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April 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Lessons Learned Teaching Abroad Part 2

Since Steve Mullen began teaching in the Czech Republic in January 1991, he has had an extensive career in education and training. He has been employed as a teacher in private and public schools, founded two language schools, written numerous training courses in areas connected with hospitality and customer service, developed content for TEFL activity libraries, designed a web-based lesson planner and ecosystem for language teachers and learners, and worked as a freelance language teacher. Email:



“Lessons Learned Teaching Abroad Part 1” can be read here.


Lesson Learned #3

Nothing impresses employers like professionalism.

Although travelling teachers decide to teach abroad for different sets of reasons, most of us have one thing in common – we tend to be adventurous by nature. Not everyone gets up one day and says, ‘Hmm, I think I’ll move half way around the world, immerse myself in an unfamiliar language and culture and stay there for a year or so…it could be fun!’

While this adventurous spirit is what sets us apart and enables us to make the move in the first place, hiring such a person, understandably, may create some discomfort for a prospective employer. After all, the character of anyone capable of picking up and travelling around the world on a “whim” could be construed as less than reliable. In fact, experience has shown a relatively high rate of teacher turnover and absenteeism on the part of teachers from abroad.

Whether this can be attributed to questionable character, poor working conditions, homesickness, family crises, poor training, ‘culture shock’, or really amazing pub chats with some incredibly interesting people that cause some teachers to miss early morning lessons, depends largely on the individual set of circumstances. It’s usually a combination of several of these things plus a variety of others.  What’s important to the employer is to know that there will be a capable teacher at the helm from the beginning to the end of each lesson of every course and that, in the perception of the students and sponsors, the course comes off smoothly with as few glitches as possible and leaves everyone wanting more.

Replacing someone in mid-year for whatever reason is extremely costly in terms of the goodwill lost and potentially very awkward depending on the country, visa regulations, and the time it takes to recruit and bring in a suitable replacement. It also puts additional stress and strain on the other staff members who have to cover the lessons until a suitable replacement is found. And, of course, when other staff members are overworked, they become dissatisfied, which can lead to even more expensive and unwanted teacher turnover and even more student/client dissatisfaction…clearly, this is an undesirable situation for any employer.

However, as unreliable as some turn out to be, I am always amazed at the number of adventurous people out there who would voluntarily leave the comfort of home to teach, live, and learn abroad for relatively little money. Until fairly recently, native-speaking teachers were an overvalued and even an exotic commodity in many countries; today there may be hundreds of applicants for a single well-advertised job in a reasonably desirable location. But, in spite of the numbers, real professionals are still hard to come by.

The fact is that today’s market conditions demand results and only a professional approach can produce those results. With the market in the private language school sector as competitive as it is, employers cannot afford to make too many mistakes. A single poor, unreliable, or poorly behaved teacher, especially in a smaller private language school in a small town, can cause serious and irreparable damage to the school’s reputation. Reliability, competence, and public image are just as important for teachers as they are for accountants, doctors, lawyers, or any other professional vocation. The problem is that employers in our industry find it difficult to gauge how reliable or competent candidates are before hiring them since it is usually impossible to sit with the applicant to discuss the post in person. Unless the employer uses video conferencing, has recruiting agents working abroad, or the teacher shows up in person at the school for an interview, travelling teachers may be hired almost completely blindly.

With the personal interview not being the main factor in many hiring decisions, travelling teachers need to focus on their written presentations. To the travelling teacher, what really matters is getting hired. To this end, knowing what to expect from the job and the region, and what prospective employers want to see and hear will help the teacher procure offers of employment. 

As a travelling teacher who became an employer of travelling teachers, I can attest to the fact that, in the mind of an employer, the reliability of the teacher is every bit as important as competence. Furthermore, TEFL certificates neither guarantee reliability nor competence.  It is safe to say that, given the choice, the rational employer would go for the candidate that comes off as the most reliable over a piece of paper every time. Not that a relevant degree, diploma, or certificate won’t help – in many countries and schools they are prerequisite to employment. But to students and corporate clients, credentials are secondary to real ability, reliability, and professionalism.

