Photo: Zoran Zeremski/Shutterstock

12 Fears That Only an ESL Teacher Will Understand

by Ash Merscher Sep 8, 2017

I knew that packing my entire life into a suitcase to teach abroad was a big decision, one that many tout as life-changing. And it’s been true, my experience sharing the secrets of the ABCs was one that will have a huge impact on my life. But it’s not all sushi, empanadas, and giggles. Teaching ESL comes with its challenges.

Here are 12 fears that only an ESL teacher will really understand:

1. Will my students stage a coup?

Maybe you’re a trained teacher with years of experience and numerous tricks up your sleeve, and good for you. However, (spoiler) a lot of ESL teachers are fresh out of college or in the middle of a career change, and may or may not know what a non-finite verb complement is. I lived with the fear that eventually the children would figure out that I was an imposter. The question now becomes, when will they revolt?

2. What is in my school’s breakfast?

I knew that in many cultures, refusing food may not just be rude, it may also be insensitive. But I had to ask myself, “Do I risk digesting that umpteenth piece of sugary bread while I’m about to blow up from bloat? Do I keep attempting to break-down that mystery meat that just won’t give? I knew the answers. Chew, swallow, wipe my tears, repeat.

3. Am I dressed correctly?

Today is the celebration of what? I’m supposed to wear black and white? It’s September 1st, which the locals believe is the start of autumn, and therefore my summer dress is inappropriate despite the 100-degree weather? Where are my slippers? I’m supposed to wear inside shoes? Oh, you think I need my hat/scarf/gloves/boots/wool socks for ten minutes of recess on this warm spring day? I’ve worked hard to embrace these cultural norms.

4. Will anyone miss me when I’m gone?

This thought can go through many teacher’s mind at the end of a school year. Most of us hope our hard work will have a long-term impact on the minds of tour students, but our doubt can also occur on a daily basis. My commute may include a bus, tram, trolley, rickshaw, or a combination of them all. After a few close calls with trucks whizzing around me while I attempt to navigate broken up construction zones in the middle of an unmarked crosswalk, I begin to wonder.

5. Am I truly a fool, or do I just feel like one?

Sometimes I feel like I’m teaching something valuable, but most of the time I suspect that I’ve been forced to make a fool out of myself. I had to thicken up my skin because not everyone is going to love my rendition of Farmer in The Dell, no matter how good my cheese standing alone is.

6. What did that student just say about me?!

An ESL student’s greatest weapon: their native language. No matter how many rules, rewards, or sanctions you establish about only speaking English in class, the students are going to, at the very least, whisper under their breath. And if they’re mad at you, you’re sure gonna get an attitude-filled whispers of foreign swearwords.

7. What is that weird rash on my foot and how do I explain it?

You’re living in a foreign country for at least a school year working in direct contact flu, head colds, rashes and more. Chances are, you will get sick. Now is the time to truly test your mental endurance. Can you find your way to your assigned health center in time to butcher their language enough to at least get a nod of understanding?

8. Will exhaustion ruin my holidays?

Working as a teacher in any country is tiring — combine that with acclimating to another culture, making all kinds of little mistakes, and the occasional bout of homesickness. At the beginning, I wanted to sleep through the entire winter break. But I realized that exploring a new land was one of the perks. Visions of winter markets and romping through picturesque villages carried me all the way to spring break.

9. Is there something on my pants?

Note to self: black pants and chalk do not mix. Neither does any type of clothing and sticky second-grade hands. Note to all of us: Wear your worst outfit on paint days in art class. Oh – and don’t get too bummed if you step on a grape, slide across the floor into a split, and rip the crotch of your favorite jeans. Just quickly recover and keep talking about irregular plural forms.

10. Will I ever win?

I sounded like a parrot: “No, you can’t sit by your best friend in class. Because you two will talk the entire time and I need you to listen and not distract each other. So, I can teach you and the other students. So, you can learn and have success and be happy. Don’t you want to be proud of yourself and be happy?” Yes, sitting by your friend in class would be a way to be happy… dang it.

11. Am I heartbroken or a heartbreaker?

Imagine an 8-year-old leaping into your lap to see your computer screen, then looking up at you with those big, brown eyes. Or a 6-year-old begging you to take their hand at all moments. Or consoling a student because you had to restrict the number of hugs she can give you in one day. These kids are going to fall in love with you, and you with them. Somebody will get their heart broken.

12. Can I die from laughing too much?

No matter how crazy, scary, intimidating, or challenging teaching ESL in a foreign country becomes, you’re probably going to laugh a lot. Maybe you teach adorable first graders — they say the most charming things (and their Halloween costumes will have you rolling) – or maybe the laughter occurs over nightly glasses of wine and venting sessions with your coworkers. Luck may have a lot to do with your overall experience as an ESL teacher, but try your best to stay positive and laugh off all the little stressors. I learned to do that and stayed sane — most of the time.

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