Secret Agent: Present Continuous

Written by  Troy Nahumko August 10, 2009

Veteran English teacher Troy Nahumko launches a four-part series of TEFL Reality Talks with a few tips to help you dodge the fiasco factor.

Flying into Tripoli International Airport, even the most experienced traveller gets a thrill seeing the endless Saharan sands encroach upon the thin strip of green that hugs the coast of Africa.  My thrill quickly turned to butterflies as I remembered that I was here to teach and I didn't have a visa.  I'd been contracted by a British university to work in the Libyan Ministry of Tourism and, already a month late, I was landing with a blurry fax in hand stating that my visa was waiting at the airport.

TEFL teachers have their fair share of horror stories, rivalling those of spies and journalists—perhaps because some double as both.  With worldwide demand for English teachers at an all time high, thousands of people around the world are getting off planes asking themselves, “What next?”

Elbowing my way into the visa line in Tripoli, I pondered the many times I'd done this before—usually coming into countries on tourist visas and getting work permits later, a very common practice in the TEFL world.  But here in Libya, tourist visas did not exist unless you were with an expensive guided tour.  I handed the customs officer my fax and he uttered a derisive chuckle.  He directed me to a dingy room, where his superior informed me that I would be returning to the U.K. on the same plane.

This is an extreme case, but it's one of the many things that can happen when you accept that terrific sounding job you've found on the internet.  How do you avoid such fiascos?  In the first part of this on-the-ground series covering the practicalities and realities of teaching English abroad, let's look at some things to consider before your trip to the airport, before you even start negotiating.

Where do you want to go and why?  An honest answer to this question can help you focus your search for a job.  Is your aim to support yourself while learning Spanish in South America?  Are you headed to Japan or the Gulf in order to pay off your student loan or save some cash?  The Gulf countries usually offer higher paying jobs, but in a restrictive social environment.  South East Asian jobs offer the chance to live a holiday lifestyle, but with longer working hours and reduced opportunities for saving money.  Teaching in Europe often involves 30 hour weeks—when you add planning time, you may find yourself doing very little sightseeing other than the morning commute.  Who would you like to teach?  Teaching children in Japan or Taiwan is a completely different experience from working with adult employees in Dubai or Muscat.

Averil Bolster, Training Manager at the Bell Vietnam Training Centre in Ho Chi Minh City counsels:  “A common myth is that there's easy money to be made in some countries.  Teaching English overseas can be a great job, but if you're in it for the money, you'll never be satisfied with your current position or the next one.  It's like chasing that elusive pot of gold.”

After deciding where to go, think about who you want to work for.  Bigger schools generally offer more security, at the cost of lower pay and a more sterile expat environment.  Lesser-known local schools, whose profits are more likely to stay in the country, offer less security, but usually more contact with the people.  Often the best local schools have such good reputations that they don't need to advertise online for teachers.  A good way to find out about these schools is to search through ESL forums online, bearing in mind that most people post because of negative experiences, even if they are the great minority.

TEFL teachers have their fair share of horror stories, rivalling those of spies and journalists—perhaps because some double as both.

Ask the school as many questions as possible before you get on a plane and even then, expect the unexpected.  Remember that the people you are dealing with in-country, no matter how jaded they have become, have all been in your situation.  An extra e-mail or two can save a lot of hassle later on. Managers even appreciate a few extra questions as it shows your awareness that things will be different on the ground.  If you are set on a specific destination, especially off the beaten path, sometimes it's worth taking a chance and heading off, CV in hand, to knock on doors and investigate the situation firsthand.

If you choose to accept a job before going, make sure you get some sort of contract signed even if it's hardly worth the paper it's printed on.  Contracts can be handy later if things don't turn out as promised.  Be aware that “single accommodation” may be interpreted as your own bedroom in a shared flat;  “cultural excursions” can translate into having to give free conversation classes.  Be sure the contract states the maximum "contact hours" you will be expected to teach, how many days off a week and whether they are consecutive, how much and in which currency you'll be paid, who you report to in case of a problem, and whether you're expected to perform any duties other than teaching.

Teaching English abroad can be one of the best ways to really get to know a country and more importantly its people. Simply travelling through a place, you generally only meet those involved in the tourism industry and your contact with the local people is scant at best. Ian Peart, In-Country director of Language Solutions in Baku, Azerbaijan reminds us:  “Be prepared to teach and be eager to listen and learn from your students and their culture.” Through teaching, you have the chance to develop very personal relationships with your learners, who can offer invaluable insights into a country's culture and people.

Later in this series we'll take a closer look at the day to day realities of different living and teaching situations in various in-the-way and out-of-the-way places around the world.

So, what became of me in Libya?  To buy time, I hid in the bathroom, where a British Airways attendant found me and firmly ushered me onto the shuttle bus back to the plane.  Halfway there, an army jeep roared up and swung in front of the bus; then a bevy of soldiers clambered on board and led me back to the airport.  My visa had materialized and Secret Agent Present Continuous was to teach after all.

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