I hear - or better said read - a lot of those overly positive stories about how wonderful and amazing teaching abroad is. You get paid to live, travel and work in another country. It definitely sounds like a dream! I have to admit, it is an enriching experience. But what if the work isn't really what you expected, what if your colleagues are a pain in the ass, what if teaching abroad appears to be not your type of cookie and what if you eventually don't get paid for your work? That's why I want to tell you a few things about teaching abroad that almost made me quit the job.
It's half past eight in the morning. I'm sitting outside on the patio enjoying my morning ritual – drinking a big cup of coffee while smoking a rollie. I'm still half asleep and I'm listening to the peaceful sounds that the early morning brings. Very soon the silence will be broken by the cheerful sounds of the students who will get ready for breakfast and a new day filled with English classes and activities. I'm currently volunteering for a few weeks as an English teacher on a summer camp in a small Turkish village. It's fun but intense as I'm 24/7 surrounded by a group of energetic children.
The summer camp is nearly over. Although I'm looking forward to get some proper rest, I will miss the daily routine of teaching English and hanging out with the students. They are a cheerful bunch. Especially the last group who are mainly teenagers. It's the first time that I'm teaching to students of this age and I was quite nervous about it. I recalled how teenagers can be like in a school situation – bored, rebellious, filled with hormones,... but here I have nothing to complain about. The students of my group are great. They are enthusiastic, cooperative, attentive (once they are fully awake) and are genuinely interested in my classes.
It's interesting to see how the learning process changes when you take it out of a school context. The atmosphere in the classes is pleasant and amiable. The kids are here by their own free will and are happy to learn. I don't need to discipline them or make strict rules. The students know that they can be their own free and creative selves and feel comfortable to learn on their own tempo. My way of teaching also changes when I'm not part of a school system. I can make my own classes, chose my own subjects without having to follow a lesson plan made by someone else. I'm free to adjust and make changes according to the level of the students without having to explain myself. I don't have to meet any expectations and follow rules created by a boss. It makes me feel free and relaxed which makes it so much more enjoyable to give classes! For years I haven't felt such joy and enthusiasm while I was teaching.
How I became a teacher and regretted that choice
For a very long time I doubted if I had made the right choice to become a teacher. I was eighteen years old when I enrolled in college for the teacher training in Bruges (Belgium). It's actually kind of crazy that I had to choose a job at that young age. A job that I was expected to do for the rest of my life. Heck, I still had so many teenage hormones running through my body. How in the world could I know what I wanted to do for a living when I knew so little about life and myself? But I was expected to go to college or university so I had to make a choice. Secretly I wanted to become an adventurer like Indiana Jones but sadly enough there is no such degree. So instead I chose the path of a teacher. Why? Because I like bossing children around and telling people what to do - no, not really. The main reason was that it could open doors for a job abroad. I also considered becoming a nurse but with my weird phobia for vomit, it wouldn't have been the best choice...
After graduating I entered the exciting world of being an employee, which meant I was teaching in many different schools as a substitute teacher while hoping that one day I could have a proper full-time teaching position. That ambition disappeared soon when I realized that I actually didn't really like this job. There was something about working in a school that made me feel claustrophobic and tense. I often felt like a student who had to constantly perform well and stick to the rules. I also felt like a juggler; participating in many meetings, trying to be up to date with my administrative work and pleasing parents, colleagues, headmasters and school management. I also couldn't forget to prepare my classes following the strict lesson plans. I often felt more like a parent, secretary and therapist than an actual teacher. When my latest contract as substitute teacher came to an end, I decided to throw in the towel. I had enough. I still remember the first day after I made that decision. I had no idea how I was going to pay my bills but I felt so relieved and free. Shortly after that I gave my life an even bigger twist. I left my home country behind and went to explore the big wide world.
During the first months of my travels I was having the best time ever. I had no worries and was fully enjoying Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia. Unfortunately my bank account wasn't as endless as the number pi so at some stage I had to find a way of earning money to keep maintaining my super-low-budget lifestyle. I did all sorts of jobs, as you can read in How to earn money while traveling but it never crossed my mind to teach. I had done some teaching in Africa when I was still in college and it wasn't as wonderful as it might sound. And it wasn't because I accidentally became the first wife of a Senegalese man while I was there...
My Senegalese adventure
When my college offered me the chance to do an internship in Senegal, I was twenty years old and in my last year of the teacher training . Needless to say I grabbed this opportunity with both hands. I left on a two month adventure, together with a co-student. I was still very naïve and made the mistake of having high expectations. I saw it as a romantic expedition where I would be doing some amazing 'charity' work and would make a big difference in the lives of the children and teachers.
The school was privately owned by a rich couple who invested the money that I had collected for the education of the kids in building a new extension to their house. The school itself was very big, with a minimum of 50 students in each class. Every week I had to change classroom where I would first observe the students and then teach in French. The kids barely had any books and were writing on little chalkboards. The teachers were very authoritative and some of them were even hitting the students with a stick or a rubber hose when they were not paying attention. I was shocked and it hurt me to see how scared the kids were of their teachers.
* Side-note: before you get a bad impression of the school, I want to mention that not all the teachers were like this. Most of them were really good people and genuinely cared for their students.
