TEFL: Red Flags That Should Shout ‘Don’t Work Here!’

Teaching English abroad is one way to take a different path in life and move abroad.

Temporarily or permanently, one can make some money and save for travel in a job that generally kicks the arse of working in a typical office. I’ve been travelling for seven years eleven years in January (It took me a while to publish this guide, okay?), and a big part of the sustainability of this life came down to being able to teach abroad.

I’ve done a lot of interviews, applied for a lot of jobs, and worked in three countries.

I wrote a lot:

How to Save Lots of Money in Korea

How to Start A TEFL Career

How to Get A Chinese Z Visa

How TEFL is Changing in 2020

And lots more under the TEFL menu tab

In what spare time remains to me, I often advise others in how to get into the field.

But now I want to talk about how NOT to get into TEFL. Some of these red flags have to do with employers. Some have to do with you. Yes, you. The person who wants to teach. Now in 2020, with the demand for English teachers online and in person at all-time highs due to the coronavirus pandemic, people who are looking to get into the field are especially vulnerable to the worst that this industry can throw at them. It’s essential that you vet any offer from any school with care, since you’ll be committing hours of your time and possibly hundreds of your dollars to the process to move abroad.

Given the state of the world economy and the specific concerns about world travel during a pandemic, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to red flags when you get hired to teach English abroad. All of these red flags are simply indicators that the situation is not ideal. It’s not as if you should immediately discount any offer from a place or employer if they have one of these in play. However, you should always do your background research and reach out to people who already work in the place that you intend to work.

The most important thing is your own safety and health. If you see a situation that looks extreme in the following, please know that I have been teaching abroad since 2011. I’ve personally witnessed or experienced quite a lot of these red flags, and found that employers/teachers tend to minimise the problems or ignore them at times.

Everyone’s tolerance for risk is different. Only you can choose which red flags would cause you to reconsider a position or leave a situation.

Red Flags About In-Person Employers

They don’t have anyone to interview you, or the interview keeps getting delayed/interrupted.

They want you to rush out there, yesterday! They want you to get there a week from now, and you can’t find a flight that isn’t $4000. They are pressuring you to come over even if your visa isn’t finished or within days of its completion, not allowing you time to breathe while it processes.

They told you to come over on a tourist visa. Generally speaking, it is illegal to work or volunteer on a tourist visa. Especially if you work in a public school or a training centre (hagwon, cram school) it is illegal to do this. Many countries have strict immigration laws about teachers and how they have to be registered legally. China updated their national guidance in August 2020, and has made it much more clear that violations of this type will not be tolerated. Despite this, a lot of companies continue to pressure new recruits to come over illegally and then make a visa run.

They want to pay you in cash only. Is this a tax-dodging scheme?

They want you to dodge taxes. This is a tax-dodging scheme.

They won’t help you to get your visa documents or appear not to know the process for getting them. Your employer is responsible for these documents and if they don’t help you or don’t know what they are legally required to do, it could get messy.

They have consistent bad reviews on Glassdoor and other sites, or some very bad ones sprinkled with overly-positive, obvious fake/pressured ones.

No one is available for you to contact via email about the position who works there as a teacher currently. Always ask to email with a current teacher. If they say there isn’t anyone available, it’s likely that they are worried the teachers will tell you the truth about working for them.

They want you to pay them money to get the job. Classic pyramid scheme tactic. Not necessary.

Red Flags About Online Employers

They want you to pay them money to get a position.

They pressure you to change who you are or how you speak.

They won’t hire a friend of yours because of their appearance or race.

They pressure you to “spread the word” too much or to get others to sign up to the company. Some online teaching companies have gained bad reputations about this. If it feels like a pyramid scheme, it’s probably a pyramid scheme.

They don’t have any information about how to process your taxes in their contract materials. You’re responsible for filing the taxes, but reputable employers will discuss this with you and what your status is under the law before you sign the contract (i.e. independent contractor, etc).

Red Flags About Locations

There is an active Travel Warning from your government about the country in question. Yeah, I’m writing this from one of those countries right now. It’s up to you to decide whether a travel warning or FCO advice is enough to put you off moving to a country. However, I was able to make the decision to stay here based on my previous long-term experience in China. If I had been moving abroad and seen the warning go up in January, I might not have come. But some other teachers did, anyway. This is just one part of what you should consider about moving abroad.

There is active conflict, famine, terrorism, or other serious concerns in the immediate vicinity of your school. Local safety for women and members of the LGBT+ community is especially important.

There is public unrest about elections, religion, the economy, or foreigners in the country of your choice. Foreigners can at times become scapegoats or targets for local anger. Be aware of this and read up local news before you commit to moving to a new country.