When we are looking for jobs as language teachers abroad and remember that to the employer it is a job as opposed to a working vacation, we need to keep in mind that professionalism counts.


Work History

Employers all want the same thing – great teachers who won’t leave them in the lurch.  The hard part for the employer is in identifying these candidates. So, when we apply for a job in a far away land, it is very important to put some extra thought into our CVs and covering letters. These days, more and more governments and language school associations are demanding credentials.

Employers essentially look for the ‘3 E’s’ of employability when they short-list their candidates. They are Experience, Education and Enthusiasm. Experience and education are outlined in the CV and reinforced in the covering letter.  Enthusiasm comes out in the writing sample provided in the covering letter. We should never make the mistake of skimping on our covering letter – for many employers it is as important as the CV. After all, our writing indicates how well we are able to express ourselves, our common sense, and why we are interested in the job.

It is hardly necessary to point out how important relevant work experience is. As an employer, I like to see at least one year of teaching experience. Experienced teachers are more confident, need less training and supervision, and are able to plan courses and prepare lessons more efficiently with less hand-holding. And, since all employers know that not everyone who dreams of teaching is naturally endowed with pedagogical talent, employers like to have the option of being able to find out if the candidate has a teaching aptitude by checking professional references.

However, if we are light on relevant work history, there’s no need to despair. It’s not the only kind of experience that makes an impression on potential employers. When teaching languages, personal experience in learning a second language is a huge advantage in at least three ways.

Take my own French immersion experience for instance. I sometimes used to reflect on my own learning experiences as a student and adapt activities my favourite teacher had used with us to use with my own students. Thinking about how and why former teachers did what they did can help guide us in our own practice.

In addition to giving us pedagogical role models, our own language learning experiences tend to instil in us empathy for our learners, as I have already tried to point out. If we are able to remember, for example, how difficult it was for us to master ‘le subjunctif’ in French, we can begin to understand that the grammar we are teaching may not be as matter of fact to others as it seems to us.

Finally, most of us never think about how our own language works until we have studied another. Good learners question teachers, each other, and the subject matter. Good teachers also question in the same way. If we are good questioners, then we are attuned to the art of teaching and learning. The more we question ourselves and question the way we, and those around us, do things, the more we learn. A ‘knowledgeable’ language teacher has questioned his/her own language or been questioned about his language and is able to anticipate many of the questions his/her students may have.

So, when we are writing our CVs we shouldn’t forget to list any exposure we have had to foreign language courses and play that up a bit in the covering letter, especially if we haven’t had a lot of teaching experience.



Educational requirements vary from country to country and school to school. But the issue of education in the eyes of an employer may be especially important for someone applying for a job as an educator. An educator without an education may be seen in the same light as a driving instructor without a driving licence. This doesn’t mean that the driving instructor without a licence isn’t a naturally gifted driver, but he/she will come up against some serious credibility issues with his/her students, sponsors, employer, and bureaucrats. It may be difficult to win and maintain credibility with educated adult learners if learners suspect that the teacher has had significantly less schooling than they have had.

Having said that, teachers should never put themselves on a pedestal above the learners either – the teacher should be one of the learners, or part of the group. Ideally, the teacher is perceived as a peer who has something to bring to the group. Obviously, the teacher is expected to be the best target language speaker in the group and a good teacher, but the teacher should never forget that others in the group have their own experiences and expertise to offer as well. The teacher would be advised draw on this whenever possible and appropriate.

So, what is enough education? My personal belief is that the ability to teach is an innate talent, which can be developed over time. And just as artists may choose to accelerate their development and deepen their understanding of their art with formal training, so do teachers who are committed to being the best they can be. However, others may fall into the profession and develop their talent more though praxis and reflection. For an employer, the most important thing is that the talent is sufficiently developed when the teacher is hired so that students recognise it and are not put in the uncomfortable position where they feel they need to complain, or even worse, where they stop coming to lessons and feel that they have wasted their time and money.

