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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.
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?
All good points! Teaching is not for everyone, but learning is…and I love that you learned some great lessons! (Oh, that’s the teacher in me, for sure!)
Definitely – I love learning as well and sharing things that I learn with friends, but it just wasn’t meant to be which is okay. On to other opportunities 🙂
Aussie in France says
It’s a bit like translation. Everyone assumes that all you have to do is speak two languages and you can translate. Even as a translator, I often have clients who ask me to teach as well but, like you, I don’t like teaching English. I did teach translation for many years though and, that I enjoyed.
Ohh yes! Translating is hard. Where I work right now you need to more or less be bilingual with English and Chinese (trilingual if you count both Mandarin & Cantonese, but thankfully the written language is the same) and every announcement whether written or spoken has to be translated. I’m far from being bilingual and I watch my coworkers do the translations. It’s pretty amazing, but sometimes what works in one language doesn’t work in the other.
Rachel M says
“Just because you speak the language doesn’t mean you can teach it” – so true! I once got a temporary job teaching a language (swahili) and it turned out to be a big misadventure.
Yikes. A big misadventure. I don’t like the sounds of that. Its something people so easily forget. It’s one thing to speak and another to teach.
The first time I taught abroad, I was straight out of university with a non-teaching degree. I was very nervous in the beginning, wondering if I was doing it right and generally trying not to make a fool of myself. Eventually I got into the rhythm of things and it got easier. However, I still prefer to be able to plan my classes in detail before giving them. It’s extra work that I don’t NEED to do, but it calms me to know that if I forget something, I can refer to the lesson plan at any time.
Great list, I agree wholeheartedly with each point!
Yes! That is exactly how I felt and how I dealt with it too. I definitely over prepare. Better to have something to fall back on rather than be caught off guard.
Gran Canaria Local says
A woman after our own heart. We much prefer writing to teaching. In Las Palmas de Gran Canaria schools, we used to get into trouble with playing football with the students more than teaching them English.
Haha, playing games was my default too when I ran out of things to do! It’s a good way to learn very specific vocabulary.
Dave Briggs says
Teaching is definitely not for everyone, and it sounds like the organisation role suited you a lot better.
Yup definitely. I’m much more of a behind the scenes person than the one up on stage with all the attention.
Jessica (Barcelona Blonde) says
Great post! I had a similar experience teaching English in Spain. I didn’t mind talking all day, but I did find it incredibly draining and frustrating, especially with kids’ classes.
It was fine to do for a little while to fund my travels, but recognizing it just wasn’t for me was OK too. Figuring out what you like isn’t failing at all. I like my new job way better!
Thanks Jessica! I thankfully didn’t have to teach kids. The youngest I had were teens. I mostly had adults which made me feel like they had even higher expectations of me. I don’t know what I would ave done with kids. At least you tried it and now know it’s not for you. Success in my books. What do you do now?
Dennis Kopp says
Adelina, I can totally relate to your fist point! So many times I thought that teaching would be a great way to earn money abroad, but in reality I just wouldn’t be comfortable in that role. Actually in India I had the chance to help kids with their German homework, but only to realize that I had no idea how actually explain my mother language. It seems you had a similar experience and it also seems you still learned a lot during the time, that is probably all that counts in the end…:)
Yes! Teaching would just be so convenient to aid my constant wanderlust, but it’s just not meant to be. And definitely! You don’t know how hard it is to explain a language until you have to do it yourself. I should have paid more attention to my past language teachers! Huge respect for them.
Jessica of Curiosity Travels says
I’m not sure teaching is right for me either in the long term, but I sure have been faking it for a while! Luckily, I don’t find it too hard to fake, but I can see how it can be so draining if you aren’t into it…especially if you have an entire classroom to yourself. I always have another teacher in the classroom with me to lead (I always let that happen willingly).
I might be teaching for one more year, or possibly not. It’s really up in the air right now! Either way, it’s been a great way to live and fund my travels while it’s lasted!
I had a local coteacher for a lot of my classes, but we would alternate classes and discuss in between what we taught through email. Sometimes it was so disorganized and I felt so bad for the students. I definitely agree that teaching is a great way of making money while traveling. I really really wish I liked it more. It would have been so convenient!
Great post! I’ve been teaching ESL for almost 20 years now in Germany. I agree with number 4 completely. A teacher should always put himself in the shoes of his students.
Thanks Christopher! Congrats on 20 years teaching! I’m in awe (and a little jealous!) of how people, like you, have made a career out of teaching. You have my highest respect after trying it out for a couple months. It’s tough!
It’s funny, I learned all the same things!!
So many life lessons to be learned in the most unlikely of places!
Sherri Jo says
I don’t teach but wow was this an interesting read. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for reading Sherri!
Cynthia @ You Signed Up For WHAT?! says
Really neat that you learned so much about yourself and what you are and are not meant to do – and I love the point about leaving your comfort zone.
Thanks Cynthia! Every experience has its learning points. It’s important to focus on those and not on the negative. At least now I know what I don’t want to do!
Great, honest post! Just found your blog. Looking forward to reading more!
I’ve been teaching here in Japan for 2 years now, about to head home. Teaching requires a lot of co-ordination and clear focus in the lessons here – there is so much reading involved for the students. I felt sorry for them to be honest. Reading and grammar is what it was all about. Because they can test grammar and reading easily in exams. Such is life I guess. How were the students in Hungary?
Thanks Andrew! So true, learning a language needs to be more than just grammar and reading, but when you’re in school they need the grades which is unfortunate. The students in Hungary really liked rules. They liked knowing what they can and cannot do with a language and they LOVE grammar which was the most difficult part for me to teach. There are so many exceptions and difficult concepts to explain especially when you got to the higher levels.
Phoebe @ Lou Messugo says
I can really relate to this, I taught English for many years in several different countries but never felt I had a vocation for teaching and felt I was short-changing my students, that they deserved better. Like you I was happiest in an administrative role but when I was desperate for a job having moved to France I took up teaching again, this time with kids and realised I really couldn’t continue. It was a relief to accept that I wasn’t a teacher and move on.
Every experience is a learning opportunity. At least now you know and you can concentrate on your real talents.