By: Jeff Penick
The dress code for English teachers abroad is truly going to vary from country to country and more specifically, school to school. Some schools will require business attire (shirt and tie or even a suit for men and a pant suit or skirt and dress shirt/jacket for women). On the other end of the spectrum, some schools will be perfectly fine with teachers wearing very casual clothes like a basic t-shirt and jeans.
As a general rule of thumb, whether you are interviewing for a teaching job or are showing up for work, err on the side of professional and conservative attire until you hear otherwise from your school.
Attire For English Teaching Job Interviews
Ask yourself, what would I wear to an interview for a professional teaching job in my home country? Chances are the answer to that question for most people is professional business attire and the same thing goes for when you’re interviewing for English teaching positions abroad. In an interview, you are “selling” your teaching services to a school and first impressions are important. You want to make sure to give the impression that you care, you are professional, you are serious about the position, and you are not some backpacker off the street. Even if you find out after the interview that the school has a more casual dress code, they will appreciate your effort to impress and take the interview seriously. It is much better to be over-dressed for an interview rather than under dressed.
Will you be interviewing for your job by Skype or some other virtual medium? If so, you should still make every effort to appear as professional as possible.
*Pro Tip! If it is required by an employer to submit a headshot with your resume, use a headshot with professional attire.
Tattoos and Piercings/Gauges
Tattoos and facial piercings are becoming more common across the globe, and I personally know MANY people that have taught abroad with tattoos and/or piercings without an issue. Half of the staff at International TEFL Academy have tattoos! Those rascally hooligans!
That said, be aware that tattoos and facial piercings are still quite taboo to many people whether in your home country or abroad. This is especially the case when it comes to the position of a teacher who will often work in a business, or even corporate environment, or in a position of authority in a school teaching children. In many cases, you are getting hired to serve as a role model and as a public face of your school in addition to providing English language instruction.
Having an exposed tattoo or “unique” piercing/gauge could dissuade a school or employer from hiring you. In some cases, schools even have a strict “no exposed tattoos/facial piercings policy”.
Therefore, if you have exposed tattoos, cover them up when possible to be on the safe side; at least initially until you learn about the policies of your school. If you have a facial piercing, the safest option would be to remove the piercing, but if that is not something you are willing to do, be aware that it could put some schools off.
The other point to consider with tattoos and piercings is the extent of which they are on your body. If your entire body is covered in tattoos or you have a visible facial tattoo, and there is no way to reasonably cover them, chances are that many schools will be wary of hiring you. The same thing goes with piercings; if you have nine piercings across your bottom lip, you’re likely not going to be projecting the image a school is looking for.
As with the overall theme of dress attire, conservative and clean cut is usually the best policy. Many schools will simply not care one way or another if you have a short or even long beard, but if you want to set yourself up for the most chances of success, consider shaving that beard or those mutton chop sideburns. If you simply can’t part ways with that beard, at least try cleaning it up.
Teaching business professionals/adults vs. kids
Many times, if your school primarily teaches business professionals/adults, they will expect you to dress in more professional attire, whereas if your school primarily teaches children, casual attire might be more acceptable.
ITA graduate, Thomas Paeme, enjoys a more casual environment teaching English to school children in Cambodia.
Be Aware of Local Cultural Norms
Expectations for dress and appearance will vary by region and culture.
In Japan, for example, you will find schools that prohibit teachers from having visible tattoos largely due to the cultural association tattoos have with the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia). And, throughout many East Asian societies (China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, & Taiwan, for example), a clean cut look is generally typically preferred.
In more conservative Islamic societies, like Saudi Arabia for example, female teachers may be expected to cover their hair (in addition to arms & legs), particularly when teaching at a local girls school. However, if you are teaching in an international school to other expatriates, such requirements may not be in place. And, in a country like Egypt or Tunisia, such requirements are far less common. Again, it's just going to vary country to country and school to school.
Pro Tip! When interviewing for positions, almost anywhere in the world, you can often speak to another staff member at the school and you can ask them about what dress and appearance expectations the school has.
Also, once you have enrolled in your International TEFL Academy TEFL Class, you can network on Facebook with thousands of ITA alumni teaching English around the globe and you can ask them about matters such as expectations for dress & appearance in countries where they teach.
Author Jeff Penick gets into the Halloween spirit with his students in South Korea
My Personal Experience
I taught English to children from 5-15 years old at two different schools in South Korea and both schools did not have very strict dress codes. Some teachers chose to dress more professionally whereas others would regularly wear jeans and a nice t-shirt (don’t be that person that comes to work in an old, dirty, and worn out t-shirt if t-shirts are allowed). However, there were certain days or special occasions when a dress shirt and tie or even a suit were required so having those items in my wardrobe did absolutely come in handy.
Pro Tip! If you forget to bring certain clothing articles like a tie, dress shirt, and/or suit with you abroad, you will be able to find those items in the country where you decide to teach if needed.
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About the Author: Jeff Penick
Prior to joining ITA in 2011, Jeff spent two years teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. He used the money he saved while teaching in Korea to fund a year of travel in Asia and South America. A huge sports fan, Jeff can always be counted on to make a strong showing in ITA’s annual Halloween costume contest.