Thursday, July 3, 2014

[Teach Abroad Blog Carnival] Unintentionally becoming an ESL teacher

[Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL-related article on my blog at the beginning of every month, and the carnival is published on the 5th by its host. If you'd like to participate in next month's Blog Carnival, you can find details in the above link.]

Sarah Steinmetz is this month's carnival host, and you can find all of the July Teach Abroad Blog Carnival entries here at her blog.

Prompt: How and why did you decided to become an ESL teacher? What was your decision-making process?

I have now taught ESL in Spain, Wisconsin, and South Korea; so I'll share the thought that went into (and didn't go into) each decision to teach.

Private English lessons in Madrid

My relationship with teaching English began when it practically fell into my lap during my study abroad year in Madrid. Our program coordinator suggested we teach private English lessons to make a little side money. Our study abroad program office actually advertised for us, and thus had interested families that were matched with us students based on location and schedule.

I had eight students that year, from three different families. I did pay for a short (2-hour?) TEFL training workshop in Madrid that fall as soon as I got my first students, but I mostly learned by doing and searching online that year.

ESL Tutor at Literacy Network in Madison, WI

When I returned to Madison, WI for my final year of college, I learned about a non-profit in our city, Literacy Network, that taught English to adults for free. After volunteering there as a childcare assistant with Spanish-speaking children (while their parents were in classes) during spring semester, I took the leap and committed to volunteer as an ESL tutor during the summer session. We had a short orientation/training before starting, and met weekly with our tutees.

How did this translate to me becoming an English teacher in Spain?

Teaching ESL in Spain

I have to backtrack just a bit to show where the idea was planted. So we already know that I studied abroad in Madrid during my junior year of college, but let me add that I absolutely loved it - in case there was any doubt. While at a hostel in Valencia one weekend that year, I met some girls who had been in my same study abroad program the year before. They were now working as "auxiliares de conversación," teaching English in Madrid. Neat, I never knew such a thing existed! I put that piece of information away in my back pocket.

In December of my senior year, my study abroad advisor in Madrid sent us all an email about opportunities to come back to Spain. The auxiliares program was one of them. I started doing the online application, but got so frustrated with the poorly-made Spanish website, not knowing how to proceed, that I gave up and left it unfinished.

Second semester of my senior year rolled around (2011) and I was looking at some different post-graduation options. I applied to Teach for America, but didn't make the final cut after our day-long interview. I also applied to Peace Corps, thinking that would surely be my path for the next two years. I honestly don't even remember what spurred it, but sometime in March I took a second look at the auxiliares online application site, discovered helpful application instructions, and put together a last-minute application. Acceptance is rolling, and applications were first accepted in November, so my chances were really slim.

Things progressed with Peace Corps; I received a nomination to teach math in Spanish in sub-Saharan Africa, and I was thrilled. This is what I wanted! I was still a ways away from receiving the actual invitation to serve (several people are nominated for the same spot, and the most qualified is invited to serve). I completed and submitted the huge list of medical tests required for health clearance. Auxiliares had completely fallen off of my radar by this point.

That summer I was able to turn my university student job into an LTE position (Limited Term Employee) and keep working after graduation. Later in June, at the end of my university's fiscal year, we were facing a huge "budget crisis" at work. It was stressful and we were crunched for time. I still remember where I was sitting and what I was working on when the email popped into my inbox. I had been offered a spot as a Language and Culture Assistant (auxiliar) in Madrid, and I had five days to accept or decline the offer! It was completely unexpected. Holy crap. I had a ton to think about.

Ultimately, I accepted within the five days to save my spot. Later I reasoned that you can serve in Peace Corps any time in your life, but there was an age limit to teach in the auxiliares program. A month later I got some mail from Peace Corps saying they needed more medical tests/information - I was not cleared yet. I also got another letter saying that due to federal budget cuts, Peace Corps was sending less PC volunteers, and if invited to serve, the earliest possible start date wouldn't be until spring of 2012.

So I called and withdrew from my Peace Corps nomination. I went back to Spain and had an amazing year playing ultimate frisbee with Madrid's Quijotes + Dulcineas, while the teaching position unfortunately ended up being less than ideal. I did get some more great private English tutoring experience that year, though, learned how not to run a foreign language classroom, and soaked up tons of sun & Spanish!

One question remains: How the heck did I end up teaching English in Korea?

Teaching ESL in Korea

While teaching in Madrid, I somehow stumbled upon some blogs by UW graduates teaching English in Korea. Maybe it was when they held the Badger Blogging Blitz, a week-long blogging event during which UW-Madison grads blogged every day about their lives and teaching experiences in Korea. (We actually re-held the event with Badger Blogging Blitz in March of 2014 if you're curious about an average day teaching English in Korea). An acquaintance from college had taught in Korea as well, so I guess you could say that Korea was on my radar.

I really don't remember when or how the idea changed from a possibility stored away in my back pocket to something I wanted to pursue and apply for - and this wasn't that long ago! It happened sometime between fall and spring. My thoughts at the time were that I'd have something figured out for another year, I could learn about an Eastern culture, gain quality teaching experience, and save to pay off my student loans. It was never somewhere I had dreamed of going to, but I knew Korea would teach me life lessons and provide me with expat experiences distinct from those in Spain. I attended an informational session at my university in the winter, got added to the email list about applications, applied, signed a contract, got a visa, and here I am.

A conclusion, of sorts

As my stories demonstrate, it was never my intention to become an ESL teacher abroad. Rather, the opportunities presented themselves and one thing led to another. I'm now well-aware of the numerous doors that are open for native English speakers; it's really quite incredible. I've also learned that teaching ESL abroad is tough, but oh so rewarding. Even if it doesn't remain my career in the future, teaching ESL is a skill that I'll be able to fall back on for the rest of my life. And for that, I am grateful.
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  1. I love when opportunities just fall into one's lap! Although it often seems like that's what happened, you definitely put those building blocks into work before it all came together. Whatever happened to the Peace Corps? Is that idea still in your back pocket? I'd love to pick your brain about teaching English in Spain! Perhaps one day I'll add that to my resume too ;-)

    1. You're right - I definitely got myself into that situation by studying Spanish for so long, deciding to study abroad in Spain, my love of grammar and teaching, etc.

      PC is tucked away significantly farther now. My experience in Spain actually changed my mind a bit about me and PC, but since PC has no age limit it's not completely out of the picture.

      Feel free to email me any time about Spain! I blogged a great deal about my teaching experiences here at Oh No She Madridn't if you want a place to start. I really loved living in Spain!