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Questions for a potential employer and why you should ask them, pt 2 (The ‘Social’ Questions)

Moving to another country is a big decision, even if it is only for a six-month or one-year contract.  We hear about culture shock all the time and in my experience it always hits you when and where you don’t expect it.  The first time I worked abroad was in Mexico but I was so mentally prepared to be lost at sea and confused by everything and anything that it never really happened (I also must credit a great group of teachers I worked with who became dear, dear friends).

No, I got the culture shock when I returned to Britain.  I thought I’d be able to fit back in and suddenly I saw a lot of aspects of the culture that I didn’t like and that depressed me for a little while.  I overcame that, adjusted and had a great couple of years down in Portsmouth on the south coast.

And then I moved again and it was with the job I just finished that I really had problems and this is what prompted this post.  I feel I was unprepared both intellectually and emotionally for this job and I’ll explain why with this list of questions I should have asked with answers I should have based my decision on.

It’s difficult to know what to ask but here are a few suggestions and, as I said in my previous post (Part 1: The ‘Professional’ Questions) my best advice is to get solid answers.  You aren’t stupid if you don’t understand the answers you get and don’t expect them to be any clearer when you arrive.  If your potential employer can’t explain something clearly on the phone, Skype or an email, then you’re unlikely to get a better explanation in person.  Also, if the answer really is that complicated then it probably isn’t the answer you are looking for.

Anyway, following on from the ‘professional’ questions

Part 2: The ‘Social’ Questions

8.  What is there to do where I will be living?

You’ve got to make sure you get specifics here and if the answers are not particularly forthcoming or seem a little bit thin, trust your instincts and your gut and realize that you are probably looking at a job which is in a really boring part of the world.

This is a difficult one to write about because sometimes there doesn’t need to be much happening in a town for it to be a great place to work and live, but things like cinemas, bars, restaurants, etc. all make things easier (at least they do for me).  Sure, everywhere has got bars and restaurants, but would your employer recommend them?  Does your employer have a favourite one?  If not, then you can’t know if these places will be fun or even safe.  (Obviously in Islamic countries this situation is a little different and I should make clear that I’m not writing with any experience of that area of the world.)

9.  What do people do and where do they do it?

This is a very specific question and perhaps similar to my previous question but there are some differences and they are important.  When you ask the first question, “What is there to do where I will be living?” the person you are asking is thinking about what you, the foreigner, can do.  If you follow up with this question, you are forcing an answer which talks more about the natives of that town/city.

If you are told about some big event they have every year, that’s great… but what do people do for the other, 3 seasons, 11 months or even 364 days a year?  If you are told about all these great places that people travel to at the weekend then you have to read between the lines: people don’t stay in that town/city at the weekends because there probably isn’t anything to do there!  So you will need to accept that recreation and fun may need a little bit of travelling and English language teachers usually don’t have the luxury of cars in foreign countries.

10.  How friendly are the people?

This might sound a little direct and maybe even a stupid question but it might be the most important question you ask.  For me and probably for most people, a place is made up of its people.  If you are going to be working somewhere for six months or a year you’ve got to have an idea of the people you’ll be living amongst.

If you have access to a car or a boat or whatever then there might be lots of things to do, but you aren’t going to have a car or boat so you must remember that you’ll likely be far more dependent on invitations from others to join them.  If you are going to be travelling somewhere where the people aren’t so open and friendly then a lot of things which “you” can do won’t really be available to you.

This is a difficult question to get a real answer from but a few questions you might was to ask that are less direct are:

  1. How often do you all (the school staff) meet up for drinks, dinner or a picnic?  (In other words, how sociable is the working environment going to be.)
  2. What bars/restaurants are close to the school that you’d recommend?  What do they serve and how often do you go there?
  3. What clubs/organizations are there for me to join?

If the answers to these questions are not forthcoming, that should be a warning sign that there’s not much to do, or at the very least that your first contacts in this country, your work colleagues, will be unable to help you in this respect.

11.  Take a look on Google Maps and, if available, take a look at Street View.

This is an obvious step to take but here the key is to look at what you are seeing.

12.  How much English can I expect to encounter on the streets?

If you don’t have any of the language (or, like I was, you are a dodgy intermediate) then this is actually a very important question.  Just how isolating is the lack of your native language going to be?  In a lot of countries, the bigger cities are a haven for English-speaking while further out from the conurbations you might find it difficult to meet English speakers.  You don’t want to have to teach every person you encounter when you are living abroad.  Your classes are for teaching English, you then need to have one of the following things:

  1. A similar group of foreign teachers who you can relax with in English.
  2. A group of native friends who are proficient in English and you don’t need to worry about grading your language.
  3. An inexhaustible energy to wear your ‘English teacher’ hat 24/7 making every conversation a mini-English class.
  4. Fluency in the local L1.
  5. A determination to spend every waking moment improving your relevant L2 language skills.
  6. The ability to happily spend your off hours by yourself.

13.  Where can I join language classes?  How often and how much?

This shouldn’t be an optional extra which ‘would be nice’.  See the above interview excerpt from Scott Thornbury to understand what I mean.  I did ask about this before arriving but I accepted a very vague answer which really came to very little.  If you want to learn the language then you should be stubborn about this and get some solid answers.

Are there language classes available at a local college or at the institute I will be working in?  Quite possibly not.  That’s okay, but then you need to ask to be put in contact with someone who will agree to teach you when you arrive.

How many people have they taught before?  What level?  What material do they use?  What qualifications do they have?  Qualifications aren’t a necessity and might be quite difficult to come by, but they can be a useful indicator.

Negotiate a price after you arrive and you have a better idea about the local money but everything else should be as clear as possible before you get on the plane.

And there it is, finishing on 13, unlucky for some.  I hope you see that I’m not warning against travelling or working in other countries – nothing could be further from the truth.  This post is about awareness, mostly my own awareness so that next time I look at a job abroad I’ll refer back to this list and hopefully make more informed decisions.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2011 in Recommendations, Reflections

 

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Questions for a potential employer and why you should ask them, pt 1 (The ‘Professional’ Questions)

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.

  1. I’m a NEST (Native English Speaking Teacher) so I’m writing from that perspective.
  2. 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…

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2011 in Recommendations, Reflections

 

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Blog Recommendation – Why do we take it so personally?

Cecilia Lemos has just posted a very interesting article on learning responsibility and teacher guilt.  If you haven’t read it yet, you should.

Why Do We Take It So Personally by Cecilia Lemos on her blog, Box of Chocolate

Thanks Ceri!

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2011 in Recommendations

 

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Blogpost Recommendation – Stress in TEFL

At the moment I am only half way through reading this article from David on the ELT World Blog but already it has got me thinking about my working life and about my stress levels.

Reducing Stress in the TEFL Profession discusses identifying the causes of stress, identifying those causes, identifying the symptoms of stress as well as a variety of recommendations to reduce stress levels.

Personally, this is something I will be working on because, despite my experience, I can still sometimes wake up stressed in the morning thinking about classes I need to teach that day.  This article is helping me not to avoid that stress but focus on it and try to figure out why it is there in the first place.  Thank you, David!

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2011 in Recommendations

 

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