A Guide to Teaching Abroad on Your Gap Year

Whether or not you intend to make your career in education, the opportunity for heading off to teach English abroad during a gap year is one which appeals to many. It can be an incredibly enriching, soul-fulfilling and mind expanding experience – probably incentive enough for some – but then there’s also the career development, CV building, professional contact creation and expansion of work experience too. And we haven’t even mentioned the fascinating cultural immersion and the friendships which will probably be of the life-long variety.

However, before you rush off to pack your bags and sally forth armed with nothing more than a spirit of adventure to face a classroom of pupils with, here are a few things you’ll need to know.

The Necessary and the Unnecessary

  • You must be a native English speaker OR have English speaking abilities of a very high level.
  • You will not need any previous teaching experience at all.
  • You will usually not be required to speak the native language of the country in which you are teaching and/or that of your pupils.
  • You must have an accreditation/qualification from a recognised institution if you want to compete for the most sought after positions with the highest rates of pay. BUT this doesn’t mean all paid teaching positions are impossible without qualifications and if you are looking for voluntary work it is a totally different set of rules altogether (and discussed later).
  • It is not necessary to have a university degree (see the section below)

Do I or Don’t I?…the University Degree Question

You will read time and again that you cannot teach English abroad at a respectable institute, school or organisation without a university degree (or college degree if the information is U.S. based). Now if this was indeed the case then there wouldn’t be all these folk – who have taken their gap year before university – out there doing it.

The truth is the ideal is to be in possession of any bachelor’s degree (education related or otherwise) and should you have one you can cherry-pick the prime posts in the world of teaching English abroad. There are certain schools and certain locations which will only consider those with degrees and furthermore in some countries it is actually a requirement to obtain a working visa. However, if posts only ever went to those with degrees the demand would far outweigh supply and many jobs would never be filled.

The demand for teachers is so high – and actually still increasing on a global scale – that should you come armed with an accredited qualification for teaching English overseas you will be received with open arms and in some cases may even be welcomed in with no qualifications whatsoever as long as you speak English well, show a good level of intelligence and resourcefulness and are spilling over with enthusiasm.

If you have your heart set on a particular country or even more specifically a particular region or teaching place check the visa restrictions and the minimum requirements for qualifications but many places – for example some of South America, Europe and Asia – have a great-deal-more-than-plenty of non-degree paid posts.

The Available Qualifications Explained

Arghhhhh – all those abbreviations, initials and acronyms – what do they mean? Aside from the certainty of leaving you with a spinning head that is!  But it’s really not that complicated  – there are really only 5 you need to think about and we’ll talk you through each one and their differences here. All 5 of these are recognised globally, each will take you to a place of preparation mentally and be valid for your lifetime; the rest is down to personal preference.

Important point – The first thing you need to know is that many, if not most, schools don’t really mind which certificate you have as long as you have one – others are more picky and may only accept a specific one.

Another important point …Whatever line you choose to go down be ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN your provider is an externally validated and accredited one. For UK based courses it is the British Council who provide assessment and accreditation – http://www.englishuk.com/

Yet another important point…(last one) – Some of the better courses will actively work with you after completion of their program to find you a creditable work placement. Where this service is offered and forms part of what you are paying for check exactly what that means – at base level it might just mean sending you a list of possible job vacancies by email while at the higher level you will be offered 1:1 in-depth and personalised assistance.

CELTAThe Cambridge Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults

Handed out by the highbrow academics of the coveted Cambridge University, England, the CELTA qualification is arguably the most highly prized by prospective employers. No matter where you take it, it will be the same because it is a totally standardised program unlike all but one of the others.

No previous teaching experience is required and you can take a full time course covering 4 -5 weeks or spread your learning over a few months to a year with a part-time course. There is no final exam but rather an ongoing assessment process.

TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language

This is perhaps the qualification you will see most often and is both widely recognised and respected worldwide. However, the program is not a standardised one which means content and quality vary alarmingly and, should you choose your provider carelessly, you could end up with a next-to-useless piece of paper.

There are various levels of TEFL of 100 hours, 120 hours and 150 hours. Some work placements simply require the 100 hour study program while some will state the in-depth 150 hours as the minimum and are typically the more highly competed for jobs.

There is also the option with TEFL to complete the whole course online which means you can literally be based anywhere in the world and not tied to a school. The other great bonus of online is the cost which is typically significantly less than alternative quality on-site programs. As with the physically based course there is no standardisation so ensure you are enrolling with an accredited provider.

