Dave Sperling, the founder of Dave's ESL Cafe (www.daveseslcafe.com), has been like a lighthouse in the storm of teaching English as a second language (ESL) abroad. For many new and experienced teachers, his website is the ultimate resource for anyone who's planning to cross over from being a student to being the teacher, especially for teaching english Madrid or Teaching English TEFL. Dave and the website community have tips on classroom techniques and exercises, how to find and keep a job, certification information, and employment postings. Dave's ESL Cafe is the first place to visit if you want to teach anything from the proper use of "wuzzup, dawg?" to the difference between lay, lie, and laid. Or is it lied? Maybe we should ask Dave.
Riley: What's it like being the Godfather of ESL?
Dave: [Laughing] That's the first time I've been called the Godfather. Sometimes when you create a website, you forget the kind of impact you're making and you don't really feel it until you travel around, and you go to different conferences and people come up to you.
R: Actually I got a teaching job off your website. From reading what people had posted and through the job postings in the Korean Job Forum. A bad word on your site can get a school blacklisted. How does it feel to have that kind of power? How do you deal with it?
D: Well, you know, there is a balance. I want to be able to give the teachers an opportunity to express both good and bad experiences. I think that's really the power of the Internet - the ability to be able to network and communicate and find information. But I also listen to the school's side of the story as well. There's always many different sides to a particular situation. I've had people who've had their names used bogusly. So yeah, I try to strike a balance.
R: Let me give you the "new teacher" scenario: I just signed up with a company on your site. I leave Tuesday. What should I do before I leave?
D: Tuesday's short notice. One of my first pieces of advice is always to do as much research as possible. So if you are offered a particular position with a specific school, use my site or other sites to find out if you're getting yourself into a good situation. Find out if your pay and working conditions are on par with what's acceptable in the particular country you'll working at. And try to find out as much as you can about the country you're going. Don't go there blindly. I think one of the biggest reasons teachers end up in terrible situations is that they don't know anything about where they're going. They don't know anything about the history, the culture, and the language. It's important for teachers to know what they're getting into.
What else would I do if I were leaving Tuesday? Perhaps use my site to be able to network, post a message, and make some contacts before you get over there. I'd also recommend stocking up on any English teaching materials or books you might need, because it may be difficult to get them in a foreign country.
R: Let me run down some different countries. Talk about some of the different challenges involved. Taiwan.
D: Right off the bat, in terms of, let's say financially, people often ask where are the best places in the world to teach. I tell them Taiwan and Korea. From the visits I've had in Taiwan, I think Taiwan would be a great place to teach.
R: The Eastern European countries.
D: The first challenge is going to be financial, because there's not a lot of money. Oftentimes you'll hear teachers saying things like "I'd do better off just traveling here because the pay isn't good." But I think if pay isn't what you're after, then it'd be just a fantastic place to teach. I've heard great stories about Prague and Poland, and it's a huge up-coming market for ESL teachers.
R: Russia is supposed to be a real emerging market for ESL.
D: Right, a lot of jobs. Yeah, Russia's supposed to be good but ... yeah.
R: There's a tradeoff?
D: [Laughing] Yeah. I mean, I went to Moscow in 1979, when it was the Soviet Union. And it's changed a lot. You have to be careful. You have to be able to put up with increasing crime. And very cold winters. [Laughs]
R: There's Japan. It's not the hotbed it was in the early '90s, but it's still a very reliable place and one that's really well talked about, especially in terms of the welcoming of foreigners.
D: That's right. Japan is still really, I think, a good place to teach. I was just there about three weeks ago, and the teachers I met seemed to really like it a lot. When I was there, I was just instantly comfortable. I don't think teachers have to go through such intense culture shock going to Japan compared to Taiwan or China or other parts of Asia.
D: Korea is like 75 percent of my job ads. There are probably more opportunities in South Korea than anywhere in the world. There seems to be a shortage. It's supply and demand-they just can't get enough teachers over there.
