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8 Challenges for Today's ESL Teachers (and How to Handle Them)

by Turner Wright Jan 22, 2014
1. Contracts

What sometimes happens:
a. You fly into a new country on a one-way ticket and are expecting to find someone waiting for you at the airport to take you to your single apartment for a few days off before starting a trial period with the outgoing teacher. Instead, you’re left standing by baggage claim and have to navigate public transportation to discover you have a messy, noisy roommate and you’ll be teaching your own classes, sans training, the following day.

b. You’ve asked for permission to take a few days’ off over the Christmas holiday and decide to go to the Philippines. Two days before you’re set to leave, your manager informs you you need to desk-warm (stay in the school when no students or other employees are around) during your vacation time.

c. You haven’t been paid for two months, and it’s looking like your academy is going out of business.

How you should handle it:
a. To minimize the chance you’ll be placed in a very uncomfortable working situation abroad, you need to prepare. During your initial interview, ask to speak to other foreign teachers. Ask for pictures of your apartment and confirm you’ll be living alone. Research the school’s reputation for being honest. If anything is different upon arrival, decide whether you want to suck it up or walk away. It’s your choice.

b. Although having vacations moved or cancelled is a possibility in any company, desk-warming is usually limited to teachers working in public schools in South Korea. As a foreign employee, you’re given a set amount of days off every year. However, these do not necessarily coincide with those holidays Korean teachers are given. As a result, teachers are expected to sit at their desk when everyone else is on holiday; often, this is during the winter and the heat isn’t turned on.

I’d recommend standing your ground or walking away, but some enjoy the opportunity to just relax and use Facebook under the guise of working. When other teachers have been told they have to go to an empty building and sit at a desk when they’ve already paid for non-refundable plane tickets and hotels, they sometimes just take all their belongings with them and keep traveling.

c. Depending on the situation, you may have legal avenues to pursue. Are you working on a legal visa? Do you have a contact in the local labor board? Any leverage with your manager? Many disreputable schools take advantage of fresh recruits with little knowledge of the system available to them. If you’re unprepared for a fight, you might have to cut your losses.

2. Dealing with precedents set by other teachers

Despite ESL seeming to be a well-established profession across the world, most countries are still figuring out how to handle foreign language instructors permeating their working culture. If one teacher from 1984 created problems or established a weird precedent, you’re going to be paying for it in some manner.

Case in point: Two NOVA teachers in Japan were arrested for possession of marijuana back in 2006. There are now regular seminars denouncing drug use and employees are interrogated often. In Korea, you may have to take a blood test when starting or renewing contracts.

How you should handle it:
Lead by example. You may not be able to change the system in your year abroad, but by doing a job well with little incident, you show your managers and coworkers not all foreign language teachers are late, boozing, sex-crazed, immature louts just trying to stay out of their parents’ basements.

3. Bad managers

Bad managers are everywhere. Cultural differences and the stress of living in a foreign country only exacerbate this when you have one.

How you should handle it:
If it’s simply a matter of your manager being an evil human being, there’s very little to be done. However, if it’s a case of misunderstandings or cultural differences, the burden is on you to remedy the situation. Remember, you are the guest in a different country. See if you’ve done anything to accidentally offend your boss. Study up on local customs to see if you can make a good second first impression.

4. Culture shock

No one can be fully integrated into a different culture, as much as we might want to be at times. There’s always going to be a trigger, a moment that makes you realize how far from home you truly are, and how long it will be before you can get back.

How you should handle it:
Use teaching as your own learning experience. Though this may sound like you’re taking advantage of students, I’d describe it as a symbiotic relationship; you get to teach them something about your country and language, and vice versa. The difference is, while they may never reap the benefits of your knowledge, you can use theirs immediately.

Take some time each month, once a week, or maybe every day to have a homesick moment. For me, this means eating pizza and watching the Daily Show. Whatever comforts you can find, save them for when you know you’ll need a break.

5. English immersion

The main reason you’re going to be hired as an English teacher is to fully immerse students in the language. This means none of their native language escaping your lips at any time for any reason. In some cases, you’ll actually be contractually obligated to only speak English and can be reprimanded for not doing so.

