Teaching ESL Abroad – It’s Just One Big Holiday, Innit?

I have always wanted to be a teacher. I’d like to say it started because I’ve always been passionate about education, but I reckon it started because I couldn’t imagine doing anything but spending every day in school. Of course, when I was in Reception, my education was less algebra and more sticking wool on egg cartons and making “my family” out of dried pasta shells, so perhaps I was misguided into thinking teaching would be a whole lifetime of doing crafts.

When I got to secondary school, I wanted to be an English teacher, and then I wanted to be a French and Spanish teacher, then I went to university, decided that I wanted nothing to do with teaching ever again and went to work in an office. Two offices actually, because I couldn’t hack the first. Or the second.

So, I went back to look at teaching. I looked at teaching in the United Kingdom, but I wasn’t ready to settle there just yet. Plus, my Russian was terrible (it’s still terrible, but less so) and I figured that having a degree in Russian might look better with the ability to actually speak Russian. Therefore, I set out on teaching English as a Second Language in Moscow.

“Oh but it’s not a real job is it?” some people assure me, “you just turn up and teach people how to say hello.”

Naturally, they are completely correct. Other than spending five minutes going over basic greetings, I actually spend my time milling about art galleries and drinking советское шампанское (I fucking wish).

ESL is not one long holiday and calling it so is frankly quite disrespectful to all the hard work we put in on a daily basis. If I tallied up the amount of hours I put in, much like a ‘real’ teacher, it would be way over the standard 40 hour working week. There are all the materials I create (which I enjoy), there are all the lessons I plan (which I enjoy), all the marking and travelling (which I don’t enjoy), and ESL teachers do all of this whilst not speaking the language of the students. You have to get to creative, you have to act out what you mean, as a last resort you have to pull up Yandex Translate and make sure that everyone is on the same page. Often, you don’t know what resources the school you’re teaching in will have, so I carry around a million pieces of paper because smart boards are rare and if they do exist often don’t work.

You have to be able to know your language inside out and explain to someone, who doesn’t speak English as their first language, the difference between zero, first, second and third conditionals, or delve into the intricacies of “narrow” vs. “thin”, you have to control a room of children in a language that you aren’t fluent in by telling them what to do in a language that they don’t know yet.

Everything is worth it; I love my kids because they are bizarre. Today I have had to search for a student’s “special pinecone” that she left in the classroom, in a later class, a student gifted me some plastic beads and they apply their own logic to things, and you can see where they’re coming from: I showed my children a picture of the Easter Bunny last week and they shouted out “EGG RABBIT!” which, quite frankly, is brilliant.

Of course, you may have heard of people who “just turn up” with no teaching qualifications and muddle through and have no real drive to teach at all. I’m sure you know someone or know someone who knows someone who rocked up to [insert country with amazing scenery and nightlife here] with no qualifications for six months and spent it travelling with a little bit of teaching sprinkled in. That’s cool, but that isn’t all of ESL. There are always going to be people who don’t give a rat’s arse about their job, and there are people who care so much that we spend hours upon hours designing flashcards and handouts and fun lessons so that our students are engaged and learning at least something.

ESL is different, like every job. We don’t spend it in an office, we spend it in front of students. We don’t avoid student loans (again, I fucking wish), we don’t have long summers off (in fact, I’m actually teaching somewhere else this summer) and we don’t go out drinking every night. Unless you want to get a) fired and b) teach a kindergarten class hungover, which is something I wouldn’t personally enjoy considering how loud they can get.

I adore my job, and I am so incredibly sure that this is the right path for me. I won’t be able to live in Russia forever, but ESL has shown me that I love teaching to such an extent that in the future I will be applying for a PGCE and continuing to teach. Hopefully abroad, because I don’t like to get too comfortable.

So, to sum up, if you hear someone say that ESL teaching isn’t a real job, please punch them in the gut for me, I would do it myself but I’m too busy at the moment.