ESL Teaching Abroad: the glitz, glamour and garbage of it all

My name is Joe and I’m from london. I’ve been an ESL teacher for about five years and still loving it. I’ve worked in England, Sicily and Malta and will be heading off to Mexico in the Autumn. I love travelling, it’s probably part of the reason I chose this profession so I thought I would write a bit about my personal experiences to educate, inform and terrify – did I say terrify? I meant encourage – anyone thinking about taking that first leap into teaching abroad.

Who can be an ESL teacher?

All you need is a relevant qualification such as a TEFL or a CELTA. I always recommend taking a CELTA course to people as you get a real hands on experience by actually teaching lessons as you learn. Like your students, you will only get better with practice. The more lessons you teach, the better teacher you will become.

Occasionally, a school might also require you to have a University degree but it’s usually due to Visa requirements (one example would be Japan).

It helps a lot more to be a native speaker of English but isn’t always necessary. Unfortunately, a lot of schools will only take native speakers of English. I think this is an unfair practice as having had to learn the language and now wanting to teach it, I think is an added benefit. When I first started teaching I knew next to nothing about English grammar and would have to vigorously study it before the lesson. On top of that, having studied the language, a non-native speaker has an added insight into how it feels to learn English, the particular struggles and useful tips that helped them along their way.

All in all, if you like the sound of the job, just apply. There’s no harm in trying. If they say yes, then great and if they say no, don’t worry there are plenty more jobs in the ESL sea.

How do I find a job?

There are many websites to use but I’ll just mention a choice few.

TEFL Jobs – I’ve used this one most often and had good results with character building consequences.

Dave’s ESL Cafe – Who’s Dave? Don’t know but it’s a good place to upload your CV and hope for possible job offers

Teach Away – Another good site to use on the job hunt.

Or just use good old-fashioned google and search for tefl/esl jobs.

Also you’re students can help with this matter sometimes. Recently, I had a student from Mexico who was impressed with my lessons. He told me his sister is an English teacher in Cancun and he would be happy to speak to her on my behalf in getting a job there. I, of course, said yes please.

What’s the pay like?

Teachers aren’t normally known, in any country, to be paid well. However, the cost of living is often cheaper abroad (I live in London so basically anywhere is cheaper). For example, while I was working in Sicily I was earning €1,100 net per month. This may not seem a lot when you convert to £ but my rent was €200 euros per month, leaving me plenty to play around with.

On top of that, I had plenty of private lessons to bulk up my bank balance. Just don’t mention anything to the school about private lessons – they usually don’t like that and see it as stealing their ‘customers’. You should instead recommend the school to them, like that’s ever going to happen…

The Middle East and Asia seem to pay the most. The Middle East offering up to 4K a month plus flights and free accommodation is enough to have anyone selling their soul to the devil over but it’s never appealed to me as I find the cultures too restrictive and I know I would just say the wrong thing and end up in a lovely room with no windows. However, I’ve had friends that worked there and loved it. To each, their own.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about pay at the end of your interview. I didn’t do this on my first ESL job abroad and it was to my detriment. I later found out we would be paid a month in arrears. We started in October so I didn’t receive my first payment until after Christmas. It was macaroni and papier-mâché for everyone that Christmas.

Do I need to speak the language?

You don’t need to speak the language but it does help. Most schools will state in the job description the level they desire but very few will require you to be fluent.

It does help to know a little of the language to help ease you into the life there. When I went to Sicily, I knew zero Italian and I definitely wish I had got a few of the basics down before I arrived.

A very good friend of mine whom I wouldn’t have met if not for teaching abroad once gave me some great advice. She said listen to your students mistakes and mimic them when you speak their language. For example if you have ever had any Latin speakers in your class, I’m sure you’ve heard them say ‘I have 20 years old’ because in their language that’s how you say it whereas in English we use ‘to be’ instead of ‘to have’. This is a very simple example but you get the point.

You’ll learn a lot of words just from spending time with your students. They’ll usually get stuck on the same old words and after hearing them for the 20/30th time you’ll be a walking, talking bi-lingual dictionary for your students. For the simple words, anyway.

In general, just follow the same advice you give to your students. Read the newspaper, watch tv/films, read a book, speak with people, study, do a language exchange – you’ll find no shortage of people wanting to do this with you as speaking English is very valuable and often too expensive for most people.

Where will I live?

