Navigating Interviews for ESL Teaching Jobs Abroad
Applying for ESL teaching jobs abroad isn’t very difficult. In fact, due to the high demand for ESL teachers around the world, it’s relatively easy to apply for jobs to teach English abroad – and get hired. So why even bother preparing for an ESL Teaching job interview? Well, as with anything in life, the initial time and effort you put into researching schools or organizations you want to work for, and preparing well to present yourself in a professional light can make a huge difference in your results. In this industry, you will need to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Once you’ve done that, you’ll realize that getting hired into top schools that pay the best salaries and benefits in the industry is competitive. Do you want to be hired by a bottom of the barrel employer, or a highly-rewarding one? If you answered wisely, then you’ve probably figured out that you need to not be that bottom of the barrel candidate, and ace the interview with a top employer.
Understanding the Nature of Interviews for ESL Teaching Jobs Abroad
Hiring practices in the ESL industry vary from one country to the next. Firstly, there are the basic qualifications teachers must have to be considered by employers. Next, there are the more nuanced aspects of being selected, such as how well your résumé is crafted, and the impression you give to prospective employers during the job interview, which can be as much about cultural expectations as it will be about your professional demeanor. So, while thinking about the types of questions you’ll be asked during the interview, also take some time to consider what are the cultural norms of the specific country and culture where you’re applying to work, when presenting yourself as the ideal candidate. This will help you tailor your responses and mannerisms during the interview to the expectations of those interviewing you.
The majority of organizations that hire ESL teachers from abroad now conduct online video interviews. What that means is you can sit right at home and complete the interview in your favorite chair. What that doesn’t mean is you should show up to your interview wearing pajamas. Please do shower, shave, groom, and dress appropriately. Most cultures view teachers as carrying a certain amount of social responsibility, and that’s the type of person organizations want to hire.
As well, the opportunity to teach English abroad is likely to be one that fills your mind with excitement about a new life experience in a foreign country. The organizations interviewing you, however, will almost always have a very different priority to yours. When preparing for an ESL teaching job interview, consider the organization’s priorities and why a foreign teacher is required. Whether or not the organization profits from offering English language lessons, the priority will almost always be to hire teachers who conduct themselves professionally, diplomatically, and respectfully. Although submitting your résumé is the first point of contact, and thus the first impression hiring organizations will receive from you, much of their decision to hire you will be the result of how you perform in the job interview. It isn’t just important to say the right things about yourself. It’s even more important to help organizations see that their goals in hiring a foreign ESL teacher can be accomplished by selecting you.
5 Must-Know Questions Asked in ESL Teacher Job Interviews and How to Answer them
Of course, questions asked during job interviews can differ from one organization to another, depending on each organization’s unique goals, needs, and expectations. What we’re going to do here is get you primed for the most important questions to prepare for, and how to answer them like a professional, because these questions will almost certainly be among the questions you’ll be asked, and how you respond can make or break your chances of getting hired.
Why do you want to teach English in [name of country]?
This question (and variations of it) is your opportunity to demonstrate that you have made the effort to learn some important aspects of country and its culture. Your response should be focused on demonstrating a genuine interest and appreciation for the country and culture, rather than be from a point of showing off your knowledge. If you can drill this genuine interest down to the actual city where you will be working in, your efforts should pay off. Most citizens of any country are proud of their heritage, and deeply appreciate when others show an authentic interest and desire to partake in it. Now, perhaps you’ve chosen to teach in a particular country or city because of the climate, beautiful beaches, or awesome nightlife. Maybe you’re motivated to save money or pay off your student loans. Keep these aspirations on the side, and remember: this is a job interview. It’s a job which pays a salary for work performed.
Instead, to answer this question effectively, focus on:
- What inspires you most about this country and its culture
- Its recent achievements as well as its opportunities to lead or excel in specific areas
- Unique challenges faced by ESL learners in this country or city and why it’s important for you to be a part of their journey to becoming more proficient in English
Tell us about your teaching qualifications and experience.