IDELT – The Bridge International Diploma in English Language Teaching

A fully standardised and respected programme which is offered only and exclusively by BridgeTEFL centres worldwide. The intensive course covers 140 hours over a 4 week period and online courses are also available.


TESOL – Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages

Typically offered through universities, these non-standardised (and somewhat newer to the arena) courses tend to cover a broader range in less depth and are rather less recognised than the others listed here but still have value if you choose an accredited provider.

TESL – Teaching English as a Second Language

Another (usually) university offered, non-standardised programme which is aimed at those who ultimately want to teach English to non-native speakers living in an English speaking country such as temporary students, immigrants and temporary workers.

Volunteer Teaching Placements

This is a subject all of itself and it will be impossible to give it the all the space it deserves here. However, the base line is this – if you are prepared to give your time for free you can go just about anywhere in the world. Wherever you present yourself in this guise you are likely to be snapped up and especially in less regulated places and the more neglected rural areas of many countries.

You could be working in dedicated schools, community buildings, makeshift school rooms in homes and villages or in a monastery – there really is no end to the possibilities. All that is generally required here is a whole lot of energy and enthusiasm; positions available range from a week to a couple of years commitment length.

However there is one very big and very important thing you need to know and it is in regard to costs you might be asked to pay. Sad but true is the fact that as more and more good folk seek out voluntary projects there are also those who seek to make some money from the demand. In this case those people are the thousand and one companies who promise a voluntary experience of a lifetime – including teaching placements – provided you fork out a small fortune first. They may well deliver on the ‘great experience’ front but also typically offer manufactured projects and questionable ethics.

There are thousands upon thousands of genuine and meaningful teaching opportunities out there offered by those desperate for your time and knowledge and for which you are not asked to pay a penny. In some cases you might be asked to pay or contribute towards lodging and meals but sometimes these are also provided.

Some of the free or low cost resources you might like to check out are:





Protecting Yourself

Many potential employers are desperate to fill their posts and their enthusiasm may make them somewhat less than honest with regard to quite what the job entails and the benefits provided. There are a few questions you will want to ask of any possible future employer before taking a job while also bearing in mind cultural differences. What is totally acceptable practice in a certain country may seem terrible to you. If you think cultural adaptation is likely to be a problem you can perhaps choose somewhere a little less challenging such as a city in Europe instead of a tiny little village in the Mexican mountains.

There are of course also huge differences in what comes with the job by way of benefits outside of your salary. Some placements will pay for everything – your flight there, housing costs, health insurance, transport costs and so forth although typically these are the posts which require at least a year’s commitment. Others might place you in a subsidised house with other teachers or offer you help in finding nearby lodgings – there is no one-size-fits-all, even in the same country.

Questions to ask could include:

  • What are my hours of work on both a daily and weekly basis?
  • When I am not teaching are there any rules about what hours I must spend in the school?
  • Will I be given any support such as monitoring or supervision and if so to what extent?
  • What time off will I have? (This relates to ongoing weekly days off and also holiday.)
  • Will I be expected to participate in activities outside of normal school hours?
  • What initial orientation and ongoing training will be provided?
  • Do I get paid if I am sick?
  • Ask for references from current teaching staff (so you can be sure contract promises are being fulfilled).

Finally, check that your school is not on one of the teaching blacklists which can be found through sites such as www.teflcoursereview.com

Top 5 Countries to Teach (Without a Degree)

Do your sums – on paper one teaching placement might look like a money fountain but when you balance this with the cost of living that gleaming salary might lose some of its shine. Transversely, a rather more modest pay packet in another country could actually leave you richer.

  1. China – A booming economy and jobs aplenty for the degree-less as long as you steer clear of Beijing and Shanghai. If you’re looking for some real add-on benefits such as housing allowances, medical insurance and paid airfare China is your best bet.
  2. Nicaragua – Beautiful, cheap and far much less jostling for posts than other places, the teaching opportunities in Nicaragua are mostly concentrated around the major cities. You can even opt to take the TEFL course here in Leon if you choose.
  3. Spain – If you’d like to teach in Europe without a degree Spain, with its high demand for English teachers, is your best bet.
  4. Mexico – Thanks to a change in law which offers work permits to those properly accredited – TEFL etc. – Mexico is now on the teaching English map for those without a degree. Here there are opportunities for teaching school-age children as well as university-age adults and business people.
  5. Argentina – Huge demand for English teachers in this South American country mean the positions are available in both cities and countryside. All pupil age ranges are covered and as long as you have your TEFL or equivalent you can expect good pay rates.