What this means for you as a teacher is dependent on your students and coworkers. If you’re teaching children, you’ll have to establish your authority early on to try and maintain order… for kindergarteners and younger ones, this is next to impossible solely using English. Even with older children who have a little more restraint and respect, you should expect the occasional insult and laugh at your expense.

Not knowing the language also means limited communication with coworkers and parents, and the risk of you losing control of your reputation. Even in foreign countries, some things like office politics are exactly the same. Some teachers won’t like the fact you get special treatment as a foreigner; in Japan, you’re paid significantly more and are able to use your holidays.

How you should handle it:
In my experience, the key to handling children you can’t understand is to simply break the rules and learn enough of their language to insert the right command when the situation calls for it — i.e., “sit down, be quiet, read, don’t swear.” If you can convince them you understand what they’re saying, but simply choose not to speak their language, I would consider that a small success. It’s not really necessary when schooling adults.

6. Accepting your experience and professionalism often mean nothing

The ESL profession across the globe is lacking standards. In Peru, backpackers of any nationality (who can speak English) can just walk into a private academy and expect to get a job. TEFL certification is only required at some schools in Thailand. Even the United Arab Emirates has gotten on the bandwagon of “hire first, deal with incompetency later.”

The reason for this, I believe, is two-fold: 1) Many schools want new, naïve teachers who have no knowledge of the industry and little experience in the working world so they can be easily manipulated and controlled. Call me a conspiracy nut if you like, but the fact remains the ESL profession outside of universities is dominated by young 20-somethings, most of whom are enjoying their first time out of their home countries. If recruiters and schools really cared about bringing in qualified and experienced teachers, why not hire 40-, 50-, and 60-year-olds who have decades in the classroom? Because, 2) Keeping the workforce young and fresh keeps costs down by not requiring raises, benefits, and pensions; a 20-year veteran of teaching English in Canada would make an excellent addition to the staff at Disney English in China, but you might actually have to pay her what she’s worth.

How you should handle it:
Accept your place in the system. Getting frustrated or trying to fight the man is futile. Just smile and enjoy the ride; you’re still having an amazing experience.

7. Lack of student inhibitions

One of the difficulties in being a teacher in any subject is the desire to be close to students while still maintaining a barrier of professionalism in the classroom. You want to be friendly, but not so much that they think they can goof off and avoid the lesson. If this barrier is shattered, it can amount to rather personal questions like, “Are you married?” and “How much money do you make?” ESL students in Asia have been known to be rather physical by American standards (just google “kancho”), pulling on arm hair and pinching and touching teachers.

How you should handle it:
Establish boundaries early on. The key in any ESL program is being an edutainer: entertaining enough to engage students, but professional enough to ensure they still learn. When confronted with the idea that something is perfectly acceptable according to local culture, stand your ground and admit you’re open to new experiences, but some things are too much.

8. Being the outsider

What gets to me are the stares, and the meaning behind them. Namely, that this creature at the head of the classroom is different than anything I’ve encountered before, and I’m not sure whether I should listen to it or ignore it and maybe it will go away on its own. Next are the questions — can you use chopsticks, can you eat kimchi — and the assumptions (“Don’t all Americans own guns and smoke?”). It was part of the reason I eventually left Japan, believing I could never get past this mentality of the eternal tourist.

Learning just how racist some of my students could be didn’t help matters. I understood this was due to lack of exposure to other races and cultures, but I personally found it to be frustrating. One university-educated woman in Peru stretched her eyes when talking about Asians and refused to believe Japanese and Chinese were that different. One Korean girl opened her mouth and used her hand to make a native American war cry. I’ve heard from many African Americans that schools often refuse to even consider their applications when they discover they’re black.

How you should handle it:
Again, lead by example. Like it or not, you are a representative of your country, your race, and your gender, and you will become increasingly aware of that as the months pass by. Realize that these assumptions come from ignorance, and try to teach your students otherwise; I’m not saying it won’t be difficult, but even challenging these falsehoods is progress.

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