TEFL teacher Tabitha moved to France to teach English during the Covid-19 pandemic. Tabitha went live on i-to-i’s Facebook page to talk about her experience of TEFL both in France now and in China when the pandemic started and to share her tips on finding work during Covid. Watch a recording of the full webinar here or read on for edited extracts.
I started my TEFL journey in August 2019. I got my TEFL qualification with i-to-i and secured my first teaching contract in Fuzhou, China with a school called York English. It was meant to be for one year but after six months Covid hit and China went into national lockdown. I ended up seeing out the rest of my contract in the UK, through distance learning.
I was pretty desperate to go back to China but it was not a possibility unfortunately. That is how I ended up looking to Europe. I moved to France at the beginning of September. Currently I am not working because of the lockdown but I am still employed in a TEFL capacity as a tutor in France.
Is it possible to TEFL in Covid? Evidently yes, because I am doing it but there are some extra things to bear in mind to ensure you are able to achieve your TEFL goals in the safest possible way, while still being able to travel and have a great time.
Starting my TEFL journey
I used to work as an account manager in London. I was looking to retrain and start something new, so doing my i-to-i TEFL qualification through distance learning was the perfect solution. I completed my training within a couple of months and then I started to interview.
I love Europe but the more I looked into it, the more I found that teaching jobs in China are a really fantastic way to get your base in teaching. There are very competitive salaries and lots of benefits, like free apartments. You can live in some fantastic cities or some very rural places in China. It is a brilliant place to start.
I applied directly to York English. I found it on the LoveTEFL website, which was incredibly useful. There are a great many jobs boards for TEFL but not all of them are watertight when it comes to scams. The LoveTEFL website was really transparent. There were lots of real jobs. You did not have to sift through tens of thousands of scam postings.
TEFL in China
I had a two week training period with my school in China, separate to my TEFL training and then I got some regular classes. You will find a lot of schools have an additional training period to train you in their way of doing things. Obviously, arriving in China was a very big culture shock, so that two weeks was also very good for adjusting.
As a teacher in China, I taught children between the ages of four and 14. I had some children with excellent levels of English. I had some children who could not speak English at all, where I was speaking 100 percent English with a class that spoke zero percent English. It is an amazing challenge. Initially you think that there is no way you can do it but you can.
My daily life was regular classes with different age groups and different levels of English. I went to the same campus every day in Fuzhou. I worked with the same teachers, who were all fantastic. My supervisors were able to give me regular training. A good teacher never stops learning – cliché but true.
I taught at York English for a year. Six months of that was in Fuzhou in person. It was brilliant. I did lots of travel. I was able to go to Shanghai and Hong Kong. When I had to return to the UK, classes moved online.
Teaching English Online
I was apprehensive about the move to online teaching but, in general, I would really recommend it. It is a great exercise in creativity. I often found myself running around the room picking up bits of realia that I could use to show what I was talking about.
I could not choose my hours as I was obliged to follow the classes that I had in China, so the time difference was quite difficult. I went to bed at 8pm and got up at 2am. That was my life for a few months. It could be tough but it was worth it. Ultimately, if you are passionate about teaching, you are not massively phased by things like that. Even when you’re absolutely shattered, your students are so funny and their enthusiasm is infectious.
If you are coming into online teaching from scratch you can find a job with hours that suit you as it’s very flexible. You can teach more hours in less sociable times if you want to make the most of that China / UK time difference or you can try to build up a few hours in that time. You can find loads of online teaching roles at the moment – look on LoveTEFL Jobs .
TEFL contracts in China
When you’re looking at a TEFL contract for China, check the benefits: medical insurance is great, your apartment being included is really good. Find out if you have to work overtime and what your overtime rate is. Some China contracts seem to have insanely good benefits with huge salaries but it is because you are delivering lessons for every hour that is on your contract. The reality of teaching is that you need time to plan. Ideally look for a contract that has a paid planning component. That would be a big recommendation from me.
Good admin support is an additional benefit. My employer, York English, was really good about helping me with the process of moving to China. I was accompanied when I went to my medical and when I set up my bank account and they helped me with my phone.
Teaching English in Europe
I don’t need to say how crazy this year has ended up being. It has really thrown a spanner in the works for many people. My original plan had been to stay in China for a few more years and then potentially move into teaching adults or university students or move to Europe. I really enjoyed the culture, the benefits, the amount of money that I was saving in China. I could sing the praises of working in China all day but I could not get back to China.
