Ever since I decided to leave my teaching job at home and move overseas to teach English, before I even knew quite what I was doing myself, people have been asking me questions, seeking my advice, picking my brain for bits of information on this crazy commitment. Of course I’m happy to share what I know, and if you know me at all, you understand how much it means to me to feel like I’m imparting wisdom on others. Drawing great pleasure from acting as if I know everything is one of the main reasons I went into teaching.
Recently, one of my friend’s coworker’s daughters (think it through) sent me an email filled with questions about my experiences teaching abroad. Her questions are similar to the wonders and worries I had before embarking on my own big move. I’ll do my best here to answer her questions, along with a few other tidbits of golden insight.
- What made you choose Vietnam?
I get this one all the time. Same when I lived in Taiwan. Even the locals ask me, “Why did you choose to live here?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer to this one. “It just sounded cool,” doesn’t seem like a sensible reason to move to the other side of the globe, but it’s the most honest answer I can come up with. I didn’t know anyone in Taiwan or Vietnam before showing up at the airport. I guess deep down I chose Taiwan because it was more “off the beaten path” than China, Japan, or South Korea. Maybe I thought it would make my experience more interesting. Doesn’t really matter in the end though because Taiwan is amazing and you should definitely move there. And as for Vietnam, I knew I wanted to live here after hearing other people tell me about their travel experiences in the country. I’ve been living here for nearly a year, and you should definitely move here, too.
- Have you been in charge of your own lesson plans, or were you originally assigned more of a teaching assistant role? What age group are you working with?
Questions about the day-to-day job are common. I had them before moving as well. However, since I’d already been a teacher for four years, I was less nervous about this aspect than someone fresh out of college or who has never taught before might be. I can only really speak about my own teaching jobs, but of course there are many paths you can follow teaching overseas.
I worked for Shane English School in Taiwan, a company I was placed with through the recruiting agency Reach To Teach. As the first and only English teacher at my little school in Wugu, I was able to run things the way I wanted. I was responsible for all my own lesson plans and developing materials and resources. I had a teaching assistant in most lessons, who corrected the homework and worked with the students after class to ensure they understood the grammatical points in the lesson. Because it was a language school, I worked with a wide range of students, from age 5 or 6 to adult.
Here in Vietnam, I teach at British International School, which is a well-respected primary school. Again I am responsible for lesson plans and developing classroom materials. We work with several teaching assistants as well. The primary school is for children from age 3-12, and there is a secondary school for older students as well. I teach kids aged 4-6 this year.
- What are the differences in teaching in public and private schools?
I haven’t taught in public schools overseas, so I’ll be drawing from my friends’ experiences here. At the private schools I have taught in, schools where the parents pay a hefty tuition for their children to attend, I have noticed that money matters. At times, it can feel as though the school is a business first, and a school second. However, I think if you as the teacher keep the children and learning as a priority, that is what makes the difference. There is nothing you can really do about major corporate policies, but there is always something you can do to help students learn.
I have some friends who teach at public schools here in Vietnam, and their experience at work each day is quite different than mine. While I typically work with small groups of students to focus specifically on their English language needs, the teachers in the public schools stand in front of classes of up to 40 or more students with only a blackboard and a piece of chalk. Just like teaching in public schools in America, there is little you can do about changing the system, and reaching each child in a group that large is not easy. But again, teaching is what you make of it, and knowing that you’ve done your best to help your students attain their goals is what matters.
My advice would be to find out as much as you can about the schools you are considering. Ask for contact information for current and/or former teachers to get the real scoop. There are good and bad schools in any situation.
- Did you get your TESOL certificate before going overseas? Was it necessary with the program you went with and did it feel like a big help?
Because I was a teacher at home, I already had a teaching certificate and a Masters in Teaching. When I went to Taiwan, I did not go for any additional certifications. However, most schools in Taiwan require at least a Bachelor’s Degree and a TESOL/TEFL certification.
