Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My life as an EFL teacher....

I am about 2 weeks away from the end of over 2.5 years of teaching English as a foreign language overseas.  After I finish this current job and make the next move it looks unlikely that I will be teaching English again, for a while at least.  Never say never but I feel like I am done for the time being.  
As such I thought it would be a good opportunity to write about some of my experiences of teaching in 3 different countries.  I have met some incredible people, other teachers and students.  Teaching English provided me with an opportunity to work in Japan and Costa Rica and see different cultures up close.  In Japan I taught a lot of private adult classes which provided a window into many peoples lives that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Often it did feel like counselling as some students used it as an opportunity to talk about problems when it seemed like there was no-one else to listen.  There are many rumours in the EFL world, one of them being that learning a language is prescribed by psychiatrists as a method of overcoming depression.  Depressed people can go and talk to someone they don’t know in another language and be someone else for an hour a week.  Add in the extra confidence and opportunities that having a second language can bring and I can see why this may be of use to those with depression.  A minority of my students matched this description though and I don’t feel I have had that experience at all in Costa Rica.
Teachers and students
There are many ways to become an EFL teacher overseas but this is how I did it.  I began by getting a CELTA in Chiang Mai at ECC.  This was a four-week intense course combining grammar, lesson planning and teaching practice.  I taught classes to Thai university students, they were getting the classes for free and were keen to learn and really fun.  Thailand was one of the cheapest places to get a CELTA qualification and the living costs are much less than other places.  On top of that you get to eat Thai food for every meal!  I really enjoyed this course, I learnt a lot and met some great people.  I would totally recommend getting a CELTA before beginning any kind of teaching job.  For sure it made me a better teacher than I would have been if I hadn’t done the course.
Me and a normal student
After Thailand I went to Japan.  I arrived in Japan with no job arranged but a place to stay.  After a few weeks of searching and a few interviews I took a job with Shane.  You can read good and bad things about every EFL company in Japan.  You can spend all your time reading about problems with schools and never do anything.  Shane were not perfect but neither were they as bad as has been made out elsewhere.  On the whole I enjoyed my time there.  They sponsored my work visa and I worked for one year, in 3 different locations in Tokyo.  I worked 4 days a week and found some private classes to teach on the other days.  I mostly taught adult classes but also had 4 regular children’s classes.  For adult classes Shane mostly use their own books, plus Headway and Clockwise for more advanced students and Market Leader for business students.  For children they used their own books almost exclusively.  I taught a mixture of general English and business English, and group classes and privates.  Shane teachers can only teach for 6 hours a day, and the school managers have to get their teachers to teach as close to that as possible.  In reality I mostly taught around 4 hours on weekdays, and between 5 and 6 on the weekends.  For the first few months I spent lots of time preparing for lessons and prepping classes but after maybe 4 months this was greatly reduced and the job became significantly easier.  
It was around this time that I had my first realisation about teaching English.  That was that many students didn’t really seem to show interest in getting any better.  Many people came to a class once a week and then did nothing during the week.  Almost like they want you to pour the knowledge into their heads.  Or in a parallel that can be found in many other aspects of life in modern capitalist states, we see what we want and buy it.  However learning anything requires some kind of personal commitment, this can’t just be bought.  This is how it is with learning a language, you have to commit to it.  Unless you live in the country where the language is spoken, it cannot just be absorbed, especially if you are only having 1 class a week and nothing else.
Spring in Japan
One of the main issues with Shane was that they require every teacher to work cover days, which they say you already receive the pay for in the terms of your contract so you have to do them.  This is to cover the company for any absences or holidays of other teachers.  As I was on a 4 day contract I did 15 cover days, which I managed to do in the first 8 months meaning that the final 4 months I didn’t have to do any.  There was also a stand-by system were different teachers had to be prepared to go into work if anyone rang in sick.  i was lucky enough to not have to go in when it was my turn on stand-by.
Aside from this living and working in Tokyo was a great experience, and I really miss being in Japan.  Not so much the hot, sweaty summers, drunk old people and the crowded trains but definitely the food, my students, the care and attention that is giving to everything, the chance of finding something new and different around every corner, and for sure the beautiful springs and autumns and the enigmatic winters.  I was sad to leave and hope to go back to visit one day.
Students in Costa Rica
After leaving Japan, I ended up in teaching in Costa Rica.  I have taught for 2 schools here, one large and one small.  Firstly I worked for around 9 months for a school in Santa Ana, about twenty minutes drive from San Jose.  At the beginning I was mostly teaching large groups of students who were getting their English lessons paid for by a government scheme.  This arrangement provided 6 months of language tuition in order to get as many people as possible to an upper-intermediate standard of English.  It was an intensive course that most people did alongside their regular job or study, meaning that the classes were in the morning from 7-9 or in the evening, 4 or 5 days a week.  I also taught some corporate classes in company offices, this required me to travel at my own expense and to teach often in environments that were not very conducive to learning.  This school exclusively use their own materials and their own teaching “method”.  As with most methods there was little difference from any other school.  In fact I believe they do not utilise their materials fully and could do a lot more.  In Costa Rica there is also an obsession with constant testing.  After every 5 units there would be a test, plus bigger tests at halfway through and the end of book.  This often breeds a situation of learning only to pass the test, and in some cases didn’t lead to any real fluency in English.  For many students it worked though and they were often able to progress quickly.  
The visa situation was interesting, but that story is for another day. 
I left this school when it became clear that the government contract was not going to be renewed any time soon and all that was left were the corporate classes.  For a couple of months I was only working 6 or 8 hours a week and travelling to different locations to do it.  Costa Rica is relatively advanced compared to other Central American countries but the public transport leaves a lot to be desired.  The buses are noisy, dirty and unreliable.  The bus stops are often on the side of main highways, and are open to the elements.  The elements in Costa Rica can be pretty wild, I would often get burnt and boiled from the sun in the mornings and drenched by rain in the afternoons while waiting for buses.

