Scott Hipsher

Is TEFL teaching a career or a job?

Perhaps it's not such an easy question to answer

Should an individual accepting a position as a TEFL teacher think this is the first step in a career or should one consider it "only" as a job?

The main differences between a job and a career are the expectations and goals one has from work.

A job is primary about the pay and intangible benefits one receives immediately with little concern over the long-term prospects for promotions, increased responsibility and career advancement.

Work on a job usually ends when the tasks one has been assigned for the day are done.

A job is mostly work done for immediate benefits, primarily pay. People with a job usually spend a limited amount of time and effort in skill advancement outside of working hours.

A teenager working at a fast food outlet does not usually think the work is part of a career; instead it is a job, work in exchange for money with little thought about future opportunities for advancement and little effort given to skill development. How many fast food workers after work study about techniques which will help to make a better burger?

A career is work in which there are long-term goals involved. In a career, especially in the early stages, individuals are working not only for the immediate benefits one gets, but also to gain new skills and one considers his or her current work and skill development to be building blocks for the future. In a career, more thought is given to long term opportunities for promotions, increased responsibilities and career advancement.

Individuals with careers often spend considerable time and effort outside of work hours developing new skills. For example, reading trade journals or attending professional conferences.

Climbing the corporate ladder normally requires one to have a career as opposed to a job mindset.

One could make the case that becoming a TEFL teacher is usually more about having a job than a career. Looking through the Ajarn job listings one rarely finds jobs ads for career teachers holding considerable experience or advanced qualifications. In Thailand, many teachers work for Thai schools, both government and private, and within these organizations there are few if any opportunities for foreign English teachers to advance. Also it is rare for schools to pay new teachers extra for experience or education and training, in addition to what is needed for a work permit, they bring into the school. It would appear most administrators hiring teachers for Thai schools think they are hiring people for jobs, not careers.

On the other hand, there are some, but limited, opportunities within the industry for career advancement, especially within the language school segment. A teacher can aspire and work towards becoming a head teacher, director of studies or other administrative position. There are also opportunities in academia for those inclined and I personally know of TEFL teachers working in Asia going off to work on their PhDs in ESL or related fields.

Maybe the question of whether teaching TEFL is a job or a career does not require a single answer. It might be possible TEFL teaching can be a job for some individuals while being part of a career for others. Also it might be possible for someone to start teaching thinking of it as a job and later changing to having a career mindset. It could also work in reverse; someone might start off thinking of teaching as a career and later settle into a job mindset.

Whether thinking TEFL teaching is a job or a career, it should be kept in mind that education as a whole is not a sector of the economy known for creating positions that are especially well paid. And while statistics of TEFL salaries are difficult to impossible to find, we do know on average professors in English departments generally earn far less than do professors teaching business, IT, or the physical sciences, and it would seem TEFL teaching would also not compare favorably in terms of earnings potential when benchmarked against other types of work. Therefore when taking a TEFL or other English teaching position one should not expect either the immediate or long-term financial remuneration to be substantial, but there are some exceptional intangible benefits, such as the joy of working with bright and motivated young people, for those seeking either a job or a career in the TEFL industry.

It is felt there is a need and room for both job and career seekers within the TEFL industry. Obviously most Thai schools and language schools do not have the resources in which to pay professional wages which would attach career minded individuals to all English teachers and therefore primarily rely on those looking for jobs in the industry. And I have seen many young people who come to Thailand or other countries to teach English as a job for a year or two, or retirees who come and teach English after finishing a full career in a different profession, that make excellent conversational English teachers and who compensate for lack of teaching experience by an abundance of enthusiasm and good spirit.

On the other hand, in order to adequately design courses or prepare students going off to study in graduate programs abroad to write academic English properly requires TEFL professionals who have developed skills over a career.

While one can take a job or develop a career teaching English, it would probably be a good idea for individuals to know what they want out of teaching English and follow either the job or career path depending on their personal motivations and objectives.

Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,

The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective,

Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries

as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.

The author has also written about entrepreneurship in the book, Contemporary Microenterprise: Concepts and cases publish by Edward Elgar 



like any professional activity, it can be taken seriously or lightly or done over a long or short period. This means again, like any others of its ilk, it can be viewed or undertaken as a job OR as a career/vocation.

There is a tendency, which you appear to be nodding your cap to, that TEFL work is somehow just a stopgap for backpackers and the unemployable et al. There are many dedicated professionals who devote their entire lives to providing valuable language skills to those who need them in order to advance their own careers and, yes, in some cases, lift their families out of poverty.

I personally don't see any difference between person A who starts at the bottom as a lawyer/paralegal and starts his/her own company or becomes the head of a law faculty or even the Attorney General. In the same way, Person B, a TEFL teacher, starts as a teaching assistant and ends up being a Director of Studies or head of a language faculty or again, starts his/her own company. Both examples can be viewed as careers if that's where the workers end up.

In short, ANY work undertaken can be viewed as a career or temporary job. It's about perspective and as you rightly say, one's own expectations and the length of time allotted to getting a higher position within that field.


By Tom Tuohy, Riyadh (27th March 2011)

Teaching is a career - you have skills and knowledge around teaching. Naturally each time you work you take a job which pays you remuneration. Each job will give you more experience to perform better in your teaching career. Sadly in Thailand, kinder schools require clowns and not teachers and in the corporate market a past career as an entertainer will help you more than a long career in teaching. In gov. secondary schools a career as an animal tamer or zoo keeper will be of more help. Of course, if you are a qualified teacher, you can opt for an international school and pursue your teaching career for a decent salary. I speak from experience teaching in Thailand for 5 years.

By Peter T., Bangkok (24th March 2011)

Hi Scott,
TEFL teaching in Thailand is on its best day, nothing more than job, and for those with excellent self-delusional skills, a McCareer. Hopefully, the 'professional' TEFLer will enjoy the local culture and its many delights whilst being pleasant and supportive to his/her colleagues in the staffroom. While teachers in Thailand are generally well-respected, our status here is still nothing more than 'guest worker.' Thanks again for the article.

By Guy, bkk (7th March 2011)

Hello Scott,

Teaching English here is a mix of professional and, I guess I would put it, para-professional opportunities. As a California state credentialed teacher with experience teaching ESL and ELL's I have gotten a position that does have opportunity for advancement depending on one's inclination. There is no clear delineated path like in the States; it all seems to hinge on the inclination of the school directors and the kind of programs they want to foster.
I also consider myself a "professional" in that my job is to "profess" the interests of my students above my own. Not to the injury of myself, but to the betterment of them.

By Dan, Chiang Mai (6th March 2011)

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