After a complicated period riddled with family problems, an ended relationship with my high school sweetheart, and a general sense of having outgrown my environment; obtaining my degree in Psychology was the lucky ticket I needed to get out of a stale life. I needed newness in my environment and had found an opportunity to embark on an amazing adventure: TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language.)
The plan was to obtain some international experience and head back home after a few months (a year max) with newfound knowledge and a broadened perspective. Though that ‘gap year’ teaching in Thailand turned out to be more than the brief hop overseas I’d had in mind. It was really the start of a brand new life.
TEFL has given many the opportunity to work and travel. However, everyone’s journey is different. There are some horror stories out there about people who have taken this route, and there are definitely pros and cons about teaching abroad.
- You get to broaden your horizons by experiencing other cultures (learning the language, eating the food, mingling with the locals, experiencing off-the-beaten-track spots…)
- Seeing how others live can really make you appreciate and see the good in your own life, country, household etc
- You are involved in a rewarding occupation where you can make a difference in people’s lives & give back to the world in some way (especially little children – they are so eager to learn!)
- You earn a pretty great salary (in South Africa, it would be incredibly difficult to make the kind of money I have been able to make in my teaching jobs abroad. Some governments in South East Asia subsidise native English teacher salaries)
- You work with a skill you already have (the ability to speak your native language)
- You work according to a school year, therefore your holiday breaks are a great perk! Long and frequent holidays provide opportunities for spending those savings on travelling and exploring around you.
- There is nothing like living your life independently, knowing that you overcame so many hurdles and made it on your own!
- It is difficult to know what kind of employer you’re getting involved with until you arrive in the country (I experienced this with my job in Singapore… super daunting!) Teaching experiences vary from school to school, and country to country so it is really not something you can clearly assertain at first.
- If you’ve taken the plunge to quit your job back home, sell your car or any kind of permanent decision like this (some people do) it isn’t quite that easy to turn back.
- You will feel thrown in the deep end (a lot)
- You’re out of the loop as far as your home country is concerned (you essentially begin your life from scratch)
It’s been about 3 years since I took that plunge to do my TEFL certificate in Thailand and I find myself still living in South East Asia today. It’s insane how the time flies; how that one decision lead to a whole new life!
My first teaching job took me from the TEFL training centre in Chiang Mai to a high school in Hua Hin. Overnight, I became a high school teacher. I had a homeroom. I taught 3 subjects to 3 grades. Most of my students had at least a basic level English proficiency-level. I turned out to be ‘one of the lucky ones’. I ended up being placed in a beach-side location where many expats end up retiring, so the language barrier wasn’t too much of an issue. I managed to learn a bit of Thai (just enough to get by when need-be), had a lot of Phad Thai and mango sticky rice, rode on a motorbike/ scooter daily, did kareoke with my Phillipino collegues, had the experience of joy to witness students have ‘aha-moments’; got a chance to explore some beautiful islands, and even got to spend a couple days in Laos during a visa run. These experiences were priceless.
Needless to say, when the going got tough, it really roughed me up. There were times I felt way in over my head. Being lost in Bangkok, having to deal with student’s family problems (teenagers in general) or massive language barriers during parent-teacher meetings (not to mention with my assistant Thai teacher), and there are so many more incidences I faced that, at times, made me question whether I was capable.
After my journey in Thailand came to an end, I returned home feeling like my world had expanded, and I could not imagine things ever being the same. I wasn’t the same. A restlessness filled my spirit. That’s when my brother told me about a girl he had met at a bar (LOL – wait for it). Turns out she had been teaching in Singapore and had to regrettably return back home to SA for a family emergency, which ended up keeping her back home. Her old position was available. So, I tried my luck. Next thing I knew, I was having a Skype interview with a prospective employer in Singapore and on my way to discovering what being a kindergarten teacher was all about!
Singapore was a whole new ball game in and of itself! It has challenged me in ways that Thailand didn’t. One thing is for sure, the feelings that hit you after that initial expat ‘honeymoon phase’ ends are not fun. Some people are lucky to immigrate with their partner, family member/s or friend/s but, in my case, I travelled solo. Making friends beyond acquaintances can be difficult. I spent most of my time at the schools I worked at, therefore, my collegues were the closest thing to friends I had. This could make for mostly surface-level interactions, and not adequately serve to fulfill the deep human need for genuine bonds. You try to hold onto connections back home through social media, only to feel more and more cut off as special events pass and it seems like life there has moved on without you. There have been many times where I suddenly wondered whether my chosen path was really working for me.
Through all the struggles, I can say that the growth that comes after is worth it. Teaching abroad has broadened my skillset:
- Finding my independence (taking responsibility for myself)
- Learning how to lead a group of people (taking respnsibility for a group of children)
- Building rapport and communicating with others (employers, teachers, students, parents, new friends)
- Solving problems I never in my wildest dreams could imagine encountering
- Improving my planning and organisation skills
These are few of the many abilities I brushed up on throughout my teaching and travelling journey. The most meaningful perk through it all was meeting my soulmate. I wasn’t looking for love, but I found it, and so much more, on this journey of a lifetime. If I could go back, I’d do it all again. Only, I’d save myself the stress of worrying, because all things work out in the end :).