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Interview with Susan Griffith, Author of Teaching English Abroad
How do you wade through the massive amount of information about finding and securing a job teaching English abroad? One way is to ask an expert! Since 1991, Susan Griffith has been writing about teaching English all over the world. In Teaching English Abroad, Susan collects stories from real teachers, nitty-gritty details from people who are teaching in the trenches, and combines them with a vast directory of schools around the world.
I had a chance to talk with Susan and pick her brain about the best advice for both new and veteran English teachers. You can read just the highlights below or find the entire audio of the interview at the end of this post!
Amy: As I understand it, you’re an expat yourself, moving from Canada to the UK. What inspired that move abroad for you?
Susan: I left university in Toronto and I traveled in the summers between my years of my university. You know in those days people hitchhiked so I hitchhiked all over the British Isles right up to Scotland and Wales. I remember asking in a tube station what station would be useful to hitchhike out of London and the guy actually told me.
As soon as I finished university I wanted to return to Britain in some capacity so I thought I could just continue studying. I was a student in Oxford for two years after my degree and then I just stayed on and on and on, and after I finished my studies I got a job in a publishing company that specialized in working abroad.
A: How did that transition into writing the first edition of Teaching English Abroad?
S: Teaching English was clearly a huge topic for people who worked their way around the world. It was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall when things were just going crazy. English teachers were needed like anything in Poland, the Czech Republic, and there would be pages of ads in The Guardian asking for teachers – they didn’t need to have any qualifications just an English speaker.
And so we [the publishing company] thought, well this is worth a book. I’d find people who taught English in Japan, wrote letters to language schools around South America — oh the amount of money that company spent on stamps! And so it went on and again that one got bigger and bigger as more and more information came in from users of previous editions. I always quote real people because I had all this feedback from people who had taught English and I always thought that gave more of a better flavor of what it was than an official line from the schools themselves. I like first hand stories and not always positive ones.
A: With certification and standards around the world changing and in general rising since the opening of the post-Soviet block, the job market has gotten way more competitive.
S: It has and there’s this whole international machinery for training teachers, which is a very good thing. The whole English language teaching industry has expanded massively too in that time. But in some countries it has shrunk for the native speaker teacher, like this early stuff in Hungary and the Czech Republic and Poland that now is much much less because they have excellent English teachers themselves who were trained up. That’s better really in a way because they’re usually professional teachers who speak the language of the learner as well as English. So it comes and goes in different parts of the world, the demand for teachers.
A: Speaking of certificates, which certificate is the most attractive to employers and why they like it?
S: I imagine you know what I’m going to say, the CELTA.
A: It’s always good to hear that after you’ve gotten one!
S: It’s very very rigorous still and every person who’s ever taken it says they can’t do anything but think about English teaching for four weeks. Although four weeks is not long enough to turn someone into a professional anything it is a really excellent, I think, training and practice for what will take place in the classroom after it’s finished. It’s been tweaked so much over the years that it really does convey the broad range of teaching skills that you’ll need.
A: Would you give any specific tips for new teachers in trying to sort through the flood of advertisements on the Internet?
It’s hard to do. If you advertise yourself as a newly qualified teacher, that’s a bad mistake unless you’re very specific. Somebody said their inbox was completely full of invitations to apply from a Mr. Kim. And he just couldn’t keep track of which Mr. Kim was from which school. He changed his email address. He realized that a lot of language schools had automatic programs that are picking up on one of these big websites and they’ll just automatically send you an invitation to apply even though they hadn’t really read your details. You have to be a bit targeted in where you want to go. And you may not know but you need to do plenty of research beforehand.
And now, so much feedback is available online, and there are websites that have sort of a blacklist. And it’s like Trip Advisor — you can’t always believe every bad review because they could have a grudge but you can get a sense early on of the big employers who are constantly hiring people and how they treat their workers.
But on the other hand I think you have to be realistic. If you have no experience, you got your CELTA like so many other thousands of other people, you cannot really expect to work for the first year or two in a really very nice supported school with excellent students and a good boss. You may well have to put in a year or so of getting your experience in a less than ideal teaching situation. But the longer you stick at it the better your conditions will be and the more respectable your employer. So it’s wrong to think that the four-week certificate guarantees a really cushy teaching job because it doesn’t. But it probably guarantees an exciting year in a new place.
A: For new teachers, where are some countries that are most receptive in terms of getting a job easily, remuneration packages, things like that?
S: Korea seems to have an endless demand. Taiwan is easy. Though perhaps more people do that after they arrive. And these are countries where you definitely have to have a university degree before you can get a visa, although not necessarily a teaching qualification but anyway a degree.
Interested in teaching in Asia? Here are some blogs by TEFL teachers to give you an idea of what living and teaching English in Asia is all about!
