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Don’t get lost in translation: how to teach English abroad

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By Ros Walford
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During her career break Ros Walford took up teaching English as a foreign language in Chile. Here Ros tells all about the realities and practicalities of teaching English abroad.

As the row of blank faces stared at me across the classroom, I trembled slightly and wondered what on earth I had been thinking when I’d enrolled on a teaching course. A few months earlier, I had needed a new challenge and decided that working abroad as a language teacher would fit the bill. I’d signed up for a 120-hour intensive course to learn to learn to “Teach English as a Foreign Language” (TEFL) at Westminster Kingsway College. Now, as I stood up in front of my first class, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision… Was I up to the job? My knees were shaking and the breed of butterflies in my stomach was proving to be an exceptionally active species. I muddled through the lesson and braced myself for feedback.

Fortunately, the feedback was kind, I passed the course and soon I was boarding a flight to Santiago, the shiny, modern capital of Chile. I found myself a central apartment on the nineteenth floor with views far out over the city to the snow-topped Andean mountains. It was especially stunning at dusk, when the city lights glittered while the orange sky darkened, and it even had charm when Santiago’s infamous smog descended. I explored my new home town, with initial excursions to the tourist hotspots: the sixteenth century cathedral in the attractive Plaza de Armas, the main square; La Moneda, the presidential palace that was bombed during Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état; and Cerro San Cristobal, a large hill from which a Rio-style statue of Christ embraces the nation – before getting to know the local hangouts. However, before I got carried away with sightseeing, I had a job to find…

Chile, Santiago, Plaza de Armas, Metropolitan Cathedral and modern skyscrapers

Without delay, I set about hawking my TEFL certificate around the language schools. Or tried to. It was midsummer and most schools were closed. I sat out the heatwave, lounging by a pool at a peaceful hostel from where I blitzed every school’s inbox. As summer drew to a close, employers returned from the beach and the interview invitations trickled in, along with a sense of disappointment when I realised that full wages would barely cover my hostel bill. One day, I set off feeling disheartened for an interview at an American institute. The laid-back approach of the interviewer was appealing and, unusually, the pay was decent. After a five-minute chat, he pushed a pile of books towards me and said: “Can you be in Nuñoa on Thursday evening?”

When Thursday arrived, I turned up at the Nuñoa apartment as scheduled for my first lesson. I was excessively well prepared but my student Yessenia put me at ease. She was far from being a complete beginner and we chatted away in English. This was going to be ok.

As a freelance teacher, I taught in the homes and offices of individual students and small groups. Although I spent a lot of time travelling to classes, I enjoyed the freedom that came with freelancing. Sometimes I taught for just 2 hours a day; on other days I dashed about the city by overcrowded bus and metro.

Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile, South America

Some students just wanted to have a chat in English, which often led to fascinating conversation. Javier, for example, was a doctor with almost perfect English who had no desire to practice grammar. Instead, he and I would browse the Internet for unusual topics, covering everything from living on the moon to pregnant men. Paula, a glamorous engineer, needed to improve her English for work. During one lesson, I listened with full attention for an hour while she told me about her experience in the 2010 earthquake – the car-park rippling, brick walls toppling. In contrast, businessman Pedro liked to work through his exercise book and was prone to spending painful minutes searching for the right word, whilst I recalled doing the same to my Spanish teacher back in London. What goes around, comes around…

At the office of an engineering company in uptown Providencia, I taught two group classes. At first, my lessons there fell apart despite meticulous planning. During the first fortnight, I managed to break every rule I’d learnt during my TEFL course. I scribbled away on the whiteboard, blathered on in a monologue while students listened patiently, and dazzled them with too much information. At times, I faced a room full of puzzled faces. My main challenge there was how to integrate Marco, a beginner in an intermediate level class. I decided to follow the advice given on my TEFL course. After class one day, I handed him a stack of printouts of extra exercises to help him catch up. “Am I really that bad?” he asked, looking sad. I had so much to learn – not least classroom diplomacy.

School teacher and class, France

As a result, when the next group class came around – with the Advanced students – I felt nervous. I had a Masterchef-style lesson planned for the class: each student was asked to stand in front of the class and explain a simple recipe, TV-chef style. It was a joy to see apron-clad Mauricio throw himself into his demonstration of how to cook the perfect pasta. He was waving his arms around like an Italian chef, tossing imaginary ingredients into the pot along with recently learnt imperative verbs. His classmates were laughing and I was feeling relieved that it was all going pretty well. On that day, everything fell into place: students engaged (check), learning taking place (check)… Finally, I was doing alright.

As the months rolled on, teaching got easier. I relaxed and started to behave like a local: eating hearty, economical meals in brightly lit corner restaurants; grocery shopping at the vast central market; exploring arty Nunoa’s café-gallery scene; day trips to the beach at Valparaiso; weekends camping trips to the Andes; and pisco sour-fuelled nights out in the bars of Bellavista. When it was time to move on, I had to say an emotional farewell to all of that and to my students, some of whom I had got to know as friends. As I packed up my gigantic rucksack, I reflected on my TEFL experience: like most teachers, I’d had good and bad days, but now the bad were much less frequent. Overall, I’d enjoyed the experience and had gained confidence – and now that I could successfully teach a classroom of students, I felt capable of doing anything.

NEED TO KNOW

  • DO research TEFL institutes before you enrol. Standards vary.
  • DON’T do an online course. You need practical experience.
  • DO obtain a Cambridge CELTA or Trinity TESOL certificate – the most highly regarded qualifications.
  • DON’T expect to walk straight into a full-time teaching job.
  • DO use TEFL advice and jobs websites like http://www.eslbase.com and http://www.eslcafe.com to help you find work.
  • DO find out pay and conditions before you accept a position.
  • DO find out visa restrictions before you go. Check with the relevant consulate.

Recommended TEFL institutes:

Westminster Kingsway College, London, England
International House (global)
St Giles International (UK, USA, Canada, Brazil)

Explore more of Chile with the Rough Guide to Chile. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.