Schools will often find you somewhere to live or may even have their own accommodation to offer you but make sure to ask during the interview or any correspondence before you arrive. Unless you want to end up like me, that is…

Now here’s a question that brings back fond and traumatising memories. If you’re lucky, you’ll be living with other teachers as some of my fellow ESL teachers have experienced or you’ll be me.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

When I first arrived in Sicily, I was taken by one of the secretaries to view two properties. She would be my translator for this lovely afternoon.

One place was very nice, it was spacious, had two bathrooms and I’d be sharing with only 2 other people. I took a look at the bedroom and decided it could be worse despite the leopard print sheets on the bed that were definitely not going to be used.

The secretary asked me if I liked the room and I said yes (still wondering what kind of person would have leopard print sheets – my Sherlock Holmes like deductive skills were leaning more towards total hoe). The landlord and secretary started nattering away with me none the wiser as I spoke zero Italian at the time.

Then she looked at me and, well, I started getting a bad feeling. Turned out there were only 2 bedrooms. Now, if you’ve been paying attention that means 2 bedrooms and 3 people. How does that work then? Is it a Sicilian thing or what?

Turned out I would be sharing the bed adorned with those ghastly leopard print sheets with a total stranger. So I’m in a new country, I don’t speak any Italian and you want me to share a bed with a total stranger? Oh, no ma’am. So, being the polite English gentleman that I am, I said let’s just see the other property and I’ll decide then.

So off we went to view the second property while praying to every deity I could think of for a lucky break.

Right, so property two was closer to the school, tick, it was cheaper than the first property, tick and I would have my own bedroom, tick tick tick. The room was pink for some odd reason but after the traumatising experience of the first property I was willing to go all Elsa and let it go.

I decided to take the second property because nothing could actually be worse. Or could it?

Enter flatmates. I had two flat mates, a very nice guy from Calabria who was studying law and spoke very little English but I couldn’t blame him, I’m in his country and I spoke zero and I mean zero Italian. And then there was the other one. The only way I could describe her was a bulldog in human form. Some kind of transfiguration gone wrong straight out of the Harry Potter universe. She also turned out to be a drug dealer. Oh great. Did I also mention she was totally bi-polar and prone to fits of rage? Those leopard print sheets and the warmth of another human being were looking mighty good at this point…

I could go on but I’ve probably either bored or terrified you enough at this point. It was a great experience and I’m a strong person and now an even stronger person from going through these experiences so please don’t let me put you off the experience. Remember, these experience make for great stories to tell at dinner parties.

What do I need to be aware of?

I recommend doing some thorough research about the culture, religion and laws of the country. What goes down well in your country is often different in another. You will need this information for tailoring your lessons. Some topics might be ok for you but are taboo in other cultures. It’s good to be informed.

What’s it like to teach ESL abroad?

It’s a great experience, you’ll make lots of friends, see and experience things you could never do as a tourist. You’ll have some highs and lows but that’s life in general, no matter where you are, right?

What are the advantages and pitfalls to watch out for?

You’ll experience a new culture and have greater insight than most people. I learnt that in London we spend too much time working and running around to actually enjoy life. In Sicily, I learnt to appreciate the small things in life, spending time with friends, enjoying my food rather than wolfing it down while briskly walking to work or even reading a book in the evening sun on Sunday while a man plays the theme from The Pink Panther on his trumpet walking around town because, well, fuck it, it’s Sunday.

You’ll learn a new language which is always a plus. Unless you’re a lucky bugger who has a knack for languages, you’ll struggle a bit at first but this will give you a great insight into how your students feel in your lessons and what you can do to help them learn.

Your classes will almost certainly be monolingual making your life a little easier when explaining things but on the other hand more challenging when you’re asking two people who speak the same language fluently to now talk together in another they don’t speak so well. (This is usually more of a problem with the younglings).

There will most definitely be some culture shock depending on which country you choose. For example, in Sicily they just don’t do queues, at all. It’s more of a case of who can shout the loudest at the counter. Another example was touchy-feeliness (did I just invent a new word? Go me!). People just LOVE to put their hands on you which is something I just wasn’t accustomed to being from london where a minimum personal distance of 3 feet is to be kept at all times with all persons. At one point, I had a woman casually stroking my stomach while talking to me – still confused about this.

In essence, I think you’ve got the idea that I have mixed feelings about teaching abroad and I do – it’s a bittersweet thing – but my past experiences, although sometimes bad, could never stop me from taking that leap abroad again because the pros outweigh the cons and even the cons have their benefits. You might stumble, you might fall, you might fail but you will always learn something and that will leave you better prepared for the next hurdle life will inevitably throw at you.

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