Do I need a TESOL / TEFL certificate to teach English abroad? This is a question that many people ask me after having worked as an ESL teacher in three different countries. More than 10 years ago, the TESOL certificate wasn’t as much of a requirement. My first teaching job abroad was under a mango tree in Uganda. The students were aged from four to sixteen and I was instructed to teach them English, based purely on the fact that I am English and the assumption that I would therefore be able to pass my knowledge onto others. This TESOL approach, whilst fun, was not effective. The main part of my lesson consisted of waving plastic, colored plates, and encouraging the students to shout out the correct colors. My first teaching job abroad was a vehicle to travel and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I continued to teach abroad without TESOL certification and the challenges only got worse as the job required more from me.
Teaching in South Korea: The Just Follow the ESL Textbook and Don’t Look Back Approach
My first full-time teaching contract was in 2011 in South Korea. I went, in part, for the favorable financial conditions, and for the opportunity to live in a new part of the world that I knew nothing about. I started teaching abroad with no TESOL certification and only a few hours of classroom (mango tree) teaching experience. In short, I was not an ESL teacher. I was traveling the world and using teaching as my vessel. When I look back on some of my initial classes, I am embarrassed by some of them.
Although I clicked with the children quite quickly (possibly due to growing up with four younger brothers), I didn’t have a clue what I was doing with regards to teaching English. The attitude towards education in my ‘hagwon’ (Private ESL academy in South Korea) was more geared towards making the children do as many questions from the textbook as possible. This attitude by the hagwon helped me act the part while I had fun travelling the world, but it was not helping anyone. The classes were a total snooze and children did not speak much English by the end of the year.
I used a lot of ESL games to make up for the sleepy classes. But every time I showed my lessons to my TESOL certified colleagues, they said the ESL games weren’t connected to anything specific class objective and when the game was connected to the class objective I did not exploit it further in the lesson. So I just followed the textbook as much as I could and changed something here and there when a colleague shared a fun ESL activity to bring up the energy of the class.
Teaching English in Istanbul: Now What Do I Do without a Textbook!?
I went on to teach in Istanbul, full-time, in a school where there was no curriculum, around a quarter of the children had textbooks and half had pens, there was no class register, and all around there was generally no structure whatsoever, which made any form of education near impossible.
Having completed an accredited TESOL certificate course would have prepared me to plan the lessons myself. It was an extremely unfulfilling job and a far cry from my time in South Korea, where I actually enjoyed the classes and the relationships that I developed with my ESL students. But I am aware that this was my fault because I chose a place to teach that was wrong for me and I never got the proper TESOL training and certification.
For me, not having completed an accredited TESOL certification meant that my ESL teaching career was deemed to expire, as I could not progress past poorly paid jobs. I lost interest after a while so I stopped teaching English altogether. Some of my TESOL certified co-workers from South Korea have moved up to better teaching jobs and they love teaching English because they felt they were true educators from the beginning. I could have completed a TESOL course after my experience in Turkey, but at some point, I just didn’t feel like a real educator anymore and went on to do something else.
I guess I can’t lead by example if you asked me the question, “do I need a TESOL to teach abroad?”. The older and more experienced version of me would say, “ask yourself some deeper questions before moving to another country to do a job without any qualifications. Are you comfortable with not progressing past low-paying teaching jobs? Do you want to feel confident on the job? And, do you want to feel that you are making a difference? “.