Interpreting a TEFL/ESL/TESOL Job Advert: Beyond the Rhetoric

A fantastic guest piece on the perils of the TEFL job ad by Will Pearson:

Few professions in the world have such a unified online job market. Schools now see the Internet as the first place to advertise, while a great many teachers look for jobs, and are hired online. In this article we look frankly at online TEFL/ESL job adverts, trying to cast out the TEFL job horrors and discover those TEFL gems that do exist. To do this we need all our wits, a decent working knowledge of the global TEFL market and a strong dose of realism. What we have here is a list of clauses taken from a variety of online job descriptions which we are going to interpret. All of the following quotes were taken from November 2009 postings on the job forums at, Dave’s ESL Café (International Job board), and ESL Base.

1. Salary and money

One of the most disappointing aspects of the TEFL/ESL job search is the lack of information available about salaries. Unfortunately, not disclosing the salary is the norm, and not the exception. Instead, many schools opt for bland statements which don’t help an aspiring job applicant. Most prevalent is ‘competitive local salary’. Competitive with what? Local teachers? Few Western teachers would be able to live comfortably on a local teacher salary in Russia for example, especially being a foreigner. Some jobs have the audacity to state ‘salary allows for comfortable middle class lifestyle’. It is unlikely a language school has conducted research into what constitutes a middle class salary, nor do they even bother to define what middle class really means in the context of the named country. A less common advertised condition is this: ‘Salaries are generally above the average paid by other private language schools in the areas concerned’. Ultimately, it is irrelevant what other schools pay, and only reveals that this particular school is involved in a race to the bottom, by only just paying more than what they think their competitors do. Bad form. If schools expect quality language professionals, they need to advertise high salaries in full, allowing teachers to make their own informed decisions.

The entirety of TEFL salaries do not rest altogether on a main basic payment. Either because salaries are low or it’s just the way the market operates, schools tend to offer a plethora of financial and non-financial benefits. As we’re dealing with money, let’s look at the very common ‘contract completion payment’. For reasons unbeknown to most, the majority of schools offer a contract completion bonus – usually one that accumulates monthly – to teachers who stick out an entire contract. Such ‘payments’ start around $50 a month and tend not to be higher than $100. Nevertheless, wouldn’t you prefer to have such money incorporated into your basic salary, allowing you the luxury to resign should the job not be to your liking?

2. Perks to get you to sign

A company car is a perk. A coffee machine is a perk. ‘Visa and work permits organised’ is clearly not a perk, because if the company doesn’t do this, they won’t be able to hire any teachers. Watch out for schools that sound off similar so-called ‘perks’, which actually offer little substance and are meaningless. Take for example: ‘A salary increase of 10% is paid to teachers signing for a second year contract’. This sounds generous, but like the aforementioned visa carrot, it offers nothing. The particular job in question was for a monthly wage of Chinese CNY 6000 (around EUR 600). Few other professions would offer appalling salary increases of only EUR60 a month. Stinginess.

One perk which does make a real difference to teachers looking to relocate to another country is ‘airflight allowance’. However, watch the wording. In this example, it seems unlikely that the school will pay all of your return flight. I much prefer ‘paid return airfare’, although all too often teachers must wait a whole contract or half before they see their money again. For teachers from Australia and New Zealand, ensure your school pays your entire airfare as many schools are happy to hire antipodeans, but don’t want to pay for your whole airfare.

For a job that involves going abroad, the idea of holidays sounds a bit unnecessary. However, everyone needs time off work, and it is sad to see teachers disillusioned because they haven’t had the opportunity to explore their new country of residence. The number of holiday days per year varies enormously. When looking at job adverts, it’s all about the most amount of paid days you can get. Ignore nonsense like: ‘Teachers will have about twenty-five days unpaid holidays per year.’ Few other professions sink this low to try and state that all holidays have to be unpaid. One step better is: ’20 days paid holidays (for 12 month contract)’. Still, this amounts to less than three weeks in an entire year of holiday! People outside of TEFL/ESL laugh at this and no-one should sign a contract offering such minimal time off.

