How To Avoid These Mistakes When You Teach English Abroad
By Todd Persaud, Author, Musical Writer & TEFL Teacher
What the Teaching Experience is Like
Many students still want English teachers to speak slowly, clearly, and enunciate everything. They think this is the panacea for all of their troubles. But it is not. The teacher can only speak so much in a classroom. They can talk on and on and on but if the student is not studying on their own, then there’s no amount of speaking a teacher can do if they are not putting in their own work. And not just about repetition, but spaced-repetition, a trained focus that is sustained throughout the week.
These days, there is a lot of information on how to become a better student, especially in language. But what about becoming a better teacher and finding those students who are wholly prepared to take full advantage of your teaching? Hardly a book exists that speaks the No-BS version of this story. Most teachers think, “I’ll take whatever I can get,” or “I’ll take whatever job comes along first.” I think this is a terrible idea. It’s like dating when you don’t have any experience with the opposite sex outside your immediate family. Would you really do that to yourself?
Let’s face it, fellow teacher: Desperation doesn’t look good on you. It’s like a worn out moth eaten sweater at last year’s fashion show. Sooo last season, and full of holes.
Let’s talk about mindset for a moment.
Some Resources You Don’t Know that You Don’t Know
Learn How to Learn and Then Tell Your Students to Go Learn
One of the best books I have read on the subject of learning how to learn is A Mind for Numbers which teaches you how to “chunk” material and to use your imagination to make something more memorable. It also teaches “spaced repetition,” as opposed to just general repetition and the value of recall. This book is definitely memorable and it literally changed the way I did all of my lessons because it gave me a firm grasp of how people learn. It also showed me how to give the students more out-of-class work and to not feel guilty about it! Which my therapist is very happy about. Only 999 more issues to resolve.
If the students weren’t going to take the work home with them, tough. It’s on them.
It’s not my responsibility to somehow do a poltergeist and get inside of their heads and possess them like Linda Blair in the Exorcist. Minus the pea soup and rotating head. That might be fun.
Just what kind of English school warped by Hollywood would force a teacher to do something like this? Apparently many. Sadly I’m not Jack Black and the School of Rock is not real.
Bottom line: Learn to live with the fact that some problems are just not your own.
Resources for Learning Any Language
We all have different motivations for learning language. Some of us want to pass tests, others want to be able to date a foreigner, and still others desperately want to know where the bathroom is. Whatever your reasons are for learning English are completely divorced from what your student wants to learn about the language. Very frequently, the reasons students want to learn English have nothing to do with martyrdom or some kind of exalted expression of fascination for other people’s cultures. Most of us are creatures of habit and would prefer to stay in our own honeycomb. Which is great except even bees have to go into the world to retrieve the tools to build the honeycomb!
You can learn to make peace with this fact and gear information to suit the very real needs of your students. You can do this to such an extent that you get the students to be studying on their own and living without you. Trust me, this is giving more value in the long run.
But what if I am working myself out of the job?
That’s the point. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing. Last I checked, employees and employers are created on this earth to solve problems, not sustain them. In a weird twist of fate, the more you work yourself out of the job, the more valuable you are and the quicker you get to move on to the next level of your journey. Exciting, isn’t it? Confusing as well, right?
There are some great resources available for learning languages: Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner stresses the importance of pronunciation and learning word by word by word. Repetition is emphasised as well. Keeping flash cards and using the app software Anki is also recommended.
For very clear, totally watchable videos that you can give to your students, there’s Shayna’s Espresso English YouTube series and video courses which are worth their weight in gold. They stress pronunciation, culture, conversation skills, attentive listening, and vocabulary building. Courses are structured in a way that they’re fast and designed to give you only the most crucial information. And best of all? Shayna is patient, slow, soft-spoken, and easy to understand. You could easily give your students 99% of these videos and they will be good to go for at least six months without you.
I frequently refer people to her courses, here in Da Nang, because frankly that’s what people need. They don’t need me. There’s a video they can watch over and over again to get the good stuff, and if they feel lonely, they can talk to their parents or their friends from high school (yes, adult Asians still talk to their parents and friends from high school, and no it’s not just on Facebook).
But don’t you as the teacher miss human contact?
I do, but there are ways of doing it so that you get paid. So, would you rather have human contact without payment or human contact with payment? I rest my case, no one wants to touch anyone for free, at least that’s what the ladies keep telling me.
It’s up to you to define your worth as an English teacher, no one else can do it for you.
No one else will do it for you. You get to define your worth and value and if people aren’t willing to pay for it, well I guess they don’t really value you that much, do they? See how great money is in determining who your real friends are? Don’t you just love capitalism now? Now get some money from your friends just for you showing up. Did it work?
The Cambridge book series is a standalone achievement of the EFL industry par excellence. All of their books are worth reading at least once or twice and then integrating in whatever teaching environment you find yourself in.
