I’ve heard people tell wonderful, awe-inspiring tales of “foreign lands” and “caring business owners” filled with “astute children” eager to learn English unencumbered by the restraints of a language barrier. I’ve also heard horror stories that would send even the most intrepid traveler screaming to the airport.
If you’ve done any research at all about the topic you’ll quickly learn that ESL teaching can be a bit of blood sport – only the stealthiest veterans survive to talk about.
Why? It’s simple really. When you take a position teaching English overseas – you must understand that you are now in a foreign country with foreign cultural norms, practices and expectations. Above all – you will encounter working conditions that will likely have a shock and awe effect.
Many first-time ESL teachers don’t realize that the rules, policies and procedures of a school in Taichung County, Taiwan, for example, simply won’t be the same as the professional practices of a school in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Here’s a short list of the “good” and “not-so-wonderful” about working in ESL schools abroad.
- The kids.
Unassuming, eager and downright charming, ESL kids are a special breed who have a keen interest in learning not only a new language – but also all about your home country. It’s a pleasure to educate them as part of a day-to-day employment scenario. Who doesn’t love the enthusiastic face of a ten-year old who can’t wait to hear about your favorite hobby?
- The disorganization.
Though admittedly this can have disastrous outcomes – sometimes a school that operates as a business first – and an education institution last – can bring with it a relaxed, spontaneous environment that is quite enjoyable. The last ESL cram school I worked at didn’t care too much about how a teacher operated in the classroom – just that you kept up an enthusiastic face most times. (Translation – lesson planning was optional.)
- The cool factor.
It’s downright awesome to work alongside Chinese, Korean etc. natives of the place you’re temporarily calling home – as well as the rest of the “ESL” staff.
I have few past work experiences in my life I’ve enjoyed more. It’s a memorable experience to work alongside a diverse group of like-minded people who have a love of learning new things. Most of the local teachers are eager to socialize outside work and fellow “native English-speaking”staff are also keen to form groups as a means of acclimating to the new environment. It’s a unique set of moving parts that translates into a once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable experience.
- The kids.
Wonderful at times, heart-wrenching at other, less-appealing times. Most kids who call Korea, Taiwan, China – any of the East Asian parts of the globe home, study their butts off, a lot. They go to school from eight in the morning to eleven at night. (This applies to high schoolers mainly.) The result is emotionally-drained children fraught with the stress of keeping such study hours and by the pressure of getting and keeping the best grades possible. The East Asian education environment is highly competitive. Once you’ve seen an elementary kid have a nervous breakdown, you start looking at your newfound employment choice a little more critically.
- The disorganization.
For much different reasons than I’ve outlined above, many ESL schools operate in a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants kind of way. Often times you won’t receive any instruction about “how to teach” – even if you’re a novice. Don’t expect lesson plans, curriculum guidance – or even a roll call. The general rule is: be prepared to get thrown into the classroom on your first day. It’s sink or swim.
- The Cool Factor.
Like many things in life, even living and working in a foreign country in a vastly different environment alongside people with hugely-diverse perspectives, opinions and life experiences, can have its pitfalls. Case in point? I encountered many natives of England, America and Canada who routinely exploited the innocence of the locals. Often times these were veterans of ESL teaching abroad – who excelled at taking every opportunity to lie, cheat and steal from bosses, love interests, coworkers, whoever was unlucky enough to cross their black-hearted path. Be wary of the sociopathic ESL teacher who thinks he or she can “get away with anything here.”
There’s always room for subjective experience however – just do your research before you get on the plane.