The first person who should want to read any blog post is the author. With that in mind, this is probably the best blog post I have ever done because what I have written here was specifically for me. A way that I could get my thoughts down on paper (well, in Microsoft Word at least) about my professional experiences so far and what I should have learned from them… what I hope I have learned from them.
So what this has ended up becoming is a personal guideline of sorts for me about things to consider and questions to ask before making the final decision to go and teach abroad. I’ll preface this by saying two things.
- I’m a NEST (Native English Speaking Teacher) so I’m writing from that perspective.
- This post is not reflective of any one job experience I have had and in some cases I’m drawing on tips and stories I’ve heard from colleagues during their travels.
Now from what you are about to read, my only piece of strong advice here is get solid answers. You are not stupid if you don’t understand the answer you are given, and if the answer is vague, don’t expect it to be any clearer when you arrive. If your potential employer can’t explain something clearly to you on the phone or Skype or in an email, they probably won’t be any better at explaining it in person. Also, if the answer really is that complicated then it probably isn’t the answer you are looking for.
Part 1: The ‘Professional’ Questions
1. How many different classes will I be teaching?
I asked “How many hours…?” and very quickly I saw my mistake. I am used to teaching 25 hours a week but there is a big, big, BIG difference between teaching two or three class in those 25 hours and teaching 9 different student groups.
2. How much homework/How many tests do you expect of your students?
Maybe this isn’t true for everyone but I hate giving homework, especially in large volumes and frequently. It never gets done by everyone and keeping track of what is given, on what day, for what day, and to which classes becomes a really, really complicated endeavour unless you start off with a very organized plan-of-action. The more homework is expected, the more work it is for you wearing your hat as the ‘enforcer’ and ‘punisher’ when it doesn’t get done. If you have 9 different classes (like I did) then it can almost become a full time job in itself and not a very fun one at that.
If you are an organized person or at least have time before you start to get organized and sort out a record system that works for you, then you should be alright. But please, make sure you know what you are getting into long before you start.
3. Do you have other foreign teachers? Have you had? Why? Why not?
Culture shock goes both ways. Has the school dealt with foreigners on staff before? The question is not whether they want foreign teachers; the question is whether they know how to deal with foreign teachers.
If the answer is no, they’ve never had any foreign teachers, then you will be a culture shock to them. The school and the staff might have a specific way of doing things that they instinctively understand based on culture – they probably won’t appreciate all the things that need to be explained to an ‘outsider’. For this reason, an institute’s way of doing things; of interacting, of managing classes, their teaching methodologies, their attitudes towards professional development, just about everything could be very different. What it is to be an English teacher can mean very different things in different countries. With regard to professional development, even if your new colleagues are eager to learn from you (as you should be from them), bear in mind that change doesn’t come easily, even if people say they want it.
My warning here is to be aware of the energy needed to meet this day-to-day challenge of potential professional culture shock.
If the school has had foreign teachers, when was that? Recently, a couple of years ago, several years ago? The biggest questions here are “How long did they stay?” and “Why did they leave?” These are obvious questions to ask but, again, listen to the answers, especially for the latter question. If you get a few too many ‘it didn’t work out’ or ‘he was an alcoholic’ or ‘she was missing a lot of classes’ then all that might be true, but consider the common denominator here. If the management keeps mentioning the faults of lots of the people that don’t work there any more, that should be a big red flag.
If the school has foreign teachers right now, then you should definitely get their contact details and ask a few of these questions to them. I tend to believe you’ll get the truth. If all you get from any of your emails are positive reports, then be cautious though. Even the best schools have some things that could be better or some necessary evils or what-have-you – nowhere is perfect, but if someone is trying to make a place out to be perfect then be weary. If you don’t get a reply, email them again (politely, of course) and if that doesn’t bear fruit, get back in contact with the school and tell them. You might have been given a misspelled email address, it does happen.
3a. Can I get former teachers’ contact details?
This might just be me, but I have generally stayed in contact with the places I’ve worked that I got along with. If a school says they don’t have the contact details of any former teachers, you might want to consider that a red flag. As I said before, you’ve got to go with your instinct here and go with whether something feels right.
4. Don’t make assumptions regarding the wording of the contact. Question everything.
This again goes back to the point about cultural differences and culture shock. A written contract may make unnoticed assumptions based on the local or regional work/business culture. Also bear in mind that some cultures don’t work with contracts as much as others, so you might be getting a contract that has been written up for the sake of having a contract instead of as a document which clearly defines and delineates your role and responsibility in the organisation as well as that organisation’s responsibility to its employee.
I’ll digress here and say that I think contracts are wonderful things. Sure, I’ve heard lots of people say “Sorry, not part of my job description.” However, these comments reveal an attitude that would exist regardless of whether that person had no contract, a 10-word contract or a 100-page contract. What contracts do is reduce stress related to grey areas of responsibility. More than that, I’m one of those people who like to go the extra mile and don’t mind doing additional work from time to time. It’s nice to have recognition for a job well done or going above and beyond the call of duty… but if you don’t have a well-written contract defining your ‘call of duty’ then how can anybody, including yourself, recognize when you went above and beyond it! A weak contract or no contract is ultimately demotivating.
5. What age group will I be teaching?
Ability group and age group mean two completely different things for classroom management.
6. What variety of age groups will I be teaching?
‘Kids’ covers a wide range of ages and so does ‘adolescents’. From my recent experience I think you’ve got to get this answer down to a 2-3 year age bracket because the enormous difference between 12-14 and 15-17 almost demands a completely different skill set!
7. Will I be co-teaching? If so, is this something that is done often at the school?
I love co-teaching… when it is done well, when the school’s infrastructure is set up to support it, when my co-teachers know how to co-teach, when the strengths of this sharing are understood and exploited by educators to benefit themselves, their colleagues and their students. However, like everything else, it is a skill that sometimes needs some work and definitely needs support. This issue of support, in particular, is why it is important to ask about what the current set up at the school is. “We can try this when you arrive.” might sound good and certainly sends a positive message that management will listen to your suggestions and opinions, but the flip side of that coin is, once again “We haven’t done it before, we don’t have experience and you’ll be the guinea pig.”
To be continued…