I love France so I started looking into if it was possible to teach there. It is competitive to be a TEFL teacher in France . Employers prefer it if you have several years’ teaching experience. That is why you will find that people do their early years of teaching in China or Japan or Thailand. Often, there is very good training in these countries, lots of benefits and loads of great things you can do.
I only had one year’s teaching experience so I had to be open minded about what realistically I could do in France. However, there are many, many routes to teaching or adjacent jobs to teaching in France. That is what I started looking into.
Finding work in Europe
Lots of people want to teach English in Europe. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find a teaching job but, for somebody who has just qualified in TEFL, it might be quite tricky. The more practical experience you have, the more ways that you have shown your passion for teaching English, the more likely it is that you can build a fantastic case for employing you.
You might not think of being a nanny or au pair as a traditional teaching job. However, it is a very good way of getting practical experience and boosting your chances with other employers. It is also an affordable way of doing it as France is very expensive. If you are a nanny or au pair, you usually live with the family. Don’t disregard nannying or au pair jobs.
A job as an activities coach is another way that you can apply English to what you are doing. You might not be an English tutor in terms of grammar or vocab but you could find yourself being a dance teacher who teaches exclusively in English or teaching music in English in a tutoring capacity.
With all of these things, TEFL is absolutely the best way to start. You have had the training, you know how to do it and now you can tutor or be an activities coach or an au pair.
English tutoring in France
There are plenty of ways to get into English tutoring. You can tutor children, like I do now, and teach in a very diverse way – songs, dances, crafts – or you could tutor university students or adults. If you want to be a private tutor, it is quite difficult initially to get clients but the benefit is that you set your own hours and you can choose what you cover.
I currently tutor for a company called babylangues which I found through searching on Google. I work with three different families, who have children aged between three and six. It is very different teaching in a one-to-one environment. It is really interesting to see those massive differences between when you are a teacher in a classroom and when you are going to someone’s home and teaching children that daily useful English.
Salaries and costs
In general, teachers’ salaries are good in Europe, although it depends on the country and the city. For things like nannying, au pairing and tutoring, your salary is lower, although you could supplement your income with online teaching or activities coaching. I get paid 10 Euros an hour at babylangues. I am studying French at the moment at a language school so it works really well for me.
I live in a student studio which costs 600 Euro a month. Living costs in general are not that cheap. I definitely do not have as much left over at the end of the month as I did in China. For me, because I had been teaching in China for a year and saved a lot of money, this was a viable option. You might not necessarily have the funds to move to Europe immediately, as it is quite expensive.
TEFL in a pandemic
It is really important to ensure that your job is secure at this time. I checked with my employer what their lockdown contingency plan was. I needed to make sure that things like my rent and my health insurance were in all in check.
I asked my employer what would happen if we had to go into a second lockdown (which we are in now) – would we all have to leave the country? I asked if I would be eligible, as a foreigner, for a furlough scheme and how much it was, so I could factor that into my plans.
Flexible housing is also important. I have a studio that I let privately. If you are an au pair you might be 24/7 with a family that is not your own during a lockdown. It is good to know what their expectations would be in terms of you looking after the children, as your contribution to the house might change.
Jobs which offer medical insurance or routes to medical insurance are important. My job does not offer medical insurance, like my job did in China but there is something called the Carte Vitale in France, which essentially means you can receive medical care, so that is something to check as well.
I would stress that asking these questions is really important right now. Things can change at the drop of a hat.
Moving abroad during Covid
If you want to move abroad during this time, my number one piece of advice is to check the government website. The onus is ultimately on you to make sure that you know the country’s rules regarding quarantine, regarding when you enter a country and also when you leave a country. You might need to let the local authority know that you are new in the area.
Unfortunately, this pandemic is persisting. It does not mean that your life has to stop completely, as long as you are following the rules and acting responsibility. Most countries have shut their borders at the moment, so it may not be feasible to move literally in a lockdown but over the course of the pandemic there will be moments where it is possible to relocate for work.
There is a website called Re-open EU, which sets out detailed travel advice, restrictions, guidelines, threat levels and use of apps like Test and Trace for different countries across Europe.
