One TESOL/ESL teacher's experiences in China, Poland, Germany, Greece, Taiwan, Czech Republic, and Switzerland.
When Andrew Girardin thought about what he wanted out of life, exploration was at the top of his list. After graduating from the University of Manchester UK with a Bachelor’s degree in Politics and Modern History, he embarked on a journey that started with teaching English in China and has taken him through thirteen years of teaching abroad in countries like Poland, Germany, Greece, Taiwan, Czech Republic, and Switzerland.
Girardin is currently still self-employed as an English teacher for other countries, but he has expanded his professional scope by starting a website, CAEexamtips.com that provides tips on how to study for the Cambridge Advanced Exam, a test that measures mastery of the English language and grammar. He also offers marketing and website keyword optimization for countries throughout the world who are looking to appeal to an English-speaking market.
Enjoy our full interview with Andrew Girardin, who gives his tips on living, learning, and teaching in a country foreign to his own.
People think I'm joking when I tell the story. After University, I took the first office job I could get. The work was actually quite fun and I was given a lot of responsibility early on, but the company had huge financial problems and there was no future there. I asked myself if I wanted to be stuck in that job until the company collapsed. Answer: no, thanks. As a kid I'd read countless true stories about people who went into the world and climbed mountains, discovered continents, planted apple trees, sailed the seven seas. I thought, 'Where's my adventure? At about the same time I saw the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I knew I had to go to China and drink tea in a bamboo forest. Teaching English was a way to have that adventure but with a company who'd pay me and deal with all the paperwork. (I'm told that the movie Hostel didn't lead to a boom in teachers going to Slovakia...)
One of the participants on my teacher training course had a sister who worked for one of the biggest chain schools. She came and showed us this hilariously bad video about one of their schools in China. It starred one of the teachers of that school who had obviously been told about the project ten minutes previously. Sample dialogue: "This is one of our corridors. The doors have round windows. We paint the walls blue because... Um, here's another classroom." It put me at ease about going there because the teacher (and the school) seemed down-to-earth and it was much more effective than some slick, over-polished production. The killer was that they offered six-month contracts - so if I hated it I'd only have to put up with it for half a year. On my second day in Shanghai I asked for a one-year contract instead - I loved it already. After that I looked at jobs on TEFL.com for inspiration, but in the world of TEFL you can decide where you want to live then find a position in that city.
For some countries you need to have a degree—it's a state requirement to get a visa. Most language schools would have much, much lower standards if they were allowed! The better schools will only hire people who have done a TESOL course (or CELTA). I did a five-week intensive course which included two weeks of teaching practice in Greece. I would strongly recommend such a course to anyone thinking about teaching abroad, even if you don't need it. Apart from the obvious practical applications, it was so intense that I made two lifelong friends. We've all bounced around the world teaching in different countries but we never lost touch.
There have been so many great experiences and memories that choosing one is like naming your favorite movie—it's really a question of 'which of your top ten movies pops into your head right now.' There was the time three Japanese students performed a tea ceremony for me. There was the student in Poland where I would ask him a question at the start of class, and he would then talk for a whole hour, and whatever the starting topic was, the last half-hour would be him ranting about Stalin.
There was the substitute class which contained a stunning businesswoman. I tried showing off by saying that if I had a son I'd name him Agamemnon. The male businessmen said, “Huh? What kind of name is that?” Before I could say “You know, that guy from that movie,” the woman said, “He was the father of Iphigenia, Laodike, Orestes, and Chrysothemis.” Wow. And some of my favorite moments (in retrospect) were things that went wrong. Like when I was in a rush and needed cash from an ATM. The Chinese woman at the front of the line was typing away for at least four minutes. When I lost patience and tried to see what she was doing, I realized she was trying to withdraw 1,700 RMB. But she was doing that by typing 1,000 and then typing 700. Since she didn't have 1,000,700 in her account, the machine naturally refused to process it. She'd never used an ATM before! It was mind-blowing to live in a city that looked like New York but where the inhabitants were still learning about modern life. In the moment I was angry, but soon after I was grateful for the experience.
Teaching is a people-based business and people are weird, annoying, and difficult. To complicate matters even more, it turns out that I am also weird, annoying, and difficult. And just to spice things up ever so slightly, the English language is weird, annoying, and difficult.
The absolute best thing you can do for your career as a teacher (and for life in general) is take some sort of Emotional Intelligence course. It transformed everything I do in class. Now I know immediately which students don't understand the material, which students hate each other, when students are too tired to absorb new things. Being able to solve problems before they happen is priceless!
Second, whatever you want the students to do, do it before class yourself first. It'll help you teach the material, anticipate which problems the students will have, and help you give clear instructions.
Third, if you're teaching adults, think about how much of your personal life you're willing to talk about in class. A lot of teachers I've met don't want to talk about their private lives whatsoever. But I've always been very open and got a lot back in return. For example, when a class is starting to get bored of whatever grammar we're studying, I'll complain that my girlfriend wants to go to IKEA with me for the first time and ask for survival tips. Then when the energy levels are high again we'll continue the 'real' lesson. This attitude has enriched my experience. I've had students setting me up on blind dates with their friends, business opportunities, being invited to housewarming parties, etc. Having said that, you should be sensible - even I picked up a stalker.
Pay is an important factor - your TEFL job will certainly be the lowest-paid work you ever do. Normally your salary will be enough to let you live very well by local standards, but you won't be able to save to travel to other countries. (If you need to pay off student loans, you're stuck with a handful of frankly undesirable destinations). Once you've mastered the basics of classroom management and teaching grammar, the work is fairly undemanding and you will be able to work in any country you want. Since I started teaching abroad I've spent many pleasant hours spinning globes and daydreaming about where I wanted to live next. How about Italy... or Vietnam... or Colombia... or...?
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