Is TEFL A Mugs Game?


Profiling ESL teachers

Do looks count when applying for a TEFL teaching position

It’s an interesting phenomenon when South Africans are turned down for ESL jobs in Thailand. I’ve witnessed this happen on several occasions and heard about it a few more. They have the credentials, English is their first language – so what’s the problem?

With every teaching application you submit, you must also submit a passport-sized photo. I always thought it was for visa and work permit processing but I’m not so certain.

From the school’s perspective, they are literally hiring the “face” of their English department when they hire an ESL teacher.

Bringing an ESL teacher on board is a relatively costly investment for the school. Private schools are big on showcasing their Western teachers to parents and other school supporters. That being what it is, schools want someone who not only speaks English but also really looks like they speak English. They want the teaching and native-speaking skills to come neatly packaged in a Western looking façade.


The preference for hiring blonde-haired, blue-eyed teachers is not something spoken about openly. In fact plenty of teachers deviating far from this archetype are leading exceptional careers as ESL teachers in Thailand. Once in a while though, you get someone to speak candidly about this.

For example, a South African friend of mine in Bangkok went for an interview at a private English school. The director of the school happened to be an American guy who felt comfortable speaking openly. The director told my friend that he was hesitant to call her due to her nationality and that if she were “a shade darker” he wouldn’t be able to hire her. He went on to say that “native-English speaking” should be amended with “and white” as prerequisites for hiring at some schools in Thailand.

My friend from the previous example was a CFO for a huge investment firm in her home country. She decided to take a year off to teach English in Thailand. Her credentials could land her a job in any of the top investment firms or banks all over the world – including Bangkok. Her command of the English language rivals that of any English teacher I’ve known. Her only setback was her place of birth and tan-complexion.

I hope this does not discourage or overly frustrate anyone. In fact I was slightly hesitant to write about it. However, I really wanted to get some feedback from others who are teaching in Thailand. It’s a very interesting phenomenon and one that I hope is quickly coming to an end.

What do you guys think? Has anyone else experienced something similar?

big-work+travel banner

4 thoughts on “Is TEFL A Mugs Game?

  1. Kanchan

    So what happen to your friend? Did she eventually get a placement? I am a South African indian thinking of doing the same thing.

    1. Dan Dongilli

      Hi! Yes, she did get a placement. Doing Skype interviews from your home country can be a great way to feel out the prospective employer. Good luck and godspeed!

  2. Matty

    What you haven’t mentioned in this articles is that most the South Africans teaching in Thailand are ‘white’, they speak English with an obvious accent but are otherwise usually decent teachers. However, for some bizarre reason the Ministry of Education in Thailand has classified them as non-native speakers (Thailand can sometimes unintentionally be racist in this way). It simply means you have to do a TOEIC test and get more than 600, which means you have to shell out $50 but could do it with your eyes closed. The Irish were also part of this unfair ruling but their embassy complained and had it reversed.

    But, if you are ‘black’ or ‘brown’ no matter whether you are born and bred Brit or American you will have some difficulty, because the expectations of parents here is that English teachers should be ‘white’ and no private ‘money making’ school is going to jeopardise that. Shameful, but that’s how it is.

    1. Dan Dongilli

      That’s a very good point. Most South Africans are ‘white,’ yet they’re still at a disadvantage. Being ‘brown’ or ‘black’ can be another obstacle to overcome. While nobody is in agreement with the current situation in Thailand, it’s important to keep in mind when working with prospective employers.

      Hopefully these things will be less of an issue in the future. As perspectives and paradigms shift with the younger generations, we can look with promise to the coming days and years.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *