I taught my first ESL class in Slovakia five years ago this spring, and it almost amazes me how clueless I was that day. For one, I was completely unprepared;
I had never stood in a classroom with my back to the blackboard, trying to keep a classroom full of twelve-year-olds entertained through a mix of learning and dated Saturday Night Life references with enough stern glares at the troublemakers to keep the kids in check. I had no idea that teachers generally walk into class with a plan made up ahead of time. Instead, I filibustered, speaking furiously about whatever topics came into my mind until the head teacher came and told me that it was time for lunch.
Five years on, I’ve learned a lot from that experience, mostly that it was wholly unnecessary. I made the mistake of many travelers who decide to fund their trip by teaching: I failed to see my inherent value. As a native English speaker, I’m a prized commodity, but just like all commodities, be they diamonds or coal, there are people out there who want to take advantage, and you need to be careful.
First, consider who you want to work for. Generally, as with all things, this means one of two choices: someone else, or you. If you work for someone else, don’t make the same mistake I did. I didn’t vet my employer properly, and didn’t hold his feet to the fire when he failed to come through on the training he had promised me before we met. Had I done so, I would have known about his terrible reputation, and I wouldn’t have had that awful first experience. Working for someone else can make your life easier, but if you don’t force them to respect and value you, they will take advantage of you.
Working for yourself has its advantages. You can make your own hours and set your own rates, which means that the sky is nearly the limit if you know how to hustle. The disadvantage of working for yourself is the uncertainty of working with individual clients. People might promise to meet regularly, but then cancel unexpectedly week after week. Also, you lose out on the legal coverage that comes with working for a school; self-employed ESL teachers often have to register their businesses with the authorities and apply for special visas, all of which can be hard to come by in many countries.
In the end, my ESL career has been a successful one, having allowed me to travel to and live in 6 different countries while living a life I never could have imagined before I started. At the same time, I’ve seen the dangers of the ESL life, and what easy prey teachers can be for unscrupulous schools. Just remember: you hold the cards. If you aren’t happy with your arrangement, you have an entire world full of opportunities. TEFL is one of the few professions left that is borderless, and that is incredibly empowering.
Jay Malone is a University Study Abroad Consultant and an ESL teacher. He currently lives and works in Cologne, where he moved to complete his MA in Political Science. His internal travel compass always points to the steppes of Central Asia, and he is currently plotting his next trip to Kyrgyzstan. You can find out more at eighthoursandchange.com or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jay Malone (@JMMalone2305) www.eighthoursandchange.com