Michael G. Hines is the owner/founder of the
Icon Group, which now encompasses 22+ ESL websites.
He has 10+ years of experience teaching English, and currently serves
as director for an educational company in Thailand.
The Icon Group network of sites offers forums for jobs, resumes,
training, schools, tutoring, resources, lesson plan and articles, as
well as a newsletter and a social media platform for teachers and
In this interview Michael shares with us the story behind the scenes,
as well as helpful tips for teaching English overseas.
1. Being so long online,
how did TotalESL came to be?
my first website that started back in
2003 while I was living and teaching in Korea.
As a new teacher (and new to living abroad), I was looking for
information to help me better understand teaching techniques while also
looking for information as an expat living abroad.
The sites that were currently available were, in my opinion, limited in
their search capabilities, etc. so I thought, "why not make my
Korea is a great place to start to explore the capabilities of the
internet because it is such a "wired" country.
Since then, TotalESL has grown exponentially. As I started to
learn more about web design/programming and SEO (Search Engine
Optimization), I started to develop other sites such as ESLarticle.com
Then in 2008, I purchased the TESall Group (TESall.com, ESLjobfeed.com,
In 2011, I added 3 more sites to the group (TEFLjobsoverseas.com,
and incorporated the "group" as
which now encompasses 22+ ESL websites.
My goal for 2012 is to sell the group so I can focus more on my new
2. TotalESL is a HUGE
website. Could you tell our readers a little bit about each of the
important site sections?
TotalESL.com was designed with the motto "Your First Stop for Your
Second Language Needs". As such, I wanted to provide as many
forums as I could for sharing information.
By far, the most popular is the jobs forum but the site has grown to
include resumes, training, schools, tutoring, resources, lesson plan
and articles forums, among others.
Each forum/area comes with detailed search features so that users can
find exactly what they are looking for.
New features, such as ESL Debates, were added as the site grew
organically over the years.
Additionally, I incorporated multiple languages (Chinese, Arabic,
Korean, Japanese and Thai) into the site instructions to help with
those not 100% confident in their English proficiency when attempting
to post information.
3. Where should one start?
Creating a website is no easy task. I would hazard to guess
that 4 out of every 5 websites created fail within the first year or
two from lack of planning and underestimating the time commitment to
helping them succeed.
The first place to start is to have an idea and then from that idea ask
yourself, "How will my site be different? What will be the USPs (unique
selling points) that will draw visitors?"
Also, make sure the niche or topic is of interest to you or you will
never devote the time (and it will need a lot at the beginning) to make
You then must start to wire frame ("map out") how the site will look
and what it will contain, which is best done with an experienced
You then must start to build it so finding a good programmer is key to
the success because many programmers will loose interest or stop work
on a site that is not fully realized (i.e. the owner doesn’t really
know what they want).
Finally, always remember to keep the end user in mind. Will they be
able to understand how to navigate and use the site?
And obviously, the domain name is key to success. Remember to research
your keyword demographics.
4. You write about Employment scams and
the "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" rule. Could you
share some tips with our readers regarding this important subject?
Online job scams are something that really get my blood boiling,
because it is dishonest and takes advantage of the teachers out there
who are already sacrificing so much for a profession that, in some
cases, is undervalued.
The most important advice I can give aside from using your God-given
common sense is NEVER SEND MONEY FOR THE PROMISE OF EMPLOYMENT,
regardless of what that money is for. Reputable employers (aside from
some volunteer organizations) will never ask you to pay for a job.
Secondly, I would say research and ask questions. Approach the process
with professionalism and perform some due diligence (the necessary
Reputable employers should welcome questions and research into the
position from a potential employee because they should not have
anything to "hide". If something about the process or
position makes you "uncomfortable", then follow your gut and move on.
5. Which would you say is
popular destination for teaching overseas? And why is that, in your
In my opinion, the most popular destinations are always
broken into 2
categories: lifestyle and benefits/pay.
For lifestyle, most choose Latin America or Southeast Asia because of
the relaxed lifestyle and access to great vacation spots.
For benefits and pay, it is by far the Middle East but this comes with
a requirement for credentials and experience.
