Teaching English Internationally

Nicholas Ferdinandt explains what qualifications are needed to teach English as a Foreign Language

The growing demand for English language speakers all over the world is driving a global need for teachers of English as a foreign language (TEFL). That global need brings many people to me with a range of questions that can only be answered by an array of questions that each person must answer for him/herself. The answers to these questions will direct each person to the qualifications necessary to realize his/her ultimate goal — whether that is to have a globetrotting adventure or to build a teaching career in the globalized world.

There are three main qualifications for teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (ESL/EFL). The entry level to the EFL profession is the TEFL certificate (also known as a TESOL or CELTA certificate in some circles), which normally requires you to have at least a few years of college and at least 100 hours of teacher training. The next degree is the Masters in ESL and the terminal degree for this field, of course, is the PhD. So, potential students in our TEFL program at the University of Arizona often ask me which one they will need to teach English and each request for information sets me on a search for information from each person. So, what does the required level of qualification depend upon?

Question 1: What are you planning on doing?

This question has other variations, like: Where do you want to live? What culture or language are you most interested in? If the answer is, “I want to teach English in the U.S. or another English-speaking country, such as Australia or England,” the answer is, “Get an MA or a PhD.”

Then, the next question I ask is: Whom do you want to teach, children or adults? If it’s children, go to a nearby College of Education and obtain an MA in Teaching with certification or endorsement to teach ESL, a.k.a. English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) or English Language Learners (ELL)*. If you are interested in teaching in the European Union, you should try to muster your best British accent and get a Masters in ESL. If you already know that you’re more geared towards adults in English speaking countries, get an MA in ESL, TESOL, or Applied Linguistics. The MA still is the minimal degree to be able to teach in any intensive English program at a university in the U.S.

For nearly all the rest of the world, you’ll need two years of college or its equivalent and a TEFL certificate to teach children and adults alike.

Question 2: What are your ultimate goals in life?

If your ultimate goal is to teach English abroad on a permanent basis, I would say, of course, the higher the degree, the better in the long run. However, if you are interested in simply supplementing a long trip abroad, the TEFL certificate will do. If your ultimate goal is to be a respected professional in the field of language acquisition, doing research in the field, do not stop at the MA, but go straight to a PhD.

If your answer is that you’re not quite sure, the TEFL certificate and a year teaching abroad will quickly bring you an answer. Try to broaden your initial experience in teaching by instructing all ages — children, adolescents, and adults. Not all of us are suited to teaching all ages. I, for example, have no business teaching anyone under the age of 18, but I only know that because I’ve taught foreign languages to students from nine to 71 years of age.

Question 3: What are the limitations on your time and mobility?

A lot of retiring Baby Boomers and some retired folks come to me ready to travel the world and “finally work at something where they believe they can make a difference.” Some of them join the Peace Corps, and let the government choose the place they will be posted. Others have the means to retire and travel, but want to do it on their own time and dime. The TEFL certificate is the answer for them, because the two- to three-year commitment to a longer degree program not only is not worth the time and investment for them, but it delays them from reaching their ultimate goal of making a difference while they’re still healthy.

Many Baby Boomers are making a difference close to home as well and getting TEFL certificates to teach free English classes in volunteer programs to refugees in their communities. While the certificate is not necessary to do this kind of volunteer work, more and more of the volunteers realize the usefulness of a short program that helps them better understand what they are trying to do.

The other group that most seeks me out with questions is the graduating or recently graduated student. This group has more time and may consider a longer term commitment to the field. The TEFL certificate is the answer for them, given the current job market in the US and their desire to travel to gain the intercultural competence they’ll need to land a good job back here when things get better. Many go abroad for a short time and come back to seek the MA or a PhD, because they grow to love the profession, like so many of us.

The answers to some of life’s ultimate questions determine the professional qualifications you’ll need to be successful. So, answer these questions and take the plunge.

Nicholas Ferdinandt is the associate director and teacher training coordinator at the University of Arizona. He has taught English abroad in Brazil for five years and has been training teachers and administrating in schools for the last 12 years in various educational contexts. He holds an MA in Slavic from The Ohio State University and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.