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Learning traveler, Teaching English Abroad lessons
By: Jeff Booth (justin) 2011.02.12

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EFL - English as a Foreign Language
ESL - English as a Second Language
ESOL - English to Speakers of Other Languages
TESL - Teaching ESL
TEFL - Teaching EFL
TESOL - Teaching ESOL

My students looked at me in what I preferred to think was the rapture of learning. It turned out to be the blankness of confusion. I was giving a lecture on American Culture at Chongqing University in western China, a break from my usual classes of Conversation and Writing. I attempted to explain the American Road Trip, Route 66, Kerouac, the vastness of the land stretching from the Golden Gate to Brooklyn's pizza shops. A student tentatively raised his hand,"Excuse me, but what is "pizza"? Once again, I was reminded that teaching English abroad lessons means more than classrooms and grading, more than a language barrier, more than a cultural gap, it's learning about a whole new world.

As Latin was once the accepted international language of the Western world, English has now become the world-wide standard for business, science, and diplomacy. People from Uruguay to Ulaan-Bataar are eager to learn English, and that means native English speakers have the opportunity to see the world through teaching. Travel the world and earn money, just because you grew up speaking English? Sound too good to be true? Well, it is a real job, with the requisite workload and stresses, but it's one of the most fulfilling jobs you'll ever have.

But I Don't Know No Grammar!

It seems like everyone's biggest worry about teaching English abroad is the fact that though they are native English speakers, they cannot remember the difference between an indirect object and a dangling participle. "It's not the crucial thing, but the students will always be asking grammar questions, and you do need to know the answers to keep the respect of your students," says Nancy Tulare of the School of Teaching ESL. Steve Jackson, from the NOVA program that sends teachers to Japan, agrees that the grammar fear is valid, and is something a prospective teacher should at least refresh beforehand. International students have often studied English grammar extensively and can grill you on it with questions. But Jackson says, "It's still not the prime importance when teaching a conversational language class, students are more concerned with function."

The second greatest fear of new teachers is "How do I teach students if I don't speak their language?" Though that's a good question, it's certainly not a deterrent for a prospective teacher. As a native speaker, you are most likely a "prized commodity" as a teacher, and it's quite unlikely that the school would waste your conversational abilities with students at the beginning level. Tulare explains that "it's often a situation where native speakers teach at the intermediate and higher levels, but there are techniques for working with beginners in English language, such as pictures, and repetition, in English only, from the very beginning."

EFL vs. TEFL vs. ESL , or Learn to be a Teacher

Because teaching English abroad entails a unique set of challenges (language barriers, cultural differences), and teaching itself is something of an art, there are a plethora of degrees available for Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). Known by a dizzying variety of acronyms, EFL certification programs explain how to assess your students' needs, prepare materials for classwork, test their progress and chart future curriculum. As well as how to answer grammar questions. Tulare says that there are a variety of methods that teachers are trained in, including the European-direct method (complete immersion in the target language, listening and repetition) and other effective alternate methods.

If you are interested in obtaining an EFL certification, examine the curriculum for the courses and choose one that will teach you what you need to know for where you want to go. For example, RSA/Cambridge certification programs tend to focus on teaching adults, masters' degree programs are based more heavily on linguistics acquisition and may help with Western European teaching jobs, one-month hands-on courses might be best for diving into the Asian teaching market.

Another option to actually getting an EFL degree is to do some research on your own. Head to the library or bookstore, there are numerous books, teaching examples, and workbooks that help you plan your classes. Before I left to teach in China, I stopped by my local university and met with the ESL teachers there who work with immigrant students in the U.S. They were more than happy to let me sit in on a few classes, to give me tips and advice. It was invaluable in helping me prepare for my classroom experience.

The English Professor

In countries where demand is high, it is often fine to have a bachelor's degree in almost any field. Getting a teaching position at a foreign university is the hardest, as some sort of EFL degree is often expected. Middle and high schools have more lax requirements, but the English abilities of your students are usually lower. Many countries also have private language schools that cater to students preparing for an exam, or for business workers who need to learn English to stay competitive in the global market. Private schools have the most flexible schedules and the most lenient prerequisites for teachers, but have developed a reputation for overworking their teachers in many countries (it's not uncommon to teach 30 hours per week in many Asian language schools). Typical teaching requirements are about 16 class hours per week in universities or middle schools.

Questions to Ask When Job Searching

Let's assume you've got classroom assignments ready, have an EFL degree in your back pocket, and are itching to get to a chalkboard. Don't just go to any chalkboard though, if possible, try to choose a school that will treat you right also. Assuming you have some job choices, try to find out the following information.

1. What are the typical number of classes taught, or how many hours per week?
2. What background do the students have?
3. Who else is on teaching staff and their credentials.
4. Ask the school for current or past teachers whom you can speak with.
5. How long has the school been around?
6. Is any housing provided?

Hot Markets

For many years Japan has been one of the top draws for EFL teachers. With its strong international business infrastructure, sailing economy, and official programs like JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching), it seemed as if anyone who showed up on their shores could land a job making serious money. That's changed, however. Japan's economy is still recoiling from the Asian economic crisis and the ensuing recession. Steve Jackson feels that can be interpreted as a good thing. "The recession's hit more the corporate environment than the general population. More people have found that they need English now to compete in the tight job market." Despite the yen's recent weakness against the dollar and the high cost of living, EFL teachers in Japan still feel as if they are making a good income while doing what they love.

The more that China's Open Door policy flourishes, the more opportunities there will be for foreigners to teach English there. Already, there are more English speakers in China than there are in the United States (keep in mind that there are five times as many people in China, and that "speaker" is a loosely defined term, especially applied to the students I had.) Nevertheless, from my year spent teaching at Chongqing University, I can attest first-hand that it sure seems that everyone and their mother wants to learn English.

Unfortunately, Western Europe has traditionally been closed for American EFL teachers. Due to restrictive hiring practices among European Union countries, speakers from the United Kingdom and Ireland are given preference in hiring over Americans.

The situation is very different in Eastern Europe though. "There's still a very heavy demand for native speaking English teachers in Central and Eastern Europe," says Alex Dunlop from the Central European Teaching Program. "It's still possible to get a job with just a bachelor's degree... public schools have many openings because the industry sector has stolen all the best English speakers."

Getting Paid in More than $$

If you've never been a teacher, it's hard to imagine the thrill of a classroom finally lighting up with understanding. It's as if a cloud suddenly parts, and your lesson shines through like the light of the sun. OK, maybe that's a little melodramatic, but it is incredibly rewarding. That's for all teachers, but the bond between English teachers abroad and their students is often more intense because everything is more intense when living as an expatriate. Your students are your primary connection to the country and culture you're immersed in - they are your interpreters of language and life. A fellow teacher in China, a tough New York guy who often complained about his teaching workload, wept openly when his students gave him a card for Spring Festival. It's a very powerful connection.

That feel-good glow better count for a lot, because usually there's very little cash flow to go with it. Often, demand for native English speakers is highest in developing nations where you may be teaching without any books, papers, directions, chalkboards, or much of a salary. It's usually enough for a moderate lifestyle in-country, but you won't come home having saved anything. And why should you? The best use of whatever you can save is buying train tickets for exploration. The single biggest perk of teaching English abroad is travel, of course! So do it. Not only will you see some great places, but you'll learn more about the place you live in, and the students you teach. And you'll know enough about the country to see it in an entirely new light. That's a pretty fair exchange; teach English and excite international classrooms, and learn about the rest of the world while you're at it.

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