Crapping the Bed (Your First Class)

So you’ve got a new class and you, a budding new teacher, show up hours early and painstakingly prepare a kickass lesson chock full of fun activities. You’re scared you don’t have enough to do, so you plan things down to the minute just to make sure every last moment is accounted for. You’re nervous, palms are sweaty, vomit on your shirt already (mom’s spaghetti), but your well-designed lesson plan is your road-map to see you through so you don’t get lost in the weeds.

You walk into class and find two dozen faces staring at you. 48 eyes watching your every movement. You say hello. One returns the greeting while the others just sit there impassively. They’re nervous too, but you don’t know that yet and it doesn’t seem to matter because now you’re starting to panic since their silence would seem to indicate that they must be judging you. Somewhere deep in the recesses of your mind, a seed of doubt sprouts.

You make your way to the teacher’s desk to drop your bag and get things ready. You take out a book, put it back, take it back out again. You shuffle a few papers, pretending to look through them. You fumble a marker because you’re clumsy when you’re nervous. [New teachers ALWAYS drop something.] This teacher’s desk is your safe space, your island in rough, uncharted seas. And now you’re just killing time so you don’t have to leave it. But leave it you must.

You walk over and take your place at the front of class.

“Hello, my name’s Todd (of course that’s your name). How are you guys today?”

You’re answered with silence. You swallow a pit of fear and feel cold beads of sweat forming on your brow. You decide to single a student out in the front row.

“Hi. How are you today?”

Front row student stares at you wide-eyed, then turns to another student nervously with a look that seems to say ‘what the fuck is this guy on about?’ He smiles awkwardly but never replies. Screw it, you think. Let’s do an activity.

“Ok, guys. I’d like to get to know you a bit better so let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. Can you maybe tell me your name, age and what you like doing in your free time?”

Silence.

“Okay?”

Now heads are turning, looking for someone to break this thick gauze of what-the-hell-is-happening.

“Can we start with you?” you ask, indicating a woman in a green shirt. Green shirt lady’s eyebrows perk up in perfect arches of incomprehension and no-fucking-way. “Come on, guys. Someone. Anyone. Bueller?” Of course they’ve never seen the film and your stupid joke falls flat but you laugh anyway to hide your growing exasperation. Your emotions fluctuate between humiliation and annoyance. Growing desperation looms over your thoughts.

What the hell is wrong with you guys. Say something.

But your students look like this:

deer in headlights

And you do too, you just can’t see it. But you feel it. Your exasperation nurtures that seed of doubt in your mind, and though you’re only minutes into what was supposed to have been a brilliant lesson, that doubt begins growing and pokes through the soil as conscious thought: what in God’s name was I thinking? 

Yes, this is what it feels like to crap the bed. The bad news is that you can’t uncrap it. Your students have already seen quite clearly that you have no idea what you’re doing. The good news is that you’re not alone. Nobody’s first class comes without a certain amount of incontinence, so you don’t need to go home and slit your wrists. The key thing is to roll with it. Handle yourself with a sense of humor and a modicum of poise and your class will forgive you. Lose your cool and all bets are off.

More importantly, recognize that this is a moment of truth. Lesser teachers (and there are no shortage of them) will mosey into the teacher’s room nagging about how horrible their students are, how they can’t do anything. Well of course they can’t, you naggots (not actually a word, but you get it), that’s why they’re in a classroom.

The best among you will look at this moment as an opportunity for self-reflection. What happened? What did I do wrong? How can I improve? If these are your thoughts, then first thank your parents for raising a well-adjusted human being. There aren’t enough of them or you in this world. Second, go home and cringe as you relive your failure over and over again, wondering what happened. Maybe have a long, cliched stare in the mirror.

So what did go wrong? That’s the easy part. Without having seen you teach I can tell you exactly what happened. How could I possibly know that? Because every single teacher makes the same mistake. I did. We all did. Remember, nobody craps the bed alone.

It starts the moment we open our mouths.

