TEFL : Gap year or lifelong career?

“When are you going to move back home and settle down?” is a question you get asked a lot as an a EFL teacher. Despite the fact that teaching English abroad is just as legitimate a career choice as any other, it can often be viewed as more of a gap year by your non-TEFLing family and friends. “It’s just a phase” and “get it out of your system while you’re young” are sentiments you’ll hear time and again, as though being a teacher in a foreign country were on a par with dying your hair turquoise or trying to “make it” with your band. 

The problem is that this perception of TEFL as being some sort of stopgap has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. From the get-go, many people are being led to believe that teaching abroad is more of an escape than an accomplishment. As such, even the most enthusiastic of teachers can feel the pressure to return to “real life” eventually. The truth is, however, that while TEFL can be temporary, it doesn’t always have to be, and we’re here to tell you why! 

The unusually high turn-over rate of EFL teachers is in many ways understandable. It can be tough living in a foreign country, away from your home comforts and the people you know and love the most. It is possible, however, to find a home away from home – somewhere you feel content and can build a life. While one of the great things about TEFL is that you can work pretty much anywhere in the world, there’s no rule that says you have to continually move around, so if you find somewhere that feels like the perfect fit, why not stick around? If you do decide to move back home at some point, remember that there are plenty of EFL institutions in English-speaking countries as well (not to mention online teaching), so you don’t necessarily have to change careers. 

Another reason that people tend to leave the EFL industry after a few years is the common misconception that there’s little opportunity for upward mobility or professional development. There are, however, plenty of options out there – you just need to know where to look for them. The more teaching experience you gain, the more opportunities will present themselves to you. If you fancy taking on a more managerial role you could work towards becoming a department head or Director of Studies. Alternatively, you could become your own boss by teaching privately, and perhaps even open your own school one day! If you’ve had enough of teaching English but want to put all of your experience to good use, you could become an instructor who trains prospective TEFLers. You could also be an examiner, or get into content writing and academic publishing. The possibilities really are endless, as long as you’re willing to knuckle down and gain experience as a regular ol’ EFL teacher first.

But wait! We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before you go building an empire, just think about all of the other positive reasons you should put the time in as a teacher. First of all, it takes a while to settle in and find your rhythm with any profession. This adjustment period is magnified with TEFL because not only are you faced with a new job, but with a completely new life as well. Your first year of teaching will whiz by before you know it and you’ll barely have had time to put everything you’ve learned into practise. Ask anyone who’s renewed their contract for a second year and almost all of them will tell you that it was a completely different (and often more enjoyable) experience. 

It’s a bit like going to uni – in the first year you’re so busy trying to juggle all of the new things in your life that you don’t really know what you’re doing. Somehow you muddle through, but it’s all a bit of a blur come summer break. In the second year, however, you find your feet, both academically and personally, so you’re better able to appreciate it all. Similarly, the more experience you gain, the easier and more enjoyable teaching becomes. The better language schools and companies out there often offer their teachers professional development programmes, such as how to teach exam preparation classes or special techniques for working with young learners. Take advantage of these opportunities when you can – they look great on your CV and will leave you better equipped to teach a wide range of students. 

But enough about you. The EFL industry in general could really do with more teachers who are passionate about their jobs and willing to stick around long term. For one thing, it’s better for students, especially kids, to have consistency. The more teachers that come and go, the more disrupted their learning becomes. The longer you teach a group of students, the better you get to know them and their individual learning needs. As such, your leaving can have a major impact on their progress, especially if it’s mid-semester. 

Secondly, if there wasn’t such a high turn over of teachers, it would be far easier to regulate and improve the whole system. Currently, some less reputable schools see their teachers as disposable; they expect them to leave after a year (because they so often do) so they don’t invest much time or energy into their development. They use the job’s temporary image to their advantage, repeatedly hiring inexperienced recent graduates who’re willing to work long hours for low salaries and no perks. This is a vicious cycle, as even the teachers who initially thought they were in it for the long haul are running for the door by the end of the first school year. It’s also just bad business because when teachers feel undervalued, they have no motivation to improve. They put less effort into their work and as a result their students don’t enjoy their classes as much. So, just in case gaining valuable work experience and providing stability for your students aren’t good enough reasons to stay, get political and do it for your comrades! 

All in all, becoming a long term EFL teacher is better for you, it’s better for your students, and it’s better for the entire industry. Look at you, saving the (TEFL) world in one fell swoop!