Whenever my colleague and I wanted to show those few 'bad' teachers a more gentle way to discipline the children, they didn't have ears for it. They saw us as these young foreign trainees invading their space. Who were we to tell them how they should teach. I have to admit, they had a point there but I was hoping that they would just stop using the 'beat-the-child-when-he's-bad' method. Anyway, our attempts were fruitless. As were the classes we were trying to give. Our 'mentors' couldn't care less with what we had prepared and interfered a lot while we were teaching. They wanted us to follow their rules and methods. But no way I would touch that hose, although I sometimes felt like hitting that particular teacher with it!
The only thing that I really enjoyed was the after school tutoring. My classmate and I had suggested to give extra classes to students who had learning problems. This was the only idea that got accepted with some enthusiasm. Every teacher selected five students to whom we gave remedial classes three times a week. During those hours I had the complete freedom of teaching what I wanted in the way I wanted. I can modestly say that my students were having a great time and yep, so did I!
Eventually my experience was not that bad but it definitely broke my illusion that teaching abroad was romantic. I got a good reality check!
From shepherding to teaching
I didn't consider to work as a teacher abroad anymore until it was almost literally fell into my lap.
I was working on a sheep farm in New Zealand. I had a temporary contract to help out during lambing season. I loved this job and until today it is one of the most fun -and smelly- jobs I've ever done! The season was almost over when the farmer's wife proposed to me another job. She was in the council of the local school and they were looking for a special needs teacher. She thought I would be perfect for the job. She must have noticed my patience and resilience during the delivery and nursing of more than five hundred lambs, not to mention being attacked by some crazy sheep...
The village school was a beautiful little building with lots of big windows that looked out on majestic mountains. It had about eighty students and most of the kids were living on nearby farms. It was a cosy little school with a pleasant atmosphere. My job was to give one-on-one remedial classes to students with learning problems and once a week I had to care for a severely autistic ten-year old boy with the mental capacity of a three-year old. This was a new situation for me but it was very enriching. The less pleasant part was to change his diaper but after my work on the sheep farm, where part of my job was picking up dead lambs and sheep which had been rotting in the fields for a few weeks, my stomach had become a lot stronger!
What was harder to deal with, were the other teachers. I don't know if it had to do with being part of a small community or if it's just something that teachers do, but nearly in every break they were complaining or gossiping. They were also not very open-minded nor did they like to cooperate with me. With the exception of three teachers who were genuinely happy with my assistance and with whom I came along well, the others didn't really care about what I did with their special needs students nor were they open to any suggestions. I didn't really feel part of the team. Even though I really enjoyed teaching in that school, I was happy when my interim contract finished. So it's not only important that you like what you do, having a positive relationship with your co-workers definitely contributes to a feeling of well-being in the work place!
So it it's not hard to figure out why I doubted my choice of becoming a school teacher. No matter which school I entered, there was always something that took away my enthusiasm for the job. So I gave up teaching until a couple of months ago...
An unexpected opportunity in Turkey
We were about to leave Turkey when on our very last day we met a lovely woman called Sevil. Watch this video to see the full story. We were going to spend the night in her house before leaving for Georgia. When we joined her that night on the terrace for a glass of vodka, she told us that she was organizing an English summer camp for the local children and that she was looking for teachers. When Niko and I told her that we both had experience in teaching, it almost seemed like it was meant to be. We liked her project and that night we decided that we would stay for the summer and volunteer as teachers on her camp.
For a little while I was doubting. Did I make the right call or would this be another bummer? I also doubted my own abilities. I wasn't sure anymore if I was a good teacher. That am-I-really-good-enough question was lurking in my mind. But I would only find out if I tried. And I'm glad I did!
While I'm finishing my coffee and hear the cheerful shouts of the students who are joining the breakfast table, I am very happy to be here. This summer camp has helped me overcome my doubts and resistance to being a teacher. We worked with a small team but we were aligned and helped each other out. The camp also gave me back the confidence that I needed. Sevil gave us the freedom to make our own lesson plan so I was my own boss. Seeing how the kids were interested in my classes, made a lot of progress and had fun while learning was the most rewarding part! I saw some photos of me passing by on their Instagram and Snapchat account with the caption 'best teacher ever' or 'I love my teacher'. That gave me such a big boost! Another thing I won't forget is the hug and gratitude I received from one of the parents who was so happy with the progress her daughter made. She saw how happy and enthusiastic her daughter was while learning English. Those are moments that really touch my soul and will stay with me.
I am aware now of what makes or breaks the joy for a job. I don't regret the choices I've made, nor do I regret having my 'bad' experiences. They all taught me something and helped me making better choices and moving towards a path that I really enjoy walking on. Maybe one day I'll start my own school, a little building in the outdoors with big windows and classes that are aimed at giving the children confidence, joy and creative freedom in the learning process. Ah, isn't this an idyllic dream? But hey, who knows what the future might bring.
For now I've found an online teaching job which I just love love love! Check out The Ultimate Guide for Online Teaching if you would be interested too!
Check out this video to see all the fun activities we did with the kids during the summer camp in Turkey.