Wednesday, April 20, 2011

So you wanna be an ESL teacher?

This past week, I've gotten a few emails from readers and friends asking me about teaching English. Now, I'm not claiming to be any kind of expert when it comes to TESL. But as someone who's been teaching ESL in a foreign country for the past (almost) 8 months, I guess I do have some advice based on my experiences. So here goes:

1) Do it for the RIGHT reasons

Teaching English overseas has become a VERY popular thing to do in recent years, especially for young 20somethings who are recent university graduates and either want to postpone "real life" for a bit or take a break before diving back into school. And don't get me wrong, teaching English is fun and a great way to see other parts of the world...but it still IS work. Which means, you better at least somewhat enjoy teaching, meeting new people, and speaking in public. If you're really just interested in getting to a foreign country and drinking and partying for a year, teaching ESL probably isn't the best option for you.

2) Do your research

There are many possible countries out there - it seems to me that the most popular one right now is South Korea, but there are certainly many, many options. So do your research! Is there a particular country whose history or culture or food or language you love? What about climate? I often had to keep reminding myself this year (as I trudged through the snow) that I didn't choose Russia because of it's spectacular weather!

Once you've decided on a country, research the heck out of it. Find out what its biggest cities are, what the economy is like, the political situation, cultural norms, etc etc...the Internet is such an amazing resource - use it! I found blogs to be an extremely helpful forum last spring when I was planning out my year in Russia. In fact, I even discovered that the writer of the one blog I found online not only was Canadian, but grew up not too far from where I did! He gave me a lot of practical, useful advice and I am so grateful for all the help!

Blogs are a great way to find out what life is ACTUALLY like living there. And you want to know what daily life is truly like so you can prepare somewhat for the culture shock. Obviously you won't be able to anticipate every new thing before you actually get there and experience life, but "scientia est potentia", right? Knowledge is power.

3) Explore your options

Set up your own students, work for an ESL company, or a find a private school? There are many options when it comes to teaching English overseas. I personally have had a very positive experience with Language Link, one of the "McSchools" of ESL in Russia. Not only did they handle my visa (a hassle for foreigners trying to work in Russia!), but they also met me at the airport, provided paid-for accomodations, and have continued to give support to me whenever I've had questions. One of the main reasons why I chose LL over other companies was their unique "intern-teacher" program, where I got to do a month-long internship in September. After the month, I received a full TESL certificate and became a teacher. Just know that there are TONS of options out there - you don't have to settle for just one school or one company! Compare salaries and benefits and most importantly, pour over any contracts!

4) Be flexible and open

Don't head over to a foreign country with the smug belief that English is the best language and the only one worth knowing. Because you will look like an IDIOT. The thing is, all of my students are fluent in Russian (well, duh...I suppose that goes without saying) AND speak much better English than I speak Russian. Not only that, but several of them know some French or German too. One of my students is learning Japanese as well! So they're all much more linguistically talented than I am. I guess what I'm trying to say is this - don't act all high and mighty because YOU know English and they don't.

When it comes to the language of the country you're in, try to learn it - I'm sure you will pick up on a lot of vocabulary naturally, but trust me, when you make a concerted effort to speak the native language, your students LOVE it! Whenever I (attempt to) say something in Russian, everyone cracks up, claps their hands, and cheers. It kinda makes me feel like a celebrity!

5) Know your role

Being a teacher can mean straddling some fine lines at times. You have to be a disciplinarian, an instructor, a friend, an entertainer, a cheerleader...that's a lot of different hats to wear! My main advice here is just make sure you aren't TOO friendly with your teenage classes - you give them an inch, they run a mile...and then its REALLY hard to get them to settle down and do grammar exercises!

6) Know that your schedule will likely suck

The ESL teacher's schedule is not exactly the perk of the job. Because even though you're not saying, "Would you like fries with that?" you are still providing a service and thus, the customer's demands really dictate your schedule. The school I work at offers some classes in the mornings and afternoons for children and "housewives" (not my preferred term of choice, but that is how stay-at-home mothers here refer to themselves), and then evening classes for teenagers and adults. I basically work every day from 12-9pm, and sometimes I have classes scheduled back-to-back the whole time. Which means you can easily go 9 hours without a food or bathroom break! :S

2 day Saturday-Sunday weekends are also not guaranteed. Out of the five teachers at my school, only two of us have a Sat-Sun weekend. Stuart has Sundays and Mondays off, Rhea has Fridays and Sundays, and Colleen has Sundays and Wednesdays.

Just be prepared, that's all I can say! Some days are crazier than others when there are sick teachers and classes to cover, but at the end of the day, there is a real comradery in the school between the teachers and everyone pulls together. I actually love my crazy Fridays because in the 5 minutes between classes Colleen and I always meet in the teacher's room to vent/gobble some strawberries/gulp coffee together, and perk each other up with "Only three more classes! Only two more classes! Okay, last one! We can do this!" :)

7) Have fun!

Honestly, my year of teaching ESL has been the absolute BEST year of my life. I have learned SO much - about myself, about this country, about grammar...haha yes I can now blather on about when to use the present continuous versus the future simple with complete confidence! I think traveling in any context - especially for a long period of time - has the power to truly transform you as a person. Teaching ESL has been the most rewarding job I've ever had, and also one of the most fun. Don't be afraid to embarass yourself - let loose, be dorky, put yourself out will reap the rewards by making memories that will never fade and friends from around the world that will never let you forget the time you dressed up as a fortune teller and got everyone to practice the future simple by telling fortunes!

So that is my advice for anyone out there interested in teaching ESL. If you have any more questions, feel free to comment on my blog or leave your email and I'll do my best to help!


  1. Great advice, thank you! : )

  2. hahaha ok I have to add: you will sometimes have to teach incredibly cheesy/lame lessons from ESL textbooks that were written by people who were clearly NEVER teenagers and actually believe teens will enjoy drawing their own "rivers of life"...