Your country of choice has a majority religion that influences daily life significantly, which is different from your own. I often run into people who think that it won’t matter if they can simply live in an “expat compound” and “live like they would at home” in a country with a strong theocratic element. I would not recommend this. By all means go and adapt and learn about the wonderful places in the world with all their cultural differences. But know your limits and don’t try to change a place as an outsider.

Red Flags About Yourself

You have never lived alone before. Yes, this was me in 2011. Yes, it worked out. No, it wasn’t easy. Take into account your own maturity and your willingness to throw yourself into a new way of living.

You experience clinically-diagnosed mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harming, ADHD) or suspect that you may need professional assistance with such a condition. This is NOT to say that you cannot go abroad or teach if you experience these conditions. However, it can be very difficult to get needed medications and support. You may also find that it is hard to keep up with your professional life and you could get isolated quite easily. Consider how you will mitigate your mental health risks BEFORE you go abroad.

You just want to get out of your situation so desperately that you would do absolutely anything. This may lead you to take an offer that you shouldn’t, or to put up with conditions at work that you shouldn’t. Do inner work about what you want to run away from and how exactly being abroad will help you with your situation.

You don’t want to live abroad, and you really dislike other cultures and languages. This should go without saying, but sadly a lot of people move abroad and discover that they are pretty intolerant. If you are the kind of person who gets bent out of shape if you hear someone speaking in a foreign language in a supermarket, really soul-search about whether you want to be in a whole country that speaks a different language!

You think you will make a lot of money and be able to pay off student loans immediately using your TEFL salary. If you don’t know what the words “Overseas Remittance” mean, don’t sign up to teach abroad when you really desperately need the money. Everyone in my first teaching jobs arrived broke because we were weathering the last “worst economy in a generation” back home. You will be able to live well as long as you are frugal, but you will need a few months to get your feet under you. If you really need to send money home immediately, you might not be able to do so because of banking restrictions in country. Have a savings cushion if at all possible for unexpected expenses.

You have a history of drinking too much socially. With the limitations of “home” removed, it can be easy to slip into problematic drinking. I’ve seen a lot of new teachers run into hard times or lose their health over this. Have additional coping mechanisms ready.

You have a health condition that may be difficult to treat in your country of choice.

Red Flags on Arrival

When you arrive, your promised accommodation is very different from what you were told it would be. Or it’s non-existent. This is not about your discomfort with bars on the windows, because that’s normal in much of the world. This is about “the toilet can’t be flushed” or “you’ll be sharing a room with John, Dean, Tracey, Elmo, and Bruce.”

Your employer says you have health insurance, but refuses to show any proof of it such as an insurance card or policy. Shady.

Your employer doesn’t pay you on time. Usually illegal under labour law. Check your contract.

Your employer says they will handle your bills for electricity, gas, water, etc. and they don’t actually pay them.

Your employer forces you to do overtime.

Your employer takes your passport away and doesn’t explain why they need it. It’s often necessary for them to take it to the necessary immigration and education board authorities when you arrive, which may take a few weeks. This is okay. If they take your passport and you don’t get it back, and they won’t tell you where it is, contact your embassy in the country immediately.

Your employer puts their hands on you to intimidate, harm, sexually harass, or scare you in any way. Hell no. Get the fuck out.

Your company doesn’t have an HR department, or it doesn’t have one that functions.

Your employer wants you to move in with them and won’t stop making you work hours after your contract has expired and you’re supposed to have already left the country you are in. Yes, I know someone who did this. Why….I will never know.

How can I be sure that it’s a red flag and not cultural differences?

The biggest indicator is whether the situation puts you in legal jeopardy.

Yes, cultures have widely differing views on legality and what constitutes a criminal offence, but if anyone asks you to do something that could land you in jail or deported it’s a clear indicator that you’re on a bad path. In almost all cases, the defense “My employer told me to do this, and I didn’t know it was against the law” is not going to hold up in court. You need to make your own choices about your own risk tolerance, and no one can make those choices for you. But ignorance is not going to get you out of a bad situation.

Living abroad is wonderful, but it isn’t always comfortable. That’s the point of the whole experience!

Don’t mistake your discomfort for legal issues or make a mountain out of a molehill. If your apartment’s AC unit breaks once, suck it up until it’s fixed and stop complaining to Facebook about how “people in X country just NEVER XYZ.” If it breaks and your landlord won’t fix it and your contractually-obligated employer won’t fix it, then you have a serious red flag. If your employer often says, “This is just a cultural difference,” be wary of them trying to hoodwink you. It might well be a culture thing, or it might be them trying to manipulate you.

Most of this stuff gets easier to spot and deal with as you age and gain experience, but bad situations can sneak up on anyone. If you find yourself in a bad situation, reach out to legal advice in country or at home, make sure that you are safe above all, and contact your embassy for additional advice.

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