 

 

The Classroom

Congratulations. Somebody actually hired you. You’re well on your way to becoming an actual human being rather than just some basement-dwelling, parasitic slob living off your parents. I didn’t think you had it in you.

Perhaps you’re already in country. Have you seen your school yet? Toured the facilities? Been in a classroom? The equipment and facilities in the TEFL world are so varied that a (boring) book could be written about all the configurations. Suffice it to say that while you can change your lesson and activities, it’s much harder to change the equipment you’re given. You can only work with what you’re given and what works in one classroom may not work in another.

Blackboard or Whiteboard?

Why anyone would use a blackboard when there’s such a thing as a whiteboard boggles my mind. There’s literally nothing you can do on a blackboard which you can’t do on a white except perhaps break your writing utensil and leave cocaine-like piles of dust scattered around the area. Whiteboards aren’t only cleaner, they’re also decent media for your projector, so if you’re working off interactive software, you can use a market to write answers, highlight, underline, circle…basically everything you’ll want to do in the program.

How big is the room? How many desks?

The games and activities you plan are constrained by class and classroom size. Do you want a mingle activity? A board race? What if there’s physically no room? Can you move desks outside the classroom? Do you have enough space to move desks for pair and group work? You’ll need to see your facilities before planning a lesson.

thai-school-class

Google images says the above image is a Thai classroom but I suspect it might be Burmese due to the shit (thanaka — a sandlewood paste) on their faces. Regardless, the above classroom isn’t atypical for the region. If you find yourself with such a setup, first slap yourself in the face for signing up for that, then quit your job and head to a real school. I jest, but in all seriousness, many teachers make such classrooms work. Just know that all the fun and games you’ll want to play are limited by the physical space.

modern classroom

That’s more like it. In the classroom above you’re limited only by your imagination. Need small groups, pair work, or maybe you need the floor wide open? No problem, just move the desks into whatever configuration suits the purpose. The flexibility afforded by the facilities here gives you far more latitude and creativity in terms of lesson planning. The room probably even has air-con so you needn’t worry about sweating through your shirt and bogging out the class with your rancid onion body odor.

The point (which I’m belaboring so even you can grasp it) is that form (facilities) dictates content (activities). So do yourself a favor and make sure you know what you’re (literally) walking into.

Scam City.

So you think you’re ready to take the plunge. You’ve got your crisp new passport with nary a visa inside. You’ve got a country chosen. You even managed to grasp the impenetrable depths of an online TEFL certification. Look at you, big shit, thinking you’re on top of the world. Hold your fuckin horses.

Have you done your research? I mean, really done it. Have you talked to teachers working at a school you’ve got your eye on? Have you talked to administrators? I’m not trying to scare you, I’m just watching your back to make sure you don’t fly to China only to end up bound and gagged in a tub of ice water with stitches where your kidneys used to be. Joking.

The world of ESL is littered with the remains of teachers who were chewed up and spit out by unscrupulous schools who said whatever you wanted to hear to get your dumbass into their classroom. Not a few of these scams, unsurprisingly, come from China where it’s not just products that are fake, but also classrooms and Apple stores along with the employees working inside. Not joking.

Generally, scams can be sniffed out by anyone with even a rudimentary bullshit detector. But I know you, dear Millenial. Perhaps the peach fuzz on your upper lip is keeping the sour stench of lies from reaching your nose. Well bust out the wax because we’re about to get raw.

Pertinent questions to ask:

  1. How many contact hours per week? How many hours are you required to be at the school?
  2. Is there homework and/or exams to be marked?
  3. Are lesson plans required for submission?
  4. What is the max class size?
  5. Can you see some pictures of the facilities?
  6. Does the school have a photocopier?
  7. How often do you get paid? What’s the tax rate and who’s responsible for paying it?
  8. How long are the lessons?
  9. What materials are provided for the lessons? Are there books or are you meant to design your own curriculum?
  10. Do you have access to a computer/projector in the classroom? How will you conduct listening lessons? On a tape deck? (If yes, fucking run).
  11. What benefits do you get for signing a year contract? Health insurance? Housing? Meals? Be specific.
  12. Can you talk to a teacher currently working at the school? (Tough to lie your way through this one.)

