The TEFL Situation: How to Make Sense of it All

So you want to teach abroad? You’ve probably done some basic research by now and are probably just as confused as I was. Do I need the TEFL…do I not need the TEFL? Online or in person? Cambridge or will any certificate do? (By the way, TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language)
In this section I’m going to give you some information and explain what I did, but ultimately it is your decision, and there are no right or wrong answers. (Note: My direct experience comes from teaching in Italy, but the basics of this information could be applied towards other European countries as well.)

Before we jump into the TEFL, I’d like to point out that the tricky part about teaching English is that it depends. Generally schools ask that you meet these requiremenets: Bachelor’s Degree, Legal Working Papers, TEFL certificate, Native/Native Equivalent Speaker, and maybe some experience. Again, I repeat, it depends!

Ideally, you should do a Cambridge certificate, in person, in the city you want to teach. Please note how I said ideally. This does not mean it is essential to teach, but it will help give you the best return on investment.

I did not do the Cambridge certificate. However, I did choose a TEFL course that was in person and was based in the city I wanted to live (Florence). The school is called Via Lingua. They offered a Cambridge equivalent course and their method focus was communicative.

If Florence offered a Cambridge or a Trinity course, I would have taken it just to have the name recognition, but they didn’t, and I personally felt it was more important to be in the city where I wanted to live. Why? Because I felt it was more important to make connections. Whether it’s meeting people doing the same course as you, or making connections with fellow schools. Plus, you are already “set up” in terms of housing when you go out to job hunt. Rather than having to move cities and search there. Although, I know several people who moved to Rome afterward and found jobs easily.

Note of caution about Via Lingua. It is a good school to receive a TEFL certificate, but you cannot (or at least it is very rare to) receive a student visa along with their course.

Now let me outline a few pros and cons for the possible scenarios.

IN PERSON
ONLINE
Pros:

  • Make connections.
  • A good way to ease into a new city
  • Could be considered more “official”
Pros:

  • Cost.
  • Can immediately start working when you land
Cons:

  • Cost
  • Takes time to do the course when you land
Cons:

  • Lack opportunity to make connections
  • Some people do not considered this certificate “real”/”official”

Now here are some questions I asked myself when I was researching. The answers are based on my experience and knowledge. Again, at the end of the day there are no right or wrong decisions. Often things depend in this field.

Is a TEFL even necessary?

In short, no it isn’t necessary, but it’s a good idea to have one. Why? Simply to put on your resume. Simply to have something to “check off”, which is important if competition is fierce for a teaching position. Plus, it does help prepare you (somewhat) for teaching English as a foreign language.

Do I need to do a Cambridge?

From my experience, no. I have had several schools hire me, and I don’t have a Cambridge certificate. I have a “cTEFL” which is equivalent. However, I have heard that some schools only hire people with a Cambridge certificate. Therefore, if you want to work for a specific school, I would check their requirements. But in general, I really don’t think so.

Do I need to do it in the city I want to live in?

No, you don’t. Especially if it is a big city with lots of job prospects. However, if it is a smaller city, or a city with a reputation for being on the more difficult side like Florence, I suggest doing the certificate there. This way you have more opportunity to make connections, and/or be available in case there is a last minute job opening.

Do I need to speak the language?

No. However, you should learn at least the basics of where you go.

Is the time of year important?

Yes. There are the hiring seasons which of course increase your opportunity. However, technically, schools do hire year-round. In fact, often outside of the hiring season is when you have more “power” as a job candidate. Perhaps someone quit and they need someone right away, or they have more classes than expected. When this happens you have more power and things like having a TEFL certificate/VISA/experience, etc. are less important, and more importance is placed on the fact that you speak the language. This is why I suggest saving as much as you can and always keep applying. You might not find a job straight away, but eventually you could be at the right place at the right time.

Do I need a visa?

Legally speaking, yes. However, certain countries and certain schools are very lax about this. I have worked, or at least have been offered work, from 7 different schools. Out of those 7 different schools, 4 required at least a student visa. Please read more about the visa issue here: The Visa Situation: How to Work the Red Tape.

My Experience?

Timeline: Arrived August 2014, completed TEFL course September 2014, found small jobs October 2014, and by Febraury 2014 was working full-time.

Well, as I said before, I felt it was best to cover all of my bases. So, I saved up several thousand dollars. Enough to pay for the ridiculously, over-priced TEFL course, as well as last a few months while I’m there. (You can plan to spend about 800-1000 a month depending on your lifestyle). This cushion of savings helped me be a bit more selective about the jobs I accepted.

I completed the TEFL course for the month of September to October in Florence which is where I wanted to stay. Afterward, I went out applying in person to several places. I also applied online. I had one offer to teach a bit far away and it was only one class two times a week, so I didn’t accept it. My first job was at a school in Prato (a city just a short train ride away from Florence). I started there with 20 hours a week, which is a lot for a first time teacher. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as the students relied a lot on translation and at the time I didn’t speak enough Italian. (Plus, I personally don’t really condone the translation method)

After this another school hired me to teach about 3 hours a week. I accepted because they were in the city center. Soon after, another school, the place where I actually completed my TEFL, offered me a job, but I decided not to accept it and wait. This was the month of December.
Finally, in January, the school (where I currently work now) hired me. They were located in Florence and I started with about 5-10 hours a week. Then, another school in Florence hired me for about 5 hours a week.

So, by February, I was working for 3 different schools, but making enough money. Why 3 different schools? Because each school started out slowly with the number of hours they offer you. By mid-February, I had a full schedule and the schools were trying to give me more and more classes. I had to say no to some of them as they didn’t fit my schedule. I worked like this until summer time.

After summer break, I narrowed it down to working for only my current school. Other schools were offering me work, but I just didn’t have time in my schedule. Come December 2015, my current school changed my student visa into a work visa, and finally I am “official”.

So, my advice? Cover your bases and get creative. Be willing to accept small jobs here and there until it eventually turns into what you want. Or, move to a bigger city with more job opportunities. My friend went to Rome and found enough work straight away.

There are so many ways to make it work and everyone has their own path. This was mine. Some had it easier than me, and some had it worse and ended up back up home after a month or two.

Please note:

During the period of October to December I not only had the small teaching jobs, but I also babysat once a week and worked part-time for my job back in America for the month of November and December. However, I lived alone during these months, so my rent was much higher than it would have been if I had roommates.

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