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Teaching English Abroad: Why I Teach ESL

I never thought that I would be a good teacher. I chose to teach not because I wanted to be a teacher, but because I wanted to travel and improve my Spanish.  With time, teaching ESL has become my profession and my passion. So, what changed?

(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!)

A Rocky Start in Spain

Let me be honest, my first teaching experience was horrible. In 2010, I just finished a teaching training course in Madrid, Spain, and the Spanish economy was looking pretty shaky. I grabbed the first job offer I got, and two days later, I was headed to an English summer camp for teenagers. I worked 14 hours a day, had no time to plan, and struggled to discipline children barely younger than me. All the teaching knowledge that had just been poured into my brain during my training was ready to come gushing out, but not in the most coordinated fashion.

Still Learning in Mexico

My next stop was Mexico, which is where everything started falling into place. With time, I honed all of the techniques and ideas that I had learned. I started to teach effective, and sometimes even fun classes. I discovered that, as a teacher, not only did I have a lot to offer my students, but they also had a lot to offer me. While I helped them master irregular verbs, they carefully explained the difference between sopes and gorditas. The all-male classes were especially preoccupied to make sure I had the right phrases ready to charm Mexican señoritas!

From Job to Passion

In Mexico, I realized that I really enjoyed the social aspect of teaching ESL. My current class is an intermediate group of students, mostly 18-30. We spend 18 hours a week together. Unlike in other workplaces, we spend a lot of time sharing personal stories and opinions. I know them, and they know me. We are a small community, which allows us to have a family-like relationship.

The other part I enjoy is the creative side of teaching ESL. There is something very rewarding about watching as my ideas take shape, are embraced, and turned into knowledge. Teaching is not an art or a science; it is a combination of both. On paper, a lesson plan only hints at whether it will or will not be a great lesson, but the determining factor is in the delivery. Just as a great piece of music might be technically brilliant, without a skilled conductor, it will fall flat. Hitting every note can leave you feeling almost euphoric, while a flop can leave you depressed and drained. This is how I view teaching. It is a new challenge every day, but I enjoy it. And, that is why I teach.

If you’re wondering if you should teach ESL, consider my story. It’s an amazing profession that could be your passion too.

Written by Robin Garnham

Robin Garnham

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.

One Comment

  1. Entertaining Teaching vs Academic Teaching

    It seems here in Taiwan, there are two types of after school ESL programs that are offered in the typical (buxiban) cram schools. The traditional way of teaching English, using a classroom environment, while a native English teacher uses academic subject books to educate their student in English comprehension. All typical ESL subjects like: language arts / grammar, spelling, phonics, reading, vocabulary, and site words are taught. I call this type of program “Academic Teaching.”

    The second type of program I’m seeing is Taiwan teachers teaching both the Chinese and English languages. They hire maybe two or three native English teachers, Caucasian preferred, to show up once a week in each classroom. Usually their given little material and expected to teach a fun exciting lesson, so the students can tell their parents that they have a foreign teacher at there school. The foreign teacher is expected to be exciting, fun, and play a lot of games, but not to worry so much about the English comprehension of the students. I call this type of program “Entertaining Teaching.”

    While both exist, the academic taught students have a stronger grasp of the English language. Even though it’s not as much fun as an “Entertainment Teaching” environment.
    Recently, I took a job at a buxiban which uses the “Entertaining Teaching” method. While teaching their 2nd grade class, I asked the students if they knew the vowels. To my surprise, no one answered. I prompted the first vowel “a”, then half the class started to say the ABCs. I stop them and continued with the other vowels: e, i, o, and u. Only 20% of the class caught on and the rest were lost. I had only three pages of material for a two-hour class and struggled to deliver any type of strong English lesson, because of the material and their lack of English comprehension.

    My feeling is I’m an educator. If I can’t teach to my fullest potential, then I won’t be part of that teaching institution. It’s true that buxibans are profitable businesses, so they “cram” as many students into their system as possible. While other buxibans are still profitable businesses, but they truly care about the student’s English comprehension skills and focus on their individual weaknesses.

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