ESL Teacher?s Survival Guide

Teaching English as a second or foreign language is not for the faint-hearted. On one hand, it is a calling that is certainly full of promise. The adventure, level of fulfillment, and the financial rewards touted by organizations and people who advocate the ESL/EFL lifestyle are real. The demand is high and the urge to meet it is just becoming more and more attractive given the current economic downturn at the home front. Moreover, the places where native English speakers can help service the demand can be very alluring. Just about anywhere–in the historic cities of Europe, the mysterious regions of the Far East, and the naturally rugged landscape of Africa–the need for educators to teach the lingua franca of globalization is immediate.

These factors attract many people from the US, UK, and other English-speaking countries and quite a number of them leave their homes and embark on a language teaching career elsewhere–most often in countries that are so much culturally and linguistically different from theirs.

And there lies the peril. Unless people who opt to teach English abroad are eager to learn as well, the decision may well be doomed from the onset. The fact is, there are already latent challenges when it comes to teaching English in general. Any high school English teacher in Oakland, Melbourne, or Liverpool will tell you that. It only follows that teaching English in non-English speaking countries require educators to face much of the same challenges. However, ESL/EFL educators are also compelled to assume more responsibilities and face a host of new, intimidating challenges if they are to be truly effective and professionally fulfilled. This is because the learning environment where they are to play crucial roles is so radically different that they need to learn additional skill sets and deploy custom techniques in order to engage their students more effectively.

For new teachers of ESL/EFL, the mere idea of conducting the very first lesson can generate spikes of excitement as well as fear. That is understandable. Being suddenly immersed in a different environment can be quite confusing, and for educators, the responsibility of achieving learning targets only compounds the challenge. Fortunately, there have been quite a number of successful ESL and EFL educators who practice their profession in foreign locations and who gladly share their insights on how to succeed in the field. The teaching and learning techniques successful educators adopt may vary significantly but their fundamental guidelines coincide. If you are thinking of leaving your hometown to try your luck at teaching English in a foreign land, here are some tips that can help you survive some common pitfalls.

pic 21. Perform a check on how passionate or committed you are about teaching English as a second language. Without either, it will be difficult for anyone to endure the known challenges of language teaching much less derive personal fulfillment from the job. Be aware at this point that succeeding in this area entails a high level of diligence and that financial rewards are generally not as high compared to teaching in home countries. Note however, that the cost of living in many target countries are much lower in comparison and this provides a comfortable lifestyle to many successful ESL/EFL teachers in key Asian and Eastern European cities. Bottom line is, forget English teaching if you neither have the heart nor the guts for it.

pic 32. Know your trade. Loving your trade (read: teaching English as a second or foreign language) is infinitely better, but if you are yet to warm up to the profession, you should at least know the rudiments of the craft. Do you personally speak English correctly? Do you write grammatically? A few oversees employers accept just about anybody who is a native English speaker and who just happen to secure a clearance from their respective country’s police or crime-management agency. While this arrangement allows people who do not have a language teaching background or even a college degree to jump onto the English-teaching bandwagon, employers who accept such applicants are becoming rare by the minute. Based on current trends, more and more employers from both the government and the public sectors now demand prospective language educators and tutors to have a minimum level of educational background and language teaching competency. If you lack training but is determined to teach English, there are dozens of excellent TEFL providers who issue certifications once a complete course have been taken. Taking one will boost your chances of landing a decent employment. Be certain, however, that the TEFL provider you choose is duly accredited by the employer or host country.

pic 43. Know your students. This is possibly one of the most important prerequisites to having a successful language teaching career. Make it a point to appreciate your learners, especially their motives in studying English. Are you teaching primary grade classes, young adults, mature professionals, or citizens close or well into their retirement? Different learner age groups require different teaching approaches and it is ideal that you learn the basic methodologies for engaging different learner demographics. You also need to design lessons according to your students’ main objectives for taking the course. These can include compulsory learning since many countries include English as a mandated subject in the curriculum. Many students also opt to learn English to improve their job performance or to enhance their socialization skills. Make it a point to modify your teaching methods to suit each of these objectives. In addition, learning the cultural and linguistic context within which the learning process is conducted will help enhance everyone’s experience and eliminate offensive, awkward and other unwanted situations. Some languages also share similar characteristics with English and leveraging these similarities (use of same Latinized alphabet, for example) will make your job significantly easier to perform. Note that teachers are highly regarded in many oriental cultures and you can channel this communal respect to facilitate order and progressive learning inside your classrooms. Not all learning contexts are aligned in favor of educators, however. You should be able to adapt your teaching style and behavior according to the socio-cultural expectations of the locale where you are practicing your trade.

4. Know the terrain. Strictly speaking, this may have no or very minimal impact on your teaching strategies. However, knowing the locale will allow you to interact better with all the people who live in it–especially your employers and students. Knowing the best place to buy your groceries, the most affordable places to lodge, and the quickest routes to places of interest will also significantly improve your standard of living and your level of fulfillment. Always remember that having your primary needs met as completely and efficiently as possible does have a bearing on your overall efficiency as an educator. Just imagine coming to work late and stressed by an energy-sapping ride on a rickety bus when you could have rented a decent place that is just a walking distance from the classroom and you’ll see why knowledge of the terrain is an indispensable advantage not only for military strategists but for peace-loving English language educators as well.

To recap, the foregoing tips represent a four-point check that compels you to 1) know yourself; 2) know the tools of your trade; 3) know your students; and 4) know the terrain. The check lets you assess your own motivation for and competency in teaching English as a second or foreign language. It also encourages teachers to appreciate the learning environment as well as their students’ own motivations for learning.

Surviving as an ESL or TFL teacher is a no mean feat. If you strongly believe you’re good on all the foregoing points, then you likely have what it takes to succeed as well.

By Michael G. Hines
About the Author
Michael G. Hines is an educator living in Thailand and the Founder of?Icon Group:
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