Is it worth it to get a TESOL certificate?

Future English teachers of the world email me fairly regularly asking about teaching abroad. They ask lots of different kinds of questions, but one that’s come up a lot lately is certifications like TEFL, TESOL, or even CELTA.

Usually, these kinds of programs last a month or so and range in price from anywhere between a few hundred dollars (for online courses) to a few thousand (for in-person courses taught through the most reputable companies in places like Europe). You attend and even get some real life teaching practice in the process. At the end, you’re certified, and that’s supposed to help you teach better and get better jobs. The question is, does it?

I got TESOL certified through the American TESOL Institute. I took the course in Bangkok, Thailand. The course itself cost just shy of $1,000. I paid a couple hundred more for the place to stay while I was there, and I had to buy the plane ticket too but only from Korea, which wasn’t so bad.

Thankfully, I made some great friends through the course, particularly the guy I ended up staying with and a terrific Thai woman who helped introduce the two of us to Thai culture, especially the language and the cuisine. Right after the course, I took an extra few weeks to visit Laos and Cambodia along with some other parts of Thailand. It would be a serious understatement to say that trip to Thailand was totally worth it.

Question is, though, is it worth it in general to take something like a TESOL course?

If you’re going to east Asia and you have a Bachelor’s degree, you probably don’t need one to qualify for jobs, at least at this point. Japan and Korea in particular don’t seem to recognize the certifications. On the other hand, if you don’t have a Bachelor’s degree and want to teach in one of the smaller countries in southeast Asia or less popular parts of China, then just a certificate might get you in.

I don’t know as much about Africa or South America, but my feeling is that if you want to teach there, you could probably do it without any qualifications at all, other than that you’re a native speaker, particularly if you have a US passport.

If you’re trying to teach in Europe or the Middle East, you’ll probably need to be certified to teach back home, like with an education degree, maybe even need a Master’s. A certification in TEFL, TESOL, or CELTA probably won’t do the trick.

So again, the question is, is a TESOL-like certification worth the cost?

My answer is that it depends on what you’re trying to do. For someone who doesn’t have any teaching experience but does have a degree, I’d suggest getting some experience first.

Experience will help you make sure this is something you want to pursue for longer than a year as well as prepare you better for the course. I got my TESOL after I’d already taught for over a year. That helped me pick up more from the course because I knew which activities would work or how to adjust them to make them work in various class settings. Also, if you’re going to invest more than a $1,000 into this education, you want to get at least that much back out of it. If you’re working for a year or two, you’d probably be better off just saving the money.

Further still, if you already have an undergraduate or graduate degree in English or linguistics or something, the certificate probably won’t open that many extra doors for you. So you’d probably be better off looking into an inexpensive graduate program if you’re serious about wanting to teach all over the world.

On the other hand, though, if you’re looking at a certification more for the personal experience, which is more of why I did mine, then it might be a good option for you. I know quite a few people who’ve taken courses in places like Thailand or India, learned a lot of hands-on tactics for teaching and managing a classroom, and enjoyed the cultural experience of getting the certificate in a foreign country alongside other future teachers. This means in-person, though, not one of the online courses, which I’d say is rarely worth your money (you can get the material online for free, and most places don’t recognize the online versions as much).

Overall, don’t expect  a certificate to catapult your teaching career. If you’re doing it for the personal experience or because you don’t have a degree, it can be worth it. Otherwise, just get busy teaching – real-life experience will take you much further.