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8 hilarious myths about teaching English abroad

During my first year as a qualified English teacher, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of the most intelligent, inspiring and dedicated people I know.

I’ve also met some people who should never, ever have chosen to work in the education sector.

The following quotes are all things that have actually been said to me by would-be education ‘professionals’, and serve as an excellent reminder that teaching isn’t for everyone …

1. “I want to backpack around Asia, so I thought I’d teach English in Bangkok and go from there.”

Maybe you want to travel, maybe you’re running away from something at home, maybe you’re using teaching as a way to fill the gap until you work out what you “really” want to do; whatever it is, if you don’t genuinely want to teach, then your reason isn’t good enough.

Why? Because teaching is not at all about you as a teacher; it is absolutely and totally about the learner. You need to focus on their goals, their learning styles and their backgrounds, and you can’t do that if you don’t actually want to be in the classroom.

It’s not just that you won’t be interested in your job; you’re likely to have a deeply negative effect on your students’ progress, their love of the subject, and even their opinion of the academic system as a whole. Not to mention the fact that you’ll pay for your attitude in bad behaviour – if students sense that their teacher doesn’t care about them, they will respond (in)appropriately.

2. “All the other teachers speak English anyway, so there’s really no reason to learn [insert name of local language here].”

When you emigrate, you become an ambassador for your country whether you like it or not, and English speakers are notorious for being complacently monolingual. When you teach a language, you also become an ambassador of language learning, so now there’s really no excuse.

Be open-minded. You don’t have to come back with an encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient Japanese literature, but if you’ve been there for three years and you still can’t be bothered to learn how to introduce yourself in the local language, you’re doing it wrong.

3. “I’ve got a few months free and I want to give back to the community.”

Work at a charity shop, help out at a soup kitchen, raise money for your favourite wildlife foundation … If you’re really interested in volunteering then the possibilities are endless, and you don’t even have to go abroad or work in education!

Remember that students are committed to the whole school year and you should be too. I didn’t realise the full truth of this for myself until I taught for half a year in Ecuador – and I finally understood that it wasn’t even close to enough. Maybe six months is enough for you to achieve a sense of completion, but your students certainly won’t.

Learning is a long-term process and the TEFL industry already suffers from a revolving door of short-term teachers willing to accept lower pay, rubbish hours and generally worse working conditions. Don’t add to it.

4. “There are so many schools dying to hire native English speakers that you don’t even need to do a TEFL course.”

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Would you go scuba diving without a PADI certificate? Would you drive a car without a licence? Of course not – so why on earth would you ever consider trying to teach without the bare minimum of training?

You don’t have to have a PGCE or even a CELTA, but please remember that teaching does affect people, and whether that effect is positive or negative is up to you. A good training course will give you the tools you need to plan and deliver great lessons, while being the best version of yourself you can be in the classroom. Give yourself the best chance you can, and get educated!

5. “Teaching must be great – nobody ever criticises you!”

You’ve clearly never met your students’ parents, or yourself.

Parents’ Day is every teacher’s worst nightmare. Why? Because it takes five minutes to explain to the reasonable parents why their kid is or isn’t progressing as well as they should be. Five minutes. And you get to spend the rest of the evening trying to tell the less reasonable ones why their kid might not be the shining example of citizenship they clearly thought he or she was.

And I don’t think I need to explain that when you love your job, and it’s endlessly challenging and yet infinitely rewarding at the same time, all those other comments sound like sycophantic praise compared to the mental dressing-down you give yourself when you mess up.

6. “I’m just looking to make some money.”

HAHAHAHAHA

7. “Teachers get such long summer holidays. What’s not to love?”

Let’s put aside the fact that teaching is one of the most underpaid, underrated and understaffed professions in existence today.

Newsflash: TEFL doesn’t work like primary or secondary teaching. Maybe you applied for a post in Italy and they told you that you get a month of ‘summer holiday’ – sorry, but that’s just the Italian word for ‘unpaid leave’. Everywhere else, it works just like any other job.

8. “It’s not my responsibility to advocate for my students.”

And out of the entire list, this is the one that gets to me the most; I genuinely couldn’t believe it when I heard a colleague say this during a lunchtime debate in the staff room.

