Teaching English as a foreign language has been becoming more and more popular in recent years. Graduates intimidated by the thought of job searching in a recovering economy and scrambling out of the country in search of adventure. Teaching, however, isn’t for everyone and neither is moving to another country. It can be a daunting path to follow, littered with uncertainty, especially if you do the same as I did, coming to a country that I had never visited before making the leap. Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly enriching experience that will teach you more about yourself than you thought possible. But before you do step on the plane, you should be able to evaluate whether or not this life is right for you.
The first thing you should ask yourself is what is motivating you to follow the TEFL dream. Are you passionate about language and education? Do you want to see the world and see how people from other countries live? Or are you just looking for an easy way to travel?
It’s imperative at this point to remember that teaching children, sometimes as young as 3, a foreign language is not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of self-motivation, patience and compassion. If you’re looking for a job that doesn’t require you to care once you leave the office, then this profession isn’t for you. It can be the most emotionally rewarding job in the world, if your intentions are in the right place and you do the best job that you can do.
Just this week, a couple of colleagues and I spent an afternoon preparing one our seniors for a medical school interview she had the next day and for the next 48 hours I have to admit that I was nervous for her. As we expected, she nailed the interview and was offered a place on the course along with 11 other students from around the country. She is now the first student from our program to be accepted into a Thai medical program, no mean feat considering we have alumni who have attended Ivy League schools in America and some of the best institutes in Europe. It’s moments like these that propel me to continue along this path, when you see a student succeed it is the most gratifying feeling I can imagine (perhaps because I don’t have any children of my own).
As I previously mentioned, teaching is in no way an easy job, especially when you are in a kindergarten classroom teaching young children. Sometimes, when some students don’t understand, it can feel like you are banging your head off a brick wall. The methods and explanations that worked for the majority of the class may not work for everyone and it’s a good idea to step back, re-evaluate and try something new.
I once spent an afternoon readying my class for an oral test, going through basic greetings and questions and a few grammatical questions from the unit we had been doing. I couldn’t have been more clear in the importance of differentiating between, ‘How are you?’ and ‘How old are you?’, but during the test half of the students got them confused, would panic, and answer incorrectly. It wasn’t that the students didn’t understand the questions, they just found them difficult to use in a real-world situation. It made me re-think my teaching strategies and I then began to implement more conversational based activities.
Patience is also important when working in countries with a much different culture than we have in the West. Thailand especially has a very laissez-faire view on communication. Sometimes your class will be cancelled with no prior warning, sometimes you’re expected to be somewhere that no one has told you about, sometimes you’ll even be asked to come in on Saturday at 4pm on a Friday afternoon.
Working in schools whose English department relies heavily on a migrant workforce can be challenging, teachers come and go often at the drop of a hat which leaves classes without a teacher. Sometimes improvisation is the only tool that you have and being able to walk into a classroom and instantly come up with a lesson plan is a skill you’ll have to learn quickly. What’s on your contract won’t be your only duties in most schools, especially in Thailand.
I started out in my previous school as a Grade 6 teacher but over the course of two and a half years, I gained experience teaching every grade, from Kindergarten 1 to Grade 9 (the school didn’t have a high school program). I learned a lot in doing so and ultimately it made me more comfortable as a teacher. I had to learn how to be more flexible in my approaches and how I interacted with different grade levels.
Most schools will hold annual English camps during the students’ holiday time and it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll be thrown onstage to do the hokey-cokey or another equally embarrassing dance. Again, if you are able to be flexible and lose your inhibitions, you’ll have a great time and so will the kids. The camps can be poorly planned and involve a lot of improvisation, coming up with party games and creating team chants, but they always end up being the highlight of the school year with lots of laughs and memories made.
If you can confidently say that you’re open to learning a lot of new things, then perhaps moving abroad is the right move for you. Each day is a bit of an adventure, even going to your local 7-11 can be an experience. Communicating with locals is often difficult so learning some key phrases in the local dialect is always useful. I became proficient in Thai very quickly with a little effort and a lot of embarrassing moments of miscommunication. Learning taxi Thai, how to order food and chat up the local skirt was a good starting point. My life is now much easier because I can converse with everyone and usually convey my thoughts/wants quite clearly.
Really, you can bolster your CV by doing a multitude of things whilst teaching abroad; improving your language skills, gaining experience as a teacher, becoming a better public speaker, a more critical thinker, and being more culturally aware. It will open your eyes to the world. It will make you a better person.