Can TEFL be a Career?

Meet Kelly Willis: having taught in Ghana, Japan, Mongolia, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, AND having led expeditions in India, Nepal and Pakistan, she’s fairly clued up on travelling and teaching English. Kelly is here today to answer the popular question “Can TEFL be a career?”

Why did you decide to start teaching English?

I decided to start teaching English after a chance meeting with a Thai Teacher when I first went to Thailand.  I ended up staying in Bangkok an extra night (back in the days when you had to wait for a phone call from overseas… not like one click with the internet today).

Anyway, I decided to go on a random trek across a then non-touristy part of Bangkok, ended up in an art gallery, started chatting to a Thai Teacher and a year later, ended up in the middle of nowhere (Issan in the North East), in a tiny village where there was no English spoken and no foreigner had been before.  I started helping out teaching a mixture of English and Boy Scout activities in return for board and Thai language lessons and stayed for a year before going to college – a fantastic experience especially as I was only 17.

Did you do a TEFL course before you started teaching?

I had never even heard of TEFL when I first went to Asia, though I had lots of random people asking me if I wanted to teach.  I did a short TEFL certificate when I got back to the UK and then did a CELTA and TEFL Diploma whilst studying, which enabled me to get some real classroom experience whilst learning and see if teaching really was for me.

I’ve also made a point of refreshing my skills and doing additional TEFL courses and attending workshops and conferences ever since, to keep updated and not become like so many travelling teachers you see on the road – stale and bored of their job through inadequate training.

Where are you originally from?

Originally I’m from the UK, but  I’ve lived and worked in Australia for many years since a teenager.  I was looking for a career that allowed me to travel and teach and a career in TEFL was born!

Where are you right now?

I’m currently based in the UK but my work and interests take me all over the world – you’ll never find me in one place for long.

Where have you taught English?

I’ve taught English all over the world, from Asia to Africa and the Middle East as well as a stint in the UK.  The most interesting place I’ve TEFLed, was in Saudi Arabia, the best fun I had was in South East Asia, but the most culturally eye-opening was Ghana.

I’ve always been met by passionate local teachers, friendly parents and students and people genuinely wanting you to be part of their culture and community whilst you are there.

What age kids/adults are/were you teaching?

I’ve mostly taught teenagers 12- 18 years old, but I’ve also taught primary school students (lots of energy needed) and adults for a short period (harder to teach than youngsters in my opinion).

What were they like?

I’ve never had bored students, although I’ve always made a point of including lots of activities and made every lesson real and inspiring.  It’s hard work to teach well and there are days when you think you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, but teaching for me has always been about inspiring others to think out the box and apply what they’ve learnt to real situations and encourage them to persevere.  No one is successful in anything in life unless they keep trying – a message I always instil in students from day one!

In your opinion, can TEFL be a career?

Well, I’m planning on making it my career so I really hope so! Seriously, though yes, I don’t see why not. I’ve been teaching for over 4 years now and i have no plans to stop.

How did you find the experience of teaching overseas?

I think I’ve been lucky with the schools I’ve taught at overseas.  I’ve never been treated unfairly or overworked or taught out of my depth like I have heard some people talk about in other countries.  I’ve always worked for Government schools or private institutions that pay well (and on time), offer ongoing training and support and sort everything with regards to visas and work permits.  I think it’s all about knowing before you go, and doing your homework: don’t go to teach anywhere in the world without having some classroom experience, because it’s hard work and it takes a special kind of person to actually get up in front of 40+ students five days a week and get results after working with them for a set amount of time.  From experience comes knowledge that not all students will pass or be as perfect as the Principal or their parents or even the student expects, not every lesson will be riveting to students but as long as you are passionate about what your teaching, you will be successful.

What are your plans now?

At the moment I’m teaching in the UK, but the plan long term is to go back into Expedition Leading and I’m joining the Scouts as an Adult Leader.  I want to teach younger people outside of the confines of a classroom, to be proactive and progressive, think outside the box and teach them skills other than English. I’ve also got plans to climb the Annapurnas and Everest Base Camp raising money for charity and compete in the next Mongol Rally.

How would you rate the experience out of 10?

I’d rate TEFLing 10/10 if you are passionate – don’t become complacent with it just being a means to an end to stay travelling.  You are responsible for teaching others and you need to do it well, else it looks bad on you and for future teachers.

What would your advice be to someone thinking of making TEFL a career?

Don’t even think of doing TEFL without a certificate and some classroom-based teaching.  You will meet many people that tell you, you don’t need experience or qualifications but when you hear people saying how the school has conned them to work excess hours, not provided materials or doesn’t pay them well… there’s a reason for that.  They are usually the schools that just want to get as many foreign teachers as possible and know that if you leave, someone else will take your place.

If you want to work for a good school, have some solid experience and get paid well, then do your research on the school, get a TEFL certificate and see if it’s for you.  I’ts hard standing up in front of a classroom of students, more so if you don’t even know what you are doing because you aren’t trained or qualified.

Would you want to pay hundreds of pounds/dollars to be taught something really important by someone who can’t teach?!

What did you do for your last birthday?

Last birthday I trekked in Sapa Vietnam and spent my birthday night celebrating with the Hmong Indigenous peoples – amazing!

You’ve won £2million on the lottery, what do you buy first?

If I won the lottery I’d be off to somewhere in South East Asia buying a little boat and setting up my diving and adventure sports/expeditions business.

What is your favourite type of cheese and why?

You can’t beat a vintage cheddar, tangy, full of flavour and something you can search high and low for worldwide but only ever get in the UK!!

If you don’t feel the TEFL bug after reading this, please check your pulse.


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  1. Miranda

    I would like to do an online Tefl course (150 hours) so without the hands on experience. I have volonteered in an orphanage school and have taught filmmaking to UK students so I feel I will be okay without the initial hands on training. Do you think its a good idea? Im tempted to do it as it is currently reduced from 150 British pounds to 50 pounds. Thankyou for your help!! :)

  2. Craig

    Hello I wonder if you can help me. I’ve been discussing a tefl course abroad for next year, however I wanted to know if as well as getting jobs abroad does it qualify you to teach in the U.K.

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