The Grey Pen Goings

Navigation through a World that's Wild at Heart and Weird on Top.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Teaching English, A Retrospective

With just a week left on the job, I’d like to offer some insight on a position that, I believe, holds a great deal of interest to people my age who find the future as certain as George Bush’s plan for Iraq. Heck, even my folks are interested in potentially teaching English some time in the future. So, the rundown:

Rudimentary as it sounds, “Teaching” comes before “English” in the teaching English game. If you can handle yourself in front of a group of strangers, a crowd, if you’re confident in your public speaking, you’ll be able to teach English. Ted, a woebegone engineer from Chicago, has a personality that can best be described as a passively awkward serial killer. Suffice to say: not a good teacher.

If your students like you, they’ll forgive almost all your faults—not knowing a specific rule, not having planned enough, showing up ten minutes late. Hey, you’re their friend.

The caveat to the teaching-first rule is when your English isn’t good enough, which is pretty rare. Look, very few people in America know what the past perfect continuous is, or what an uncountable known is, or why we use certain prepositions, or when we use etc., etc., etc. But you can learn that (really). We had one guy in our training course, however, who was from Taiwan originally, and though he ACTUALLY had a Masters’ in Education and had taught high school for four years in NYC, he wasn’t offered a job. Why? Partially his awkward personality. But mainly because he would say things like “That don’t make sense.”

So can you teach English? More than likely, yes. Two people weren’t offered jobs from my training course: the aforementioned poor English speaker and Linda, a sweet retired bank clerk from Vancouver with the personality of a snail. Two people were offered only part-time jobs, because they were partially lacking in personality (Ted) and language skills.

So if I know you, and you’re reading this blog without having to go to the dictionary, you can probably teach English. Now to whether you’d actually enjoy teaching or not…

By far the best part of teaching English is the students. If you want to talk about the merits of travel, and truly learning about the people and culture, well, teaching is a treasure trove for this.

Most of my students are between 21 and 38, with only a few exceptions. They’ve amazed me and I’ve amazed them with stories, traditions, words, abilities, etc. They give me recommendations and warnings. A few of my favorites:

Libor: the CFO of the Czech branch of Leo Burnett, Libor is stressed out all the time. Our lessons are closer to therapy sessions where he belittles French management, Czech society, his lack of time, reminisces about almost living in Canada, etc.

Rychard: a man in his fifties who works as a salesman for Lach-Ner, a chemical company, we shared a mutual affection for a range of music. I introduced him to Hartford and he gave me a host of Czech music, and he invited me to a concert in the hills of Bohemia.

Honeywell Thursday: my favorite group of students, a group of girls who are all immensely tired by Thursday evening and only want to laugh the whole night long.

This is just a sampling of the great, great people I’ve met. I feel quite blessed to have met so many interesting souls across the city.

The worst thing about teaching, by far, is lesson planning. As my friend Tim bemoaned, with a 9 to 5 job you’re mind is off to new things as soon as you leave your desk. Lesson planning lingers in your mind over weekends, at nights, because as much as you’ve planned (even to the next week!) it’s a never-ending, unwinnable game, like Falldown was on the graphing calculator.

You only get paid for TEACHING lessons. But, obviously, you have to plan them beforehand. This you don’t get paid for. So it doesn’t behoove you to plan for a long time…unless you want to be a good, in-depth teacher. I ended up spending mere minutes planning, because as long as you know what will be easy to talk about and what will get you through ninety minutes you’ll be fine. Does that make me a good teacher? No, not really. I could have done much better if I really wanted to.

But why would I want to? Look, I get paid for 24 hours a week of teaching. But I’m traveling for at least another 25. If I told you you were going to work a 50-hour week but I was only paying you for half of it, you’d never agree to it, right? Just to get to a lesson outside of Prague I have to

--WALK 4 minutes to the tram stop
--RIDE the tram 10 minutes to the metro
--RIDE the metro 10 minutes to the bus station
--RIDE the bus 40 minutes to the village
--WALK from the bus stop for 15 minutes to the company

The only thing they could add to make things worse was a dog sled (Of course the huskies would probably abandon me in the middle of Winter in a lame attempt to get Disney to make a move about them—I’m on to you Huskies!).

Now the caveat is that they’re factoring some of this time into your salary, and in places other than Prague you don’t necessarily have to teach all over the city.

Still. The fact of the matter is I (and a good majority of teachers) don’t put too much time into lesson planning because we don’t get paid for it. We have a boatload of resources here at Caledonian and when I want to I can craft an energetic, excellent lesson. Or I can look at a book, photocopy some pages and glide on by. It’s not that my students aren't learning, but…I think the moment you know you should stop teaching is when you’re more concerned with how you as a teacher are going to get through a class as opposed to what your students will learn in that time. That happened to me a while ago (mainly do to the time factor), and instead of a teacher I became a worker doing a job.

One more word on the time thing—split shift schedules are a pain. Honestly, I would gladly work from 6 A.M. to 12 everyday if I could have the rest of the afternoon off. But it doesn’t work that way. You work in the morning ( starting between 7 and 8:30) and you work in the evening (starting between 5:15 and 6:30). Most days you work a class or two in the afternoon. This leaves your free-time slung about in strange two hour gaps—do you go home and catch a nap? Read a book? Lesson plan? The time I have to wake up snaggles up and down—Monday not till noon, Tuesday at 6:45, Wednesday 8:00, Thursday 5:45, Friday 7:15. It’s really difficult to get on a sleeping routine here (not to mention my awful bed).

In the end, I suppose, all of this—the shitty hours, the lesson planning, the massive amounts of unpaid travel—are what you put up with to live abroad. Prague, Seoul, the boonies of China, etc. Without this job I wouldn’t have been able to see Budapest, Auschwitz, Vienna, Poland, etc. I wouldn’t have learned the crazy ways of the Czech culture, or seen my alcohol tolerance shoot the roof, or experienced XYZ in my life. The ride has been tremendous, and teaching English has been the price of admission.

If I was going to recommend teaching English abroad to someone, I would say (A) get a CELTA, not a TEFL; (B) Decide if money or location is more important; (C) Try to research your school before signing on there. (D) Try to research what live you’re going to be living there—I had a friend living in the sticks in China who could never leave his village because he only got one day off at a time.

As most people who’ve taught will attest, the job gets easier the more you do it. It takes less time to plan once you know how to. And, hey, it got me over here (On the other hand, I’m not really crying about leaving).


  • At 9:57 PM, Blogger Broccoli Landers said…

    As someone who's done it, you're spot on with your assessment. Ahhh, the memories!

    No, I remember being right where you are now - happy with the time you've spent in Prague, but ready to move on; still "enjoying" teaching, but finding yourself preparing less and less and less each week. Good times.

    Well, enjoy your few remaining days; you will look back on your time with such resplendent joy. It's amazing how quickly the rose-colored glasses will appear (am I mixing metaphors? You know what I mean). Ahoj!

  • At 1:15 AM, Blogger Hannah said…


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