20 Things New TEFL Teachers Should Know

10th September 2019

By William Sproule

Let’s begin by saying this is a wonderful career that will take you into new cultures, open your mind to new ways of doing things and new world views that even the adventurous traveler will not experience. You will become part of the school’s and the wider community’s social network if you wish to. You will affect lives.  

I will tell you some hard learnt lessons which I consider to be ‘must dos’ in order to make life great in and out of the classroom in a foreign country. I have broken down the advice into four sections: before you leave, upon arrival, workplace basics and a tip for new ESL journeymen/women.


The advice below cannot be carried out once you arrive in the foreign country where you will be working for the next year or more without great difficulty and expense, if at all. The time you will have to spend taking care of these neglected arrangements will be a time of missed opportunities and unnecessary frustration. Please heed my advice, it’s based on my own and many other colleagues’ experiences. 

Make sure that you have an international driver’s license. You will probably be living close to your work and it’s nice to get away occasionally. Not to mention the freedom it will give you to meet new friends or to go shopping. Furthermore, once you become more familiar with your new home you will feel confident enough to travel to different parts of the country. Last but not least, a feeling of self-sufficiency keeps the spirits up in a new environment.

Choose a work location where you can pursue your hobbies. You will need tried and true methods of relaxation. In addition, this will provide great opportunities to make friends too. It’s important that the school does not become your whole life, you will most probably be having a great time at your new school, but variety is important.

Take your own laptop, or buy one quickly upon arrival. They’re great for classroom activities. Furthermore, you will not have to rely on using work or colleagues’ computers for online planning, purchases etc. Also, you should not expect classroom computers to work all the time, especially the work computers which are used by so many different people that they often become difficult to use due to viruses and the need to free up memory, shut down programmes or do defragging.

Bring enough money to survive for a month. Borrow from family or friends, if need be, it’s better than borrowing from your new boss, colleagues or friends—all of whom are essentially strangers. Remember do not do it tough for the first month after you arrive in order to get to the first pay cheque or open a line of credit, it can put you off track or completely change your direction. Achieve what you took the contract to achieve.

Bring a spare set of certified copies of degrees and proof of identity. It’s very difficult to arrange new copies from non-western overseas countries, not to mention expensive and slow. Please, also, be aware that things do get lost in busy schools.

Bring a folder of pictures from your country. They are good for building closer relationships with students and colleagues alike; they also help to make you feel more inspired and rejuvenated at the same time.

Learn your cultural songs and dances. They, like photos of home, are great for building relationships and tapping energy and enjoyment both from within the students and yourself.

Take board games and crossword books. It’s good for you to do things outside of the textbooks sometimes. But be ready for photocopier issues/restrictions. Games such as Monopoly and Snakes and ladders offer you opportunities to use useful language items and create excitement through suspense/anticipation. Avoid using card games, however, as they have earned a bit of a bad reputation over the years as being just a way to pass time in the classroom.

Always dress well, ‘Clothes maketh the man (woman)’ you will receive more respect from both the students and the school. Therefore, you probably need to leave home with at least two pairs of nice work clothes. You will be amazed how first impressions influence the treatment you receive from the moment you step off the plane. It is quite possible that you will go straight from the plane to the school, you probably will not have to teach, but, nevertheless, the director, along with other teachers and some of the students, will see you. So, leave the plane in a way that will make the right impression; fresh and well dressed.

Do not get on the plane without a work visa, or in the case of work visas being issued inside the country of employment, do not start work without your work visa.

Start learning the language before you leave.  Many local people you meet, of course, will want to speak—practise English with you, but the locals love it when you learn—use their language. It will make your experience easier and more dynamic; you will be more engaged with your new environment. 



If you follow this simple step, you will get yourself off to a great start in your new country of work by being able to connect—communicate and get around. Your growing freedom will help you settle in. You will hit the ground running, as it were.

Buy a Sim-card and map at the airport, also a phrase/travel guide if you do not already have one.                                                                         



This is not advice on how to teach. That’s a pedagogical issue. I will share some wisdom about how to build a relationship with the students, primarily, but also your colleagues and boss, so that you have an environment conducive to learning. You don’t want to be the half-hearted teacher, a western attraction. You are the native-level-speaker, the cultural ambassador; you bring a lot to the table.

Do not expect much from your recruiter after you start working (generally speaking). You did not pay them. They have a contract with your employer — not you.

Do not be afraid to ask questions about schedules and policies especially. Knowing what’s going on maintains/enhances your status in the classroom. However, if you do not know the answer, do not make things up: it will undermine your status.

Always follow this rule, lesson first—game second. Also, do not give gifts unless it is for a major project, otherwise, you will find that you have to give gifts for every activity.

Show that you understand (are learning) their language, but do not use it as a means of communication or instruction.  Your job is to teach English, do not become the teacher who only half teaches; pushing the difficult stuff down the line. The students will love you for going the extra mile to answer outside of the textbook learning related language questions — eventually, if not immediately.

Do not use your cell-phone in class and do not allow the students to either. If students want to use them for research you need to monitor their searches carefully, otherwise you will find you have opened the door to gaming and social media in your classroom.

Do not let students go early. You are paid to teach them for a certain amount of time; eventually another teacher, the management or a parent will complain.  If the end of the class game has run its course, just do some free talking (interview students randomly from the role), or do a short review or vocabulary or workbook activity. Set the culture where students do not expect to leave early in your classroom. But do not give arbitrary writing activities, students will catch on to this pretty quickly and write sub-standard stuff that you will have to check.

Keep a journal with observations every day. Review it regularly. You will grow as a teacher, you might notice patterns of behavior in classes and individual students and help these groups/individuals perform better. You will also be able to assess and pursue your own goals more efficiently. Moreover, you will be able to show your students and school in general that you are on-to-it. It will also help you build your essential local language vocabulary, you learn and remember what you realize is important.



Do not be a hermit, boredom ruins many promising ESL contracts. You did not travel into a new culture just to sit in your room surfing the Internet and eating western takeaways. So, eat at local restaurants, shop in the markets, use public transport, travel — just get on a train or bus, it will be worth it. You will meet people.


William Sproule

William Sproule has been an ESL teacher for over 13 years. He has taught in South Korea, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and Oman. He is currently teaching IELTS in Muscat, Oman.

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