What's a TEFL teacher?

abayaThese days, now that I'm suddenly connected to educators from all sorts of different fields, located all over the world via various different social-networking sites, I thought I'd left my bubble... yet my bubble didn't leave me.

In a private conversation, one of my new edu-colleagues on Twitter thought I was German - because I live in Germany (understandable) and remarked in surprise about my globe-trotting, which to me is completely normal... because in my niche of education, it is.

I replied "Oh, that's just the life of a TEFL teacher"

to which she responded

"What's TEFL?"

And the bubble popped. Time to define who I am, what I do.

By the end of this year 2 billion people, one third of the world's population will speak English.

It didn't happen by itself like some kind of freakish magic tipping point.

Without blowing any trumpets here (or alright then, with loud blowing of trumpets, sounding horns and a drumroll) TEFL teachers are the behind-the-scenes make-up artists, set builders, choreographers, composers and conductors; the designers, the dialog coaches and the dolly grips.

We have a job because of globalization and we're the reason globalization is happening relatively successfully.

Globalization is nothing new, started back in 1492, however it was mostly a dog-eat-dog scenario - the dynamic force in the first round of globalization consisted of countries taking over countries, in the second it was the companies that globalized. But around 2000 we entered a whole new era: globalization 3.0, which flattened the playing field.

According to Thomas L. Friedmann in The World is Flat, the dynamic force of today is the new found power of individuals to collaborate and compete globally.

In every corner of the world TEFL teachers actively seek out ways to enable people to speak within one language: English.

thai kidsIt is our waking up at the crack of dawn to teach a businessman before he starts his work, our struggle with kids, our encouraging teenagers to form their tongues around ridiculous pronunciation rules privy only to the English language.

TEFL teachers teach the world's peoples to sing pop songs, read literature and news articles and our teaching day is spent in dough-nut shifts of morning and evening sessions and sometimes we work 40 hours a week (plus prep).

We scavenge through books, websites, podcasts, video sites, blogs and grammar tomes to find materials which will fit to our particular students' needs and then we mash that all together.

  • The gas deal between a Spaniard and a Russian was made because we taught them the phrases they needed to use in a meeting.
  • The smooth transaction between the Chinese clothes retailer and the Ecuadorian wool maker happened because TEFL teachers taught them how to negotiate using the same expressions.
  • The German doctor who had to present the findings of his research on lung cancer, could, because we went through his presentation with him, again and again and again.
  • The Japanese car maker could launch the latest model and comfortably participate in small talk with the journalists because we taught him how to achieve confluence.
  • The emails between the Mongolian and the French secretary went well because they could establish the right timing for the itinerary as a direct result of the grammar we taught them both.
  • The Bonairian is now able to tell her Portuguese husband that she's really cross he won't take out the garbage because we taught them both how to pronounce such a silly word.

cyprus-conferenceWhat is a TEFL teacher?

We learn the different methods in which acquisition of another language occurs.

We test. We teach. We test.

We chat about things of no relevance and we have deep meaningful conversations.

We play games and we cut up cards.

We draw pictures.

We act, we simulate and we role-play.

We're mostly underpaid and largely abused by institutional chains.

We ran away from normal lives and office jobs and found our place in sharing knowledge.

We think, eat and breathe the idioms and nuances of our language.

We're highly specialized and we're highly skilled.

We've no real skills yet through charm can somehow make another person speak.

We know grammar, punctuation and pronunciation like no one's business which makes us very boring when we correct you.

neal chambersWhere are TEFL teachers from?
We're adventurers from everywhere: traveling across the world to teach in villages, to the dusty cities in the back of beyond, we've climbed up mountains, lived on beaches, squatted in jungles. We've learned the culture and the languages of the countries we live in, worn their clothes, laughed at their jokes, danced salsa, shimmied the merengue and stayed up late drinking ouzo.

We're native English speakers who went on holiday somewhere and found ourselves in relationships, got married (and/or got divorced) to foreigners but stayed on in their countries.

We're homesick but no longer fit within our own cultures and settle while yearning for Marmite, Vegemite or American Mustard (or breadfruit and sunsets).

We're non-native English speakers who've mastered the English language through university or work abroad and are now fighting to gain the same status and pay as the native English speakers who're foreigners in our countries... who sometimes don't work as hard or know how to break down the language into bite-sized chunks.