Any authority role comes with a certain amount of responsibility, and this is especially true when you’re working with vulnerable members of society such as children. One of those responsibilities is always looking out for the best interests of the learner, however difficult or uncomfortable or time-consuming that may be for you as a teacher.

This is non-negotiable and a vital part of the role. Your students will face all kinds of obstacles thrown at them by virtue of their socioeconomic backgrounds, the pressures of standardised testing, sudden changes in national education policy, their families and friends … and if you, as their educator, are in any position to help them then you have a duty to do exactly that!

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Have you heard any funny assumptions or misguided comments about teaching lately? Share them in the comments below and make us all smile!

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12 goals to make the most of my Ecuadorian experience

In exactly three weeks, you’re moving halfway across the world. You have two years, and no plans. What do you do with all that time?

I’ve always been an overachiever. It’s not that I’m particularly smart or gifted or capable, just that I have a really, really deep-rooted fear of achieving nothing. In my worst nightmares, I look back over my life and realise that I’ve wasted all my time just getting through another day, without having actually made the effort to improve myself or the world in any meaningful way.

Thankfully that’s not the reality yet and I’m pretty determined to keep it that way! With that in mind, here are 12 things I’d love to attempt, if not achieve, during my first 12 months living in Guayaquil.

Language

1. Speak Spanish like a true guayaquileña

After 120 hours of tuition and ninth months in Spanish-speaking South America, I’m capable in Spanish, and was even mistaken for Peruvian once. Once! But being conversationally fluent isn’t enough – I want the same freedom in Spanish as I currently have in English. I want to be able to talk about classical music and modern feminism and why Port Salut is the king of cheeses, without breaking a sweat or having to search for a word. And most of all, I want that sentence to come out of my mouth like I’d spent my whole childhood growing up in Guayaquil. Impossible task? Don’t care, let’s give it a go!

2. Turn “I used to speak French” into “I speak French”

I feel like an idiot for letting it get this far. I used to be pretty damn reasonable in Parisian French and even waitressed in l’Hexagone for a while, but now it takes me hours to string together the simplest of sentences. The most frustrating part is that I can still understand and read French as well as I ever could, which means it’s all still in there somewhere! I just have to get my act together and actually practise. I know this is a weird one, because I’ll be thousands of miles away from native French speakers, but not being in a francophone country is not a good enough excuse anymore. Allons-y!

Travel

3. Spot turtles in the Galápagos

With a smaller paycheque and a longer visa allowance comes … more domestic travel! Ecuador may be small but it has cheap public transport and incredible biodiversity, so I’d be an idiot to miss out on a visit to the world-famous Galápagos Islands. Besides, Charles Darwin is pretty much the only connection between England and Ecuador, so really it would be culturally ignorant of me not to go … right? Right? Sigh. I have no idea how I’m going to afford it, but in my mind’s eye I’ll be turning 24 on white sands and palo santo leaves, watching miniature sea turtles as they hatch from their eggs and scurry towards the sapphire-blue waters.

4. Watch wild condors in the Andes

Don’t mess with these beasts! Condors are regal, graceful, and much, much bigger than you – in fact, they’re the second biggest bird in the world, after the albatross. Native to South America, you can usually find them on the flag, crest or coat of arms of any Andean nation, and with good reason – thanks to their intimidating size, they generally represent health, strength and power. I got the fright of my life when I first strolled into a condor aviary in Quito (should any bird ever be quite that large?) but warmed to these incredible creatures after a visit to an animal sanctuary in Peru’s Sacred Valley. It’s one thing to see birds flying around in enclosures, but it would be an honour and a privilege to see them in their natural habitat, doing their condor thing.

