The ABC of ELT

The difference between a good and bad TEFL contract

Imagine the situation,

You turn up to your new job and everything looks just as you expected.

The pictures of the place were accurate and it isn’t just a dilapidated building with one room to teach in. Everything seems great.

But only a few weeks later you’re exhausted, overworked, underpaid and doing hundreds of extra tasks you didn’t agree to do.

Add on that although the school is okay you’ve had a whole host of extra problems settling and living in your new country.

How did this all happen? Couldn’t it have been avoided?

If only you’d checked the small print in the contract a bit more.

Before and after you’ve had your job interview you need to be able to separate a good contract from a bad contract. If you don’t know what to look out for (or what is typically) then you can end up overworked, underpaid, doing hundreds of extra tasks and miserable. Here are some things you should look out for in your contract, some are more important than others


The actually amount of time you work is obviously one of the first things you need to look at in a contract.You don’t want to be run into the ground and at the same time you want to make sure that you are going to be paid enough to live (and yes unfortunately, in general, more hours = higher pay) However, teaching contracts can involve different types of hours.

On call hours

For hours in class actually teaching then between 20 and 25 hours a week of contact hours are considered standard for a full-time contract, though obviously part-time and freelance contracts differ. In addition, teaching in a university generally have lower contact hours though require more qualifications.

Professional development

Professional development is important for a couple of reasons. One it helps you become a better teacher and if you want to stay in TEFL for any length of time you should want to improve (as a pre qualification course really is only the tip of the iceberg), it also improve job prospects for the future and is a way to filter out the many sharks out there. If the employer puts something towards professional development then they will probably look after the teacher in general (though this isn’t always true). In case you need any further reasons to try and develop professionally then it can lead to increased pay in some cases.

Look for,

  • Development session,
  • Conferences,
  • Teacher training courses,
  • Reading material,
  • Action research projects

Be careful: How much time do they expect you to spend on development, who will pay for it? is it optional or mandatory, How much paperwork is there for it? When are the deadlines?

Administrative hours

Different schools have different teaching duties and some require you to carry out the dreaded “Administrative duties!!!!”

These vary from just recording what you taught in the last lesson and marking the homework of the students. But can also include

  • Reports
  • Hour sheets
  • Recording marks after every class
  • Taking detailed registers of students before class
  • Writing reports to businesses
  • Marking

and other work! It can all add up to quiet a lot and is frequently not included in the contract hours.


Holiday time varies a lot depending on the country you are going to, in Europe it is common to have some Christmas holidays off as well as national holidays (just be careful Christmas holidays aren’t the same everywhere. For example “Orthodox Christmas” is actually the 7th of January). In addition contracts usually end at the start of the summer leading to a 2 month period in between contracts.
In Southern America the holidays periods are very different with a longer Christmas holiday (due to the hotter climate) but often run for a whole year long.

Contract length

Obviously the length of time that you want to be teaching for is very important. 12 month contracts are more common in South America, Asia and the Middle East where as variable contracts that follow school terms are more common (having said that there are year long contracts in Europe and there are shorter contracts all around the world and there are even some very short term jobs for travellers though they are hard to find and you will probably only find them by just dropping in on a school and seeing if they need you.)

Private lessons

If you are doing a full-time contract then the contract may have restrictions on taking private clients. This can be “you can’t have private clients” or “you can but they can’t interfere with your contractual obligations.” Either way make sure you check it out at the start.
Most schools accept that teachers can pick up clients on the side and some even offer referral fees for finding students as incentives to send students their way and make use of their facilities.


In some cases contracts include an accommodation allowance or even provide accommodation. This can make seemingly low salary contracts actually a lot better than rivals (and so you shouldn’t always look for the highest salary job) even if they school doesn’t provide accommodation, providing support in finding somewhere to stay or even just providing somewhere till you can find your own place.

These details can be very important as you don’t want to turn up only to find out that you have to sort something out right now, Or that you are being put up in an expensive hotel or that you’re staying in a tiny little flat on the outskirts of the city with an hour commute and no bed.


As I’ve just mentioned some schools provide assistance in finding a flat but your needs don’t just stop at getting a flat. What about it’s up keep, bills, getting internet installed, random drunk people turning up insisting it’s their flat (true story) or problems that aren’t to do with your flat like our visa, flights, or even an unexpected trip to the hospital. Having someone with knowledge of the local systems and a better grasped of the local language who can help you is invaluable to moving abroad for the first time. I personally was very thankful for the help I received when I had an eye infection and needed to visit the hospital and take certain medicines.
However, this is something which is rarely on a contract and so you will probably just have to ask during your interview.

Health care

Getting ill is never fun and the last thing you want is to do this in a foreign country where you don’t feel safe in the hospitals and are worrying about how much you will have to pay for everything. Trust me! Being aware of the Health care and having some form of insurance where necessary is very important. Some companies provide a contribution or recommend a favoured provider to go with.


Of course this is one of the most important aspects of a contract and one that most people look at straight away (so I left it to last as I’m sure you’ve thought it of it anyway). However, there are a couple of things that are worth thinking about.

  • What is a standard rate of pay for the place you are going to?
  • Will that mean you can have the same standard of living or do you need to make some sacrifices anyway?
  • Does this include Tax or not? If not then how much tax will be taken out of your salary?

The last point can be particularly potent in some countries where Tax can be a sizeable part of income and the difference between tax being included in your contract or not can make a huge difference in living standard.

Be careful: it is not uncommon for schools in certain countries to try and keep foreigners “off the books” and avoid visa registration and thus tax as well. Asking about tax is a easy way to find out how above board the company is.)

How important is a contract anyway?

Not all these details will be in every contract, some schools don’t even provide contracts and in some cases even if you do get a contract it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. However, if you ask the questions and pay attention to the fine details then you are less likely to end up in the situation above, and if you do find yourself in a terrible teaching situation at least you can give a strong reason for leaving.

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

One Reply

  1. Some great points here. I’d also add that you should be aware of split shifts and split campuses, early-leaving fines and so on. Here’s our list:

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