Is teaching ESL abroad worth the ESL?
October 23, 2011 1:29 PM   Subscribe

Looking for input from anyone with teaching abroad experience and (ideally) an interest in teaching English lit on their experiences with the differences. Mainly concerned with the perceived difference in general teaching environment between teaching adults in language schools abroad vs. teenagers in regular schools. Given that you're interested in literature and writing rather than the nuts-and-bolts of grammar and speech, is it possible to be happy teaching abroad as a recent college grad with only tutoring experience?

I'm think I want to teach English at the HS level (with some ifs, ands and buts), and my ultimate plan is to get an English MA or MAT degree or certification and go from there. I'm a college senior right now, and I'm thinking of taking a year or two off to teach English abroad-- I feel a bit overwhelmed with 3 consecutive years of school and unsure which grad school program feels right. I was considering getting a job or internship at an independent school somewhere in the US, but would prefer to spend my 'gap year(s)' abroad if possible.

Note: I went to grammar school in Moscow, so I'm somewhat familiar and comfortable with traditional European schooling. However, I am wondering if the difference between teaching ESL and teaching literature is going to be a problem for me, interest-wise (and thus motivation-wise). I am also concerned that to teach English literature abroad, I would need teaching experience (which I don't have) and ESL certification, which I would also need to get.

Since my interest in teaching lies in facilitating discussion and literary analysis (as well fostering the students' writing skills to a more advanced level), teaching basic skills and conversational English has little innate appeal as an idea. However, I'm not sure if this is a serious stumbling block or not. I am sure to really enjoy the atmosphere in both Central/Eastern Europe and Japan (if that's where I end up), as I am familiar with both cultures. I like teaching writing as such even at a lower level (though I'm still not interested in conversation tutoring, I'm hoping I can get a different focus in my potential job).

Basically, I'd really rather not teach adults over college age or elementary-aged children, and though I'm open to a language school setting, I'd prefer a regular school. I'm not sure whether paying $1,500+ to get a sponsored teaching abroad program where they refer student-teachers to a placement is worthwhile. There's even an option of apprentice-teaching English lit in Ireland as a paid academic program, for instance. Basically, I am concerned that the type of teaching I really want to do abroad is unreachable for me at this time if I want to earn rather than spend money especially.
posted by reenka to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, all I can provide is anecdata, but I will say that as an English teacher in the Japanese public school system, I got to do nothing along the lines of "facilitating discussion and literary analysis". I didn't really get to do teaching of any kind. I was mostly a walking tape recorder, there to provide a native accent and speech pattern. Admittedly, I was at the middle school rather than high school level, but my friends who taught high school said that it worked more or less the same for them. I also taught an adult class that I enjoyed rather more because A) I got to teach it my way and B) the students *actually wanted to learn English*. Most high school kids didn't really care about learning English, whereas students in a private program generally do.

I will note that the adult program was somewhat unusual. The more traditional Nova type programs are very locked down in terms of curriculum.
posted by tau_ceti at 2:03 PM on October 23, 2011

If you want to teach literature and have discussions, you should just get into a high school classroom. There are few experiences abroad where you can teach English literature - the closest I know of is a friend who taught drama in Lebanon for a few years. But that was a job she searched for and couldn't find for years...and she had a teaching credential, a MA in teaching, and about 20 years experience teaching in high school.

Get into the classroom and see if you like it - if you don't, then commiting to a year overseas where you'll be stuck there just seems like a bad decision.

Basically, it's possible, but not likely for you to find that kind of job. Get an intern credential here and get into the classroom while doing your credential at night. Memail me if you want more info (that's how I did it, and this is my 8th year teaching English to high schoolers).

Then after getting some experience, they'll be more likely to hire you for the few jobs where you could teach English literature overseas.
posted by guster4lovers at 3:15 PM on October 23, 2011

Again, anecdata:
I'm teaching at a Foreign Language High School in Korea and I have a LOT of leeway in what constitutes a lesson. I'm given the opportunity to be a fair bit more than just a walking tape recorder. However, even with my freedom (and I have a lot more than my friends who teach in non-foreign language focused elementary, middle, and high schools) I have a limited ability to teach writing (I'm only able to really teach writing to a TOEFL focused night class). As a native English speaker in a Korean school, your value is seen in your speaking and conversation ability, and even my pretty high level students don't have the ability to speak about literature and writing with a great degree of nuance. I think teaching abroad is a wonderful opportunity, and I really enjoy my work. But, I think if you're sure that you'd be absolutely miserable teaching the nuts and bolts of grammar and conversation, then teaching abroad (at least as far as my experience in Korea goes) may not be what you're looking for.
posted by FakePalindrome at 3:38 PM on October 23, 2011

check your mefi mail.
posted by gursky at 3:56 PM on October 23, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the input thus far! While I'm aware no one can tell me what I'd like, the fact remains that even I don't know (and am not sure) whether "teaching the nuts and bolts of grammar and conversation" would be fun for me or not, which is why that was sort of a side question. I may find out a little more, since I signed to help middle-schoolers at the Boys and Girls Club do more basic English HW stuff (or not).

To wit, what's the attraction (especially if you like English) in teaching the basic stuff? How do you approach it so as to keep your interest? Is it simply seeing your students progress (which is important to me)? I keep thinking there's a chance I could simply, well, enjoy something I wasn't expecting to, or even view this as 'just a job' that gives me room to enjoy Hungary, do independent folklore research, travel, etc.