5. Eat encocado in Esmeraldas

… and because I’m incapable of making a list that doesn’t include food, here’s goal number five! Encocado (which literally translates as “coconutted”) is pretty close to my idea of gastronomic perfection – traditionally an incredibly aromatic fish or prawn dish cooked in a flavour-rich base of coconut milk and fresh spices. Please excuse me while I wipe the drool from my keyboard. And where does this heavenly dish come from? Esmeraldas, the Ecuadorian coastal province famous for pristine beaches, laid-back lifestyles and heavy Colombian cultural influences. Eat, sleep, salsa, repeat …

Culture

6. Learn to dance bachata

Okay, maybe my vision of dancing salsa on a beach somewhere in rural northern Ecuador is a little farfetched. But learning bachata isn’t – in fact, pretty much all Ecuadorians seem to be able to dance basic bachata, and if they say they can’t, they’re lying! Or at least, their dance standards are a hell of a lot higher than mine, which is probably the most likely explanation. This style of music and dance took a little getting used to, but after nine months of Romeo Santos songs blaring from car radios I’m officially hooked. It’s romantic, it’s impressive and most of all it’s a unique part of Latin American culture. I’m not scared I’m not scared I’m not scared I can do this.

7. Learn to cook seco de pollo

What’s that I hear you say? Food-related items made it onto my list twice in the space of three items? Hush now, let’s focus on the matter at hand: the traditional coastal dish of seco de pollo. This universal favourite keeps natives and travellers alike coming back for more; I was once asked to describe it to a Guayaquil newbie, and without a second’s hesitation I told her that it tastes like “warmth and love”. And it’s true – if you don’t believe me, try it for yourself!

Study

8. Educate myself about international development

It’s one thing to be interested in a topic, but it’s quite another to dedicate your life to it. While I’m still deciding whether this is the career for me, I’m so grateful to be able to volunteer with The Starfish Foundation and gain a small insight into international development projects in action. However, practical experience is not enough – I’d like to educate myself about the things I’m seeing. Thank goodness for online long-distance study; from October, I’ll be taking a Masters-level module from London’s Institute of Education (now a part of my alma mater, UCL) and getting a brief introduction to the issues surrounding development work from an academic perspective.

9. Apply for my Masters degree

On that topic, I’m thinking of going back to university in a couple of years’ time and getting my Masters degree. I know I want to study education and international development in some form, but at this point the options seem limitless; there are literally hundreds of courses, all of which promise some unique academic insight or exclusive career opportunity or world-class teaching that the other courses lack. While I’m sifting through the possibilities, I’m also debating the idea of studying abroad, that is to say, outside the UK. If anyone has any advice, opinions or suggestions about this, please do get in touch – I need all the help I can get!

Work

10. Expand my experience in development work

Leaving school and working full-time before starting university was the best decision I ever made. It gave me amazing work experience, a solid grounding in the real world, and the wild-eyed determination to exploit my time as a student to the absolute limit – so there was no way I was ever going straight from an undergraduate degree to a Masters degree! The next two years in Ecuador should give me more than enough time to add valuable real-life experience to all that textbook learning, and hopefully make me a better student and citizen when I eventually decide to go back to university. Plus, development work as a career is all about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, not what or where you studied.

11. Teach a new specialty

Teaching English is such a rush, but while I love the variety and depth of General English classes, I’m also dying for a new challenge within English teaching. In January I taught my first ever English for Specific Purposes (ESP) course, a one-week intensive programme of medical English for students from a plastic surgery clinic in southern Spain … and I loved every second of it! I’ve already spoken to my future boss about this, but I really do hope I get the chance to work with some exam preparation or technical English classes during my two years in Guayaquil. Not only is there a strong sense of motivation within the class, but as a teacher I get the chance to really push my knowledge of my own languages – it’s every linguist’s dream job!

Personal

12. Go on a real date

Maybe this one is silly and irrelevant and highly inappropriate given that I just got out of a five-year relationship. But I’m 23, and this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve not been tied to someone else. And because of all that, I’ve actually never been on a real date, and I’m writing it down because I think it’s probably okay to want to have that experience. Is that okay? It’s not that I want to meet someone – heaven knows I’m not looking for any kind of relationship in the foreseeable future – it’s just that I feel like everyone else has gotten to do it, and I haven’t, and it looks fun, and seeing as everything else about my life is totally weird and inappropriate anyway, why not?

Do you have any goals for the rest of the year? How about for 2016? Share them with me in the comments, and maybe we can help each other achieve them!

