Teaching Abroad – In the Know Series: No. (1) Introduction to the Series

With the onrush of the new school year fast approaching, and with most people in this noble profession preparing to start—not to mention a still-constant stream of related questions from friends and Digital Traveller readers’ emails—the Team thought it was about time we start developing this string to our website’s bow. This sinew manifests itself in the form of our new thematically-linked blogs entitled: Teaching Abroad - In the Know. 

Basically, this series aspires to give you our best advice on how to get away—and back again—in one physical (and mental) piece.

So, here goes.

I first entered the ESL industry (Teaching English as a Second Language)--also know as TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language--after a series of low-paid jobs (post-university) that really (in my mind at least) didn’t live up to my potential and what I wanted to achieve in my life. I wanted more; I wanted experiences and to see new places; I wanted to tick things off lists.

In 2010, I took the plunge and became an ESL teacher.

For a good eight years, I’ve led a pretty good life living abroad (seven of which as an ESL teacher). In that time, a great many things have been ticked off several once-long lists. 

Over the course of nearly a decade, I’ve seen sunsets in South Korea, Cambodia, and Saudi Arabia; rode camels, donkeys, and elephants; explored ancient ruins at Petra, Angkor Wot, and Istanbul; seen the Norwegian fjords, biked the Arabian desert, and hiked to holy sites in Japan. I’ve sampled (some times too much!) local beer in Thailand, Japan, and Romania, as well as having ate some of the most amazing food in the winding streets of Belgrade, Amman, and Copenhagen. 

All told, I’ve been to more than 60 countries, lived in 13, and worked in 10. Each provided opportunities unique to those places, though, more often than not, it’s the eclectic, eccentric, adventurous, interesting, different, and sometimes likeminded people from all walks of life, cultures, and backgrounds that one meets that’s the most wonderful, enjoyable, rewarding, and memorable part of living, travelling, or working abroad. I’m happy to relate that some of experiences have included drinking raki with ex-Serbian soldiers; playing football with my Syrian and Jordanian colleagues in Saudi, and volunteering to help North Korean refugees. I even met my wife in South Korea. 

Many of these experiences and opportunities would have simply not be accessible to me had I not taken the plunge from old England all that time ago. It’s often the proximity to other foreign places, and sometimes the higher salaries in the ESL/TEFL world (particularly in the tax-free Middle East in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman) that provided the financial means (in nearly a dozen currencies) to travel, while the teaching profession often (though depending on country, institution, and contract) frequently gave me bags of time explore cultural gems, side-alley food stalls, and saunter to mountain summits. Working paycheque to paycheque on minimal wage for 50 hours a week wouldn’t have afforded these possibilities. Not that those jobs in the UK didn’t have merit: Those ‘wilderness years’ did resolutely endow me with the motivation to leave England behind and take my chances in a foreign land; I’m sure many who have taken a similar trajectory were motivated by many of the same drivers as I.

Honestly, my only regret is that I didn’t start teaching abroad at 22 straight after my MA degree rather than at 24. 

Well, great, you might think; nice story. The question that you probably want to know, however, is this: How do I get started?

This Teaching Abroad - In the Know series aims to provide a guide, a roadmap, if you will, from that first lightbulb instance when the teacher-traveller bug idea sinks its venomous fangs into your skin, to eventually coming home and telling your nearest and dearest about your time away. We’ll use our experience in different countries, learning institutes, cultures, and years of teaching to guide you through the palaver of your first interview, the often-times nightmarish visa process, getting your documents together, what to pack, vaccinations, arriving, those first few days, putting up with the insanity of foreign bureaucracies, helpful advice about doing the job (and career progression if you really like it!), as well as how to connect with others like you, and how to maximise your time away from Blighty, the States, South Africa, or a range of other distant lands. And so much more in-between from healthcare, to setting up bank accounts, learning the local lingo, and paying a bill. Basically, everything you need to know in one helpful blog series. 

There will also be several blogs centred on less fun, but reassuring themes: what to do if you hate it, getting out fast, and contacting your embassy, for instance. There'll also be blogs about integrating in a foreign land and all that entails. You may also have issues, questions, and problems about teaching English itself - I certainly did in my first year (mostly centred on my own weak knowledge of grammar when I started out,  and then other hurdles in how to teach it effectively). We’ll try to help in this respect with suggestions for external TEFL/ESL sites, as well as certain things from our own teaching repertoire. Staying motivated is an important aspect that should not be taken lightly. This too is a subject to be explored in this series of blogs.

And as we are a free site with no covert connections to other related businesses or enterprises, you know you can trust us. This, we think, will become more apparent as we add colour and detail not just to the fun stuff, but also to the mundane aspects of being oversees, as well as the various trials, and hardships of living and working abroad. In my personal experience, I suffered through intolerably slowly processed paperwork, cumbersome medical checks, bad bosses, mandatory events in languages I didn’t fully understand, nervous waits for bank transfers to clear, trying to get home (in a hurry), passport paranoia, sandstorms, dust storms, car accidents, radiated rain, possible outbreaks of war, threats of terrorism, and, of course, difficult, unmotivated students.  And so much more. While there may be some serious attempts to balance out the ‘cons’ with the ‘pros’ in this series, there certainly won’t be any sugarcoating. Afterall, part of the motivation for this series is to tell you like it is, providing honesty and making you aware of the dangers and pitfalls before flying 8,000 kilometres from your nearest airport.

While some of these things might sound worrying, through all of this, I survived for seven years in the industry. Sometimes, admittedly, I have failed; sometimes situations have felt insurmountable. But for every bad teaching experience, there are two good ones that even the negative ones out. The journey won’t be easy, but it certainly promises to be one of the most rewarding times of your life.

Embrace the challenge. Find the confidence in these blogs to take the plunge.

Over the space of the next few weeks, we’ll be outlining the series’ article publishing schedule, refining it into a logical tread that one can dip in and out of, or follow through over the course of the year. Provisionally, we aim to publish a new blog every Monday (depending on our small team’s time-constraints), ranging from a niffy 500 words to a more robust 2,000 for meatier subjects. In our next blog, Teaching Abroad - In the Know Series: (No.2) Getting Started, we’ll be looking, as the title suggests, at how to actually get the ball rolling, thinking about the sorts of questions you should be asking yourself (and perhaps potential employers). We’ll also provide an assemblage of links to job websites that we’ve successful used in the past. So don’t worry: The Digital Traveller has your back.

On the way, guest writers will share their experiences too, which provide unique insights and perspectives into this (mostly) wonderful world of TEFL. And if you, dear reader, are an experienced ESL teacher already, or indeed starting out on the path to become one, we’re interested to hear about your experiences—both the highs and the lows. So, please, do get in touch.

Thomas Dowling, on behalf of The Digital Traveller Team

August, 2018

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