As a side-note, I'm definitely a native-level but not actually native (that is, born) English speaker, so maybe this puts the final nail the coffin, not sure.
posted by reenka at 4:03 PM on October 23, 2011

Would you be willing to go back to Russia? There are opportunities to teach in schools, and also to make much more money on the side tutoring business execs. Your Russian language abilities would be an asset, too.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:23 PM on October 23, 2011

Keep in mind that ESL is such a diverse industry to get into, it's hard to generalize what you'll be doing. But if you are involved in any sort of cram school or private after-school academy (common in Japan, Korea, Taiwan among others), you'll likely not be doing anything even close to teaching literature. I did a little bit of this kind of teaching in China, and frankly hated it. I felt it was largely a waste of time for everyone involved. I occasionally was able to do real teaching in small group extra-curricular activity which was fun and rewarding, but this was definitely more the exception than the rule. The lifestyle was pretty great though, I gotta admit.
posted by skewed at 7:19 PM on October 23, 2011

I too would have loved to teach analysis/composition and ended up teaching basic English (in North America, not abroad). The grammatical grunt work? It felt like I was the captain of a rowing team -- when everyone in the class was rowing together, trying to understand the concept or practice it or whatever, it was great. But then there would be those days when everyone was rowing in different directions. The smartypants group wanted All The Answers To English Grammar (OMG, -ing versus infinitive after a modal, major controversy) and the other 60% of the class would be scratching their heads, "Uh, what does 'verb' mean again?"

So I guess it depends on whether it's the literary discussion that gets you excited about teaching or whether it's your students' "ah-ha" moments that get you excited about teaching -- given that those moments might breakthroughs in pronoun use ("'he' for man, 'she' for woman! I understand!" "YES!!!") or breakthroughs in understanding the symbolism of some poem.

That said, there are some really cool things that you can do with scaffolding and analysis and discussion at a low-intermediate to intermediate level. It's pretty neat when they try to discuss "This is just to say" by William Carlos Williams. But I guess you'd need a lot of autonomy in the classroom, and willing students, to be able to introduce stuff like this.
posted by bluebelle at 9:17 PM on October 23, 2011

fakepalindrome's comment is pretty good. I was an English teacher at a Korean foreign language high school for four years, and it was great. I still do AP Lit prep, even.

There are fantastic jobs out there for what you want, but many of them will require a particularly impressive education background, credentials, experience, or all three.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:40 PM on October 23, 2011

I teach ESL at a second-tier Korean college, so no literary analysis. But if you got a job at a higher end school you could probably teach some literature, or work some literature into your curriculum.

But -- a) I got my job because I have an MA in English and b) Korean colleges will generally only hire you if you're already in the country, i.e., you've been working in a kindergarten academy.

I taught high school English for a few years before I came here and I'll be honest -- try to make high schoolers give a fuck about Holden Caulfield's personality crises is not something I miss, nor going home with a stack of 100 five-page essays.
posted by bardic at 12:11 AM on October 24, 2011

In Malaysia English Literature is an option for the national Form 5 exams, but there are hardly any people that teach it. Sometimes if your school didn't offer the subject you could go find a tutor elsewhere and sit the exams for it anyway. I would have died to have you anywhere near my town when I was a teenager - you would have to follow the national curriculum, but considering its approach to English is kindy-level we probably could blaze past everything and really get into English Lit.
posted by divabat at 1:23 AM on October 25, 2011

I've taught at the university level in China, and at just about every level in Japan, and lit is just not a part of it. Outside of classes for returnees (Japanese children who have lived overseas and speak English at near native levels), I've never been really able to teach more than basic reading skills (critical thinking, making inferences) and even that only with my most advanced students. Hell, I'm actually teaching at one of the top junior high schools for English in my prefecture, and after three years, students are just. Beginning to read basic stories and answering simple fact questions about the reading.

Outside of returnee programs and international schools, most EFL I've been involved with has been more at the basic skills and communication level, and most jobs seem to be focused on that level, outside of very, very high level institutions. Most children learning English are doing so to pass exams, and most adults studying English are doing so either for work opportunities or to make overseas travel easier.

Don't get me wrong, it might be possible, but the competition for those jobs is high, and that means employers can set high requirements (masters or above, certification for teaching high school).

More simply, I used to dream of teaching my students to read and write poetry. Now it thrills me when they finally master the 'be' verb.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:04 AM on October 25, 2011

To wit, what's the attraction (especially if you like English) in teaching the basic stuff? How do you approach it so as to keep your interest? Is it simply seeing your students progress (which is important to me)?

Full disclosure: I've been the English teaching business for over a decade, but don't teach very much any more, having moved onto better-paid areas of ELT. However, I loved teaching the basics and not only because of the sense of progress and gratitude, great though that was.

There's a real mental challenge in planning lessons for a class, taking into account their different strengths and weaknesses, what they learned last time and where the course is going. There's a different, but equally enjoyable challenge when you throw all that out the window and improvise a new lesson because the students have to give a report to their boss next week and beg you to help them improve their presentation skills.

I find language itself terribly interesting and also finding ways to describe its complexity in a way that makes sense to people for whom it seems unintuitive and then finding further ways to help them internalise that understanding.

Finally, for a perfectionist procrastinator like me, teaching has the great advantage that when class ends, it's over. You do your best in that 90 or 60 minute slot and when it's over, you are finished. (Well, apart from dealing with homework, writing up the register and starting to plan the next lesson.)

I should point out that my enjoyment in teaching was almost certainly down to working in a school which took in-service development very seriously, which is not the norm. The support and training I received helped me take pride in doing a good job and feel my teaching was improving, despite many, many mistakes.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 6:45 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

« Older compromised site loses favorite recipe   |   Sources for figuring out what's on in London Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.