260º West | Teaching English & Getting Educated in Ecuador

A day in the life: volunteering in Ecuador

This post was originally published to The Starfish Foundation blog.

5.15am

I shuffle around in bed trying to silence my alarm clock before it wakes the rest of the house. Get up, get washed and dressed, bread and honey for breakfast and some strong, sweet coffee to wake me up. I eat with Nancy, a fellow volunteer, and our host mother, Filadelfia. Charge our volunteer phones. Out the door.

6.15am

“It’s chilly today,” we say to each other. It’s 24ºC (75ºF). The bus pulls up, Nancy and I give the driver 25 cents each and hang on for dear life. People going to work, children going to school.

6.50am

We pull in to the bus station and hurry across the platform to the next Metrovía. Only three stops on the express service, packed like sardines in a tin can. We disembark when the exotic Iglesia Victoria gardens slide into view.

7.10am

We cross the street and the number 49 arrives after a couple of minutes. 25 cents to the bus driver, take a seat on the empty bus. We navigate the busy city centre, the bus filling up rapidly as we take turn after turn. Men selling coconut water, boiled sweets and apples get on and off again.

7.30am

The bus reaches the motorway, the breeze whips through our hair, huge green hills and the dusty air lays a soft coffee-coloured haze over everything we see. Newly built roads and bridges and parks, with a message from the Mayor: “esto es tuyo – cuídalo”. This is yours – take care of it.

7.50am

We hop off the bus and catch an auto rickshaw hasta bloque 15 por favor. It’s 31°C (88ºF). Up the dirt road, down the hill, across the rope bridge over the sludgy stream, two houses up and three to the left. No street signs in Flor de Bastión.

8.10am

At the Foundation building, we greet the educadores with a kiss on the cheek and take a seat. Just two of us this week; the other volunteer is giving guitar lessons to the local children in the suburb where we all live. I help Joselyn with her algebra homework, and as usual Mirka has a thousand and one intelligent questions about yesterday’s English lesson at school.

9.30am

I teach this week’s English lesson at the Foundation using World Food Day as our theme. The kids pore over images of exotic dishes from around the world. Does tagine come from Morocco or Egypt? And what ingredients go into a bowl of ramen?

10am

The kids go home to get ready for school. We are taken in by the Rodríguez family, close friends of Starfish who volunteer to look after us until the afternoon, solely out of the kindness of their hearts. The entire house is the size of my parents’ living room. We talk to Señora Leonela about her sewing business, look through family photos and play with little Ashley and Emily. The sun shines through the newspaper glued over the wooden slats that form the walls. The mango tree outside is beginning to bear fruit.

12.30pm

Lunch is a steaming bowl of soup, followed by marinated chicken on a bed of rice. Mugs of freshly squeezed orange juice sit on the table. I know they are pulling out all the stops for us. As we eat, Kiara and Michelle arrive home from school, where they have been since 7am that morning. We’ll see them again at the Foundation in the afternoon.

2.30pm

We say muchísimas gracias and chao, and return to the Foundation. It’s one large room with a dirt playing field outside. Inside, the walls are covered in photos of community service days, visits from American board members, the kids with their families, the kids working with volunteers, the kids playing pelota. One wall is covered in colourful handprints, our way of christening this beautiful new space.

3pm

The students who had school in the morning arrive for the Foundation’s afternoon refuerzo session. This cohort is older and has a larger percentage of becados – pupils who receive academic scholarships from Starfish in return for consistently high grades, regular attendance at the Foundation’s monthly meetings and good behaviour. Cristhian greets me in English and Pamela asks me about my life in London; as usual they are impeccably presented, witty, smiling, inquisitive, bursting at the seams with youth and ambition.

4.30pm

The English lesson goes down well, to say the least. We are writing about our favourite foods, and the usual suspects surface: encebollado, arroz con pollo, ceviche. Then we write about the foods we’ve never eaten that we’d like to try, and the list is more varied: American deep-dish pizza, Japanese sushi, Indian curry, Greek salad, Mexican tacos, Italian lasagne. For a second I imagine winning the lottery and taking the entire group to Europe for a food tour.

