“I wish I had asked that question before I took the job.”
These are words you don’t want to find yourself muttering in the midst of your teaching contract in a foreign country. Whether you are just getting started or you have been in the TEFL field for years, asking the right questions during an interview and contract negotiations will ensure that you don’t just accept any job, but that you select the one that best suits you. And, importantly, tough questions guard you against those few unscrupulous employers whose greed may leave you broke, in legal tangles and without a reference.
“We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.”– Bono
Whenever you start a new job, there’s always the chance that you may not like your co-workers, that you may disagree with your boss, or that the working environment just may not be ideal for you, but if you ask the following questions, you’ll have a better chance of discovering these potential problems before you sign on the dotted line. As Bono once said: “We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.”
When Looking for a School
How do I want my resume to look?
While it can be tempting to work for a small language school to stay in a favorite place, future employers may not see this as “legitimate” work experience. The school might not even be in business anymore by the time a potential employer checks references. Even if the salary is lower, in the long run, it may be best to go with the most reputable employer.
What’s teacher turnover like?
Turnover in an organization is always a good indicator of how well the teachers are treated. Though many TEFL teachers only spend one year in a particular school, it could be a bad sign if no one is signing up for a second contract. Speak to current and former teachers can also help you determine the level of satisfaction most teacher have with the school.
Can I moonlight?
Some contracts restrict the amount of freelance work you can pick up. If you’re banking on making some extra cash to supplement your income this way, make sure you find out if private tutoring and “freelancing” is prohibited.
What type of visa do I need?
Beware of language schools that say you can work on a tourist visa. You may be giving up a lot of your rights by not obtaining the appropriate documents. This can be a sticky issue because paying English teachers under the table to avoid the bureaucratic visa process is commonplace in many countries.
“You may be giving up a lot of your rights by not obtaining the appropriate documents.”
However, this means that the employer is probably not paying taxes, which could lead to legal problems―for you and the employer. If you don’t want to deal with the bureaucratic hassles, look for a school that takes care of the required permits for you.
What benefits does the company offer?
Countries which do not offer the highest salaries may offer some of the best benefits such as health insurance; free language, cooking, and even dance classes.
It’s not unusual for schools to provide subsidized housing and/or help finding accommodation, assistance with repaying student loans, and even free air transportation to the country. You might even be able to negotiate a particular benefit that you desire. And then there are countries such as Japan which offer some of the highest salaries and the best benefits.
When Negotiating Your Contract
What stipulations are outlined in the contract?
You’re not buying a house but that doesn’t mean you should just glance at what you’re being asked to sign. For example, if you are teaching company classes, some language schools may require that you agree not to accept any work for said company for X number of years after completing your contract. You should ask yourself how much you want to restrict your future employment offerings before signing anything away.
Will I be reimbursed for class preparation costs such as photocopies?
If the school doesn’t provide textbooks or if the materials require supplements―which is usually the case if you are carefully planning your classes― it wouldn’t hurt to ask if you can get reimbursed for these expenses.
Who pays taxes?
In addition to any tax obligations you may have in your home country, it’s important to clarify, in the beginning, which party is responsible for any tax obligations there might be as a result of your employment.
For example, in Costa Rica―considering the average salary of an English teacher― taxes are 10% to 15% of your net income. Some language schools deduct the amount from your employee paycheck while others consider you a “freelance” contractor. U.S. citizens may qualify for a Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, which means they will not be double taxed. Check www.irs.gov for more information.
Will I get paid if students miss class?
Most language schools pay (and should pay) their teachers when students miss class. After all, you’ve still shown up and taken your time to be there. Even if you don’t get the full pay, you should be compensated for your time in some way.
How and when will I be paid?
Ask if the institute pays on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis, and if this is consistent. Keep in mind that some employers are more punctual than others, which may affect how you budget.
If you are supplementing your income from home, keep in mind that the average bank transaction fee is $5, not including the local ATM fee. Make sure you arrive in the country with at least enough money to get you to your second paycheck, just in case there is some kind of delay.
What challenges do teachers face with this particular student population?
How motivated are the students? To make sure you accept a position that allows you to excel as a teacher, you need to know if you are prepared to meet the potential challenges.
When Accepting a Position
How long will I have to travel to and from class and how much does transportation cost?
If you’re on your own for housing arrangements, you can choose where to live based on proximity to the school, but if the school is providing housing, you’ll want to find out exactly where you’ll be living in relation to the school before you take the job.
“The good news is that transportation costs can often be negotiated at the beginning of the relationship.”
You may find out that the two-hour class you are getting paid for takes five hours out of your day (not including prep time) and 1/3 of your hourly wage to get there. The good news is that transportation costs can often be negotiated at the beginning of the relationship.
What reports will I need to prepare?
You could be asked to spend several hours preparing reports/grades, and that time may be counted outside of your teaching hours, meaning you could be doing a whole lot of extra work for no extra money.
Learn as much as possible about the institution’s processes upfront so that you are not surprised by an additional workload.
How often will I be required to attend meetings?
Teacher meetings are another requirement that might add to your time spent working with no extra pay. If you know that you will be required to attend meetings, you may be able to negotiate getting paid for your time if you are an hourly employee.
Will I have to make up classes students miss?
What happens if your students don’t show up? Some language schools have a policy allowing students to make up classes. You should find out how such a policy affects your hours and salary.
Will I need to purchase any materials for classes?
Most language schools provide textbooks. Find out if there is a budget for markers, English newspapers and magazines, recordable DVDs, ink cartridges for your printer, printing paper and other materials you might need to purchase for classes. Otherwise, you’ll need to figure these costs into your living expenses.
What is the dress code?
If you are teaching company classes outside of the school, you may be required to follow that company’s dress code. Prepare by packing a few pairs of slacks, a couple of long-sleeved dress shirts, a tie or two and a nice pair of shoes.
Even if you ask all these questions and more, your experience teaching English in a foreign country may come with challenges.. But the more information you gather before you go, the better your chances of finding the perfect program for your needs.
Do you have experience teaching English abroad? Share what you’ve learned by tweeting us @bootsnall