And there's certainly a lot of opportunity. But my advice is for teachers to do as much research as possible before actually accepting a position (whether from a school or recruiter) so that they don't get themselves into a bad situation. You will read a lot of nightmare stories: broken contracts, terrible housing. But at the same time, you also will hear about a lot of success stories as well.
R: What about the Middle East?
D: What can I say? There are a lot of teachers who are kind of afraid. But I don't think it's just the Middle East. It can be dangerous anywhere. There are some countries that are certainly much easier to teach in, like the United Arab Emirates. I went over there five years ago and I liked it a lot. I thought the people were great, and the teachers that I met there seemed very happy.
R: And countries that'd be a little harder?
D: Saudi Arabia. It's tough over there for some people. Women. Women are not even allowed to drive. But it's just a much stricter environment where they're a lot more conservative.
R: Any benefits?
D: It's not like the old days where you could make a killing in the Middle East. You can make okay pay, but it's not that great. But one of the biggest benefits is that it not only pays for housing but normally you'll get really good vacation benefits where you're teaching something like only nine months out of the year. You get all the Islamic holidays off and some months in the summer.
R: There's also the benefit of exposing kids over there to Americans. Which I suppose is probably for the greater good of the world.
D: I think so ... I hope so.
R: Well, as long as it's the right American.
D: I think for the single teacher, going somewhere like Saudi Arabia is really difficult, because expats don't tend to meet other expats.
R: So for your younger teachers, stick with the standbys of South Korea and Japan?
D: For a teacher right out of college? Yeah. If they're looking for money: South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. And then if you just want the experience, there are plenty of areas in Southeast Asia. There are a lot of opportunities in Thailand. Vietnam is big now.
R: But for Vietnam, Thailand and those countries, be prepared to take the hit on salary.
D: Sure. But I think that teachers shouldn't always think about salary.
R: You can live quite well on very little in some of those countries.
D: I don't want to compare Japan and Thailand - it's like apples and oranges. But I mean, I didn't make any money living and working in Thailand. It was just a fantastic experience. It's important that teachers go where their heart takes them. They shouldn't just say they're not going to Thailand because they can't save any money. If a teacher really has a passion for a particular country, they should just go for it. Even if there are a lot of obstacles.
R: But in terms of obstacles, there are some very specific State Department warnings out there for teaching abroad: companies not paying you in Korea, unrest in the Middle East, even some of the usual Eastern European places that aren't as safe as they once were. What does someone get out of teaching overseas?
D: It's an opportunity to experience another culture. It's not just travel. I spent my college years traveling all over the world, backpacking in Europe and Africa. But it's completely different just stopping in a place for six months or a year and actually living, and working, and eating the food, and being in one particular place.
R: You met your wife teaching in Thailand. Any thoughts regarding love in a foreign land?
D: [Laughing] In my personal case, it was nothing that was planned. I went to Thailand, I met my wife and we just started going out. A year later we decided to get married. Fifteen years later it's worked out really well. But I don't know if I went abroad specifically with that in mind...
R: It's the longest-running myth in the ESL community: the American who finds many love affairs in his travels.
D: Well, I don't know if that's necessarily a myth. (Laughs) To be honest, you're going to hear a lot of stories about that. Certainly in South Korea. There's threads on that on my site (which my moderators every once in a while lock or delete) as they start getting more graphic.
R: It's not Dave's ESL Porn Cafe.
D: It really depends on the individual. You can find love, romance, sex anywhere, whether you're here in Santa Monica or you take off to China or Taiwan or Eastern Europe. But I do think that your opportunities increase. Because number one, you're different. I don't care if you go to Eastern Europe or you go to Asia, you stand out. If you go into some kind of social situation, you tend to be more popular.
R: It happened to me in Korea. I was practically a rock star one night.
