But choose your course carefully, says Alex McRae

For many teachers of English as a foreign language, the job is a dream ticket, promising the chance to jet off to an exotic new country, immerse oneself in a different culture, and rack up some great life experience. But facing a classroom of expectant students eager to soak up their new teacher's knowledge of the past participle can be nerve-wracking. So, in order to get experience, confidence, and a qualification that will boost their chance of getting a job, most would-be teachers opt to complete a training course first.

"It's all very well being a native speaker," says Sarah Wilson, a Tefl training adviser at Cactus, a private organisation which guides people through the process of Tefl training and job searching. "But explaining complex grammar without training would be a nightmare. A course gives you practice. There's an obligation from schools to have professionally trained teachers, and your students expect to leave the classroom understanding what you've taught them."

Choosing a Tefl course can be confusing. The sheer number of training courses on offer is extraordinary - and that's after you've got to grips with the array of synonymous acronyms: ESL (English as a Second Language), EFL (English as a Foreign Language), and Esol (English for Speakers of Other Languages). An internet search shows up introductory weekend courses, online courses, on-site courses and intensive four week courses. So how do you choose which is right for you?

"It is a bit of a minefield," says Wilson. "The main thing to consider is where you plan to teach and what kind of teaching you plan to do. If you want to teach in Spain, where there's a lot of competition, it's worth doing a course geared towards the two best-known qualifications, the Cambridge Celta or Trinity Tesol. These are recognised all over the world, so they're a good way of keeping options open."

Celta stands for Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults; Tesol stands for Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Both courses take four to five weeks full-time, or about 12 to 15 weeks part-time, and are continually assessed by external modulators, with at least six hours of assessed teaching practice.

Once you've decided which Tefl training course fits your needs best, you can choose where to do it. "There are advantages of doing your course in the country where you want to teach," says Sarah. "The school may have a recruiting department. And purely by being there, it's often easier to find a job, because you'll be talking to people who may help you find work."

Hugo Bezerra, 26, is a Brazilian who completed his Celta in Egypt and taught in Latin America before taking up a post as director of studies at a private language school in Shijiazhuang, a city in the Hebei province of China.

He says that teaching in so many different countries was "a very rewarding thing to do. Living in a country, rather than just travelling there on holiday, gives you the opportunity to see how people live, and how it's different from home. In China, the kids treat the school like a playground where they want to learn. They're so eager to express themselves in class."

The chance to have a real insight into a different culture was also a big draw for Laura Harrison, 25, who was teaching in a town near Lake Como in Italy last year. After doing a Celta course in Leeds, she found a job on www.tefl.com, a website listing thousands of teaching posts.

The job involved teaching Italian adults, mainly twentysomethings like herself. Teaching was a learning experience for her, says Laura, as well as the students. "The students were very friendly and would invite us round to their houses for dinner, which was lovely. At first, it was very difficult - I spoke a couple of languages, but Italian wasn't one of them. But by the time I left, I could hold a conversation in Italian."

There were challenges. "We didn't have much time off - only one day a week," recalls Sarah. "For the first six weeks or so, I was spending about an hour preparing for an hour's class. And being in such a small town was a reality shock - there wasn't an awful lot to do. But it was very interesting, and although it sounds like a cliché to say something's character building, it was. I really enjoyed teaching, and it was a very positive experience."

Cactus is holding a Tefl information seminar in London on 19 April. To register, go to www.cactustefl.com