Surviving lockdown in France
Lockdown does take a toll. It has been really tough on everyone regardless of the country you are in. I decided to rent a place to stay in the countryside with some friends for this lockdown. We were more nervous about being in a city. Thank god for technology. We can all ring our families and ring our friends and talk to them. It is tough but it is not impossible.
I certainly learnt a lot of lessons from lockdown one that I am taking into this second lockdown. I am trying to use my daily exercise to get out of the house and get some fresh air. Coping with lockdown has been a mixture of drinking lots of nice French wine, talking to each other, looking after our mental health, going for nice walks and waiting for some good news. That is my strategy.
TEFL in lockdown
If your job can be considered childcare it is possible to continue working during this lockdown. I have not worked this month because what I do is more based around games and activities that promote English use and also because I decided to leave Lyon during this second lockdown. It is so important to have a back-up plan financially and to talk with your employer so that, if this happens, you are both on the same page.
The school where I have been learning French has been online for the past few weeks. France’s attitude to this second lockdown has been to prioritise keeping educational institutions open where possible but my school decided to move online. There are a lot of international students who returned to their home countries so I think they were keen that everyone had the same chance to learn. It is possible they could re-open soon.
In France, I have a CDI contract, which is the best contract for somebody in my position. I don’t need a visa because, right now, the UK is still effectively part of the EU. Next year I really don’t know. There is a lot of uncertainty around Brexit. i-to-i have got a blog post about the potential impact of Brexit on teaching in Europe .
In China, my visa was covered and everything was reimbursed. If you are looking to move to China, definitely look out for employers that cover your visa. In Europe, it depends on the type of work you are doing, so talk to your employer.
Connecting with other teachers
I don’t have a lot of contact with other teachers in Lyon right now. If I had been based in Paris, where Babylon was founded, I think I would have more opportunity to connect with other tutors. For me, it has not been a make or break thing. There are plenty of people that you can connect with virtually if you want to talk about teaching.
In China, even in a small city like Fuzhou, there was ample opportunity to meet loads of other teachers. Fuzhou has a very small expat community but the connections that you forge with teachers are very strong. You go through this huge culture shock together. You often find that the teachers who have been there longer are willing to take the new teachers under their wing. That is very much what happened to me. I was very scared and worried about what it was going to be like when I first arrived but I felt very welcome in China. I was very much brought into the culture.
In some ways, it is a bit of a struggle if you can’t speak the language of the place that you are in but you will find that there are many expat communities and groups who do speak English and want to make friends. My biggest piece of advice would be to sign up to a language class while you are there. I learned a fair bit of Mandarin while I was in China. Right now, I am trying to focus on French. You can learn quite quickly.
Tips for TEFL during Covid
My top tips for TEFL during Covid are flexibility, open mindedness, preparedness and enthusiasm. They are all together because I think that they all help each other. Flexibility is very important because you need to be aware that your situation could change – you could end up going into lockdown or not being able to work for a month or two.
When you are looking for jobs in Europe, it is really good to be open minded about the type of work you will consider, especially if you are at the start of your TEFL career. Don’t look down on things like au pairing and camp co-ordinators. They are a practical way of getting teaching experience in a really hands on context. Employers look at them with high regard.
If you move abroad during a pandemic, be realistic. Have those conversations with employers to find out if you could receive furlough pay or if your teaching could move online if you are in lockdown.
Stay in contact with your support network back home via video chat. Despite all the amazing people that you are going to meet (and you are going to meet amazing people when you are abroad) there is nothing like talking to your sister or your mum or your best friend and getting away from constant teacher talk. Don’t feel alone. It is so important to stay connected and stay grounded in the real world, however crazy it is right now.
You can TEFL during Covid
It is possible to keep TEFLing during this insane time and it is possible to make friends and network during a pandemic. Human beings still want to meet people, whether that is in person (masks and all) or online. There are loads of meet-up apps where you can meet expats, you can meet local people, you can do language exchanges, you can sign up for new courses and make friends.
I have made some really fantastic friends in the last few months, some of whom I am now locked down with. You would never think that you would lockdown with people who were near enough strangers two or three months ago but 2020 will do that to you.
TEFL is a fantastic career to get into. There are so many things you can do with it. Not a day goes by but I am very grateful that I did my TEFL training with i-to-i. It has absolutely changed my life.