S: South American countries, again it’s very hard to fix something ahead but if you’re willing to go and travel especially at the right times of year because their semesters start sort of early March. And so if you go at the end of their vacation you can usually pick up, maybe not a full time job but starting gradually. I know someone who’s just opened her own language school in a city in the south of Bolivia called Santa Cruz and she says the demand far out strips the supply of teachers. Chile or Argentina. People teach in Buenos Aires or Santiago for a couple of years and then they’re being paid a decent wage.
For Europeans, I think Spain is probably the easiest country to get a teaching job because of the demand. And also there’s a scheme for North Americans working in the public schools. Which is useful, as you know, because it’s not easy to get a visa when you’re a non-European.
There are short-term schemes or possibilities because North Americans can come in with a Schengen visa which is up to 90 says. So a lot of young people come in for the summer and teach English at a summer school. There’s a big company in France called American Village and there’s one in Germany. They seem to be quite well run and quite good fun and also not badly paid but of course they’re short term and after your 90 days are up you’re out because you can’t extend it.
So many Americans want to live in Paris and sometimes they can arrange to be there as a student — though that’s expensive — and then they can offset some of the costs by doing private tutoring. I mean there’s big companies that hire you to work part-time teaching children, one called the Speaking Agency, almost like an au pair. You might pick the children up after school and then you make sure you’re teaching them English until the parents come home.
Get info on where Americans can teach English in Europe in our previous post.
A: What about other emerging markets for adventurous teachers? I interviewed for a job in Kazakhstan, but it would have been my first job and I was like, “I don’t think I can handle both my first year of teaching and living in Kazakhstan.”
That’s true there are some jobs in those countries. Georgia is sort of in that category. There’s a big government scheme, Georgian government scheme, extremely badly paid, more like volunteers, but very culturally interesting. Myanmar, Burma, is expanding its English language teaching. That’s an exciting country that used to be off limits. Traveling through Central America. Mostly it’s very informal.
A: What about Africa?
You can teach in Egypt and Morocco. There’s an American Language Center in about six cities in Morocco and they hire people all the time. But East and West Africa not so much. It’s not impossible but it’s not very easy.
A: What are some of the main red flags that teachers should be looking for on their job hunt?
Most of it’s just common sense. If the employer you’re talking to over Skype is very reluctant to promise a contract or to put you in touch with current teachers – that’s always the best way, if you can talk to someone who’s working for them right now. Just to ask a whole lot of specific questions if you can, about the course books and the hours and all the normal things about any job. But if they’re dismissive or evasive that’s probably a bad sign. And the ones that are advertising for teachers abroad, they’re advertising not locally but the whole world, that probably is a sign that they have a high turnover. But on the other hand, if you want to fix up a job beforehand, you have to find one that’s advertising. If they’re willing to hire you without a proper interview that’s probably a bad sign.
I certainly know people who have taught in different countries for a few years and they always prefer to go themselves first before committing themselves and to meet the director and to get a sense of how the school is run. It’s very difficult to do that from afar. And talk to the teachers, go for a drink with them, and find out what the true picture is.
Wondering if you should sign a contract before or after you leave your home country? Check out our advice about when to get a teaching job here!
Another red flag is that they’re not very clear about the visa. It may be that they don’t know what to do but then that means they’re not very used to hiring international candidates so that may cause problems.
A: Susan, you’re describing every single red flag in the first job offer that I took. Which I didn’t end up going for. I got offered a job in Turkey in Bursa and it was for a K-12 school. They had decided to bring in three native-speaking teachers. But we were the first [American] teachers they had ever hired and they said, “Oh, come on a tourist visa.” And I said, “Nope, absolutely not. I’m doing this from the States because I want to come on a legal visa.” Then they changed our contract after we had signed it.
S: You obviously figured this all out before you went, is that right?
A: Yeah, I decided not to. I said there are too many problems. It’s just so funny because teaching can be a very solitary thing. It’s funny when your story matches up so well with other stories.
Any final advice you’d like to give someone thinking about working abroad or tips or anything?
A: Do as much research as you can manage about not just the job but about the whole destination, the cultural norms, the problems that other people have had, before you — not to be put off by all that but to follow your heart. Not to be too deterred by negative stories when everybody can overcome these things with patience and good humor.
A: I think a sense of humor is crucial to living abroad.
S: You need it in Ukraine?
A: Oh yeah. I’ve had to mime things at pharmacies that you shouldn’t have to mime. Google Translate on my phone is a lifesaver.
To listen to the whole interview with Susan Griffith, including her opinions on one and two week English teacher training courses, how conflict can arise between teachers and language school owners, and what I think about teaching English in Ukraine just follow the link!
Amy snagged a CELTA from Teaching House New York in 2013 and since then has taught on three continents (and counting). Having a CELTA has made her dream of moving abroad possible, and currently she is slow-traveling through Europe. She loves getting to know students, wandering around cities, and trying to find the world’s best donut. You can check out her travel adventures and mishaps at The Wayfarer’s Book.