How Did I Get Into This?
Growing up in Canada, I knew I wanted to be a teacher from the moment I had one. It’s all I have ever really wanted to be. I knew that not all teachers felt the same, not even all the great teachers, but that’s where my teaching abroad story all began.
I found out early on in University that it was an option to go do my Graduate Diploma in Education, a.k.a teacher’s college, in Australia. I thought, “why would I go to school here, when I could go to school in Australia?” Needless to say, that year abroad sparked something in me. I came home from Australia with a new sense of purpose in life. My goal was, and is still, to teach in every continent (that has opportunities to do so; sorry Antarctica doesn’t count… but I’d still like to visit one day). And now, at 30 years old, I have taught in 4 of the 6 continents.
My first experience was teaching Grade 6 Language Arts in Chiang Mai Thailand for 6 months. Normally short contracts like that are rare, but I was taking over for someone who retired mid-year, and they needed someone ASAP. After coming back to Canada, not finding a teaching job, and breaking up with my long-time boyfriend, I drove across the country and ended up substitute teaching in Whitehorse, Yukon, where you can be on a sub list with only a high school diploma. After that, I moved on to teach Grade 5 in the Marshall Islands. Finally, this past year, I taught Grade 4/5 (and high school Art; was not prepared for that one, as is the nature of teaching abroad, you sometimes get thrown a curve ball and have to figure it out) in Niger. I am currently teaching High School English Language Arts & Literature in Vietnam.
The Difference Between Teaching English The Language and Teaching English The Subject
So here’s the deal, many people go into teaching abroad as English teachers; and everyone always assumes that is what I am doing, as that’s common these days. But there’s a difference between teaching English and teaching at an English-speaking international school. There are international schools in pretty much every country and my experience as an international schoolteacher can differ greatly from those teaching English
For one, I must be certified and I don’t mean just a TEFL course. I need proof of my Canadian teaching certification, as I am usually teaching to American curriculum standards.
In schools where you are teaching English (the language not the subject), requirements vary. You either need a TEFL, a college degree, or some places just require you to be a native English speaker.
Teaching high school English is my passion. After teaching K-12, with a specialization in English Language Arts & Literature, I realized I prefer the older kids. If I continued to teach the younger grades and my heart wasn’t in it, it wasn’t fair to them. Which brings me to my next point…
I have a slight problem with the teaching abroad world right now, and it all comes down to this: you are teaching children. People seem to forget that what they are doing is going to affect the lives of children in ways you don’t even realize. Don’t get me wrong, I get the appeal of traveling abroad and getting paid to do so. But if travel is your only motivation for doing it, you are being selfish. Flat out.
Teaching For The Wrong Reasons
I met my boyfriend while teaching in the Marshall Islands, and he admittedly got into teaching for all the wrong reasons. The first time he taught, he was teaching English in South Korea because he watched Into The Wild and realized something was missing in his life. Did he want to teach? He didn’t care. He knew he just needed out of America and to do something more. Same old story.
Even after his stint there, he didn’t come back and realize he wanted to be a teacher; in fact he was working his way to medical school. But after his wife left him, he needed an escape (see even men run away when they get broken up with, too!). He found a teaching program called World Teach and was sent to the island of Chuuk (Micronesia) for the year. It was there that he realized he loved teaching.
This is an anomaly. Most people teach English overseas then go back to their lives doing whatever. It’s an excuse to get away for a bit. Take a gap year. Find themselves. Find a job teaching English somewhere foreign and beautiful, and go.
But in the words of that annoying chick on the Simpsons, “won’t somebody please think of the children.”
So before you run off and start teaching ask yourself a few things. Like, do you even really like kids? I don’t mean do you want to have your own, what I mean is would you like to spend all day with them? Are you willing to actually work, create lessons, and teach kids (whether English or otherwise)? Sometimes I meet people in this life and listen to them talk about what a joke it is… but it is not. I went into teaching to teach kids, to help shape future generations. It can be so detrimental for students and their education if you don’t even truly want to be there. And this is often the case in the world of teaching English abroad.
I have met all kinds of people in my teaching career, and it’s quite obvious which teachers are there to teach the students, and which teachers chose teaching as a way to travel. It’s obvious in the way they teach, and in the efforts they put into it when the teaching day ends. It’s obvious in the things they say in the teacher’s lounge to other teachers, who they assume are in it for the same reasons as them.
Being a teacher is not a Monday to Friday 8 – 4 job. It’s staying up marking late at night. Lesson planning during prep time and on weekends. It’s spending time after school one-on-one with students who need extra help or even just someone to talk to. It’s extra-curricular activities, like coaching basketball. It’s being there for your students when they need someone and forming relationships with kids who eventually look up to you. The amount of work that goes into teaching during the school year far exceeds the 40-hour workweek.
Teaching is one of the most rewarding professions ever, and I am truly lucky that I have a profession that allows me to travel the world and pursue my career. But if the teaching itself doesn’t make you happy, there are other options out there for you. Find something you do enjoy. You’d be surprised at the amount of jobs out there that allow you to travel. You don’t have to teach English. Freelance. Remote work. Bartend. Serve. Work at a hostel. Find other things to do.
There are even some teaching English jobs that aren’t as taxing. I know people who ‘teach’ English just by having conversations in English with non-native English speakers. People pay money just to have someone to practice with. You can teach English online too and get paid hourly to teach on webcam. But if you are traveling to work in a classroom, face-to-face with students, please just ask yourself if the children will benefit from having you in the classroom.
Teaching For The Right Reasons
Sometimes, people who teach for the right reasons, still end up hating their jobs. For example, I spent the last year teaching in West Africa and hated it. From sexual harassment to poor organization, this teaching job pushed me to my limits.
As a teacher, your happiness plays a huge factor into your ability to teach well. Happy teacher, happy students. And I felt as the misery crept up on me from my daily life, my teaching was suffering, therefore my students were suffering. Once I had enough, I realized my students and I were both better off with me no longer teaching there. What good was I as a teacher, if I was barely motivated to teach anymore?
But what happens when you move to a new country, you love the new place, you love your new friends, but you hate your job. What do you do? Do you quit? Are these kids better off with no teacher than with a teacher who doesn’t want to teach? For me, I stuck it out for the whole school year only because I would never want to negatively affect my students’ lives. Even though it was hard for me, emotionally and mentally, kids deserve teachers who go the extra mile to make sure they know someone cares and wants them to succeed in life. Although I did not return for a second year, at least they knew I cared enough to finish.
However, there are definite perks to teaching abroad. I have taught in 6 countries, and 4 continents now. Each school has provided (with a 2 year-contract) flights to and from the country, accommodations, and other benefits like professional development opportunities in other countries, allowances for shipping things to and from, bonuses for signing on for a 3rd year, and so on.
When you compare salaries to people at home, it seems like you aren’t paid well; but when you don’t have rent or bills to pay, it ends up being more than enough to live off and travel on your breaks. Through teaching abroad, I have met some incredible people along the way; mainly my amazing partner, who I teach and travel with. I have traveled to some incredible places. Even during my year in West Africa, in which I hated everything, I traveled to Portugal, Madagascar, Kenya, and Spain, and spent the summer traveling through Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. So, teaching abroad definitely has its perks; but trust me when I say, if you want the perks but not the work, this isn’t the profession for you.
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