7 Powerful Things Teaching English Abroad Taught Me About Life
Even teachers have a lot to learn
Teaching English was something I had wanted to do for a while.
Once a life-changing incident made me commit and go travelling, I wanted to extend my travels for as long as possible.
Teaching abroad was the logical route to achieving this.
I thoroughly enjoy teaching, it is rewarding giving something back to people, and seeing the joy on their faces when they improve their English skills.
However, something I didn’t expect was for teaching English to teach me a few things! I have learnt a lot about myself, other people and the world in general from teaching.
It has been an eye-opening experience!
Here are a few realisations I encountered during my time teaching English abroad.
1. You Need to Have a Backup Plan
This is true in all walks of life but especially teaching.
During my classes with children, there were times when they wouldn’t enjoy whatever activity I had planned. It worked perfectly with one class, but it was a different story with others. After a few minutes, the children became bored, and I was left up a creek without a paddle.
I learnt to include a backup plan whenever I taught children, in case my activities fell on deaf ears.
I took this practice into the rest of my life too.
We all have a plan that we are working on, but they can be derailed, and not turn out the way we want. It’s important to plan for your future, but you must also prepare for the worst, in case your plan does not work out.
Putting a contingency plan in place is one of the best things you can do.
You can plan for the future, but you cannot prepare for every eventuality.
2. If You Can Manage Children, You Can Manage Anyone
I’m just going to say it straight up, children are very difficult to manage, especially those in Spain. During my first classes teaching children, I was not prepared for how unruly they could be.
It took me by surprise.
I kept thinking to myself, I don’t remember being this bad when I was their age! I probably was, I just don’t remember. The reason why kids can be unruly is simple. They just want to have fun! What you rather do, worksheets, or a fun game involving cards?
I know which one I would pick!
I had to adapt my lessons, so I was almost teaching them English by stealth. This allowed me to keep their unruly tendencies in check, and ensure they were behaving.
Children are hard to manage because they haven’t been conditioned to act the way we have in society. By the time, we get to 18, we have an idea of how society expects us to behave.
Young children do not grasp this concept. They just want to enjoy themselves.
It’s when you harness this behaviour and turn it back on the kids, so they are learning while having fun at the same time that you’ll succeed.
If you rise to a position of management, just remember, if you’re asking people to do something you wouldn’t do or would find boring, you’re going to have problems!
3. Never Underestimate the Importance of Play
Play is one of the most underrated aspects of our lives.
It’s how we learn to interact with the world and each other. It’s also how we learn about concepts and ideas too. I noticed my students responded much better to games than dry and boring worksheets.
I wonder why!?
Our brains are wired to learn by interacting with the environment around us. When we are babies we don’t learn by filling in worksheets, we learn by playing and discovering the boundaries of the world around us.
As we get older, we forget this and become ever more entrenched into society’s view of learning, which is counterintuitive to our instincts.
Play is also a fantastic tool for de-stressing and bringing us back into the present, allowing us to forget our worries for a time.
We could all do with more play in our lives.
4. The Language Barrier is Not as Big as You Think
When I first went to Spain, I was hopeless at speaking Spanish. Apart from the basics, my Spanish was non-existent. I struggled during that period.
Even basic tasks such as going to the supermarket were complicated by the language barrier. I thought this would translate into my teaching, especially when I was teaching six-year-olds who spoke English as well as I did Spanish.
However, it wasn’t as difficult as I had envisioned.
Yes, there were times when student and teacher would look at each other with a blank expression and simultaneously think ¿Qué?
I found that using hand signals, speaking slowly and using an abundance of pictures in the classroom helped narrow the language barrier to the point of it being a minor inconvenience.
We may be separated by culture and language, but we have much more in common than we realise.
The language barrier is only a barrier if you perceive it to be one.
5. Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail
Like any pursuit in life, a good lesson is all about bulletproof planning. When I first started teaching, I didn’t plan my lessons anywhere near as well as I should have.
I was lazy. I thought a basic outline would do, and I could improvise the rest. All of these lessons had a common theme.
They failed miserably!
Once I started planning my lessons, taking the time to ensure they flowed and benefited my students, my lessons improved tenfold. This taught me a key lesson.
No matter what you do in life, if you aim to go through it half-arsed, you will get half-arsed results. Execution is everything, but you can only execute what you have in front of you.
If that plan is poor, your execution will be too.
6. Perfection Should Not Be Your Goal
One of the tougher aspects of teaching English was teaching high-level students.
Often, their level of English was so good, it was hard to know what to plan for their lessons. Introducing them to everyday phrases and expressions we use in English only worked for so long.
One student, in particular, stuck out.
Her English was fantastic. In-depth conversations about most topics posed on problems for her. Yet, she was still not happy with her level of English.
‘I want my English to be as perfect as possible’, she used to say to me on occasion.
When I informed her that even English speakers don’t speak ‘perfect English,’ her expression betrayed that she was crestfallen.
She had set her sights on achieving perfection with her English, yet I had just told her it was an impossible goal. Aiming for perfection is one of the most common traps we fall into
Ironically, we fall into this trap when we live in an imperfect world. Perfection is an idea, not something that is tangible and can be achieved.
Here, I had a student whose English was impeccable and she was still not happy because it wasn’t perfect in her mind. Instead of chasing perfection we should chase progress.
We may not able to become perfect, but we can always improve.
7. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
I’ve never taken myself too seriously.
Although, when I first started teaching, I wasn’t sure if I should make this side of myself visible in the classroom. I’m visually expressive through my face, and I find it hard to hide my emotions because of it.
Imagine Mr Bean, and you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about! My thinking was this could lead to trouble if my students took something the wrong way when I pulled one of my strange expressions.
At first, I tried to temper this side of me, but it had a detrimental effect on my classes. I was wooden, and I could see my students weren’t enjoying the classes. I decided to loosen up and be more like normal self outside the classroom.
It worked wonders!
The students related to me. They were laughing, giggling and having a great time. Most importantly of all, they were learning.
We are often afraid to show our true selves in these types of situations for fear of being judged or not liked. The result is that we come across as aloof and distant.
We appear too serious.
People relate to people. By being more personable and showing a human touch, we engage other people and they warm to us in return. Not being liked is one of the most common fears we have as humans. We are social creatures after all.
Yet, by being yourself and embracing your quirks, and laughing at yourself now and again, people will love you for simply being you.