D: Which is not always healthy. There are a lot of people that let that go to their heads, and get this great big ego. I'm not sure it's very healthy.
R: So who should be an ESL teacher?
D: The ideal teacher is ... someone like me.
R: That's why you're the Godfather.
D: I'm just kidding. I got into teaching for just the love of teaching. I think someone should go into ESL who has a love of the English language, the language you're teaching. No. 2, have a love and passion for different cultures. If you're the type of person who says "America is the best, everything else is inferior," I don't think that'll work. And have a lot of flexibility. Somebody that's not going to get bent all out of shape if things don't go exactly as planned. Because that's just not the way it happens when you're living and teaching abroad. Nothing ever goes as planned. Whether it's the house you're living in, or the kids you're going to be teaching, or whatever.
I recommend teachers study a second language as well. It's much more difficult for teachers who have not studied a second language to teach one because they don't know what their students are going through. If you go to Japan, take Japanese. Not only will it help you when you're living in the country, it'll help you as a teacher as well.
Ideally I stress that teachers go out there and get some training as well. Oftentimes, if you spend the four to six weeks to get a TOEFL certificate you can at least find out whether this is what you like to do. You're learning how to teach and getting some experience in front of a classroom and preparing lessons. That training is going to help you when you do become a teacher and when you hit the job market.
But more importantly, you can find out whether you like it or not. Because it's kind of a waste of your time and energy to actually get to a place halfway across the world and find that you just can't stand teaching English.
R: So you should probably get some experience with either a TOEFL class or an ESL class.
D: Especially these days. I think ESL is much more of a career now. And it's also a lot more competitive too. The good jobs, certainly. And if you want to work in places like Japan or the Middle East, having a TOEFL certification is very important.
R: But you do still recommend it for just the accidental teacher-the one who would just like to do it maybe for a year or two to see what it's like?
R: Any thoughts on the challenges for teachers before they head overseas?
D: The basic challenges are going to be-for one-culture shock. Not only homesickness. Academics have studied the phenomenon. In the beginning, everything is just wonderful and everything is new and exciting. But it might be six months later and you realize that everything crashes in. "I can't stand my crummy apartment, I can't stand my job, I can't stand Korean food!"
Be able to start acquiring the knowledge, even if it's like mental preparation, by saying, "Okay I'm going to be off teaching English. What does that entail?" Going to places like my site and going into my idea cookbook and looking at ideas from other teachers for great classroom techniques.
R: Which I have to thank you for by the way. When I was overseas I found a great idea on using a spinner wheel for "Word Roulette," and it worked out great. Although it eventually morphed into straight roulette for the kids. Which killed Casino Day. But I did want to thank you for it. Any words for people finishing up their teaching experiences?
D: Prepare for reverse culture shock. Returning to the U.S. from wherever they're going is not always an easy thing. It was much more difficult coming home than going abroad. You'll find that your friends and family often won't understand what you're talking about. You'll be talking to them about things that had become part of your life, and suddenly nobody seems to be able to relate to you.
R: What was hardest for me was actually saying goodbye to my kids. I think seasoned teachers know this, but for those first timers.
D: And your co-workers as well. My last gig in Japan I had just made some really, really close friends with my co-workers. Especially some of these crazy Canadian guys. That last night I was really choked up. But I think that's part of the success. The more it hurts when you leave, the more success you had.
R: I agree with you, but "More pain is more success" - that may not be what you want to use as your recruiting strategy.
D: [Laughing] But you know what I mean. It means you really had a good experience. And you've connected to the culture. And it's hard to leave.
R: Before we go Dave I want to thank you personally for setting up a site that gave me my opportunity to teach overseas.
D: I'm glad it worked out for you.
R: Actually, I did get stiffed out of my last month's pay by my employer but I'm one of those flexible types you said made good teachers.
D: (Darth Vader voice) Blacklist 'em on my Job Information Journal.
R: I'm dialing it up right now.