It wasn’t until I was 26 that I first considered teaching English as a foreign (or second) language. My best friend entered TEFL straight after university and taught in Spain. I went to visit him a few times in Barcelona and although I was envious of his living abroad, I never entertained the thought of teaching – the idea of standing in front of people and talking petrified me.
Twenty years later, I have stood in front of thousands of people and have been petrified only a few times – my first CELTA observation in Izmir, Turkey; my first workshop as a teacher-trainer in Tokyo; and my first presentation at an international conference in Dubai.
How is it I managed to enter (and enjoy) a profession that the thought of once petrified me? Here are ten things that happened in life that lead me to TEFL:
This was my first introduction to the world. All those beautiful stamps from so many countries. From the age of eight or nine, I was fascinated by the country names. How could Magyar be Hungary and Suomi be Finland? I even managed to figure out the difference between Japanese and Chinese stamps. This hobby did my general knowledge of countries and their capitals, currencies, royal families, fruit, animals and birds a power of good. I reckon it was also the first seed in making me want to travel forever.
I made lists when I was a kid. Hundreds of them. Lists on all countries and capitals, lists on diseases, authors, football teams. They were all very detailed and meticulously created. I didn’t dare ask my friends but I think I was the only kid in my class, school, continent… to do this. Looking back, I’m sure this helped me enjoy planning lessons. I’m still making lists and trying to be meticulous.
That Spanish woman
Out of the blue one Wednesday evening when I was eight or nine, a young Spanish woman – an overseas student – spent the night at our house. I remember boring her for at least an hour asking her what the Spanish word was for almost every English word I could think of. She left quite an impression on me – people went to other countries to learn languages. I wish I’d followed her example and studied a language at university and then gone abroad. But I studied accountancy.
Doing a BSc. in Accountancy at university turned out to be one of the best moves possible for a career in anything but accountancy. I was quite clueless about double-entry bookkeeping and profit and loss accounts. I never once managed to balance a balance sheet – not even the very first one in the basics of accounting book. I knew this didn’t bode well for the financial fortunes of any company I might later be Financial Director of. The only course I liked was the history of double-entry bookkeeping used by the coal and steel industry in the UK in the 19th century. It was history and I like history – OK?!? I got my degree and after eight months of working as a trainee accountant and my balance sheets (and managers) becoming more and more unbalanced, I resigned. I decided two and a half years of backpacking was better than balancing unbalanceable financial reports.
I travelled with many other travellers from all over world in the course of my travels. Naturally, I ended up explaining English words to them. Many told me I’d be a good teacher. I think if they all told me I’d be a crap teacher and should never entertain the thought of entering a classroom, I wouldn’t have become a teacher.
Running out of money in Bangkok
Usual story – funds running low but wanting to travel more. For ten weeks I covered the classes of a guy I met in a Bangkok guest house. He showed me everything I needed to know about teaching in an hour. Real cowboy teaching. I totally loved it. No balance sheets or spreadsheets. Lots of lovely people called English students.
I’ve always liked helping people. I did a lot of voluntary work as a child and spent three months as a volunteer “big brother” at an orphanage in Thailand. The children there didn’t know any English but I spent a long time playing with them. It was fun trying to teach them English and learn Thai at the same time. I think all teachers want to help others.
While teaching in Thailand I read English grammar books. I learnt a whole new language that I’d never known before. Things like “present perfect progressive,” “passive voice,” “subjunctive” and “non-identifying relative clause”. I loved this new language. I loved the patterns and how English suddenly seemed to make sense. It was all so logical. I later read Michael Swan’s “Practical English Usage” from cover to cover three times and loved every page.
Ever since I can remember, I have loved making things with glue, sellotape, paper… I now love making things on the computer. The combination of being creative and making lists proved to be most useful in the hours of cutting and pasting I did for my classes. Really wish I’d kept all those posters, flash cards, role play cards….
I’m 46 but still love children’s party games. Whether it’s with kids, with students or with real people, I just have to win the game and have as much as I can doing so. I’m sure my students think I’m strange, but such behavior is useful for a teacher.
So there you are. Ten essential ingredients in leading me to TEFL.
Would be interested to hear some of your recipes