6 Things I Stopped Giving a Sh*t About After Teaching English Abroad

by Sandra Guedes Nov 17, 2016

1. Having all the answers.

I remember how my belly twisted and turned when a student asked me to explain the different clauses and why there were so many. It was my first week and my first time I was in the teacher’s spotlight — the person who is meant to know all the answers. My mind was a black hole. I looked at my supervisor blankly. He stood up and took over. I sat down and wished I could throw up in the black bucket next to the white board. That night when I got home I cried, safely hidden away from everyone’s eyes.

I thought students surely thought I was not good enough and that I did not know the answer. Wrong! I was the one judging myself. And even if they did, why would it matter? I knew the answer, but it was the first time I had heard the question. I felt overwhelmed and I froze. So what? Crying would not fix it. I started my teaching career looking dumb in front of a group of students. Was there anything I could do about it? Quit or accept it. Accepting it would mean accepting that sometimes I would know the answer, sometimes I would not. Sometimes I would know how to explain things, sometimes I would not. Interested students would ask regardless, because they wanted to learn, and a good teacher either knows where to find the answer, or learns to say, “That’s a good question. Why don’t you find out and share it with the class tomorrow?”

2. Thinking I had to be serious at work.

Even when I worked as a tour guide I was serious. After all, I was responsible for the fun and safety of my group. However, it’s not the same in a classroom filled with tired working adults who worked over ten hours that day in the hotel industry. Most often than not, they were sitting in the class because they were trying to get promoted or because someone else had paid for their classes. Really, if they could, they would go home, take their shoes off, put their feet up, let their hair down and drink an icy cold beer to erase the day.

For many of my students, the English class was a sacrifice, a necessary evil to make their life better. I could either take my job seriously and turn that hour into another daily chore, or turn it around, play games, blindfold them, move the chair around, make them laugh and run around the class giving them high fives. The more fun we had, the harder they worked, without even realizing they were working.

3. Not being a native teacher.

I was born in Portugal. English was one of my favorite subject — mainly because it was so much easier for me than French. I lived in England for seven years, most of it with an English family and completed a TEFL qualification while living with them. Although I really wanted to teach English abroad, I was convinced English natives were better suited for the role, so I started teaching Portuguese. It was a nightmare. I had no idea why my students did not understand the things I had known all my life.

My fellow American and British teachers suffered from the same problem. We did not question our respective parents who taught us a new word. And we did not even question our teachers half as much as we should have. Natives have the right accent and know when something sounds right. But it’s not where we are born that defines how good we are at teaching something. It’s how much effort we put into learning something. I did not make much effort to learn Portuguese. It was all around me, in every literature book I read and in every class I attended. With English it was different. I had to learn clever tips and tricks to remember and to assimilate as much as I could. I understood why students asked many questions, because I had, too.

4. Fancy job titles.

The first time I walked in a hotel about to teach a group of experienced managers my lips were dry and my heart was pumping fast. My supervisor walked beside me happy, he had a new teacher. My legs were stiff. It was hard to stand up in front of a group of people wearing suits and ties and telling them, “I am here to teach you.”

In less than a month it stopped making a difference. It did not matter if a student was a 5 Diamond Hotel Manager, a Football Manager who earns more in a year that I will earn in ten, a housewife or a teenager. They all had their passions and specialities, their stories, their dreams and their careers, but I knew at least one thing they did not.

5. Copying others.

At the age of 16, when my first boss, a restaurant owner, said, “Congratulations, the job is yours,” I called my father terrorized. That night we dined at a restaurant, not for fun, but for research. We stayed until I was satisfied that I had memorized all their movements and sentences. At the end of my first shift, my boss said, “You are really good. Are you sure you have not done this before?” Working became not scary at all. It was a game. All I had to do was to pick my favorite character and act the same way.

It worked well until I decided to teach English. I sat down for days in different language classes from French to Spanish and German. In theory it should be easy, I had the qualification and many pages of notes with different techniques and games to keep students engaged. But it did not work. Teaching was so much more than the knowledge I gathered over the years. Every class was just as unique as every group of students. I could not deliver the class as other teachers did, because I was not them. I had no choice but to be myself.

6. Having an accent.

It makes me cringe when I hear someone say, “I do not have an accent.” I never figured out how to explain that just because we sound like everyone else around us, it does not mean that we do not have an accent. It means that we are around people who learned a language in the same area as we did. When we speak, the tone and vibration of each unique voice represents the places that person lived, the friends they met, their teachers and the roads they traveled.

In the USA, people tell me I have a British accent. In the UK, they say I have an American twang. By the end of a summer working in Croatia with Aussies and Kiwis, people started asking me if I had ever been to Australia. Can’t wait to see what they say in South Africa! It does not matter how I sound, the only English speakers I cannot communicate with are the drunken Irish.

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