“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead–ahead of myself as well as you.”
― George Bernard Shaw
As I’ve re-entered the job market in Asia, I’ve looked at returning to teaching English as a foreign language (EFL); it’s a job I’ve enjoyed at times in the past despite the stress. After being away from the experience of teaching abroad, I have rediscovered the good and the bad in the job hunt. There are lessons that have stuck with me over the years, but I had forgotten about the general treatment and perception of most foreign English teachers in Asia, which is reflected in the operations of some schools and the contracts they offer. I’ve seen low pay, long hours, and absurd restrictions thrown at teachers for the “privilege” of teaching in certain places. I’ve also encountered some great operations that are, unfortunately, part time.
Peking University Graduate School across campus from where I worked in Shenzhen
The most important thing to remember when it comes to EFL jobs is that your questions to the employer are more important than the questions being asked to you. For any interview it is important to ask a potential employer some key questions; this element is much more important for EFL positions. Schools around the world need qualified English teachers—there are more available jobs than teachers available. This means you hold the upper hand in the interview process.
Unless you’re applying for a position with an established and respected program, such as JET, Peace Corps, or other government-sponsored program, there are questions you should ask to help avoid employment shocks and possible disasters in the future.
1. How many classes will I teach each day and how long is each class?
This sounds like an obvious question with an obvious answer, but it’s not. Some job advertisements state 18 hours of teaching per week or something similar. Does this mean 18 academic hours or total hours? How many classes will fill this time? Unless it is already stated, you should ask how much you will be paid for additional classes.
A good follow-up to this question is: How much time is there between classes? This will help in the future for you to decide how to prepare your classes.
If you have to teach more than 20 classes per week, the pay should be exceptional. I was offered a job that would have required me to teach 40 classes per week for less than $15 per class in Tokyo. If you factor in lesson planning time, you’re looking at a 60-hour work week for about $25,000 per year.
2. Are office hours mandatory and, if so, how many?
Just because you’re teaching 18 hours a week does not mean you will be at the school for only 18 hours. Many schools want to monopolize your time so that you won’t have time to tutor privately for extra cash.
You should also inquire as to what your duties will be outside of the classroom. If the school offers an acceptable salary, you may not be interested in tutoring part time, which means the office hours may not matter. In some cases, you may just sit at a computer doing whatever you want during those hours.
I had to schedule at least 10 hours of available office hours when I worked at the graduate school in China (I scheduled more to make the commute easier). This was intended as time for students to come in for additional help, but they almost never came, so I had more time to plan lessons and grade assignments (and take naps on my office sofa).
The graduate library in Shenzhen
3. Are there times when I will have to work on the weekend?
The job may claim that you will only work Monday through Friday, but that doesn’t mean they won’t alter the schedule and have you work on a Saturday or Sunday from time to time. In China, it is standard practice to “make up” classes on weekends when the classes have been canceled due to national holidays. This may create six- or even seven-day workweeks. In some countries this is unavoidable, but you should know what to expect.
4. Is housing provided or will you help me find an apartment prior to arrival?
This is a complicated question. If the school provides housing, what amenities and furnishings are included? Is housing on campus, and, if so, is there a curfew? If they help you find an apartment, how much will it cost and where will it be located? If the school doesn’t help you find an apartment, will they have temporary housing for you while you search for an apartment? Everyone should be very careful when it comes to housing in a foreign country as locals and foreigners are treated differently by landlords. The laws protecting tenants in your home country are not the same when you move abroad.
I interviewed for a program in Japan that required me to provide an address for where I’d be living, otherwise they’d have to rent an apartment to me at an inflated price (they were definitely making money off the rental).
Sometimes you get to live in a nice neighborhood
5. Will you provide me with the appropriate visa and cover all expenses involved in obtaining it?
This changes depending on the country. No matter where you go, you will be required to have a legal visa. Some schools will try to have new teachers pay for the expenses—you should not. If the interviewer says, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” it’s a sign that you should avoid the school. They should provide specific answers to important questions pertaining to visas.
Note on China: If the school does not say it will send documents to apply for a Z visa in your home country, avoid the school at all costs. This is the only way to obtain a legal work visa/residence permit in China now.
6. What materials do you provide for classes?
This sounds like another innocent question, but it can be one of the most important. You may not know the difference between textbooks, but you want to know that materials are available for use. If classroom materials are not available, you should ask about reimbursement for purchasing your own, assuming you don’t plan to keep them at the end of your contract.
7. Do you offer any classroom training or professional development seminars?
This is not a deal breaker, but it is a useful question. For more inexperienced EFL teachers, this can be important. Having some training prior to beginning your experience as a foreign-language instructor can be greatly beneficial to you and your students. This will also provide a general idea of the school’s expectations of the foreign teachers.
Be careful with this one. I have encountered more than a few training centers in Japan that required unpaid training, even for experienced teachers.
Some schools make these park rules seem reasonable (pay attention to no. 6)
8. Does the school offer language classes for teachers?
Most schools should be willing to aid new staff through culture shock. The best way to overcome the shock of a foreign country is to learn the language. Schools should not expect foreign instructors to learn a new language on their own—it’s important to have a structured class.
9. How many teachers are currently at the school and how long have they been there?
For some EFL teachers, the number of foreign teachers matters—some people prefer to have other English speakers around, while others would rather interact with locals. Having staff that has been at the school for a while can be helpful to new EFL teachers in getting acquainted with the new surroundings. If the staff changes every year, there’s probably something wrong with the school’s management.
10. Can you provide e-mail addresses of current and/or former teachers?
If the interviewer says no, end the interview. There is no reason why they can’t find a teacher willing to speak to a potential employee. You don’t need to speak with a current or former employee, but there should be someone willing to vouch for the school.
If these questions have been answered to your satisfaction, you will have less to worry about if you are offered a position at the school. With less stress prior to arrival, you can spend more time focusing on educating your students.
You can read some of my ESL teaching articles on FluentU.
Are there any questions you’d add to the list? Any questions you wish you had asked before accepting a job?