It was a dark, damp night when the Alchemist got off the bus in a small, Central American beach town. He wore the garb of his arcane and mysterious profession – a dark suit of linear stripes, mirror-sharp footwear, and carried a black leather case full of flat, bleached wood pulp embossed with 44 mysterious black ink symbols arranged in linear rows. It had been raining for three days, and the rutted dirt streets ran red with mud, blood, and liquid spirits. His arrival from Cleve Land, an outpost in the Empire to the north, went unnoticed in the chaos of neon signs, weighted jungle foliage, and streets with no names or number associations. No One was there to meet or aid him, and he wanted for no One here at the edge of the Western World. His foreign sweat, mixed with jungle-steamed rainwater, ran in rivulets down skin that marked him as an outsider…an interloper…an emissary from the land of Commerce. His cellphone rang…it was her.
Alright, enough playing around. I’m here to discuss my personal experiences teaching ESL, English as a Second Language, and maybe relate a few experiences from trying to teach EFL, English as a First Language, if I feel like it.
First off – I had an interview to teach English at a Spanish Institute in the beach resort of Playa Tamarindo. This is the dream gig of every teacher, and maybe some real people also. What can be so hard about teaching English…especially if English is Your First Language? And, who wouldn’t want to live in a resort community, getting paid to work in a place where people spend $400 a night or more just to have a place to sleep with an air conditioner? And look at this classroom…open air, parrots flying about the campus, monkeys dropping in on class sessions, sloths sleeping in the roof supports – what could be better?
What could be better? There are a few considerations to take into account. Not everyone who knows how to speak English, even people with college or university degrees that imply they should know plenty about a specific subject, has the tools to pass that knowledge on to others. Teaching is an art. I know high school dropouts, surf bums, even criminals, who would make fine teachers. And, in the same vein, I know highly intelligent people, or educated, people who suck at teaching. I’ve met many of these people, enough of them as teachers in classrooms to make that statement with complete confidence.
So, just how should a language instructor prepare for such employment? Here’s a short list.
1) Schooling – Most language schools will require instructors to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree in some subject, and it need not be in the language they are to teach. While negotiating for my job at this school I slowly became convinced the English classes weren’t going to be enough to support me. I discovered they also needed a Social Studies tutor, an American History tutor, an Ancient History tutor, and a Science tutor. I became those things. Along with a basic degree, most language schools – and I mean most – will require an ESL, TEFL, TEOSL, or CELTA degree or certificate. The Cambridge University CELTA is the gold standard. They don’t come easy. A simple internet word search will reveal dozens upon dozens of “online schools” offering cheap certificates with the other acronyms on them, or one can be found at the end of a short higher education course. Easy enough. The main point is paper.
2) Paper, Paper, and More Paper – My ESL teaching experience came in Latin America, and Latin Americans love paper. The general rule for resumes in the U.S. is keep it to one page, so the HR department people can make a snap decision as to hiring you or the 12,428 other candidates crowding to fill a position. Not here, bucko…the more paper the better.
A three or four page resume, along with a photocopy of every degree, certificate, or good conduct award only adds luster to your qualifications. I even included a “work well done” commendation from a library I worked in while I was suffering through grad school. I would have discarded it long ago if I had recognized it for what it was. It had a fake gold leaf border, and an official-looking stamp on it, so I mistakenly chucked it in with my other degrees…it was treated with reverence south of the Rio Grande. I had no CELTA, TEFL, TESOL, ESL, or certificate of any other degree of competence attesting to my skill at teaching languages.
And, as any educated person knows, it’s impossible to perform even the smallest of tasks, such as boiling water, without large pieces of paper.
3) Teaching Experience – This is stressed by most prospective employers in the language instruction field, but there’s a first time for everybody. But, some type of teaching experience – any type – comes in handy. Do you have the personality for such work? Students can be difficult. Are you a good public speaker? Fewer people are than think they are. Can you adjust to the learning styles of “unique” students without losing the attention of the rest of the class?
I had one young genius that would hum songs, doodle castles and dragons, nod his head rhythmically, make faces at other students behind their backs, and generally carry on like a lunatic. He was driving me nuts…all my efforts and he was ignoring me. I stopped my lecture and asked him a question about a point I had made a couple of ideas back. He repeated what I had said word for word, adding his own interpretation of and thoughts on the subject. I didn’t even remember what I had said.
But, he was setting a bad example for the rest of the class whose brains weren’t as compartmentalized as his…what would you do in such a situation?
Would you cramp his learning process, or let the rest of the students follow his example until the whole class ran off the rails?
4) Flexibility – Besides dealing with unusual students, dysfunctional or non-existent classroom equipment, and dysfunctional or non-existent school staff or directors, can you adapt to often radically different climates, expectations, and local customs that may seem wasteful, useless, or at best, downright confusing? How well would you deal with a job interview after slogging through knee-deep mud, a good drenching in a tropical downpour, with a stomach-cramping case of the you-know-whats? Are you capable of restoring malfunctioning internet systems? Can you eat something that makes you sick to look at, let alone eat? Are you resourceful?
I was teaching creative writing for an at-risk-youth program, the kind where I had to disarm some students. The classroom supplies – several broken pencils and a couple of run-dry magic markers – were handed to me in a Tupperware container. I had to go to a local university, wander around the halls looking for un-guarded pens and pencils, and in the process found a packet of multi-colored binders, then discovered an unlocked supply room where I liberated several packages of computer paper, as well as four packages of lined-paper legal pads. I took a trash bag out of a garbage can, emptied it, and tossed my school supplies into it as I made my escape, only stopping at the information desk, where I slipped a plastic container containing paper clips and thumb tacks into my Santa Sack of necessities. Artful Dodger 101 is a pre-requisite for teaching in a Developing Nation.
5) More Flexibility – So, let’s say your teaching gig is a flop…let’s say that you can’t handle the spoiled rich brats and their sense of entitlement, and their defensive parents who think their little darlings can do no wrong…and all their shortcomings and problematic behavior becomes YOUR problem…then what? You’ve run your bank account dry moving to some shit hole of town in the middle of nowhere, and you’re getting hungry. Can you talk your way into some alternative employment – at least enough to get bus fare back to a city, and air fare back to what you consider civilization? Can you operate a boat? Catch fish? Guide Yak Tour Inc. customers up into the Himalayas? Burn your resumes, degrees, and library service appreciation awards for heat or to cook Iguana over? Handle an AK-47? Sell your body on the dusty streets of an oil-boom town?
You might have to.