Who are TEFL teachers?

Whatever it is that we are, we're amazing: we're changing the way the world communicates.


Useful links

ELT jargon - Macmillan English Dictionary
Wikipedia English as a Foreign or Second Language
How to find a job in TEFL

16 Responses to “What's a TEFL teacher?”

  • Heike Philp says:
    September 14, 2009

    What a passionate description of a TEFL teacher.

    How would you translate the German words 'Beruf und Berufung' in English?

    Profession and Pro-passion?

    Rgds Heike

  • Marisa Constantinides says:
    September 14, 2009

    We are miracles of creation!

    Thanks for a great post, Karenne!

    You are such a great motivator I can suspect what kind of teacher you are in the classroom.

    I fully agree with your preaching the gospel of professionalism and cosmopolitanism which is so much a part of a TEFL teacher's life.

    I think it's about time that TEFLers were seen to be as important as teachers in mainstream education, an attitude which you and teachers people like you have done so much to change!

  • Shelly Terrell says:
    September 14, 2009

    Great description of a TEFL teacher! I think teaching in another country really improves the EFL teacher. Thank you for creating a great definition of what English language teachers do. Often, people see this term and are not sure what this means.

  • Anonymous says:
    September 14, 2009

    "I thought I'd left my bubble... yet my bubble didn't leave me." Please could you translate this into meaningful English?

    September 14, 2009

    Hi Anonymous... I guess I deserve that.

    When we say that someone lives in a bubble we mean that they are unable to imagine a world outside of the world that they live in.

    When I refer to myself as living in a bubble I mean that as a TEFL teacher I only saw the world of education as TEFL'ng.

    Being in contact with other educators opened my eyes to another world yet the bubble didn't really leave me because the world outside my own niche, didn't know my niche.

    When I saw that the bubble has popped, I mean that now the rest of education can be introduced to the work that me and other TEFL teachers do.

    Does that help?


  • Unknown says:
    September 14, 2009

    Thanks Karenne for this wonderful description. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Can I be honest and confess that I thought you were a German...my bad. Keep these great posts coming as you are a great representative of us TEFLers!

  • Anne Hodgson says:
    September 14, 2009

    Thanks, Karenne, a beautiful motivational shot in the arm on this rainy, busy Monday morning!

    To Heike: I think both "vocation" and "profession" are beautiful, yin/yang words that express a lot about what we do. We do need to have a calling of sorts to be a teacher, to be able to put students first and enjoy their growth. As for "profession", well, we profess things all the time, don't we? We light candles to our methodologies, and hold masses of our own (I think they're called conferences.)

    I'm not a big fan of the word "passion", feeling it's a bit overused and overbearing. But it would seem that we teachers enjoy the singular emotional luxury of having to suffer less alienation on the job than, say, an HR manager who has to downsize and streamline the company he/she works for all the time. We get to build people up instead of tearing them down. Greatest job on earth.


  • Barbara Sakamoto says:
    September 14, 2009

    Thanks for making us feel so good about who we are and what we do.

    Man, I WISH I'd been an adventurer like so many of you seem to be. I was just a teacher who went on to get a masters in TEFL and then looked for a job overseas (being English as a foreign language, after all).

    But, I didn't only plan to stay overseas for 2 years. Does that make me sound more adventurous?

  • Chiew says:
    September 14, 2009

    My, are we all that? ;-P

  • Janet Bianchini says:
    September 15, 2009

    What an evocative description of what being a TEFLer is all about!
    Your passion, pride and great enthusiasm for your job shine through.

    It has brought back vivid memories of so many experiences and events which have been encountered throughout my TEFL journey.

    You have inspired me to write a post on this subject. Thank you so much as always for leading the way in discussing and highlighting important issues and subjects.

  • eva simkesyan says:
    October 01, 2009

    Hi Karenne
    Wonderful description. moving!I thought she is reading my mind. I just started writing something called the 'new version of me' but couldn't finish it because I was too busy to find fun activities to teach grammar, write lesson plans, try to find songs that will appeal to my students, try to make them realise what's going on around them,motivate them to read books and try to be friendly, energetic and cheerful in the class. Meanwhile I'm learning to use technology and see what my colleagues are doing all around the world. wow, I've found out that there are wonderful, great, self-motivated people like you. And I fel relief'We are not alone'

    October 01, 2009

    Hi Eva,

    Thank you! Yup - we are not alone - there are thousands of us! And aren't we having a great time!

