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Guest blogger Ketti Wilhelm, of the travel and sustainability blog Tilted Map, shares her experience teaching English in China without a TEFL certificate – or any teaching experience. Keep reading to learn her story of what teaching without a TEFL is really like.
When I finished college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do – I just knew it would involve going somewhere. I took my degrees in Journalism and International Development studies, and started applying for jobs all over the world.
Development work in the Ukraine. Writing jobs in London. Guiding in South America. “Anything, anywhere but here,” was my motto.
But I heard crickets. Why was no one responding? Didn’t I have enough experience? Good enough grades?
Then a friend of a friend came home from a year of teaching English at a university in the Northern city of Jinan, China, and he suggested I apply. In all of my global job hunt, I hadn’t seriously considered teaching English abroad, because the jobs I had heard of involved working with little kids, which wasn’t my thing.
But this sounded like something totally different. It sounded as good as anything else I’d applied for, and even more exotic – all the more so because I had zero teaching experience.
So I fired off an email to my friend’s boss and had a reply within a couple of days. By the end of the week, I was doing my first Skype interview with my future boss. (Actually, I should say he was having his first Skype interview with me: He said his webcam wasn’t working – so he could see me, but I never saw his face until our first staff meeting in China.)
He finished the call by listing off the documents to bring, “when you arrive in China.”
When I arrive?
“What does that mean?” I thought, feeling totally taken aback. This idea of teaching abroad, and of moving to China for a year, had first occurred to me just one week before. Yet I was already… hired?
I’d studied Spanish, French and Arabic in college – what sense did it make to move to China?
And most of all, why did he hire me so easily, when every other employer had been allergic to my resume?
To this day, I don’t know whether my boss in China hired me because he was desperate for teachers, because I came with a recommendation, or because that was just how he rolled. But he definitely shouldn’t have. I had no teaching experience or qualifications whatsoever. He clearly assumed that as a native English speaker, and a journalist and writer who had managed to get through university, I must have had a good enough grasp of English grammar to be able to teach.
That’s probably the most widespread, and detrimental, misconception in the English-teaching world.
I can tell you this from experience, because I do, in fact, have an unusually nerdy, obsessively strong grasp of English grammar. But at my job in China, I was teaching more than 300 college students, and had no idea what I was doing.
So I made it all up as I went along, literally Googling around for lesson plan ideas every week, because I didn’t even feel comfortable teaching from the book that the university had provided. (It was full of borderline discriminatory stereotypes, and obscure vocabulary that was both useless and way above my students’ comprehension level. Most of them struggled to introduce themselves or have a basic conversation in English.)
The job was more stressful than it needed to be because I had no training and no idea what I was doing. And that’s most of the reason why I only taught English abroad for one year.
I’ve since become a professional travel and sustainability blogger, and I can’t tell you how many thousands of hours I’ve spent learning how to do that. So the idea that I would have been able to teach English professionally – at the university level, no less – without any training or experience is completely absurd.
A lot of English teaching jobs in China, in Asia, and around the world require some sort of teaching certificate or training – but a lot don’t. And that doesn’t necessarily mean those jobs are scams. Mine was a perfectly legitimate job at a real university that housed me in a brand new apartment on campus. My paychecks arrived every month like clockwork (although I made much less than I could have at the private schools, I later learned, but that’s another story).
The job certainly wasn’t a horror story. In the end, I’m absolutely still glad I did it – it was a fascinating experience in so many ways! I learned a lot about myself and about what makes me happy in a job. I picked up some Mandarin, made friends from all over the world, and even met my husband in China!
The only downside was that the job just wasn’t well managed, and I didn’t know enough to realize that I was going to be in way over my head, or that I would have had a more satisfying experience if I’d had some teacher training beforehand.
So if I were to go back and do it again, I would absolutely get a TEFL accreditation before getting on the plane – whether my employer required one or not. The confidence and peace of mind of knowing my own skills, and having something to fall back on would have been priceless.
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