Here are my personal favourites:
Incidentally, they also stress self-driven learning and this can be incredibly beneficial for you in getting the students to work for themselves. Famous ESL teacher Larry Ferlazzo has been stressing this for years, starting with his book Self-Driven Learning. And I could go on and on with these resources, but you get the idea.
There are so many resources to give to your students to get them to supplement whatever you would do with them that it just boggles the mind. There’s really no excuse these days for reinventing the wheel. You could spend your entire life just recommending stuff to people which is basically the story of my life thus far. Except I don’t have a TV show or web series, YET.
If you’re a teacher who is presently tutoring and taking on individual clients in another country, and find yourself complaining about the “type of students,” you get who cancel and complain and don’t pay a lot, you only have yourself to blame for that. One way you can fix this issue is by filtering your selection process a bit.
It’s called having standards. You don’t want to be going around town flaunting your filthy English to every peeping Tom and looking-Harry that passes by. You want to be slightly reserved, for Pete’s sake. And don’t show so much skin, you want an air of mystery as well.
Here’s a novel thought: If the students are really interested in learning English, have them buy their own materials to prove how serious they are. Here’s another one: make homework a requirement. And force as much of the independent work on the student as is humanly possible.
It’s Every Student for Himself
Like it or not, we are to a certain extent on our own with this journey, in our own minds, in our own worlds, creating our own stories, and the only person we really have to answer to is ourselves.
Marketing messages all around us will change and create different fixations in the minds of language learners, but if we want to be real with the people we work with, we will let them know that we are only willing to take people on who are sufficiently self-driven. Sufficiently self-driven. I’m not waxing lyrically here, this is a mandate for all teachers who keep private clients.
Ironically, I have found the harder I work, the less respected I get and the more the tables turn and the more I get blamed by people for working even harder. It’s a vicious cycle so just go with the flow, it’s less work and stress.
I’m not saying that you should intentionally disrespect your customers. I firmly believe the customer is always right, but I also believe you have to do a bit of target marketing to find the right customer for you. You can’t just take any student with a passing interest in English who wants to blame you for all of their problems. You’re not their Mom. Let her get blamed.
Success is an inside job, both for teacher and for student.
And I say it’s okay to fire your customers if they drive you insane and cause you to waste countless amounts of untold energy and time. I fire people all the time. Even relatives. And friends.
But what if I need the money?
My answer to this is that you will find the money when you can keep your energy on people who are deserving of your time and attention.
Many people grow up thinking money is in finite supply, they think in limited terms and they think that their gain is someone else’s loss. This is a scarcity mindset, and one that I don’t subscribe to. Sometimes I find myself dipping into the scarcity crack, but I quickly set myself straight and put Monkey Mind where he belongs (kudos to Dr. Maria Nemeth for thinking of the phrase “Monkey Mind!”).
There is so much money circulating in the world economy right now that’s it almost mind boggling. It’s like trying to count stars and then giving up on number #3. Most of us don’t want to think about it because it forces us to question our own decisions about how we torture ourselves. Continual Self-doubt voiced by your mother, anyone?
We don’t want to fess up to the fact that we wasted our own lives, that we didn’t use our own time wisely. But if you are reading this, and you keep private clients, you can start to make some changes that will help you find the right market for you.
But Teaching English isn’t About the Money…
This is what a lot of people say about almost any profession, even engineering. “Oh I just love engineering, it’s my personal passion!” And all of them are lying. Unless, it’s playing video games for money.
I agree, but most people would also agree with me that it’s about what the money can do for you that would make you a lot happier. It’s about what you can get with it and many people want to improve their circumstances, their lives with money, even if money isn’t the be-all-end-all of the equation. Donald Trump, anyone?
Look, teaching isn’t easy. There’s a lot that happens, in eyeball to eyeball contact, there’s a lot of being absorbed in another person’s world. It’s just draining. But you can literally reduce substantially all of the effort you put in your attention-giving by delegating and offshoring most of the work back onto the student while charging what you are worth! If you’re not worth that much, I’d say take a look at your marketing and see if that doesn’t change things.
Photo choices were inspired by Go Abroad’s Best Countries To Teach English In 2019
TEFL teacher by day, horror musical writer by night; Todd Persaud escaped the glamour and bright lights of New York City, in the pursuit of adventure, romance and some money to make it all possible.
For safety during his foreign adventures, Todd equipped himself with a M.A. in Forensic Psychology, a B.A. in Criminology and a MA in Applied Sociology. These along with his BFA from New School University gave Todd a fighting chance to deal with students in five different countries so far.
These colourful experiences and dry, yet helpful insights about teaching English abroad can now be enjoyed in his new book: The TEFL Re-education Program: Your Satirical Journey
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