Teaching English Abroad: A means to an end, or home away from home?

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Does your burning desire to travel keep you up at night?
Do you speak any other languages?
If no, are you an expert in skiing/snowboarding/sailing/scuba diving?

No? Well, worry no more. If you are reading this blog and understand all of my slang, phrasal verbs, use of the verb “to get” and collocations, your English is your golden ticket to a life abroad.

So, how do you feel about teaching English?

While this is indeed a fictional conversation, I’m certain that it has taken place many thousands of times, over the years, all over the world. If you are wondering how I became such an expert on the topic, the answer is possibly one of the most surprising things that has ever happened to me. I’m a Californian, and I have been living in Bologna, Italy, for two years. My career path twisted and turned enough to dump me out in Italy for what was supposed to be a period of one year. And at the conclusion of that year, I realized I wasn’t nearly ready to return to normal life in the U.S. So, what could I possibly do to sustain myself here? Why, teach English of course.

I wish I had a time machine and could have read my own blog before I moved to Italy. Instead, I spoke less than ten words in Italian when I touched down here two years ago, and had no idea how I would possibly make money. Crazy you say? I think yes. Believe me, getting settled hasn’t been a cakewalk. But every little setback and frustration has been completely and utterly worth it. My time living in Europe is pretty much the most important period of my life to date. I thank my lucky stars that this opportunity fell in my lap.

And now, at the age of 32, with two masters degrees and fifteen years of work experience, I find myself living like a college student in Bologna and spending most of my days hissing like a snake in a hopeless effort to remind my students not to forget the “s” when speaking in the third person.

My English teaching colleagues span the career spectrum from college student to lawyer to security guard, and come from the United States, Australia, and Ireland. You can find us with the heaviest backpacks, standing at bus stops with our lunch in our hands. I can safely say that none of us imagined ourselves as being experts at explaining the usage of the present perfect verb tense, but I guess weirder things have happened. No matter what the economy is like, people will always spend money to learn English, and therefore, there is always a demand for mother tongue English teachers. And that is great news for you, because no matter what your skills are in teaching English – from none to expert – it means you can live wherever you want in the world, and pay your way through this profession. But while becoming an English teacher is quite easy, being a good English teacher is not so easy.

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My students watching Obama’s acceptance speech.

A deceptively simple occupation from an outsider’s perspective, the reality is teaching English is a constant juggling act of the infinite needs of a student body that includes every imaginable age, learning type, background, and English level. Being a good English teacher mandates a drive and a determination to rise above the mediocrity of the industry in an effort to not only share the gift of our native language, but to fill the many challenging roles that go along with teaching including diplomacy, psychology, and friendship. This isn’t an easy task. But the payback is exponential (notice the use of “payback” and not “paycheck).

There are circuits of international schools around the world that allow their teachers to spend their lives moving from city to city, teaching at different international schools within the circuit, and exploring different countries. Coincidentally, a close friend of mine from my hometown is doing just that. We ran into each other by chance in Bologna, and after living here for a year and a half, making a living by teaching English at a wealthy private English school, he has now moved on to China, where he is teaching for a private English school owned by Disney. He loves it.

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My students at the Mediateca library in San Lazzaro always remind me to wear my jacket.

Not only does teaching allow you to earn the money you need to live in the country of your dreams, but the students you teach help you build the support network you need to acclimate to and live happily in the country of your dreams, which is the least talked about and most important aspect of this job. Every Friday at the local library my longtime students make me feel a little less homesick for my Aunt Suzanne, as they know the ins and outs of my love life and even remind me to wear my jacket. When I miss my nephew, every Monday and Friday I enjoy my youngest student just a little more, especially when I get to help him decorate the Christmas tree, which was especially important this year since I didn’t get to go home for Christmas. When my Saturday afternoon student cried on my shoulder after her boyfriend broke up with her, I felt like the big sister I always wished I was (I’m an only child). And I was overwhelmed when one of my students called me from the hospital just before Christmas to apologize for missing our last class, and to give me the information for a theatre group he was encouraging me to join. Through my students I know the ins and outs of Bologna in a way that some of my Bolognese friends can’t even understand.

I feel utterly blessed, and I wonder how I could have possibly been so remiss as to never have considered moving abroad earlier in my life. But then I remember that after discovering my love of theatre at the age of 11, I’ve spent the better part of my life completely absorbed in my career oriented-ness. Unfortunately, I spent little time pondering what I wanted from life aside from my career goals. Fancy that. How American of me.

I have written this blog in the hopes that my unexpected adventures in the life of an English teacher will somehow inspire you to think about what you want from life, and not what you want from your job. And if what you want from life somehow includes traveling, all the better. Now you know how to finance it.

And the next time you are in Italy and happen to see someone on the bus reviewing an English grammar book, do say hello.

Bon voyage. 🙂

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