When Brent and I first decided to teach English abroad, I made the mistake that many first-time overseas teachers make: I thought about what my life in Thailand would be like, instead of considering the actual job to which I was committing myself. That all changed the day I walked into my first classroom, and saw 25 expectant students waiting for me. Then I realized that I was actually responsible for a bunch of children. So for those of you who might be considering teaching ESL abroad, here’s my break-down of the highs and lows of teaching English abroad.
Kids are Kind of Fascinating
I was most certainly not someone who would have been described as a “kid person” when I first started teaching. I had never spent any significant time with kids, and I didn’t really feel comfortable interacting with them. Taking on full-time teaching was like diving into the deep end in terms of learning how to relate to children. It was terrifying at first, but over the past 7 months, I’ve come to realize that kids are actually kind of amazing. They can be disarmingly quick-witted, hysterically funny (both on purpose and completely unintentionally), as well as filled with an unrestrained joy that most adults can only dream about possessing.
I still don’t always feel like I know the right thing to say to my students, and the language barrier only adds to the challenge; but this never seems to matter because they also happen to unconditionally adore the Western teachers. Every morning when I arrive at school, I am greeting by literally 100s of kids running towards me, smiling, shouting my name excitedly, and hi-fiving me. Who wouldn’t warm to that kind of reception?
Helping kids learn to speak English feels like a 10 on the benevolent-occupations’ scale. When it comes to my job, I figure that Thai isn’t really spoken anywhere outside of Thailand, so if these kids grow up only speaking Thai, then their options in the future are limited to one small country. English language skills are therefore a stepping stone towards living and traveling anywhere in the world. No one ever regrets learning a second language. Personally, I’m so grateful that in Canada we were required to study French from a young age in school. It’s a little cheesified, but I feel good going to work everyday and knowing that I’m helping to create so many possibilities for my students, and teaching them a skill that will last a lifetime.
Living and working in Thailand provides me with an opportunity to experience this country in a way that would never have been possible if I had just vacationed here as a tourist. I’ve been able to see the big attractions, plus I also have time to visit off-the-beaten-track places that most tourists can’t fit into their itinerary. I’ve had some of my most memorable travel experiences here because I’m never in a rush. It feels like I have all the time in the world to explore Thailand. Living in a small town means that I’m immersed in the local culture all day, every day. Plus, if I ever have a rough week at work, it helps to know that this is where I get to spend my weekend:
Teaching young kids is a flat-out exhausting job. Kids have a lot of energy, and if I don’t match that level with my teaching, I inevitably loose their attention. It may seem obvious, but teaching English isn’t the kind of job where you can just show up, zone out, and go through the motions of your work day. If my lessons are going to have any lasting impact, I have to be engaged in what I’m doing at every moment. Having an off-day is a huge disservice to the students. Sometimes I think there’s this perception that teaching English abroad is kind of a cop-out-of-life-slacker job, yet, for me, it’s actually one of the more challenging jobs I’ve ever had. It can be fun, but you have to be prepared to bring your A-game.
Don’t Do That
Remember when I said that kids are kind of amazing? It’s true….most of the time. I’m not a natural disciplinarian, and I don’t think that learning can be forced down a kid’s throat. I feel like it’s my responsibility to motivate my students to learn. If they’re distracted and misbehaving, then it’s my fault, not theirs. But, sometimes I try my hardest to make the lesson interesting, and they still act like brats. It’s 25 vs. 1: there are a lot more of them than there are of me. There have been classes in which I literally stand at the front of the room, feeling completely defeated, while the students run around and yell wildly. As you might guess, that doesn’t feel so great.
Shut Up and Teach
Once we were planning some lessons on Western countries, and I was told to teach my students that penguins live in Canada. Sometimes I have to teach grammatical structures that I don’t agree with, or topics that I think are just plain ridiculous.
In Thailand, the management style tends to be paternal: Just do what I say and don’t question any of it. From what I understand, this is common across the board in Asia. Problems are shoved aside and concerns smothered for the sake of keeping up appearances. That said, I do believe that if you’re selective about where you teach, you can find a school that shares your teaching philosophy.
Ultimately, for me, the ups generally outnumber the downs. Teaching English is far from perfect, but it’s still a fantastic way to throw yourself out into the world and have a new experience. It offers a chance to travel slowly, and really sink your teeth into the nuances of a particular culture – plus it’s a rewarding job to boot.
Still interesting in teaching English abroad? Check out my post on How to Choose the Right Job Teaching English Abroad for essential questions to ask any potential employer.
Have you ever taught English abroad?