Demand for English teaching is booming as all the world wants to learn the Internet's first language. It's a ready passport for work, but it's not without its perils. Martin Whittaker reports.
Teaching English as a foreign language has long been regarded as a good way to see other countries and get paid for it. Accelerated by its dominance of the internet, demand for English is increasing, particularly in China and Russia, among central European countries queuing to join the European Union, and former Soviet states such as Azerbaijan or Georgia.
"There's a huge demand around the world," says Cherry Gough of the British Council, which operates 126 English language schools in around 60 countries. "I think there are still quite a lot of people who start off wanting to see the world, and it's a good way of doing it. But there's still a percentage of people who stay and decide it's a worthwhile career.
"Some countries want to bring in teachers to help training for their state school teachers. And a lot of people get further qualifications to go down that path."
But it can be a rocky one. Tefl is regarded as the poor relation of teaching, a huge unregulated industry with some training not recognised by employers, low pay and teachers prone to unscrupulous employers.
Teachers sent abroad by a big employer for the first time may expect to be treated like a business expat and airlifted out at the first hint of trouble. But they can be left to fend for themselves.
The EL Gazette, a newspaper for English teachers abroad, this month carries a story about a language centre in Kuwait where teachers were still working a week into the Iraq war. Staff and students were frequently leaving the premises because of air-raid warnings. The centre's director recounted how she had seen a Scud missile pass the building and land in the sea.
All but two of her 30 teachers were still in Kuwait. Only teachers working for companies that offered paid leave to cover evacuation had left. "I think we should all have left," she told the newspaper.
Certain career areas within Tefl are booming, particularly in training teachers and in teaching children. "There is a way of making a career, but you have to be fast on your feet, globally mobile and adventurous," says Melanie Butler, editor of the EL Gazette. "The other thing it's surprisingly good for is retiring people. Suppose you're a secondary or primary school teacher and you want to move to Spain, Italy or France - it's a brilliant move.
"Also in the UK there's a market for what's called 'live in a teacher's home' which again suits retired teachers. You have a student come and live with you to learn English. It's not spectacularly paid, butit's a nice little earner on the side."
So how do you qualify to teach English as a foreign language? You really need a first degree as a minimum - in some countries it's illegal to teach without one.
And there are different levels of Tefl qualification. There are courses with teaching practice which qualify you to certificate level, and equip you to start off as an EFL teacher.
The next step up is the diploma for a teacher with a few years' experience thinking of a longer-term career teaching English abroad. Some go on to do a master's degree.
Training can be a big pitfall. Some courses are poor and lead to qualifications not recognised by employers abroad. Qualifications need to be validated by a reputable, internationally recognised body, such as Cambridge English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) or Trinity College, London. Both run centres in more than 40 countries.
Some universities offer Tefl, but some courses are purely academic - and many employers will want evidence of teaching practice. Trainees should always ask what is the validating body for a course.
"Particularly there's a problem with some distance-learning courses. There are quite a few around which aren't validated, and obviously they don't include teaching practice," says Cherry Gough of the British Council. "The problem is that there's no international supervising body."
Similarly, stories abound of poor employers and schools with little or no training and development. One teacher in his first job abroad found he had no resources and, for teaching material, he had to use recipes on soup packets he'd brought with him.
So how do you avoid bad employers? "We advise trainees to do their homework beforehand," says Jenny Johnson, head of teacher training at International House, Barcelona, which runs 130 Tefl schools worldwide.
"Do as much research as possible on first of all the country you want to go to, and secondly the possible employers in that country.
"Try to join a known chain of schools, where you will get the protection you need, help with language or accommodation. And just ask as many questions of as many people as possible."
EFL teachers overseas do tend to form their own support networks. And, says Cherry Gough, the benefits far outweigh the horrors. "What's really nice is that you live in a country. Traditionally, English teaching in a private language school is working with adults. You do also become friends with those people. You do make lots of friends locally and it's just a fascinating insight into a country. And as a teacher you tend to be respected."
FIND OUT MORE: ADVICE AND INFORMATION
For further details about teaching English as a foreign language, see these websites:l www.teachingenglish.org.uk - for all teachers of English, hosted by the British Council and the BBCl http:searchenglish.britishcouncil.org
- good for professionals looking for research resourcesl Cambridge English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) at www.cambridge-efl.org and Trinity College, London www.trinitycollege.co.ukl Another useful site is Dave's ESL Cafe at www.eslcafe.com l The 'EL Gazette' publishes a guide to English Language Teaching - see www.elgazette.com
* www.britishcouncil.orglanguage assistantindex.html - for inexperienced teachers with minimal qualifications. Contains a full resource book offering advice on classroom practice written by a former language assistant.