Unfortunately for unqualified teachers who are naturally gifted and for learners, in the real world, governments and language school associations may merely require a bachelor’s degree and a TEFL certificate – there is no bureaucratic requirement for innate talent.

I am not insinuating that formal credentials are a waste of time. Aside from the obvious benefit of going toward satisfying the conditions of employment, the learning process we go through to pass any course can be enlightening, reaffirming and highly rewarding. What’s more, the knowledge gained through the study of other educators’ experiences and observations speeds up the development of our own talent, provides inspiration, gives us a sense of direction and helps us avoid getting caught up in snares that an uninformed teacher might not be aware of.  In fact, that is precisely why I have written down some of the lessons I have learned here – to help inform the practice of others who haven’t had the benefit of my experience.  Nevertheless, without talent, teaching, like any art, is difficult to master no matter how much time and money we spend on studies.

A better question is, ‘What is not enough education?’ Edicts demanding minimum credentials aside, we will never be very good teachers if we are unable to follow a curriculum: write a comprehensive lesson plan; find, adapt, or create activities when we need them; facilitate a discussion; ask the right questions; and react to difficult questions. 

By the way, let’s make it clear that reacting to a difficult question isn’t the same as answering one. Nobody can be expected to answer or, for that matter, should answer every question. But a teacher who has developed his/her talent should be secure enough in him/herself to be able to say, “I don’t know.  I’ve never really thought about that. Can anyone else answer that? If not, I’ll try to have an answer for you next lesson. Why don’t you see what you can find out about it, too?” Good teachers are humble and recognise difficult questions as learning opportunities for themselves as well as for their learners.

As far as the perceived value of credentials is concerned, degrees and graduate diplomas in TESOL, Education, or Linguistics from recognised universities are much, much weightier than TEFL certificates. Teachers who invest more time and money in their own educations are seen as being more serious about their vocation, and rightly so. In addition, there are many little-known institutions issuing TEFL certificates and these need to be well vetted because there are no real international standards for institutions or individuals issuing these certificates. Before we enrol in any course, we should do our research.

In short, we should get the qualifications we need from a reputable institution, but we shouldn’t stop there. Teaching is an art, so we need to be confident, creative and keep pushing the envelope to develop our talent.


The covering letter

Our enthusiasm comes out in our covering letter. The problem I see in many letters that have passed across my desk is that many native speaking teachers seem a little overly enthusiastic. As a Canadian, I recognise that many employers at home expect ‘high-energy’ covering letters that exude confidence.  In other countries this tone may come off as empty immodesty.  Regardless of cultural norms, it is important to let any employer know why you are interested in his school, town or country, but care should be taken not to overdo it. In English speaking countries we tend to come on strong in our covering letters with lines such as, ‘I know I am the ideal candidate for this post.’  When I have over 100 applications on my desk and 50 of them claim they are the ideal candidate, I can be reasonably sure that at least 49 of them are lying. Confidence is one thing, but humility, especially in a teacher, is very important.

Moreover, the more employers read these kinds of self-flattering and blandishing letters the less impact they have. The enthusiasm needs to be sincere. Sincerely enthusiastic candidates don’t need to set themselves apart with meaningless superlatives. They find out about the school on its web site, they find out whatever they can about the town or region, and they highlight their experiences and desires that tie into the job requirements and location. They address the letter to the person in charge using their surname in the salutation and then they write a thoughtful letter that demonstrates their understanding of the job requirements and the employer’s expectations in an organized and linear fashion.

Nothing shows enthusiasm more than taking the time to find out as much as we can about the job, school, town, and our employer.


Lesson Learned #4

Teaching and doing are very different things.

Those who can’t do, teach’…now, I don’t know who first coined this phrase, but I suspect it was some disillusioned student who was trying to express his/her frustration with an incompetent teacher. If this is in fact the case, the phrase might have been more aptly put, ‘Those who can’t teach, shouldn’t teach.’