To answer this question well, you first need to think about why the interviewer is asking it. The question seems obvious and straightforward enough, but there will potentially be other underlying reasons the interviewer will be listening for. Let’s examine what the interviewer will be listening for:
- Are you a new or experienced ESL teacher?
- Do your qualifications and experience relate closely to the type of students you will be teaching (e.g. age level, proficiency level, type of school, and teaching methodologies adopted by the school)?
- Do you have the necessary skills and experience to manage a class of ESL learners effectively?
- Can you be legally employed as a foreign teacher in the country, based on your qualifications?
- Is your verbal and body language consistent with your qualifications and experience?
You might be thinking – why doesn’t the interviewer just look at my résumé? Here’s why: ESL teaching is a soft skill. You might have excellent qualifications, and you might have a number of years of teaching experience under your belt, but the interviewer is more interested in seeing the goods (you) than the packaging (your résumé).
There may be other factors as well. Unfortunately, the ESL industry has been rife with people holding fake degrees and qualifications. There are TEFL certification courses sold online for $20 that you simply cannot fail. Think about this for a moment. If you were an administrator at a top paying school, is this the type of person you would want to hire? If you were a parent, is the type of teacher you would want your child learning from?
Indeed, interviewers ask this question because they’re aware that they cannot rely on a candidate’s résumé alone. They need to see that your demeanor matches your stated qualifications and experience.
So how do you respond to this question in a way that is convincing?
First of all, know who you will be teaching:
- What is the age range of the students?
- What is the general English proficiency level among students at this particular school? In this city? In the country?
- What are unique challenges ESL learners experience in this country?
- What is the school’s philosophy on learning, and what methodologies does it expect teachers to use in the classroom?
- Is the curriculum provided by the school, or are you expected to develop and deliver tailored lessons?
- Will you be the sole ESL teacher for your students, or is there a local ESL teacher/teaching assistant who will be teaching the students with you?
Having this prior knowledge will require some upfront work on your part, but if the reward is worth the effort, then the upfront effort is necessary. Having a clear idea and picture of the environment you will be expected to teach in will also help you formulate your responses to this question in a manner that matches the school’s expectations.
If you are an experienced ESL teacher, you can talk about your qualifications and experience in very specific contexts to how they are relevant to the school and the role. Rather than talking about having 5 years of ESL teaching experience, you can talk about your 3 years of experience teaching secondary school ESL learners using inquiry-based learning to engage them in English through questions and expressing their points of view about themes relevant to their lives or to society. If your students will be preparing to study in university, and need to prepare to take IELTS, you can talk about your 5 years of experience teaching IELTS speaking and writing and how you’ve helped your students improve their fluency as well as accomplish their academic or career goals.
What if you’ve just completed your TEFL certification and have no actual ESL teaching experience abroad? If this is you, then firstly, you can look at ESL teaching positions where experience isn’t necessary. But why not leverage the knowledge you gained through your TEFL certification? If you have earned a legitimate TEFL certification, you know that the course was difficult because you learned how to teach English to ESL learners. You can draw on this knowledge to formulate your response. You can elaborate on how your TEFL qualification has prepared you to teach young learners using a range of methodologies, including ones espoused by the school. You can also talk about your teaching practicum and what you learned during these practice hours. Chances are, you live in a country where people you know speak English as a second language, and you can talk about your experience living, studying, or working in diverse environments.
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How will you motivate your students to learn English?
This is a broad question aimed at assessing your personality as an ESL teacher, how you manage a class, and how you interact with students. In simple English, the interviewer wants to know if you are a good teacher, and a good fit for the school and the students. What is a good teacher? By most descriptions, a good teacher is someone who is able to encourage a high level of student interaction and enjoyment. Learning English should be fun, students should be productive, and the teacher should be able to facilitate discussion or elicit responses from students. Of course, this is going to also be highly relevant to the age group of the students you will be teaching. Different approaches to motivation will be required for preschool learners and university students.
Schools hiring ESL teachers want to be confident that you will be able to create and maintain student motivation for learning English. This is especially the case for ESL teachers working abroad, where it’s easy for student motivation to drop and for students to slip back into the comfort zone of their own language. Schools have a strong desire to see teachers who find creative ways to motivate students with their English, and help them become more fluent and confident with it.
