Insider Tips from a TEFL Veteran

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Think that teaching English is a quick ticket to long-term travels? While it is a great way to explore other countries, it’s not quite that easy.

My long relationship with Italy—I studied the language for years, lived in Florence for a semester and took many trips back and forth—culminated when I married my Italian boyfriend. After permanently moving to the country, I found myself looking for work abroad.

The easiest and most logical option was to teach English as a second language, so I began by offering private lessons. However, it didn’t take long to realize that teaching English abroad takes more than just native language proficiency.

Over the last three years, I’ve taught business English courses, adult conversation classes and playtime English with children. Now, I’m settled into a full-time teaching position in a public elementary school. Here’s what I’ve learned that it takes to survive teaching abroad.

1. Grammar is more than just being a native speaker, and you need to know it.

I studied journalism in college. I use the conditional tense correctly, know all about pronouns and, if necessary, can write using words like “pejorative” and “salubrious.” Yet compared to Italians, I know nothing about grammar.A good teacher knows how important it is to be prepared, but a great teacher knows how necessary it is to remain flexible.

Americans’ English class is more like a literature class. Italians, on the other hand, study grammar every single year of their schooling. Not only does this help them understand their own language, it helps them to learn and understand other languages as well.

No matter how much you like to read and write, if you want to teach, you need to know your grammar. You need to know what each verb tense is called and when, exactly, each form is used. It’s common for a native English speaker to speak incorrectly, but you can’t teach that way. Correct yourself so you’ll know when to correct others. You can start by learning the conditional tense.

2. Flexibility is your only chance at survival.

A good teacher knows how important it is to be prepared, but a great teacher knows how necessary it is to remain flexible.

Teaching means constantly judging the state of the class to evaluate how fast or how slow to teach, where to stop, and where to diverge to help them grow. Some days your students will be too tired, too restless or too rowdy for your lesson plan to work, no matter how much you’ve prepared.

Don’t beat yourself up. Children—and even adults—are likely to zone out when they don’t understand. A lesson plan is vital but, as in travel, it’s just as important to know when to wander.

3. You won’t always be understood.

I’ve spent dozens of lessons miming an action over and over, only to be met by a sea of blank faces. You might be working hard, but sometimes the kids just won’t understand. That’s okay; learning another language is hard.

Your job is not to make them English superstars by the end of the lesson—it’s to get their ear used to another language, motivate them, help them to have fun and learn something new at their own speed. Keep at it, because eventually they will start to understand and all the frustrating moments will be worth it.

4. Schools are different everywhere.

Comparing everything with your own experiences is a natural human reaction, and a classic traveller (and teacher) mistake. As an example, the Italian elementary school where I currently work has two teachers per grade, no playground and a principal located in a separate building. It’s completely different than my elementary school experience back home in Columbus, Ohio. The classic threat to send a child to the principal isn’t going to work here.

Dwelling on the comparisons is not only a waste of time, it won’t help you survive your new teaching role. The sooner you adapt, the sooner you can meet the children at their level and help them to learn.

5. Children are children everywhere.

Besides my time teaching Italian bambini, I’ve taught children how to swim in the U.S. Midwest, played soccer with children in a Ghanaian orphanage and celebrated the New Year with children in Mexico. We might feel different from the adults we meet throughout our travellers, but from my time working with children in various countries there’s one thing I know for sure; kids are kids, everywhere.

Children throughout the world just want to play, smile, hug and be loved. Children throughout the world sometimes throw fits, cry, get sick and need help. Perhaps as adults we’re already filled with our own prejudices and experiences, but spend time with children and you can see that our humanity is universal.

6. You just might fall in love.

Maybe you started teaching to travel, to put off the “real world” or to experience something new, only to find that it required much more effort and care than you realized. Stick with it. One day you might realize how much you love the job.

Each time your students run to you with handcrafted notes that say, “I love English. I love you,” you might realize that it’s worth the effort. Each time your last-minute lesson plan is a success, you might realize how satisfying your job can be; and each time your students understand the lesson—responding with huge smiles—you might just realize that you’ve fallen in love.

I initially began teaching simply to have an income, but in the end I gained so much more. Teaching provided me with a firsthand look into the Italian culture, a sense of community and a fulfilling career abroad.

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Published in Work Abroad
Gina Mussio

Gina Mussio is an English teacher and American journalist living in Monza, Italy where she writes about travel, culture and food in Italy. Follow her @ginamussio.


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