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Five Questions to Ask at a TEFL Job Interview
When you are interviewing for your first post-CELTA ESL job, of course you want to impress the interviewer to nail the job offer by standing out from the crowd. Don’t forget, though, that you are also vetting the school and deciding whether or not this is a situation you will be happy and comfortable in. It is your responsibility to do due diligence to avoid scams and protect your own interests. Nobody wants to find themselves in a foreign country with high expectations, but a less than stellar job opportunity waiting for them.
To try to suss out the schools worth working for and the schools you want to avoid, here are 5 questions to ask during the interview process.
- How much and what type of professional development is offered?
This question is particularly important if you intend to stay in the ESL industry for more than 6 months to a year, as you want to continue building your skills set and resume beyond just contact teaching hours. Most private language institutions will offer some kind of professional development in the form of assisted lesson planning, in-service training sessions, and/or stipends for taking online training courses or even the Delta.
You want to find out exactly what is offered, how often, whether the sessions are mandatory or not, and whether you’ll get compensated for your time. It’s also worth asking who runs the sessions. In some schools it might be the Director of Studies, who might not actually have a lot of recent teaching experience, or it could be a Senior Teacher who has more on-the-ground and up-to-date knowledge of the local classroom environment. If you really want to impress the interviewer, you might ask if teachers can run development sessions on topics that interest them – the implication being that a few months down the road you’ll be ready to run a session for your peers yourself!
- How much travel time between classes is typical of teachers per day?
If you work for a private language institution that offers a variety of lesson types, such as 1:1 or Business English, it’s likely you will be teaching in multiple settings around the city. Sometimes travel time between lessons can be substantial; it’s not unheard of for teachers in capital cities to travel 90 minutes each way to a one-hour lunchtime business class. It’s up to you to decide what your limits are and what kind of lifestyle you’re willing to accept.
You want to find out how the school will manage these commutes and whether or not this travel time is compensated. Sometimes schools provide a monthly transit pass, or you could be paid at a half teaching rate per hour of travel. If there are many teachers traveling to the same location at the same time, the school might organize a shuttle for group transportation, which could be a social opportunity for bonding with your peers.
- What are the biggest cultural challenges new teachers face when moving to _________?
In the excitement of moving to a new city or country, sometimes people forget that the transition to a new culture, job, social group, and language can be daunting and exhausting. It can also be hard to know exactly what you’ll struggle with in advance and how to prepare. A good recruiter for a school will know these pitfalls and will be honest with you about the challenges.
It might be that students regularly arrive 45 minutes late to class, or weather cancellations occur with frequency, or pickpockets prey on foreigners outside the school. It’s a lot easier to make friends with locals in some countries than others, and some languages are a lot easier to learn. How important is it to you that you will be able to default to English at shops or restaurants? How willing are you to accept that your apartment may not have hot water for six weeks in the spring? Could you manage if you showed up to school and the electricity was out, but you were expected to teach your class anyway? Again, you have to be honest with yourself and your own limits. Some people thrive in unpredictable environments, while others do better with more structure.
- What kinds of opportunities are there for me to expand my role?
Similar to asking about professional development, this is an essential question to ask if you are interested in pursuing ESL as a career path. After 6-12 months of teaching general English, you will likely want to start exploring other areas of the industry. At a minimum you want to find out if the school offers other types of classes, like young learners, test preparation, business, 1:1, or academic writing. The greater variety of experiences you have early on in your teaching career, the better sense you can get of your interests, strengths, and weaknesses. It will also help you succeed if you go on to do your Delta, as you will be asked to draw on a variety of teaching contexts throughout the program.
If you are interested in more of the administrative side of school operations, you can ask if teachers are ever involved in placement testing for incoming students, assisting with recruiting new teachers, or organizing social events. Expressing interest in eventually becoming a Senior Teacher of Assistant Director of Studies (ADOS) will help you stand out in the interview and will also give you a good sense of how nurturing the environment is at the school you are interviewing with.
- Can I speak to a current and/or former teacher?
Most legitimate schools will be willing to accommodate a request to get a reference from a current and/or former employee, and these references can be the most valuable source of information about the environment at the school and also the reality of living in the city or town you’ll be moving to. If a school is unwilling to accommodate this request, it’s a red flag that indicates most employees are or were unhappy.
You could also research the school on social media. A lack of social media presence does not necessarily indicate the school isn’t valid or worth working for; remember that not all regions have consistent internet access to maintain Facebook or Twitter accounts. But if the social media pages are thriving with contributions from both students and staff, there’s a good chance that the work environment is a positive one.
Note from the editor: Erica’s tip on social media presence is a good one, but here’s a word of warning on online reviews or forum posts: remember to take online rants about schools with a pinch of salt, one negative blast on Dave’s ESL café from 2014 shouldn’t put a school on your blacklist; much more valuable will be word of mouth from someone working there currently, not a forum post from a previous employee with a potential chip on their shoulder. Twenty negative mentions of school has more value of course, but the old adage stands true; it’s the complainers who take up the most space online, happy employees rarely take to the web to highlight the positives in their workplace.
Erica Lederman is an ESL teacher and teacher trainer who has had classroom experience on four continents in addition to online tutoring. She is currently focused on teaching academic English to university students in Chicago and also running intensive CELTA courses with Teaching House as a freelancer.
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