Travel, travel and more travel – that’s what everybody would like to do, if only they had the time and the money. “See the world, lad, before you settle down”, my grandad used to say. Of course, he was right. There is nothing like travel for seeing how the other half live, delving into exotic cultures and then realising the limitations of your own. For some of us, travel can be addictive. We soon get bored with the easy life at home and yearn for adventure. When the travel bug gets serious, we want to throw off our tourist garb and settle somewhere for a while, learn the lingo, fall in love, submerge ourselves. But how to earn an honest crust?
Well, if you are lucky enough to be a native English speaker, Bob’s your uncle! You can teach English, of course – what could be simpler? You were born speaking English so it’s as natural to you as falling off a lorry. All you have to do is talk…and listen to your sweet (but very slow) students without falling asleep. Eureka! Instant job, instant income! But hang on a minute…you know how to speak English, but you’re not sure how to, erm, ‘teach’ it. What about grammar and all that stuff? Well, to be honest, depending on how far-flung your destination is, you might get by with little or no previous experience. If a student asks you about the ‘Present Perfect’, you can always say you’ll do that in the future. Trouble is, if you go somewhere more popular, you might face competition from somebody ‘trained’: a qualified TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher, no less.
Yes, folks, the world is choc full of TEFL teachers of every hue and stamp – the young and the old, the keen and the jaded, the settled and the shackled. In my experience, there are three predominant ‘types’ of TEFL teacher you are likely to come across on your travels:
The Backpacker: this is the charlie who jumps off the banana boat in Rio and, after filling his nostrils with that tropical sea air and spotting the beach totty, bangs on the door of the first ‘School of English’ in view. He’s a chancer, an opportunist, but hey – he’s doing no-one any harm! Besides, he will most likely be paid peanuts but doesn’t care because he is only in it for the ride, ‘the craic’ as they say in Dublin. Come Christmas he’ll be on the plane heading back to Aunty Doreen and Uncle Derek in Darlington, no hearts broken. Believe me, there is wisdom in his nonchalance.
The Dabbler: these guys are by far the most common, thickly spread like dandelions in a prison garden. They arrive in their 20s on a Club Med holiday, get hooked on the sun and the laid-back lifestyle and end up drinking so much they forget to go home. These time-servers have a rudimentary knowledge of English teaching methodology, having completed a three-week crash course in Bournemouth in 1991. Or was it 1993? They can’t remember. As teachers they are popular types, ditching the dreaded ‘course book’ for something called ‘conversation’, which often turns out to be a teacher’s monologue about past exploits, peppered with personal anecdotes. Lessons may be extended if there is a bar nearby. For the dabbler, ‘home’ is a murky memory too scary to contemplate, a cold dark place full of stressed-out people with crippling mortgages.
The Pro: this power-dressed Iron Lady makes the rest of us look like supermarket stackers on a pub trip. She has spent years studying the whys and wherefores of teaching methodology and the science of language acquisition, finally being honoured with an MA in Linguistics from Utah University. She is Miss Serious and never gets her knickers in a twist. When not in the classroom overawing students with her knowledge, she can be found lurking in the corridors of TEFL Conferences in Milan or São Paulo, clutching a bunch of papers concerning the effects of modal verbs on mental health.
Different though they may be in many respects, these TEFL ‘types’ all face the same dilemma: whether to stick it out in the big wide world or whether to face the music one day and creep back ‘home’ to Bognor Regis. The key words here are ‘happiness’ and ‘job satisfaction’: if you have both of these, you are laughing. You may also be well-integrated into a new, foreign family and feel perfectly settled in your adopted homeland. But for those of us who haven’t embraced TEFL heartily as a lifelong career, endless days of ‘conversation’ – broken by the occasional detour into the dictionary of phrasal verbs – becomes steadily less rewarding.
After all, TEFL is not rocket science. Actually, it is much more of a laudable profession for those people who are non-native speakers and have had to study the language for years. I have met many non-native EFL teachers and they love everything about English, gaining much personal satisfaction from their achievements in a foreign tongue. Most of them put us native ‘buskers’ to shame.
So, as an old hand at the ‘game’, what is my advice to those of you considering the TEFL route around the world? That’s simple: definitely go for it, no question about that. Nothing comes close to the soul-lifting experience of living abroad. However, there is a caveat I must throw in: don’t put all your eggs in one basket (or all your verbs in the same sentence). In my experience, it is only for the very few that TEFL becomes an engaging and financially rewarding long-term career. Before you swan off to Beijing, you need to think seriously about adding more strings to your bow, or developing a parallel career. Then, if you end up back in Blighty with a backpack full of memories and empty pockets, you are not reduced to serving behind the bar at the Nag’s Head in Romford.
TEFL may be a ‘ticket to the world’, but it just might not be enough to keep you abroad forever. As Spandau Ballet put it so memorably in the 80s, ‘I bought a ticket to the world / But now I’ve come back again / Why do I find it hard to write the next line / Oh I want the truth to be said’. ‘Writing the next line’ is, figuratively speaking, what you will have to do post-TEFL, so be prepared. Oh, and the name of the song? True, of course, like everything I write in From Bradford to Brazil! And don’t be late for class tomorrow…