When I moved to Budapest, I worked for an English school. While I did some ESL teaching, my main responsibilities were more related to operations and running the school on a day to day basis from recruitment to scheduling to marketing. It was a varied role and I loved my job.
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Classes typically fell into three categories: general English, business English and exam preparation. Class sizes were small, either one on one or not more than 6 or 7 students at a time which was really nice. I started off teaching a couple classes but eventually gave it up halfway through my time there. The school had so many other talented teachers and students were probably better off learning from them.
That said, I learned a lot from the 100 or so hours I spent in the classroom. A lot about the art of teaching and surprisingly, a lot about myself. Here are 6 things teaching abroad has taught me.
1. Teaching is not for me.
Teaching is just not natural for me. Being an introvert, I find teaching classes to be incredibly draining having to constantly be “on.” Plus, I’ve known for a long time that I hate being the centre of attention and being a teacher means having people’s attention on me. I just feel unnatural and uncomfortable.
I have difficulty speaking off the top of my head in a formal setting sometimes – especially when I’m nervous. I like thinking things over thoroughly and preparing in my head before sharing my thoughts. Otherwise, they just come out disjointed and with a lot of pauses. I really admire people who can just talk for the sake of talking. Maybe I should join Toastmasters.
Group classes were manageable because I could get the students talking to each other more. However, during one on one lessons, any lull in the conversation made me feel the need to fill the silence. Especially if it is a new student who I don’t know as well. I just ramble on and one which is a terrible idea for a teacher. The student needs to be doing more of the talking!
2. Just because you speak the language doesn’t mean you can teach it
Being fluent in a language doesn’t mean you can teach it well. There is definitely an art of maintaining attention and to explaining difficult concepts. My students knew so much more than me about English grammar and the “rules” of the language. Sentences that come naturally to me can be difficult to explain to someone who is learning the language. Phrasal verbs, especially, are the worse. There is no real explanation why you get on a bus or tram, but you get in a car.
One example specific to Hungarian is around getting on and off things. In Hungarian, if want to say “I get on the tram”, you say “felszállok a villamosra” which literally translate into “I get up the tram.” No wonder students were confused with when to use “on” and when to use “up”. I only figured this out myself when I was learning Hungarian.
In the same vein – just because you’ve taken a TEFL course doesn’t mean you’re qualified to teach it. The course I took didn’t have any hours spent in a classroom attached to it which was a big mistake. Practice teaching would have been good experience before actually teaching.
3. I like structure and need goals to work towards
I taught a variety of different levels, including a couple advanced students. These classes required me to think outside the box. There was no set curriculum that I needed to follow. I crave structure and knowing what I can and cannot do, or at least have a guideline. For most of my classes, I had to develop my own curriculum based on what the student was interested in I naturally gravitated towards courses that came with a textbook and a concrete lesson plan and felt that I was able to achieve successes in those classes.
I’ve taught music theory before where there is clear structure and a clear objective – an exam at the very end – which was very tangible results of how well I taught someone. But with language teaching, yes there are exams, but the course I was teaching was not in preparation for an exam.
While some teachers may love the independence and fun in developing a curriculum on their own, I’m not one of them. It got easier over time and the more I taught, the more lesson plans I had to draw upon. Another thing that could have helped is having more experience. For a new teacher, it’s so overwhelming and having a textbook gave me some security.
4. Learning a language while teaching a language makes you a better teacher
I was learning Hungarian while I was teaching English. My teacher spoke no English and I spoke no Hungarian and yet, I still managed to learn. Through hand gestures, lots of pictures and if desperate, the use of a translator, I was able to pick up the basics of Hungarian saying silly things like “the cat is under the table.”
It got to a point where we would spend the majority of my lessons just talking about my week and what I was doing between lessons. I lacked a lot of vocabulary, but somehow my teacher still managed to understand what I was saying and to teach me new words, phrases and how to construct sentences.
Learning Hungarian while teaching Hungarians also helped me to learn how to teach them better. Like that example above about the differences with “on” and “up.” If I didn’t learn Hungarian I wouldn’t know why my students were mixing it up. Even now, when my Hungarian boyfriend sometimes mixes up his phrasal verbs, but I know why.
I was learning a language, yes, but I also was learning how to be a better teacher.
5. Even though I don’t like teaching English, I still love English and languages
I loved English class when I was a kid. I read more books in a month than most people do in a year. I like languages too and could pick them up relatively quickly. I thought that I would enjoy teaching English, but it’s not the same.
When it comes down to it, I’m much more interested in teaching English literature than actual English grammar and vocabulary. But that’s okay. Maybe I need to join a book club or something. Anyone up for starting a travel book club?
6. I don’t need to be afraid of facing fears or challenges
I decided early on that I was going to be the best possible teacher possible and to see if I could crack the teaching bubble – it would open up a lot of opportunities for travel. I definitely wasn’t the best teacher. After one class, it was pretty evident to me that I was so out of my depth. Despite all my apprehension and nervousness as a teacher, I kept on going. I didn’t quit immediately after the first lesson. I tried and tried again to be successful. Overtime I learned more about how to teach effectively and how to manage a classroom, but until that happened, I had to pretend that I knew what was going on. While I was never comfortable in the classroom, it certainly became easier. I had managed to make it work for me despite all of my fears.
When I actually did manage to teach something and I saw it click in my student’s eyes, those were the most rewarding moments. Imparting knowledge is the most wonderful feeling in the world and I can see why those who do this as a profession love it.
I’m proud of the fact that I tackled something completely outside my comfort zone. I gave it a good shot, teaching for about 7 months before I decided to stop. I now know that teaching isn’t for me and I can eliminate that option when trying to find work abroad. However, if I do need to teach, I know that I can do it.
I try to think about my teaching stint as an opportunity for personal development, not a failure because I gave up. I challenged myself and found out I didn’t like it. I learned a lot, met some great people, and had a little bit of fun. What else could you ask for?
Have you ever taught abroad? What was your experience like? Have you ever done something that you weren’t entirely comfortable with but kept at it for personal development?