So, how can you answer this question like a boss? There are two very effective ways to give a convincing response:
Firstly, if you are an experienced teacher, you can give distinct examples of how you have been able to create a fun and exciting atmosphere for learning English. For example, you can talk about a particular student who achieved an academic or career goal in large part due to improving their English communication skills. Another way to answer this question
If you’re just starting out as an ESL teacher, you can explain how you would motivate your students using specific methodologies you’ve learned and practiced as part of your TEFL training. You can also talk about your awareness of specific challenges ESL learners experience in that specific country and how you would work with students to overcome them. As an ESL teacher with no experience teaching abroad, it’s important to realize that many countries/cultures place a high level of importance on creating a fun environment, and sometimes more on the fun aspect than on learning English itself. So, in this context, interviewers want to know if you’re a fun teacher. The last thing they want is for students to say is that learning English isn’t fun. Make sure you incorporate the fun element into your response to this question if it’s expected.
How would you handle students who misbehave or distract other students?
This question does not always have a straightforward answer. Culture, student age, and the type of school will all influence how you manage classroom discipline, and therefore, how you should respond to this question.
Cultural norms can be a big factor in how you deal with misbehaving students. In some countries, a local teaching assistant is present to help the foreign ESL teacher with classroom management, whereas in others, foreign teachers have considerable autonomy to manage student behavior during class time.
Answer this in the context of cultural norms and expectations, and considering what’s appropriate for disciplining students of different age groups. It’s vital that you learn about cultural sensitivities, and prepare your response to this question to align with them.
We often look at a situation from our own cultural perspective and experience, and think that we can address situations in ways that are familiar to us. This has caused many ESL teachers abroad to struggle in their jobs. Thus, it’s not only important to study culturally appropriate methods of disciplining students, but to also make a genuine effort to accept these differences, even if they may cause you some discomfort.
Perhaps the best general response to this question is to demonstrate that you are positive and have a high level of patience, and if you are unable to handle a misbehaving student after some attempts, you would request a local teacher to help diffuse the situation. As well, you can assure the interviewer that you would familiarize yourself with the school’s policies and procedures
What are your salary expectations?
Talking about money can get uncomfortable and awkward, and in some cultures, it can be considered inappropriate. However, salaries and benefits in the ESL industry tend to follow common trends in each job market. So, we recommend you arm yourself with the right knowledge about how much ESL teachers earn in the countries you are applying to work in, and work out your response to this question from a knowledgeable standpoint. Each job market has its own nuances, but common factors that influence pay are:
- Type of school
- Reputation of school
- Teaching qualifications
- Years of teaching experience
- Relevant teaching experience
- Location and proximity to urban center (schools in larger cities tend to pay higher salaries)
We also suggest that you avoid mentioning a salary amount you have in mind, and instead ask the interviewer about the salary range of their current teachers based on qualifications and experience:
Can you give me an indication of the salaries your current teachers are earning based on their qualifications and experience?
Framing the question in this manner should move the interviewer in the direction of talking about salary ranges. It’s also more comfortable for people to talk in ranges, and that gives you some room to negotiate at a later point in the hiring process.
Keep in mind that not all schools pay ESL teachers based on qualifications and experience. Many schools pay an hourly rate based on the type of class or students being taught. This is common with Business English teaching jobs and with private language schools that often pay different rates for one-to-one and group lessons.
When discussing salaries, also make sure you are aware of benefits that the school can offer based on trends in that specific job market. Be careful about being fixated on the salary alone. For example, in the case of China, salaries in cities like Beijing or China are generally higher than in New Tier 1 or Tier 2 cities, but so is the cost of living. Outside of Tier 1, schools are also better positioned to fully cover housing costs. So, it’s possible that you can save more money on a lower salary amount if you choose this path.
Other Considerations for Acing the Interview
Be Prepared. And Show It.
