It doesn’t matter how much we studied the country before we arrived in it. We learn quirks and rules of the culture as we go. Write a student’s name on a dry erase board in some Asian countries with a red marker and we wish death upon that student. Say, “Salmon is my favorite food,” in Spanish, but pronounce ‘salmon’ wrong and it becomes “semen.” Bend over to pick up a pencil in an elementary school in Korea and a child may give us the poop needle, where he pokes us right in the butt. Then there are the times we have to explain pronunciation. Yes, there’s a reason there’s an “o” in “count” and it makes a big difference in how you say it.
When we sign a contract for a year it’s a year of complying with the rules of the school or company where we work. We can travel, but we do it like everyone else in the world — during vacation our employers allow us to have or when our contract ends.
Yes, we may live close enough to Valpraiso or Busan to relax for a weekend, but most of our time is spent in the classroom.
It does help to know a few words — no, yes, thank you — the basics. Students love to hear us butcher words they know well. It puts us on equal ground.
Still, it’s not required or preferred to speak the country’s language. This way, our knowledge can’t become a crutch for them to depend. Instead, they’ll begin to pick up words they hear every day in English. It forces them to listen, watch and concentrate. Being an expert with body language helps, too. Nothing is more entertaining for a class than when we have to mime our way out of a confusing situation.
Just because we sought work outside of our home country doesn’t mean it doesn’t count. We are expected to be in class on time prepared to teach, just as we would at home. While the hours are lower than an average workweek (20-25 hours), that’s because many of us spend a ton of time getting to or planning the next class.
Being an ESL teacher abroad is a different kind of demanding. While we work our day-to-day routine, we do it while trying to conform to a new culture, a variety of public transportation, language barriers and miscommunication. It’s interesting and it’s exciting, but when you’re exhausted, it can be daunting. Like when you can’t figure out how to tell a taxi driver where your apartment is when the metro breaks down or when you get dropped off in the middle of the suburbs an hour outside the city with just the GPS pin drop of where you’re supposed to be in five minutes—and according to Google maps, it’s forty minutes away.
For the most part, they are as undemanding, easy and fun as they sound. We can make great contacts this way with people all over the globe and exchange culture as well as language. If we have enough in common, we can talk for hours without realizing class is over.
But these classes can take a weird turn fast. We talk one on one with another adult for hours a week. What begin as student/teacher relationships can transform into a therapy session where we learn about student’s marriage problems and infidelities. In darker cases, we can become unwanted objects of desire to married men of higher stature in an important company. It’s inappropriate and they know better. So do we when we drop their class.
Even if we stay in the same country, it’s like starting over. Sometimes, our job entails waking at 7am, braving the insanity of the rush hour metro, teaching three business classes in the morning and then commuting an hour into the suburbs to teach individual lessons to children. We may not get home until 9pm with very little to show for all those hours when it’s payday.
Then again, we may work a steady 9-5 in one school without a commute where we teach children with a co-teacher and have all amenities paid for plus a hefty salary. We have no idea what to expect, but one thing is guaranteed: it’s not boring.
While some companies offer classes once a week in the native language, most do not. Our time is spent reviewing our own English grammar and speaking it ever day. Some of us may be fortunate enough to meet locals who help us learn the necessities, but most of our time is in the office or out at night with our English speaking cohorts.
After we’ve explored all the hidden gems of our new city and become familiar with the routine of our novel occupation, there’s a rut that strikes about three months into the job. This doesn’t mean we don’t like what we’re doing; it means we may begin to long for the easy-access friends and family we left behind. Google chat is awesome, but we can’t hug our family through the computer.
We don’t have to be certified English teachers in our home country to teach abroad; it has to be our native language. Sure, we can speak every tense with ease, but do we remember when or why we use certain grammar? There’s adjective order, the conditional, and past perfect. Words we’ve known forever become unexplainable in simple terms. Without looking it up in a dictionary, explain “ubiquitous” or “prescient” in an easy manner. When caught off guard in a classroom of people, it won’t come to you. I promise.
Okay, there’s always that one quiet class of adults who refuse to speak or wild kids who spit on each other — anything can happen. One common denominator, no matter the country or city, whether teaching kids or adults, a smile means a breakthrough. It’s the inspiration for us to return to the classroom day after day after day.