    Janet Bianchini wrote another post like this one, about what's she done in her life, it's really worth the visit on over:

    My Life in TEFL

    We're a pretty amazing bunch of educators!

    Nice to meet you too!


  • Unknown says:
    October 16, 2009

    Hi Karenne. I had my kids really young and put my life on hold until about 3 years ago when I did CELTA. I now teach at the local college and am still confined to a very rural part of England but really look forward to the future and a time when I'll be able to use my expertise to travel.I'm so excited to be part of this global community of English teachers and you summed up the reasons why so effectively. Thank you, Callie

  • Anonymous says:
    June 14, 2011

    We're non-native English speakers who've mastered the English language through university or work abroad and are now fighting to gain the same status and pay as the native English speakers who're foreigners in our countries... who sometimes don't work as hard or know how to break down the language into bite-sized chunks

    Really? I believe in your passion description of your bubble, the bubble you had and perhaps still have if you are only able to see the world from the us versus they, as it seems you still do, regardless of your experiences. I am not sure I agree with you that all wonderful things have happened because of TEFL teachers, who are badly prepared, and as you said, learn the tricks of the trait trough teaching boring grammar skills, but not culture or what it really means to become Bilingual, as they haven’t been able to do themselves. Or thanks to those teachers who cannot even start realizing about what it really means being a critical thinker of the powers that employ you and abuse you in the first place, but that make you feel as this big hero as heroes and heroines are part of the pop culture you represent and that keeps you feeling good about your “great contribution’ to this world. These powers, your corporations, have clearly exploited you and fooled you making you believe that allowing businessman do great transaction is what teaching is all about, or language and culture, for that matter. I wish you could go back to your country, realize the learning you acquired, since most regular English speakers do not know how to read and write properly in English, so you are in somewhat an advantage, and join the "well paid" teaching trenches in the hoods of Chicago or Milwaukee and start doing patriotism in your own land. May be then you will realize how hard these teachers really work under shitty working conditions and not in business and expensive cologne like environment with high tech like yours, and can start making a more significant difference not only to close the best deals, but to make immigrant students feel successful and not second class citizens. Who else could do it better than you!
    Your naïve/reality check anonymous well paid ESL/ bilingual K-12 teacher

    June 14, 2011

    Hi anonymous,

    Thanks... I think the thing is here that you are seeing the world from your own world's perspective just as I see it from my own.

    Many of us do become bilingual or even trilingual, just as many don't. Many of us TEFL teachers do explore the culture we live in and in many cases, we contribute to it. In Ecuador I volunteered the entire time I was there (on top of teaching hours) and helped build things like bee-houses so that the villagers could earn an income - so not just passing on my language. Here in Germany, I created a bilingual writers group and anyway...I'm not really here to crow about what I've done or thousands of my colleagues have done to leave something of themselves. This post was principally written because all too often this trade is treated on a second-rate level despite what we have contributed to the fact that we are now living in a world where English is the language of business and global communication. It would not have happened were it not for us being on the ground floor - taking poor pay -and working anyway.

    I think that the work you do in the world you live in as an ESL teacher working with immigrants is absolutely outstanding and I also applaud it - perhaps you would like to write me a guest post ((it's okay if you want to stay anonymous)) - it is sometimes difficult to know what your side of teaching English is like and I would be great to have a piece that highlights the conditions and experiences of the TESOL trainer? Please write me - kalinagoenglishblog (at) googlemail (dot) com.

  • Ken Wilson says:
    June 14, 2011

    Great post, Karenne - a good time to look at the successes and failures of ELT PLC worldwide..

    Just an additional thought...

    I read somewhere that the German engineers working for Shanghai Automotive, the largest car manufacturer in the world, decided to give up trying to learn putonghua (the language we call Mandarin) and asked their Chinese co-workers to communicate with them in English 'so that we are all at the same disadvantage'.

    A reminder that all these profoundly important communicative events between nations are not painless...


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