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Navigating the world of professional certification and training options, alongside other dispatches from the new global workplace.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language - Certification Options

Friday 1 November 2013

Note that this is likely to be the first in a series of posts on the subject of Teaching English as a Foreign Language careers and credentialing options.  

What is TEFL?

TEFL is an acronym for Teaching English as a Foreign Language.  It's important to differentiate this from TESOL, "Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages," which typically refers to teaching native speakers of foreign languages in English-speaking school systems in the local curriculum.  So, if you're from the "Anglosphere" (i.e., the US and the British Commonwealth) and want to travel elsewhere to teach English, you will most likely be looking for a TEFL position.

What are the best credentials for me?

This is a difficult question, and one that you might want to contact schools and/or teachers in your intended destination for advice on.  It's important to remember that the labor market tends to be less competitive in less developed countries.  For example, I know of one individual who found work quickly with no specialized training in TEFL at all in Vietnam, though his initial hourly rate was far less than it would have been in a more developed market, such as South Korea.  However, initial work experience may be more valued by employers than any particular credential.  In general, the Cambridge CELTA certification seems to be a "gold standard" that is widely accepted for entry-level jobs, though a MA degree would certainly open up doors to higher level positions.

Outside of the Cambridge certification scheme (which, notably, is a certificate accredited by a body of Cambridge University but not issued by Cambridge itself - rather, it is administered by a network of private language schools around the world, which is a very good thing for the average student considering Cambridge University's astronomical tuition rates), numerous institutes exist that issue their own certificates.  However, given the lack of a strong professional association in the field, there is not really any unifying accreditation scheme for certifying organizations in the TEFL occupational space.  Therefore, some employers may look solely at the number of contact hours required to acquire a certificate as a measure of its quality, and for that reason I would be very reluctant to enroll in a course requiring less than 80 hours of classroom instruction (which is really only equivalent to two full workweeks - one hopes that there is homework in addition to the official coursework, but, without accreditation, there is no way for the employer to accurately gauge the rigor of the course).  The search for a credential with labor market value is complicated even further by the fact that one must rely on online reviews to gauge the effectiveness of some institutes in "destination" countries, and such reviews are easily manipulated by the schools themselves.

In short, like other emergent occupational fields that seem to attract many entrants who might not be seeking a lifelong vocation (comparisons to life coaching come to mind...), the field of credentialing options for TEFL instructors is fluid at the moment.  Perhaps, with time, TEFL will professionalize and regulate itself better - however, given that the allure of "finding oneself" and "being paid to travel the world" will always be high among the motivations of some entrants to the field, it seems more likely that a more coherent accreditation system would come from the language schools themselves.

See a recent article in Business Insider for additional perspectives on the field:

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