Regardless of whether we agree with the cliché or not, the idea of connecting the ability to do with the vocation of teaching is a fundamental one. It is my experience that not many of those who can do can teach well.  Teaching is no different than any other profession or skill – not everyone doing it does it as well as the next teacher, which is of course why we have teachers in the first place. If we want to be able to do better, a teacher can facilitate this long as the teacher can teach well.

The cliché brings out another fundamental question in teaching as well. That is, what level of expertise in a skill does one need to have to teach it to others? This is a very pertinent issue for travelling language teachers. As I have stated, not all those who can do can teach well. If this were not true, any native speaker could call him/herself a teacher of the language by virtue of the fact that he/she speaks it so well. That would mean that every person on the planet who is able to read, write, comprehend and speak a language could claim to be a language teacher. Clearly this is not the case on a professional level, and this is the why I differentiate between travelling teachers and teaching travellers. It is very clear to me that subject expertise in itself does not contribute to the greatness of a teacher.

In spite of this, it is not uncommon to hear ‘teachers’ cutting down other teachers for their lack of expertise in the target language, grammatical knowledge, accent, or dialect. In most cases, these are native speaking teachers criticizing non-native-speaking teachers or teachers cutting down other teacher they feel threatened by and can find fault with. In more curious cases, I have heard native speakers belittling other native speakers for no other apparent reason than regional dialect or accent.

I suppose that this is motivated in different ways. When we speak of native-speaking teaching travellers, there may be a limited pedagogical background. Therefore, they may erroneously believe that those who can do better can teach better. Or, with educated pedagogues, who should know better, there may be personal issues such as envy, ego, insecurity, nationalism, regionalism, and so on. These negative emotions may cause one to cut down another to make oneself look good or to feel more important.

The fact is that the ability to teach and the ability to fit in are at least as important as the ability to speak the language. And, as in any profession, language teachers must enjoy teaching.

Anyone who teaches because they want to teach, and not because they find themselves in need of an income in a foreign land and happen to speak a language that is in demand, must have a professional motive. So, it’s very important that the travelling teacher has an experience that is professionally fulfilling.

Personal motives for travelling as a teacher are as varied as the travellers themselves. I have met a great number of travelling teachers over the years. I have met people looking to experience new cultures, wishing to acquire a new language, wanting to meet new people, looking for romance, putting in a gap year after graduation or between careers, wanting to be with partners hailing from the foreign country, running from problems at home, trying to escape disillusionment with their native culture, looking for investment opportunities, attracted by cheap booze, doing missionary work, looking for a way to make their western cash go further, looking for work experience to pad their CVs, or simply looking for a change to escape the ennui of the daily grind. In fact, most of us travel for several of these reasons all wound up together, but very few for the exact same set of reasons.

This would tell us that there is no universal recipe for a great personal experience. Most successful travelling teachers, however, tend to be ‘people people’ and are (or soon learn to be) tolerant of cultural differences.

Although there are innumerable personal reasons that send one travelling, I think that there are considerably fewer reasons for making a person decide to teach.

Reflecting on my own experiences as a student and thinking about the public school teachers and university professors I have endured or enjoyed, as the case may be, I can roughly, divide them into three categories: those who took up teaching because they didn’t know what else to do with the rest of their lives; those who were drawn to teaching because they perceived a good ratio of cash to contact hours (i.e. perceived short working days and long holidays with a regular paycheque); and those who were drawn to the profession by a love of teaching, learning or a need to share something. It’s not necessary to elaborate on which teachers tend to be endured and which tend to be enjoyed. Likewise, travelling teachers can also be roughly pigeonholed.

Assuming we have entered into the teaching profession for the right set of reasons, the question that remains is, “How can we teach well?”  Of course, as with any profession, this comes down to hard work, natural ability, creativity, finding mentors, knowing where to find resources that can help us, gaining experience, and developing organisational skills. Fortunately, some of this can be learned.

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