5.30pm

We’ve overrun by half an hour. The tables have been cleared but Argenis is crouching on the floor, leaning his paper against a chair and asking me about forming the conditional mood in English. I wish for 25 hours in the day or at least enough time to give all the Starfish scholars the private lessons they deserve.

6pm

Jenn has given us a lift all the way to the bridge but we’re late because we’ve stopped to buy chocolate coconut cake the size of our fists for 30 cents each. On the bus back I daydream about a future in which the Starfish students achieve their dreams of becoming doctors and lawyers, of travelling the world, of supporting their families on the journey out of poverty. Today was one more step along that road.

7pm

We race past the softly lit river as dusk begins to fall. Overhead, two huge flags fly proudly in the evening breeze: red, blue and yellow for this diverse and captivating country, and blanco y celeste for this city, beautiful beyond words.

7.30pm

We’re back in Guasmo. I rearrange my English lesson for use the next day, then try and fail miserably not to fall asleep.

9.30pm

Filadelphia wakes me for dinner. It’s seco de pollo and I can’t eat it quickly enough. Must write that recipe down somewhere. We chat to Leo about his day; our other ñaños are working. I write a quick Facebook message to my family and friends, check my emails, brainstorm ideas for next week’s English lesson.

10.30pm

I set my alarm for 7.45am; we’ll be volunteering here in Guasmo tomorrow morning. Buenas noches.

260º West | Teaching English & Getting Educated in Ecuador

From theory to practice: teaching English in Ecuador

This post was originally published to the IH London blog.

“¿Has ido a Ecuador antes?“ “Have you been to Ecuador before?”

“No, es la primera vez que viajo a America Latina.” “No, this is my first time travelling to Latin America.”

Hearing those words come out of my mouth as I chatted to another passenger on the 14-hour journey to Ecuador, I started to question the wisdom of my decision to travel 6,000 miles for my first teaching post outside the UK. Those fears disappeared the second the plane soared over the impossibly lush Amazon rainforest, past the rolling Ecuadorean Andes, bound for the coastal city of Guayaquil. Having fallen in love with the Spanish language at university and completed my CELTA qualification in August, I knew I didn’t want to jump into a permanent contract in the UK without first volunteering my new skills and experiencing a little more of the world. So when I read about the Starfish Foundation, a grassroots educational outreach programme based along Ecuador’s Pacific coast, I knew it was the opportunity I’d been looking for.

Community support and education

The Foundation offers daily before-and-after-school extracurricular activities, community service programmes and academic help for at-risk Ecuadorian youth, additionally providing financial scholarships to a select group of high achievers among the student body. Regular school visits, monthly meetings with parents and highly motivated local employees mean that Starfish scholars are far more likely to finish secondary school and continue into higher education than their non-Starfish counterparts – a huge achievement in a country where only 60% of teenagers are actually enrolled at a secondary school. I joined the Foundation as one of three foreign volunteers, with a variety of duties including teaching English classes, introducing debating activities to the extracurricular roster, and helping the students with their homework.

Creating basic ESOL materials

The contrasts between my previous job at IH London and the Foundation’s Guayaquil classrooms could not have been more obvious. My teaching was challenged in every way: I no longer have a full-sized whiteboard, let alone an IWB; the prohibitive cost of coursebooks means that I have to find or design all of my own materials; my lesson planning is done a week in advance so I can make the hour-long trip to the photocopier on weekends; my instructions have to be carefully graduated from L1 (Spanish) at the start of each lesson to L2 (English) by the end in order to compensate for the students’ lack of experience in speaking and listening to English. But despite each little setback, the Starfish cohort makes it all worthwhile. Although the group is a mix of age, gender and ability, the students share a common perspective on diligence, motivation and achievement that could inspire even the most jaded soul.

The joys – and the challenges – of teaching

Their infectious enthusiasm and vibrant youth make it easy to forget the difficulties that they and their families may face on a regular basis, such as choosing between buying food for dinner or spending the money on materials needed to complete a school project. There are undoubtedly myriad challenges lying in wait between now and Christmas – upgrading the students’ listening skills, exploring methodologies that use little or no physical materials, adjusting to teaching American English spellings – but having the opportunity to be a part of the Starfish success story can only be called a privilege.