So, You Want to Teach English Overseas?
Liz Biscevic—Moral Compass
I taught English abroad for five weeks during the summer following my college graduation. With only a week of training and zero classroom experience, I was placed in a class of 30 Sicilian children ranging in age from 4 to 14 in Taormina, Italy. During those five weeks, we not only had to organize, plan, and implement an “English as a second language” curriculum, but we were expected to somehow control a room of kids without being able to communicate with them in their native language.
One day during recess, two students got into a bloody “snowball” fight with bits of broken concrete. An administrator at the school informed us English curse words were appearing all over the school in permanent ink. And on one particularly shitty day, a boy decided to paint the bathroom with his own feces, and then use what was left to chase a group of girls around. Try explaining that to the school’s director, using an Italian-English dictionary to translate sentences word by word. I kissed the ground at SFO when I got home.
My experience was not unique—teachers of young children deal with situations like mine every day, but because I had no prior interest or experience in any sort of teaching, the circumstances seemed all the more shocking. For me teaching abroad was simply an opportunity to see the world on someone else’s dime while I figured out what I wanted to do with my seemingly useless English degree. At the time, my most promising career prospect was drawing maps of barren construction sites in Photoshop, the thought of which made me want to run away to Mexico and never come back. Teaching abroad let me delay inevitable career decisions, travel to places I normally would not be able to afford, and postpone the realities of adulthood, all under the guise of bringing the wonders of English to the world, just like our forefathers before us.
To become a teacher in a public school in the U.S., you not only need your bachelor’s degree, but also at least some classroom hours and training. That being said, the program I worked for was a godsend—a summer of paid work in another country, thousands of miles away from parents nagging me to get a real job, without any further education required. I took advantage of the fact that simply being born in an English-speaking country gives you enough of an edge to get a job overseas.
Yes, there was that one-week intensive training course. The course was set up to empower would-be teachers, though it played out more like an adult summer camp than formal education. We never stepped foot in a classroom. For example, one day, we spent two hours learning how to craft a lesson plan, two hours on how to communicate with people who don’t speak your language, and another two hours learning about the present perfect tense. The rest of that day was spent getting to know the other teachers, whose reasons for joining the program ranged from breakups to getting fired. There were college students avoiding going home for summer and recent graduates who, like me, wanted a way to support themselves without committing to a full-time job. The training course felt like enough, until we arrived to our classrooms and were almost immediately confronted with brawls, poop-flinging, and other behavioral issues of which we’d never dreamed. This is because no one actually taught us how to be a teacher. Yes, they taught us the material, but we weren’t advised on how to keep kids from running wild, which, for me, is the hardest part of teaching.
At least in my experience, students are aware that their foreign teachers are not the same as their local school teachers. For many of them, English classes are a break from the routine reading, math, and science curriculum that exists in a didactic class environment. We came with candy, colored pens, photographs, cartoon movies, and our insecurities, which caused us to act more like playmates than instructors. It’s easy to slack off and lose whatever motivation you may have had—to live for the time after class rather than fully dedicating yourself to the students. These students pick up on this, and as a result hiring English teachers can turn out to be a massive waste of money for many schools. That the program didn’t seem to be doing the students much good wasn’t lost on me, and it didn’t take me much longer to figure out that teaching was not my true calling.
In spite of experiences like mine, English as a second language is on the rise, and many schools and programs boast that their courses give students the opportunity to experience English-speaking culture, which can ultimately widen their horizons and inspire a brighter future. In 2009, Mexico introduced plans for 12 million children to learn English by 2015. Meanwhile in Japan, English is now a part of primary school education. In 2013, English language programs abroad were a $63 billion industry.
This is partly because the ability to speak, read, and write English fluently is a social indicator in many countries. While English language skills can greatly enhance opportunities for education, employment, and migration, they almost always comes at a price, and only the privileged can afford it. Oftentimes it is elite schools comprised of wealthy students that house and pay for foreign English teachers. Many teachers abroad eventually form the opinion that their English instruction isn’t making much of an impact on their host country, and even worse may be contributing to oppression of lower social classes.
Even in Sicily, where I taught my first ESL class, the majority of my students had full-time nannies, and almost all of their parents spoke at least some English. I gradually came to believe that sending their kids to learn English during summer was mostly a way to keep them out of trouble while the parents were at work, and I found comfort in the fact that these parents didn’t seem to care that their children were being taught by complete amateurs. Since we teachers weren’t held accountable for the students' lack of learning, it was easy to become disillusioned by the incredibly time-consuming work that being a teacher demands and opt to play a movie or games instead.
It’s not only because I didn’t like teaching that I frequently showed films or taught games—it’s because my program, like many others, had low expectations for the people it hired. For these companies, the turnover rate for teachers is so high, it’s not worth it to invest in proper training. It becomes a pretty obvious catch-22—on one hand, these companies don’t give teachers the tools they need to succeed, so the majority leave within a year. But on the other hand, because the majority leave within a year, there’s no reason to invest more time in training. Ultimately it’s the students who suffer.
“One of the biggest problems is that people don’t consider teaching abroad a permanent thing. It’s really big with gap year students and recent grads trying to find themselves,” says Francesca Sorbella, a Canadian who has been teaching English abroad for more than five years. “It’s obvious who is there for the kids, and who is there for the free vacation.”
I’m not saying all teach-abroad programs are unethical. I know plenty of teachers who were totally dedicated to their programs, and went on to become teachers in their own countries or in their program’s country. But it takes commitment from both the teacher and the host program.
If you’re thinking about teaching abroad, take the time to consider who would most benefit from your lessons. If you have limited experience, you’ll probably find teaching adults is much easier than teaching kids, as you won’t have the added stress of controlling a classroom and keeping tiny humans alive for eight hours a day. If you don’t have any experience, there are many volunteer opportunities to test the waters in the U.S. as an ESL teacher. Another thing to consider is the program itself. Opt for companies that reward teachers for finishing their contract, offer competitive salaries, and require at least some teaching experience or education. Programs like this tend to invest more in their teachers, which means more resources for newer teachers and more successful classes. After all, if a country is paying you to teach, you should at least try to keep up your end of the bargain.