Finally. And this is really important so make sure it gets through your thick skull. Never, ever, forever never does the school ever need your fucking passport except to get you a visa. Don’t give it to them because they want it ‘just because’. If you’re getting a visa, fair enough. If it’s for any other reason, well, enjoy your ice bath.

Where should I go?

Maybe you’re in the grips of a debilitating depression (I would be too if I were a young Millenial with no path forward).  Maybe you hate your wife and job and have finally decided to take a pro-active role in your mid-life crisis. Or maybe you just want to see the world. Whatever your situation, you’re finally ready to take the plunge and go abroad. The question, of course, is where to go.

The good news is that most countries don’t speak English. Close your eyes and spin the globe and you’ll probably land on a country where you can teach. Hell, you can even teach English in your home country to immigrants and refugees, though as of early 2018 the immigrant market in America is decidedly precarious, especially for those from executively-described shithole countries. Far better is it just to go to the shithole directly. That’s really what this is about, anyway — seeing the world.

Some people choose their country based on lifestyle. Love the Latin languages and lifestyle? You have almost the entirety of South America at your disposal. Want to live like Hemingway in the 20s? Head to Europe for a bohemian lifestyle. Want to give something back to the world? Go to Africa and volunteer.

Or maybe you’re in it for the money. No shame in that. Most are. If so, you’ll probably want to start in Asia. Thing thing about Asia is that there are lots of Asians. I mean, lots. The market is is vast and varied, almost overwhelmingly so. And most Asian cultures place a premium on education. Your typical East Asian, Confucian-influenced families would give up food for education if that were the only available option (only a small hyperbole). Think Korea (the sane one), China, Japan and Vietnam.

There’s also Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia which rank high on popularity but just under the above countries in terms of salary. Thailand in particular is a sought-after destination, offering world-class food on the cheap and no shortage of ridiculously beautiful islands for travel. Of course, the popularity of these countries means schools can offer lower salaries and benefits since there’s always a well-stocked pool of teachers willing to make a pittance for the lifestyle.

So what can you expect to make? And what benefits? It really is location dependent and how good you are at sussing out the right school/situation.

In Thailand, for example, you can expect to start out at between $1000-1,500 a month with the school offering accommodation whereas it wouldn’t be difficult in Korea to find work for double that. Again, much of it is how much research you do and how well you sell yourself. Join expat groups on Facebook, email schools, find teachers working at those schools and email them. No school should shy away from referring one of their teachers to you as a contact.

It’s increasingly common to hire teachers directly from the home country. There’s an interview done via Skype or Facetime, then an offer (or not, if you’re the awkward loser I think you are). This might be the best way for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable just turning up and going job hunting. Often these schools can help arrange visas and work permits before you come which makes things (relatively) hassle free.

The Mecca of ESL, however, is in the Middle East. From Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates, the highest-paying jobs can be found (not coincidentally) where oil is found. The living and teaching environments can vary widely, whether it’s living on a compound in Riyadh or a luxury apartment in Dubai. These jobs tend to go to the highest qualified and most-experienced ESL teachers, those who have done the job so long they’ve had no choice but to make a career out of it. Most of these jobs are salary-based with paid accommodation and flights home, the drawback being of course that you have to live in the Middle East.

In all these locations, you’ll find every type of teacher. From those with no direction (like you), to career teachers to overweight sexpats only working enough to pay for the next round of drinks and bar fines. Some teachers are all three of these at various points, transmogrifying, progressing or regressing, a fascinating spectacle of evolution or devolution that never ceases to amaze, and it is this that’s the hook, the selling point, the drug that keeps teachers chasing the dragon — living abroad is never boring (even though you probably are).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, though few, there are still pitfalls to be avoided. The flip-side of the spectacle and novelty of moving to another country is that there are people looking to capitalize on the naive and thick-skulled (i.e. you). It’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.