Alex Stevenson is a South African TEFL teacher working in Vietnam who likes to see teaching abroad as a challenge that requires, at least for the first steps, a willingness to try something new, a testing of your own limits and an opportunity to show how courageous you can be.
If you are ‘brave enough’, Alex suggests, the rewards of teaching overseas are there waiting for you.
Alex doesn’t sugar-coat the overseas teaching (or lifestyle) experience too much but he does make it sound like an adventure that you should try if you are a keen traveller, want to improve your teaching skills, and have an interest in discovering new cultures and people.
But is teaching overseas all that it is cracked up to be? There are plenty of horror stories from naive teachers applying for jobs (sometimes even paying to get them) and arriving to conditions that are more gulag-like than exotic.
Apart from contractual issues, visa problems, substandard accommodation, low wages and being expected to use draconian teaching methods you may also have to do battle with exotic illnesses, blood-hungry clouds of insects, cultural and religious restrictions or differences that you find difficult to live with, and almost deadly levels of pollution (see Beijing!).
You may even find yourself strangely ill-equipped to teach even with your university degree and TEFL certificate hot off the press.
I arrived in Switzerland for my first teaching job with an M.A. in English Literature and Language and a brand new TEFL certificate – six years of higher education wrapped up in there. In my first interview the director of the school asked me how I would go about explaining to a student what the Present Perfect was and how it was used. I had almost no idea of ‘grammar‘ having been through school and university in the days when grammar was given a back seat (or no seat at all) and all the emphasis was placed on experiential, situational and communicative learning. The Present Perfect! Uh… what? Ask me something about role playing or realia for God’s sake! Thankfully, the director gave me a week to bone up on my grammar and I got the job and taught in a very grammar-oriented school for the next few years. Role playing and other such language games were for kids … grammar was where the real people went and if I was to earn my living I had to go there to.
Switzerland is pretty tame, of course, in terms of culture shock but in many of the countries where you can get work these days you will be immersing yourself in the fascinating but often frustrating culture of people whose lives, language, diets, religious and moral beliefs, and political and social systems are markedly different from your own.
There’s a good reason why the word ‘travel’ comes from the Middle English travailen, travelen (which means to torment, labor, strive, journey) and earlier from Old French travailler (which means to work strenuously, toil).
Today, English teachers are still in high demand overseas and teaching English abroad still offers TEFL teachers an opportunity to hone their teaching skills, learn about new cultures and earn a living. But preparation in every sense is the key to successfully working abroad.In English we still occasionally use the words travail and travails, which mean struggle. According to Simon Winchester in his book The Best Travelers’ Tales (2004), the words travel and travail both share an even more ancient root: a Roman instrument of torture called the tripalium (in Latin it means “three stakes”, as in to impale). Not suggesting that teaching English abroad is equivalent to being impaled on three sharp stakes, but unless you have done your groundwork and really understand what you are going to and where you are going there’s a good chance that it will be at least a ‘struggle‘.
How can you avoid the worst? Research and then do some more research.
Well, God bless the Internet! These days we can easily find information about foreign countries, cultures, climates and national requirements and restrictions for travellers with a few mouse clicks. A little harder is checking the credentials of the online recruiters who offer teaching packages – jobs, visa, accommodation and even flights. This is where you really need to do your homework. Check on teachers’ forums for any comments, reviews of teacher feedback about the recruiters, the school or the area being offered, NEVER pay money yourself for services offered by the recruiter, make sure you understand the pay scale and teaching hours and convert to your currency if you are not sure how much is being offered in the foreign currency, ask questions about the accommodation (private shower, bedroom, kitchen, amount deducted from salary etc.), ask about transport to your place of work if needed, ask if you can speak by Skype to a teacher already employed by them. Cover all your bases before you commit!
Then, GO! You will be changed forever.