“Am I cut out to teach ESL abroad?” This is the question I asked myself 5 years ago. I just wasn’t sure. I did not know what made an effective teacher, and I had only a vague notion of the types of challenges a new culture would bring. Both inside and outside of the classroom, I now realize that the following three characteristics helped me to succeed as a teacher.
It may be a truism, but learning a language is a slow process. Not only do students need to be patient, but teachers do too. There are no shortcuts when teaching English, just as there are none when learning it. Not only is patience necessary in the classroom; it is crucial outside it as well. One fellow teacher I worked with in Chile had zero patience for the Chilean customs he observed. His frustration grew, and eventually, he dismissed everything as being “typical of Chileans.” The end result was he learned next to no Spanish and gained no insights into Chilean life, living safe in the belief that the British way was the best way. Ultimately, this is sad since it most ESL teachers have memorable, rewarding and impactful experiences.
Just like patience, flexibility helped me through the bumpy parts. Planning everything to extreme levels will not make your experience a good one, nor will it make you a good teacher. Without flexibility in the classroom, your classes become dull and rigid, and without flexibility in your personal life, you miss opportunities to immerse yourself into a new culture. You must work with what you have. In Mexico, for example, I got tired of waiting for people, so I started taking a book everywhere I went. In Chile, resisting my urges to plan ahead meant I was able to enjoy things as they came up rather than constantly thinking about rearranging my schedule.
3. A Sense of Humor
The third characteristic I consider important in my success was maintaining a sense of humor. Many minor mishaps will come your way as you move abroad and start teaching your first classes. Every ESL teacher I know has been laughed at for using an incorrect word, or has had a class fall flat without any clear reason. Expect it, talk about it, and laugh it off. You might even work it into a semi-decent anecdote one day. Even when you can’t speak someone’s language, humor is a great bonding tool. Everyone can laugh at the video you found on YouTube of a kitten riding a tricycle and juggling at the same time.
Of course, there were other characteristics that helped me along the way. I was organized, curious and open minded, but I think the three that I mentioned above were the most important. All types of people can succeed as an ESL teacher abroad. Whether you are introverted or extroverted, energetic or relaxed, conservative or liberal, there is a place for you. As you start your journey, just remember to be patient, be flexible and have a sense of humor.
Written by Robin Garnham
Robin Garnham originally planned to spend a year teaching in Spain to improve his Spanish, but has now been teaching for five years. He currently teaches ESL in Oakland, California and is an Oxford Seminars instructor in San Jose, California.