signing on at the language school down the road, but the plus side of doing Tefl abroad is that you are in your country of choice when you qualify, and will have almost certainly made some very useful contacts. Taking a course abroad can be cheaper, too, costing around £600 in Eastern Europe, £700-£800 in South-east Asia, and £1,000 in Italy.

Dan Casey, 26, from Staines in Middlesex, did his Tefl course in London and found it took only 11 days to find a job in a language school in Prague. The demand for English-language teachers is very high, according to the British Council. The British Council itself is one of the largest Tefl employers in the world, and Rowe cites South-east Asia, Central Europe and the Middle East as being particularly open to English teachers.

Sejal Mandalia, 32, from London, who is employed by the British Council and is a Tefl teacher in Syria, says that it is a fascinating country and that she has been made to feel incredibly welcome by the students. "As a teacher, you generally feel hugely valued and appreciated, which is more than can be said of most jobs," she says.

Working in Syria has taught her a great deal, too: "In addition to imparting knowledge, I'm learning all the time as well. Syria defied my expectations in so many ways." For example, women wearing hijab, she says, frequently stroll arm in arm with women wearing T-shirts. 'It's not the oppressive state that I perhaps imagined it to be before I lived here."

Once you've got your Tefl Celta or Trinity qualification, the world, says Mandalia, is your oyster. Colette Walsh, however, sounds a cautionary note. "I'd always play safe in the first posting," she says. "Go with a recognised and reputable name, like International House. It has schools all over the world." After that, teachers often hear about job vacancies by word of mouth.

"Teachers soon find out which schools to avoid," she says. "The grapevine is really active in our business. Everyone knows someone who knows your colleague in Rio, and remembers a story about you and a certain bar in Casablanca."