When you start researching ways to work and travel, teaching English abroad is the first suggestion that pops up almost everywhere you look. It’s probably the quickest, easiest, cheapest way to start traveling right now. The demand for English teachers in Asia is so insatiable that you could virtually be on a plane tomorrow if you wanted to be. But how do know what you’re signing up for when you accept a job you’ve never done, in a country you’ve never been to? What is it really like to spend a year teaching English abroad?
The Kids are Not What You Expect
Many people have this image of Asian kids as quiet, studious and reserved. It’s a fair assumption considering that in most parts of Asia, students cope with the kind of brain-exploding school schedule that Western kids’ nightmares are made of. But all that pressure doesn’t stop them from being kids.
I can’t enter a kindergarten classroom without being mauled by dozens of tiny hands groping any part of my body they can reach. Even the older students run, yell, joke around, and behave pretty much anything but quietly. There are definitely some days – the days when I’ve had my boob grabbed one too many times or been hit in the face with a ball – when I daydream about what it would be like to instead teach a class full of the industrious robots-like children that I had been expecting. Most of the time, however, they’re adorable little weirdos, and they make me laugh everyday. Particularly in Japan, it’s awesome to see them going wild in those free years they have before they’re expected to conform to this country’s relatively subdued social standards.
You Can Never Get Too Comfortable
Teaching in Japan, and Thailand before that, seemed completely overwhelming at first: Getting to know the students, coming up with discipline strategies, and figuring out how to create lessons that contain at least a hint of fun. Like any job, it gets easier with practice, and planning lessons eventually starts to take 5 minutes instead of 50. At the same time, however, the students are too unpredictable for teaching to ever really become routine. A game that the kids seemed to love one week will be met with heavy eye-rolling the next time I try to play it; a discipline strategy that works in one class will fail in another; a lesson that I thought the students would easily understand, instead ends up stumping them. The moment I think I can take it easy is the moment the whole thing falls apart.
Teaching English in English Works…..sometimes…
When I taught in Thailand, I always had a co-teacher in the classroom to translate the lessons into Thai. In Japan, however, it’s just me speaking English, a handful of students speaking Japanese, and somehow we all need to understand each other. I’ve been teaching English to students in English for almost a year now, but I still don’t know if I believe this system works. Hiring native English-speakers to teach English seems to be based around what I think are 2 pretty incorrect assumptions: 1) If the kids are exposed to native English-speakers enough they’ll pick up the language naturally (I totally believe immersion works, but an hour-long English lesson once a week does not immersion make), and 2) all native English-speakers are better English teachers than local teachers who are fluent in English (definitely not true!)
Teaching kindergarten in English is no problem. I hold up a picture of a cat, yell “cat” a few times, then we all dance around and say “cat” some more and the kids get it – it’s a cat. Moving into more complex English structures, however, basically requires students to synthesize English concepts in a way that most aren’t focused enough to do. For example, if they learn how to answer the question “how are you?” with “I’m fine, thank you”, the idea is that they’re going to realize that “you are” and “I am” also go together when forming other sentences with the verb “to be”. That’s some pretty outside-the-box thinking to expect from an 8-year old. Then these poor kids get shuffled along from year to year, even though they completely lost track of what was going on back at “it’s a cat”.
Teaching Adults Isn’t As Easy As It Sounds
If you’re like me, you think that teaching adults sounds like a dream because adult students actually want to come to class. They’re choosing to study English, rather than being forced to by their parents. It means you can just teach without worrying about discipline or motivation. But, instead, teaching English in English becomes an even greater challenge when it comes to adults. Adults ask me questions, like “why are some verbs followed by ‘to’ and some aren’t?” Or, “what’s the difference between fabulous and fantastic?” Imagine trying to explain these concepts at all, let alone using the absolute simplest language possible, and without being totally certain of the range of the person’s English vocabulary.
In other cases, my adult students hold back from asking questions. Sometimes, I think it’s out of politeness or embarrassment that they don’t understand. More often, I think they don’t quite know how to express their question in English, so they don’t ask all, and thus continue not to understand. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for them.
There Are Good Days and Bad Days
This is pretty much the case with any job, but I think teaching comes with an even more extreme set of highs and lows. There are days when I just can’t get the lesson to work, the kids go crazy and I give up half-way through the lesson. The kids learn nothing, leaving me feeling defeated and ashamed that their parents paid for such a useless class. Other days, everything just magically clicks. They get it. They use words that I know I taught them, and even put them together to form sentences. Then, I feel like the master of all education. The key is learning to bask in the victories when they come, and to let go of those inevitable failure days – sometimes I manage to do this, and sometimes it’s not so easy.
After 2 years of teaching English in Asia, I’ll be teaching (hopefully) some of my last classes ever over the next few weeks. The only way I can sum it all up is to say that it’s been both the best and worst job I’ve ever had.
Does this make you want to teach English abroad? Teachers, do you have any additional insights? Share them in the comments!
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