One common mistake ESL teachers make is that they assume schools need them, because of the huge gap between demand and supply for ESL teachers. Just because there is a high demand for ESL teachers and a supply that cannot meet this demand at present, that doesn’t mean employers have no expectations. Sure, there are schools that will hire any ESL teacher with a pulse. But ask yourself honestly – is that the kind of organization you really want to work for? Don’t be lazy. Be prepared to look, act, and speak like a professional. Take notes and ask good questions during the interview.
What are good questions to ask? Ask about:
- The school and classroom atmosphere
- The current teachers on staff, their qualifications, experience, and how long they have been teaching there
- The students, what are their greatest strengths and challenges
- The school curricula, how it is designed, and how much flexibility teachers have in delivering their lessons
- How the interviewer would describe the ideal candidate for this job
- Ways the school administrators support teachers both in the workplace as well as in their private affairs while living in the country
Be Smart about Your Private Life
Teachers around the world are viewed as having an obligation to be responsible members of society, and this can be even more pronounced in more conservative societies. Many ESL teachers seem to forget that, while it’s fine to have a private and social life outside of work, the lines between one’s private/social life and work life can be blurry.
Drinking and partying can be a lot of fun in another country, where you get to meet and mingle with both locals and expats. But think about the responsibility you have to the school you work for, and the students you teach. Then, think about this from the hiring school’s perspective. What type of ESL teacher do you think the school prefers to hire? One who parties hard, gets drunk, and shows up hungover the next morning – or worse, doesn’t show up at all? Or one who goes to the gym, reads books, and has a healthy relationship with students and colleagues?
If an interviewer asks what you like to do outside of work, you can safely bet that the interviewer wants to know what type of person you are, and if you have a desirable characteristic. The fact of the matter is that the school’s reputation is on the line with parents and students when it makes a poor hiring decision. It not only reflects badly on the teacher who demonstrates undesirable habits, but more so on the school itself, as there can be a certain loss of face or humiliation on the school’s part.
Answer this question intelligently, and be genuine. If you portray yourself as someone with a respectful private life, make sure that’s who you really are. If you mislead a prospective employer who later discovers aspects of your personal life considered to be unacceptable, the consequences can be hard for you, especially since you’ll be in a foreign country where your stay is permitted through employment with the school.
Pause and Reflect Before Responding to Questions
It’s normal for people to be nervous during job interviews, but two of the most common mistakes candidates make are to respond too quickly with a clichéd response, or to freeze up altogether.
Firstly, you should prepare well for any job interview, anticipating questions the interviewer might want to ask, and how you would respond to these questions. During the interview though, we recommend taking a few seconds to absorb the question being asked and compose your thoughts before providing a response. The best way to do this is by asking for a moment to think about the question:
That’s a great question. Let me think of some examples from my teaching experience before responding to it.
That’s an excellent question. Do you mind if I think about my response for a moment?
Now, rather than looking unprepared, you appear genuinely interested in the question itself, and formulating a genuine response.
Don't Badmouth Previous Employers or Colleagues
We all have good and not-so-good experiences in our careers. However, one of the biggest mistakes ESL teachers can make during an interview is to talk negatively about a former employer or colleague. Even if your gripes are valid, listening to gripes about your previous experiences is not the reason you’re being interviewed, and making the interviewer do so makes you look bad.
If you’re asked why you left your previous place of work, or how your relationship was with your previous supervisors, focus on the positives. Express your desire for new opportunities and challenges. Talk about shared successes between you and your previous employer while working there.
On a broader note, always try to maintain a positive, professional relationship with organizations and people you work with, so that you can use them as references when necessary. Don’t be that slash and burn character who no one wants to support.
Finally, it’s good practice to obtain a reference letter from every employer you’ve worked for, if possible. This not only serves as a record of proof to validate your résumé details, but also can be helpful when applying to new jobs. Prospective employers will feel more confident seeing a positive letter with a contact person from your previous employers, and that can help place you ahead of other candidates.
Be a Person that Others Want to Hire and Work With
When preparing for a job interview to teach ESL abroad, don’t just think about the country you want to travel to, the type of school you want to work for, or the salary you want to earn. Also think about what makes you a desirable person to hire by considering the needs and expectations of the school you are applying to work with. The opportunities are there for people who bring as much to the table as they expect to receive.