Not what working in Costa Rica is like
Many people come to teach in CR lured by the images of beautiful beaches and Pura Vida, in reality working in the Central Valley means long days of frustrating travel experiences and poor pay.  Plus teaching is not a job you can just turn up and do, it requires planning, preparation and organisation.  The turn-over of teachers was fairly high as people realised this and left. If you can deal with all this teaching in CR is great.  The students are fun and they need the language.

The second school I worked for was in the small town where we lived, meaning I could walk to work.  Travel problems didn’t enter the equation, there were other minor organisational problems but nothing serious.  The classes were smaller, occasionally only one student.  One of the most interesting students I met was at this school, I wrote about him here.
The students in both these schools were great.   Often very keen to learn and motivated.  There is a large exposure to English in CR due to tourism and the US.  Many students worked for North American companies, often in call centres and help desks.  Speaking English is a ticket to a better job and more money.  This is one of the reasons for the constant testing and certificates.  They need this to show potential employers that they can speak English and helps to get recruited.  Most students were out-going and the classes were livelier than in Japan.  Many of the students came from other Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Venezuela and Colombia and speaking English is a great opportunity for them.  As opposed to Japan where many adults are learning for a hobby or because they think it is cool or simply for the opportunity to talk to a foreigner, here people genuinely need the language to improve their life chances.
Two different countries, two different cultures and two different experiences of teaching English.  In both situation there were frustrations and annoyances and problems with employers, but the majority of my co-workers and students were great people.  English teaching attracts its share of odd-balls.  People come to teach English overseas for a number of reasons.  The reasons I have seen were an interest in the country or language, a desire for an “experience”, a need to get away from home, actually wanting to be a teacher, a way to avoid returning home and being a misfit in their own country.  Many just do it for a year and move on, others do it for a lifetime.  It is certainly a job that doesn’t suit everyone and has the potential to send people a little weird if they do it for too long.  It is also a job that has rarely been boring and like most things, the more you put into it the more you get out.  The annoyances for me mostly came outside of the classroom but inside with the students is when the job was at its most rewarding.


Scott said...

You and the guy in green (CELTA pic) make a cute couple. Was that the "strange pose" picture?

Unknown said...

Looks like it doesn't it.
Do you think I did the strangest?