Aside from playing a game of pretend teacher to an invisible class when I was seven years old, I had no real intention of being a teacher, much less of teaching English abroad.
Most people who teach English as a foreign language feel the same way; it’s a temporary way to live abroad and experience a different culture.
Even with my TEFL certification and bachelor’s in journalism, when I first arrived in Spain I had no idea what I was doing.
Being a native English speaker and trying to explain the difference between the past perfect and past perfect continuous (or insert some grammar rule here) are not the same thing. The imposter syndrome was real.
Nearly three years and countless classes later, I can confidently say that I am a good English teacher. I’ve taught business English to adults at a major Spanish bank. I’ve taught Chinese children online. I’ve taught a classroom full of preteens preparing for Cambridge exams.
Still, what would take me from a good teacher to a great one is a love of teaching, which I just don’t have. Teaching is a calling, and I have a hell of a lot of respect for those who have it. This year will most likely be my last.
But if you think teaching English abroad is just one big vacation in between jobs, then you’ve got it all wrong.
I’ve learned quite a few lessons from teaching English abroad that go way beyond the classroom, including some that have prepared me for my next job.
Patience is key
People are often surprised to find out that you don’t have to know a student’s native language to teach them English.
In fact, you’re often discouraged from directly translating for them.
Instead, teaching English relies on repetition, speaking slowly and using things like pictures and body language to help.
Adults might be more self-motivated students, but it can also be more challenging for them to absorb a new language. Kids might learn quicker, but you have to be creative to keep them engaged.
Every student is different and no two classes are the same, so having patience is crucial.
Learning is different for everyone
We take our native language for granted because we already know the rules and how to speak it.
But why do English speakers pronounce naked and baked differently? The way you say “read” changes the tense of the sentence. And let’s not forget that many European schools teach British English, where an eraser is called a “rubber.”
English is weird, y’all. Just because something comes naturally to you doesn’t mean it’s easy for someone else. (Again, this is where patience comes in.)
If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, you know that it’s incredibly humbling, which makes it easier to put yourself in your students’ shoes.
If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but I can try to find out.” My students have taught me almost as much as I’ve taught them.
Make a plan, but don’t always stick to it
Students can smell insecurity from a mile away. It’s important to have a lesson plan or outline prepared—otherwise a class can easily go haywire—as well as take into account different learning styles, types of activities and language objectives.
That being said, it’s equally important to be flexible.
Maybe an activity doesn’t go according to plan or the lesson’s timing was off. Expect the unexpected and go with it, but at least be prepared.
If you can manage kids, you can manage anyone
There’s nothing like managing a classroom full of kids to test your patience, people skills and ultimately, your sanity.
A piece of advice I heard oft-repeated from teachers was to start off strict and ease up from there. Teacher first, friend second.
Learning to juggle different personality types and establish classroom order is challenging, but once you’ve mastered it, you can work with anyone.
I can work independently or as part of a team
Teaching private classes—in my case, to adults and kids through a language academy—gives you a great deal of autonomy. You prepare and give the lesson on your own, often with little oversight.
On the other hand, working at a school—in my case, as a language assistant at a primary school—allows you to collaborate with other teachers. You talk through new ideas and class activities, and observe different teaching styles.
By switching up your teaching environment you can learn skills that are beneficial to just about any type of job or workplace.
My conversation skills are on point
A big part of teaching English as a foreign language is not only talking in front of people, but getting people to talk.
Speaking skills are so essential to learning another language, and many of my Spanish students struggle because they don’t practice speaking English on a regular basis.
After teaching for several years, I’m a pro at asking questions, eliciting thoughtful responses and engaging people in conversation. This has also helped my listening skills as I have genuinely enjoyed getting to know my students.
Teaching English as a foreign language might not be where my career is headed, but I definitely learned a lot of lessons that have prepared me for my next job.
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