TEFL: Let English be your passport

Teaching the lingo abroad may appeal, but choosing which path to take can be tricky, says Rosie Walker
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The Independent Online

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl) has long been a popular activity for British graduates in search of adventure. Blessed with a mother tongue that is the international language of business, Brits, North Americans and Antipodeans find that Tefl makes world travel financially viable. Some do a crash course as part of a gap year; others make it a career choice. But with as many possible paths as there are destinations, it can be hard to choose.

Colette Harvey and Jonathan Collett, for example, both spent a year teaching in Vietnam. Colette paid £1,000 for a month's training leading to the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (Celta), through International House in Newcastle; Jonathan paid £280 for a distance-learning package from Academy International. Colette arranged her job before leaving the UK, securing a one- year contract; Jonathan arrived in Vietnam first and approached employers directly, finding work within three days. Both ended up at the same school on $13 an hour, Jonathan being employed on a casual basis.

The fun of working with children was, for both, the big reward. But as recent graduates, money was important too, and each saved several thousand pounds over the year. "It was so easy to live as a foreigner in Vietnam," says Jonathan. "My job was relatively well paid and I drove a motorbike and eat out every night." Colette, however, found the expat lifestyle stifling. "I had to make quite an effort to meet some local Vietnamese people."

Unlike in Asia, most schools in Europe require the full Celta qualification (aka "the Cambridge certificate") as a minimum. Rebecca Narracott chose to take hers after arriving in Spain. "The tutors warned us that it could take months to find a job after finishing the course, so I was braced for the worst," she says. "But it just took a bit of perseverance. I printed out flyers and stuck them around town, found the names of language schools in the phone book and dropped my CV off at every one." She found a job within a week and stayed for two years. When she returned home, she used her qualification to teach in London and Brighton.

However, before qualifying in Spain, Rebecca had had an experience that wasn't as positive. She tried a programme run by a company that charged £1,000 to place unqualified teachers in schools in India for three months. The fee covered accommodation and insurance. "I was under the impression that I'd be given training, but I was thrown in at the deep end," she says.

The Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme offers a more secure route for graduates, placing them in Japanese state schools for a minimum of one year to teach English and introduce children to aspects of foreign cultures. Teaching qualifications are not essential, but the process is highly selective. Commercial language schools employ thousands of others, but it's important to research companies thoroughly before applying.

Janet Tufnell, head of teacher recruitment at the British Council, recommends paying for an internationally recognised qualification, like Celta or the Trinity ESL certificate. "They cover a broad base of teaching skills, and they're moderated by an outside body so the quality is not diluted," she says. "If you get one of these, you can use it in almost any language school in the world."

Life as an EFL teacher is not without its pitfalls. It can be isolating, and you can lose the ability to speak in complex sentences. There can be understandable resentment from more experienced native teachers on a fraction of your salary, and it can be alarming to find, as I did in Japan, that you have been employed to be a walking cultural stereotype. But the excitement of the unpredictable and the joy of discovery make it worth a go. Watching the faces of Japanese children tasting Marmite for the first time, in a lesson on British food, was the funniest thing I've seen in a classroom.

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