3. Working hours

From my research, bar far the most common amount of hours which schools offered on a full time contract was 24-25 hours teaching hours a week. Bare in mind that some schools consider these hours as ‘academic’ (45 minutes), and therefore the actual teaching load is smaller. Planning and preparation time obviously comprises the rest of your weekly hours (10-15 hours). Schools rarely stipulate how long this must be though. However, having 25 hours teaching a week may not be as simple as it seems as in the next example of poor practice: ‘Saturday is a working day, there are 2 long mornings off between Monday-Friday’. How long can a morning be to compensate for a whole lost weekend day? Even if you wake up at 07:00 you still have to go to work in five hours!

Some teachers swear by overtime, while others swear at it. Some companies tend to outline their requirements for overtime on their adverts. This is beneficial as they can always say they told you so if you complain about having to do overtime. For example; ‘[there is] the opportunity to teach extra hours to increase quarterly bonuses’. Be wary this isn’t the school inviting itself to offload more classes on to you. It also isn’t clear how these classes are paid. As a bonus?

4. Accommodation and local living

The golden rule when looking at the accommodation or local quality of life issues in job adverts is to be very wary. The classic TEFL/ESL recruiting trick is to compensate a contract with poor terms and conditions by highlighting all the beautiful temples, beaches, and historic old town that a country has. These beaches seem less beautiful, nevertheless, if you can’t get time off to visit them or your apartment is an hour away from the historic centre. If I want tourist advice on a country I will go to their ministry of tourism website, NOT the language school hoping to employ me. This is just an underhand trick to disguise their poor working environments.

If a school provides housing, ‘shared accommodation provided for teachers’ is the norm. Schools seldom say more than this, meaning your quality of life depends largely on the quality of your house mate, the quality of the apartment and the location of it. It is advisable to get as much info on this as you can before you depart so you are in a stronger position vis-a-vis the school. If possible, find out if the school offers money in lieu of the apartment if you want to find your own. This will give you an idea of how much your apartment is really worth as a part of your salary.

5. Teaching children

So important a good school is if you are teaching children that we wrote out this entire section of pitfalls and things to go for. First the dangers to watch out for: ‘bed time duties for teachers’ ranks as just about the worst thing that you could get as a TEFL/ESL teacher of young learners, closely followed by this: ‘must enjoy teaching children classes’. In no other job would an employer remark that the employee must ‘enjoy his/her work’! While, obviously their intention is to hire someone who has a genuine ability to motivate children, this remark smacks of a school that doesn’t want to support teachers with behaviour management.

The better schools should provide you with hard facts when it comes to kids’ classes. Take for example; ‘Classes are limited to 2-4 students’, ‘learners consist mainly of children between the ages of 3-14′, and ‘learners consist mainly of children between the ages of 3-14′. All these clearly sign post what lies ahead, so if you do like children, you know what you are getting, and if you don’t, you can get the hell out.

6. Final warning signs

By now, we have worked our way through a number of stipulations in TEFL/ESL contracts that are cause for concern for English teachers. In this final section, we bring together a nebulous array of worrisome devils that seem to plague job adverts and should be regarded as warning signs to prospective teachers. If you are applying through look out for how many vacancies there are available. A dual digit limitation means that the maximum number of vacancies a school can advertise is 99. ’99 vacancies available’ is bothersome because it indicates that the school has a high turnover of staff. Why would people want to leave a job if they were satisfied? It is most likely that they are not. On other websites the alarm bell is ‘DOS, ADOS and EFL Teachers required’. What has happened to their existing staff if they are hiring so many new people? One can only worry.

I have been in two minds whether or not to add ‘no teaching experience necessary’, as all of us have had to start our TEFL/ESL career somewhere. However, even teachers who are newly qualified with CELTA/CertTESOL have some teaching experience and therefore can do better than the large chains which seek wholly inexperienced teachers. If you do have experience, do not touch such places. In TEFL/ESL, every year of experience adds dollars to your pay check, get this rewarded by looking for incremental increases in job adverts.

Finally, let us finish this roller-coaster ride through the archives of TEFL/ESL job classifieds by looking at the most prevalent statement throughout; ‘The cost of living is low’. Please ask yourself when considering a job ‘to who?’ The cost of living is not low to everyone in Europe or the US, so it won’t be in a TEFL destination. More often than not, this statement is used to justify a weak salary. Naturally, a salary is only as good as how expensive a country is, but just remember if a school feels the need to mention it, you are probably being taken for a ride.

