Five myths about teaching English abroad

Teaching English abroad is a great way to live overseas, or to get yourself there in the first place if you want to move. I see lots of posts, ebooks, and info about how to do it, so I wanted to write a post based on my experiences and to bust some myths I’ve come across.

Let’s dive into the top five myths about teaching English overseas below!

The top five myths about teaching English abroad

Why me?

I taught English abroad for a decade in Italy, Australia and Senegal, working with students from age 4 to 74. I eventually ended up as a language instructor at the University of Bologna and online teacher trainer.

My experiences ranged from teaching at English schools to public schools to universities, from low-paying jobs where I cranked out multiple lessons a day to an English Language Fellowship where I had to design my own syllabi and course materials for university students, and pretty much everywhere in between.

In 2019, I transitioned out of education into editing and writing, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss teaching English a lot! I loved (almost) everything about it, from the crisp notebooks on the first day of class to marking my students’ final tests on the last day.

DISCLAIMER: I just want to point out that at some schools, you’ll be provided with books, a curriculum or syllabus to follow, and you’ll have access to resources. You may be offered good wages, a contract, or even get flights home once a year. At others, you won’t have much support in the way of resources or administrators, you might not be paid a great wage, and you might not even be offered a proper contract.

The following information is based on my experiences, which, as I said above, were varied. If you have a different experience to share, please do so in the comments!

five myths about teaching english abroad

English teaching overseas, myth #1: It’s easy

I read this the other day on a blog post and nearly shot coffee out of my nose I snorted so hard. Teaching English is not easy!

First of all, if you’re a mother tongue English speaker who has never taught English before, you probably don’t know much about grammar, so you essentially have to learn it. Your students, especially if they’re advanced, might be extremely familiar with English grammar and stump you with questions.

You know what else isn’t easy? Planning dozens of lessons from scratch. Designing assessments. Having 150 essays to grade over the weekend.

How about schools that don’t pay you on time? Administrators that don’t care about you because they know they can just get someone else to do your job? Schools with no resources? Badly behaved children who look at you as a glorified babysitter?

Maybe if you have other teaching experience, teaching English won’t be too much of a challenge, but if it’s your first experience and you’re expecting a walk in the park, keep on walking.

Hot tip: If you’re worried about the grammar stuff, work with kids. You won’t have to cover too many sophisticated topics, and it’ll be fun. I loved teaching kids and coming home covered in glitter and stickers with pictures they had made for me. They make fast progress too, so it can be super rewarding. Obviously, working with children might come with behavioral or classroom management issues, so take that into consideration.

Myth #2: You won’t have to work hard

I think lots of people assume that English teachers spend most of their days at the beach or sightseeing, casually teach a lesson here and there, and pretty much live in a dream world and get to do whatever they want whenever they want.

In fact, when I was first teaching English in Italy, many people from home asked me obnoxious questions like when I was going to get a “real job” or come back to the “real world”. Had I been older and bolder, I would have told these people that my job and life were indeed very real, and that just because it didn’t resemble theirs didn’t mean it wasn’t “real” or that it didn’t require effort.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the point: going to the beach and visiting museums require a little thing called money, which you will need to get from working. Depending on the wages in the country you’re in, you might even have to get gigs at a couple of schools so that you can earn enough to get by.

Teaching more than 20-25 hours a week is exhausting, and also next to impossible if you have prep work to do. If there’s no prep, some schools will probably try to squeeze every last teaching hour they can out of you.

Of course, even if you have to work hard, you’ll still be abroad, which is pretty cool.

english teaching abroad

Myth #3: Being a native speaker is a qualification

Yes, many schools advertise that they want native speakers only, often regardless of whether or not the person has a teaching qualification. They market this to students who think that having a native speaker is the best possible scenario, because they have been fed this lie by marketing people, and so the cycle continues.

One of the reasons the native speaker myth persists is that people – students and school administrators – think that native-speaking teachers will somehow magically transplant their accent onto their students. My question is, why would you even care? Everyone speaks with an accent. It’s part of our identity. As Amy Chua said, “Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.”

I benefited from this misconception when I first started teaching – I got hired based on the fact that I was American. Want to know how it turned out? On my first day of teaching, when I student asked me to explain the present perfect, I froze, BECAUSE WHAT IS THE PRESENT PERFECT. I know now, of course, but I sure as hell didn’t know then.

It was terrible. I felt incompetent and inadequate, BECAUSE I WAS. I was deeply unqualified. Like, Trump-cabinet-member unqualified. I had a bachelor’s degree and an American accent, but I was a crappy English teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, I made up for it by being friendly, bubbly, and enthusiastic, which is a nice smoke screen. It’s the same reason why people thought I was a good waitress. I wasn’t particularly fast or efficient waiting tables, so I focused my energy on being nice, and it worked.

I started reading and working on a TEFL certificate to remedy the situation, but still, those first few months were really hard, and my students certainly weren’t getting the best from me.

The other rotten effect of this native-speakers-are-better-teachers myth is that it means qualified teachers who are English learners themselves are often overlooked for positions they’d be great in. They’ve learned English, for God’s sake. They know more about it than you, Chad. And you’re taking their job.

It’s also a crappy thing to do to your students. Would you want someone with one “special” characteristic to be in charge of something they didn’t know how to do? Maybe at first you’d be fine with it because it would be charming or mysterious cool, but at the end of the day, you don’t want someone to give you a haircut just because they have a nice ponytail, right? No, you want them to BE A QUALIFIED HAIRDRESSER. (And if you don’t, call me, I’ll cut your hair for $10)

Joking aside, you don’t want to be caught out when your students ask you what the difference between hard and hardly is and you can’t really explain it. You also don’t want to participate in a discriminatory system that denies qualified people jobs because of a privilege you didn’t earn or ask for. Get a teaching qualification. Preferably one with a supervised teaching component.

If you already have a qualification or are earning one and are a mother tongue English speaker, I applaud you. You’re miles ahead of where I was when I started out. Even if you’re earning one and you’ve been teaching for a while, I still applaud you for putting in the time to be the best teacher you can, both for yourself and for your students.

Myth #4: All TEFL certificates are created equal

There are some fraudulent TEFL certifications out there. They’ve probably stolen the material from other courses and maybe rebranded it as their own. If this is the case, they’re not accredited, so your TEFL qualification might be worthless.

Essentially, you should make sure that the course if at least 120 hours long, because that’s the minimum requirement for accreditation. You should, as I mentioned above, also look for courses with a supervised teaching component, so that you can get feedback on your lesson plans and teaching before you’re in front of a group of students.

Make sure that the entity you’re earning your TEFL certification through employs good instructors. If their credentials and experience aren’t available to you, look elsewhere. You want an expert teaching you how to be a teacher, right?

Myth #5: It’s not good for your resume

I think some people panic about taking a year or two to teach English abroad because of how it’ll look on their CV. I say don’t worry about it. It’s become so common for people to live abroad that it probably doesn’t faze most employers anymore.

Also, you don’t really want to work for a company that doesn’t value the skills you’ve learned teaching (time and people management, budgeting, organization, creativity, intercultural communication, presentation skills, public speaking…), do you?

Questions or comments about teaching English overseas? Share them below!

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More info on teaching and moving abroad

Countries that offer working holiday visas to Americans

Teaching English in Italy

How to combat culture shock

How to survive the holidays abroad

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