Teaching English Overseas

An interview with Michael G. Hines,
Owner/Founder of Icon Group – Educating the Future

Michael G. HinesMichael 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 students.

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?

TotalESL.com was 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 own". 

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 and ESLcontentfeed.com. 

Then in 2008, I purchased the TESall Group (TESall.com, ESLjobfeed.com, TeachOverseas.ca, TESOLmax.com and ESLbillboard.com).

In 2011, I added 3 more sites to the group (TEFLjobsoverseas.com, ESLnewsletter.com and ESLspace.com) and incorporated the "group" as Icon Group, which now encompasses 22+ ESL websites. 

My goal for 2012 is to sell the group so I can focus more on my new passion, e-learning.

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 it successful. 

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 designer. 

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 research).

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 the most popular destination for teaching overseas? And why is that, in your opinion?

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 this. 

Europe is also popular but not as feasible for non-EU citizens due to the byzantine work permit regulations (though it is still possible). 

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 newcomer. 

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 Europe.
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 certification or CELTA, 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-cultural understanding but 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 are. 

The best solution is to have some understanding (and acceptance) of the cultural differences so they can be worked through without animosity or negativity.

8. One unique feature of the site is the ESL Debates 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 than good). 

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+ years.

9. And what were the most surprising 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 education. 

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 improvements/new features.

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 the world. 

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.)

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