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Teaching English Abroad: Strange Conversations and Surprising Meals in East Africa

I spent 12 years teaching ESL in East Africa – and I didn’t even know what I was doing was called ESL! That sounds crazy but it’s true. My story started when my family and I went to teach at an adult education college in Uganda and found out that what I thought I had signed up for and what was actually needed where two very different things.

(This post is part of an ongoing series of guest blogs sent by individuals who have experienced life abroad as a TESOL/TEFL educator. We would love to share your story. Interested? Email us at my_story@oxfordseminars.com!)

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While English is the official language of Uganda, many students have limited access to learning English.

Uganda is a country with dozens of different tribal groups and many different languages. English is Uganda’s one official language, so we assumed – wrongly as it turned out – that everyone would be fluent in English. Imagine my surprise when I discovered some of our adult students had grown up with very limited access to schooling, part of which had been in their local language. Nearly all of them had some English, but when it came to understanding grammar and being able to write essays, it was a completely different story!

So there I was in a new and very beautiful country, and I had to teach English. I had assumed teaching English to adults would mean college level English lessons. A single day in the classroom quickly showed me this was not the case. I’ve never been one to shy away from challenges, so I jumped in and worked on developing a curriculum that would work for this audience.  I started hunting around for material and found a 1950’s English textbook on a dusty shelf in the war-wracked library. I was able to use what I found to help my students start learning the basics needed to build a more solid knowledge of speaking and writing English.

Uganda's open air markets provided the perfect opportunity to practice negotiating skills.

Uganda’s open air markets provided the perfect opportunity to practice negotiating skills.

One of the most interesting parts of my life teaching English in Uganda was studying the pronunciation problems of particular language groups. I soon learned to identify which part of the country students came from by their mispronunciations of certain words. “Sh” for “s” would tell me the student came from the North, “r” for “l” told me they hailed from the Western region. Sometimes these errors led to some pretty funny incidents! I remember one student telling the class to “shit down.” He was from the North and had actually intended for us to SIT down! We took a quick look in the dictionary at the meanings of those two words, and he didn’t repeat that error!

A fresh cow's heart makes for a tasty (and affordable!) meal with friends.

A fresh cow’s heart makes for a tasty (and affordable!) meal with friends.

12 years later I had developed a very successful course, made hundreds of life long friends, traveled all over the country, eaten just about anything you can think of, and grown to love it all! My life teaching English in Uganda wasn’t all about teaching. I loved taking ex-pat visitors to the open air markets and showing them the stall filled with cow’s innards covered with flies. I would then buy a cow’s heart to take home for supper – a great way to save on our food bill while they stayed! I loved bantering with the market stall keepers when trying to buy clothes or fresh fruit. I would haggle and haggle, only to realize that I had expended all that energy just to save 5 cents on a watermelon or pineapple.

If you’re on the fence on teaching in a different country, go for it! The challenges are strong, but the rewards are amazing. There is nothing like an overseas experience to make your life richer.

Picking up your settled life and striking out to take on a new challenge like teaching English abroad might feel intimidating, but it’s also a life changing experience full of adventure and growth! Oxford Seminars is here to help you make the most of your teaching adventures. For more information on becoming TESOL certified, request our free information packet.

Cathy pic for postCatherine Anstey went to Uganda with her family, not being sure whether or not she would work.  She landed a job teaching English in the same post-secondary college as her husband, continuing for 12 wonderful years.  She currently teaches ESL in the public school system in St. John’s, NL, tutors ESL students, teaches music lessons and is an instructor for Oxford Seminars.

3 Comments

    • Janice Dinkel
    • June 4, 2015

    Great that you had that experience. Are there online courses from here in the United States? I’m supposed to be going to Uganda on a short term mission, but not long enough to teach.

    • Karen
    • June 7, 2015

    It’s something I always wish I could have done.

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