1. You don't really have to teach.
Put simply - you do. Some teachers find that they can get away with doing anything they like, including simply playing games and watching movies, but in most cases those teachers are posted out in the sticks, are the only foreign teacher in the village and the schools are happy just to have a farang face to show off.
In reality if you want to teach abroad and live in a city (or at least somewhere with a bit of life in it), you are likely to end up in a big government school or private institution, both of which will expect you to submit lesson plans, to teach multiple subjects within ESL (communication, writing, reading, social studies, health...) and to write and grade midterm and final examinations to prove that the students are actually learning something.
My school is at the more ‘by the book' end of the spectrum. At the start of term we are required to submit lesson plans for the whole semester (sixteen teaching weeks). The foreign teachers teach anything from 1 - 5 different subjects over 20-22 hours per week and need to write and grade exams every 8 weeks.
Exam grades, along with grades collected throughout the semester from written work and speaking tests must be input on a spreadsheet and external database (which is handily completely in Thai). Some teachers have 500 students on their books - that is a lot of testing, grading and inputting!
2. You will live on a paradise island
Contrary to common belief, we don't all live on the beach in bamboo bungalows, floating from the hammock to class in a bikini and flip flops. In fact, I am particularly lucky to be based on the Gulf of Thailand so paradise islands are only a few hours away for me.
In Thailand the majority of TEFL jobs are in and around Bangkok or in the northeast of the country - where there are no beaches. This doesn't mean that they aren't beautiful places, but please don't assume that because we are teaching in a tropical climate that we spend all our time in these paradise settings.
3. TEFL teaching is one big holiday
Leading on from the last point, not only do we not live on paradise islands but we also don't spend every weekend jet setting to them. A lot of people begin TEFL teaching because they think that they will have to do a couple of hours ‘teaching' here and there and then can spend the rest of the time travelling and generally being on one big vacation. SHOCK HORROR but we have to work Monday - Friday!
In fact, at my school we have to work 7.45am - 4pm every weekday regardless of if we have lessons or not. Luckily I am based in Thailand and so we get a lot of public holidays resulting in a good amount of three day weekends, but you still have to work for a while between each of those.
I have encountered TEFL teachers who have no shame in admitting that they are only teaching to get a visa so that they can travel around, hopping from job to job, and who despair at the thought of having to actually teach - don't get me wrong, of course I chose to come and work abroad so that I could see some of the world too - but I also love teaching and get just as much enjoyment from my teaching experiences as I do from my travels. As nice as it is living in a different country if you hate your job what kind of existence is that?
TEFL teaching is a job, not a holiday.
4. TEFL jobs are all expenses paid
Free flights! Free accommodation! Paid holidays! In some cases, yes, your flights may be reimbursed on completion of a minimum contract term, and you may receive a basic accommodation budget (or worse be housed by the school, which usually means in the school, or in a tiny bedsit) but in most circumstances this is not the case.
I fell foul to this, as the teaching agency I was originally supposed to be placed with following my TEFL course boasted that they pay for your accommodation and pay you for all your holidays; only in my case that place fell through and I ended up with another agency who don't give you a penny for accommodation and employ you on 11 month contracts so the long school holiday ends up unpaid. Had I known that I would be paying my own rent and not receiving a salary every month I may have saved a little more before coming out here. Lesson learned - things barely go to plan.
My advice would be to save as much as you comfortably can in the timescale that you have before coming out. Over-save. I thought I was going to be in the northeast, where things are probably the cheapest in the country. I ended up in the south where things are more expensive, with an agency that wouldn't be helping me with accommodation costs.
The initial cost of moving somewhere will include housing deposits, buying bedding (and potentially furniture), buying teaching clothes (because no matter what you prepare for each school has its own policy and expectations)... most of these costs will be going out of your account before and salary has been paid in. Then there is the cost of arranging a visa and work permit which again can often be the responsibility of the teacher to fund. Not all TEFL jobs will be paying for that kind of stuff so just bear it in mind; it's not a free ride.
5. Any native English speaker can get a job as a TEFL teacher
Again, as in #1, I am sure if you are happy to live in the middle of nowhere, be the only foreigner in the village then yes, any native English speaker can get a TEFL job. But if you want to live in a city and work in a real school environment as a real teacher, you are going to need some sort of TEFL certificate at minimum. Even with a TEFL certificate and degree, a native English speaker can still come across barriers to finding work.
So many people come out relying on their nationality (and in Thailand, colour of skin also goes a long way), but find that without the right certification and the right frame of mind, good jobs don't just come along. Do your homework, gain the correct certification. It's up to you if you want to work for it or go and buy it on Khao San Road, but don't assume that simply being an English speaker will guarantee you a great job.
I realise that this may come across as pretty negative but there are so many people who come out here with completely unrealistic expectations, having not done their research and making silly assumptions. These people then spend their entire working time complaining about how their experience isn't what they had expected,resulting in them either not having enough money, or being unprepared, or not landing an amazing yet easy job on the beach, and of course all that they can do is bitch and complain about it, bitter that they aren't living the tropical island paradise life that they surely deserve for coming out here.
Teaching in Thailand is an amazing, enriching experience, but if you have ridiculous expectations and don't prepare, you only have yourself to blame. Stop moaning and go home!