When I came to Vietnam, I went through the CELTA course, which is well-recognized in many countries worldwide. I did not necessarily need the CELTA to get a job here because I already had a teaching license, but I did find the course useful. Teaching English as a second language does require a specific set of skills. Of course, a good teacher can learn to teach most anything, but the CELTA course provided me with a solid batch of skills to plan strong language lessons. Plus I learned a load of nerdy things about grammar.
- Were accommodations more or less what you thought they would be? Any advice on big city versus small town?
This question I feel I can answer fully, as I’ve lived in both a small town and a big city. In Taiwan, I lived a small suburb of Taipei called Wugu, where I was pretty much the only foreigner. My rent was ridiculously cheap (less than $200 per month including utilities) in my shared apartment with two amazing Taiwanese girls. My apartment was lovely compared to many of my friends who lived in tiny musty rooms in Taipei. Life was sweet there in Wugu, but I did spend a lot of time by myself. This was a good growing experience for me, learning to be with just me. However, I did get lonely and felt like I had to live it up every weekend when I went in to the city to see my other foreign friends. I wouldn’t trade my time in Wugu for anything, but I would think very carefully before moving to such an isolated location. I feel silly even describing Wugu as “isolated” because I was constantly surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, but that’s the best description I can give.
Here in Vietnam, I live smack-dab in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, and I share a house with five other foreigners. Rent is still cheap (about $300 including utilities), and we have a lot of space. I have no lack of native-English-speaker interaction, due to my living situation as much as my working environment. Teaching at the British school, where everything is conducted in English, means I have very little opportunity to tune out and hide inside a foreign-language bubble. This leads nicely into the final question.
- Do you feel like it's possible to pick up some of the native language even if you don't know much going into it?
The short answer is ‘yes’. HOWEVER, I may have chosen the two most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn. Before I moved to Taiwan, I started to learn Mandarin Chinese online, like a good little student. As soon as I arrived in Taiwan, I stopped that immediately. The accent and character system were different from the way the online lessons were being taught. Lucky for me, I lived and worked in ‘isolated’ Wugu, full of wonderfully friendly people who couldn’t speak a lick of English but wanted to talk to me anyways. Interacting daily with my Noodle Lady, the workers at 7-11, and the little old man outside the camera shop forced me to learn and use Chinese at least at a basic survival level. I also took some free lessons through the Shane company, and my Taiwanese friends and coworkers were always willing to teach me useful words and phrases. By the time I left Taiwan, after 15 months, I was able to get by in necessary situations like restaurants, shops, train stations, etc.
When I moved to Vietnam, I thought, “Oh super! They use the Roman alphabet over there! Learning Vietnamese will be waaaaay easier than Mandarin.”
Vietnamese is the worst. That Roman alphabet is just a false promise. The letters don’t make the same sounds, and there are more tones than Chinese! However, because I live in Saigon, learning the language isn’t really necessary. This is a blessing and a curse. The good thing is, I can almost always be guaranteed that someone nearby will speak English and be able to translate and help me get anything I need. The bad thing is, I’m not learning the language! I want to be able to chat with my Coconut Lady, the vendors at the street food stands, and the workers at the post office. I have a private tutor now, but honestly I don’t have (or use) many opportunities to practice Vietnamese. That must sound like a load of bull, seeing as I LIVE IN VIETNAM. But really. I work with foreigners. I live with foreigners. People in shops speak English. And most of all, when I try to speak Vietnamese, it’s really bad and no one understands me.
- My extra two cents.
If you’re thinking of teaching abroad, do it. You will not regret it. When my date to move overseas started approaching fast, I began to second-guess myself. I kept worrying about all the little details that I hadn’t figured out yet. There were so many uncertainties and unknown factors. I’m not the type of person who particularly gets a kick out of that sort of thing. I like a plan.
The thing that got me through those worries and kept me from unpacking my bags and canceling my flight was reminding myself that I was not the first person to embark on this kind of adventure. Many people younger and dumber than me had up and moved abroad, survived to tell about it, and even enjoyed it! If you’re questioning your decision, just remember, you can always buy a plane ticket back home.