To sum up, when you look at a TEFL/ESL job advert again, use these tips and hints to make sure you are getting the good deal you deserve, as once you have arrived in your new country of employment it is very hard to akter terms and conditions. Look out for a salary you know is good relative to your currency, not local wages. Ignore bold-sounding, but ultimately hollow benefits such as a contract completion bonus, public holidays advertised as your annual holiday, and visa support. This will not only benefit you, but other teachers also, as unscrupulous schools will eventually go out of business.

About the Author

Having been an English teacher for three years in various destinations such as Russia, the UK and Singapore, Will has developed a keen interest in TEFL/ESL/TESOL resource development and management. He has established his own TEFL/ESL/TESOL supplementary handouts website, an Internet subscription database of over 1000 downloadable supplementary handouts.

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10 Responses to Interpreting a TEFL/ESL/TESOL Job Advert: Beyond the Rhetoric

  1. Bernice says:

    Makes me nervous about starting a new career in my 40. Of course it will be up to me to make it success. What place do you recommend as the best teach? You covered the negatives quite well.

  2. david says:

    Good luck with your career change, this can be a very rewarding lifestyle if you know what you want to get out of it. Think about what kind of culture you want to live in when making a decision about where to go.

  3. Exactly the thing i want to say TEFL/TESOL provides great opportunity to get job in abroad.

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  5. david says:

    Hope you’re better with your prepositions on the course, Tesol Australia.

  6. Pingback: The Future of Online TEFL/ESL Supplementary Resources through Intelligent Handout Matching

  7. bobs12 says:

    Very nicely put. Having taught in Russia for practically all my lousy teaching ‘career’, as well as being a helping hand to many of those who fell into the downstream side of the TEFL spiral, I can say those job description observations are bang on for most of the schools I am familiar with.

    Teachers who are on a contract with good conditions are an oddity, and there seems to be a ‘like it or lump it’ mentality in the industry, as if to say, ‘it’s TEFL, what did you expect?’. As if we’re prostitutes asking for a proper contract from the brothel.

  8. Adam says:

    One of the best articles I’ve read in a while. Thank you.

  9. Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for sharing this illuminating post detailing several pitfalls behind too often misleading ESL/EFL job ads.

    Let me add two more factors that can lead to problems from personal experience. Last winter I was hired by an elite private high school in Vietnam to evaluate their English programs. They were satified and paid more than enough so I was satisfied too. Then they fly me out to see their current – and several planned future campuses. Again, I was impressed with their vision, ambition, and possibilities. I agreed to serve as an acting director of education for the summer school programs and oversee the hiring of a more professional, international staff of experienced educators for their school. So far, perfect. Good title; good pay; and a worthy educational challenge.

    But I allowed my hopes to suspend my natural scepticism because of personal connections. The dean was a longtime friend who wanted me to adapt my textbook Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations for Vietnam and start a school publishing press. Flattered and excited, I didn’t worry about many details, and focused more on the exciting possibilities. After determining my salary, I didn’t worry about details.

    MISTAKE!!! Details matter – especially working conditions and pay.

    First, I found out to surprise that I was expected to work six days a week instead of five. Second, it was impossible to actually implement any plans because the school owner would never sign off on purchases. Third, my paycheck had to be deposited in a local bank – and taxes and other unclear deductions emerged. The bottomline: I became a consultant paid less than expected whose advice was never taken – and felt rather foolish. I’m very glad that I kept my university position in the United States.

    Of course, a few friends mocked my situation noting that getting well-paid and having a nice title is rather good work – especially in a beautiful country. Yet it was also profoundly disappointing. I expected to help build a chain of schools and help establish a new university. Instead, I found myself writing detailed course outlines for classes that never opened.

    In the future, I will ask to see the contract before going abroad. I will also found out if contracts are enforced, and research much more about a school’s reputation. I will probably also Google the owner’s name and, if possible, contact a few former employees before packing my bags and traveling thousands of miles.

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