They pay well but expect to get experience and dedication for
Europe is also popular but not as feasible for non-EU citizens due to
the byzantine work permit regulations (though it is still
Regardless of all these locations, Asia is still the giant among the
ESL regions. South Korea still is a major employer and China, due to
its sheer size, is also a major employer though a relative
Additionally, they are both great places to start your teaching career
to gain some needed experience because they don’t require the
experience needed in the Middle East nor have the competition for the
small number of vacancies that you will experience in Latin America or
Japan is still employing teachers but their "market" is less fluid and
volatile, so the need for large amounts of new teachers is not as great
as in the past. Aside from ALT (Assistant Language Teachers) positions,
most recruitment tends to happen "in country".
6. What’s your first bit
of advice for
someone who wants to get involved in teaching English overseas?
Research, research, research! Not only should you research
the area of the world you are interested in to find out about
employment conditions, cultural and lifestyle concerns, etc., but you
should also research the teaching profession.
This is especially true of someone with no teaching experience. If you
are not ready to spend the money to obtain a TEFL/TESOL
at the very least you should be researching basics of
teaching such as teaching/learning methodology, classroom management
techniques, lesson planning, etc.
This will allow you to answer interview questions with more confidence
and prove that you are familiar with the teaching profession and its
requirements even if you lack the actual experience.
7. In your experience,
what are some of
the biggest challenges teachers face when teaching overseas? What's the
best piece of advice you could give them?
I would think the biggest challenge would be that many underestimate
the work and commitment it will take to be a teacher.
They view teaching overseas as a "paid vacation" which is not really
the case. When approaching it from this lax standpoint, they become
disillusioned and bitter.
Additionally, there are the cultural differences they experience. I am
firm believer that there should be cross
many times, there is no acceptance from both parties.
What you hear is, "In my country, …" while on the other side you hear,
"But in ________, we. . .".
I advise all the schools and teachers I work with that this is a
communication process and we can’t expect people to change who they
The best solution is to have some understanding (and acceptance) of the
cultural differences so they can be worked through without animosity or
8. One unique feature of
the site is the
section. What is it all about?
The ESL Debates was actually added last year in 2011 because I didn’t
want a forum anymore.
Forums require too much administering and "policing" because of what I
viewed as overt negativity and cynicism (Bad news always travels faster
Additionally, I discontinued the "personal blogs" section due to it
becoming an SEO mechanism rather than an information tool, which was
the original intent.
That is when I got the idea of "ESL Debates". Having grown up
in Washington, DC, I always loved a good debate. I thought
that there were a lot of issues out there that could be discussed
because there are opinions to be shared.
For example, should there be age limits for teachers? Do you have to be
a native English speaker to teach English? This one had special
resonance with me because we use native English speakers to teach
foreign languages in the U.S. schools, so why should it be different
abroad? Though I realize the difference is mostly cultural attitudes
and marketing considerations.
The ESL Debates also led me to start a Q&A section on TESall
Group because I noticed that many were asking pointed questions in
forums (or emailing my sites directly).
Unfortunately, many were not receiving any relevant information but
rather were inundated with cynicism and opinions (we all know the
saying about "opinions"!).
So I thought I would start a online forum to share some of my
experience and knowledge from having been in the ESL profession for 10+
9. And what were the most
results you got for a topic?
Some topic results in the ESL Debates came as no surprise.
For example, 100% said students are not taking responsibility for their
And for the topic of "Should English be taught by native English
speakers", it was split down the middle.
Additionally, 75% said teachers should not accept Facebook friendship
requests from their students.
Again, these held no surprises because they are divisive topics that
lend themselves to debate.
Other debate topics surprised me because they were not what one would
assume the response would be.
For example, I though that when the debate topic "Are teachers fairly
compensated" came up, it would be a resounding 100% NO! But
instead it is split down the middle.
Additionally, when asked "Are standardized tests fair?", 100% said yes.
I always thought that most viewed standardized testing as biased.
10. Finally, can you tell
us a little
about the people doing the job behind the scenes of TotalESL?
The sites are now highly automated (lesson learned the hard way over
the years). As such, there is not much in the way of a
"team". It is only an admin to review content/postings and a
programmer that I keep on retainer to help fix issues or develop
Additionally, the sites are hosted on a managed server so I don’t need
that expertise, though I have learned a lot more about servers,
programming, design and SEO than I ever thought I would!
Most of the content and interaction come from users and visitors around
My primary job is as a director for an educational company here in
Thailand. With regards to online/internet ventures, my free time is now
focused on development of e-learning as well as writing articles to
help new teachers be better informed.
Michael, thanks a lot for doing the
interview and sharing your thoughts and vast experience with us. We
wish you success with your e-learning projects! (We will also be happy
to learn about them as soon as they are available.)