Teaching English Abroad While Traveling

English teacher in Lebanese classroom

A Traveler's Experience of Teaching English


“Teacher, what does cliff mean,” Marcelo asked from his desk.

Shaking my head in disbelief, I slowly approached the lanky, boyish-looking Ecuadorian.

“Marcelo”, I said, “It’s the VOCABULARY section of the test. I can’t tell you that.”

Disappointed, the dark-featured teenager frowned, took his eyes off me and refocused them on the unmarked page in front of him.

Given that Marcelo’s question was about the twentieth time in twenty minutes that one of my eight Intermediate English students asked me for an answer on their midterm exam, I was about to lose it. Flustered, I swiftly returned to my seat at the front of the classroom and resumed checking my pupils’ homework.

Suddenly, I could feel something calling my attention from the other side of the room. I quickly glanced up to make eye contact with Ana Elisa, the brunette girl who I had just yelled at for leaning out of the window as I was distributing the midterms. The tiny Ecuadorian, however, didn’t have an annoying question nor was she causing trouble. Rather inexplicably, she was simply waving at me while sporting one of the biggest grins I had ever seen. Apparently, Ana Elisa just wanted to say “hi”…during the middle of an exam.

Unable to contain myself, I burst out in laughter. Although she had angered me earlier, Ana Elisa’s silliness put a much needed smile on my face.

In fact, the aforementioned story is a microcosm of how teaching ESL has been for me during the last eight months. My patience often gets tested, but at the same time, my students also bring me a lot of joy.

Several months ago, I was searching for my next step in life. My second year of AmeriCorps was nearing its end and I sill hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do after my days with Twins Cities Habitat for Humanity. Nevertheless, I did know a few important things about myself that helped point me in somewhat of a direction: I loved to travel, really enjoyed speaking Spanish, and wanted to remain in a leadership role. And so, after several late nights of Internet research, I decided to apply to LanguageCorps, a program that sends its members abroad to not only get TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) / TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certified, but to live and work abroad as well.

Soon after I submitted my thorough, on-line application (https://www.languagecorps.com/apply.php), I was interviewed over the phone, and subsequently accepted into LanguageCorps’ Flagship Program in Ecuador. Therefore, I spent my last month in Minnesota finishing AmeriCorps, working and saving money, as well as packing for my mid-September departure for Quito.

On the night of Saturday, September 15, 2007, my American Airlines plane touched down in Ecuador’s capital city. After grabbing my two massive suitcases, I was greeted by Andy Gavilanes, my Corps Advocate (LanguageCorps’ on-site assistant who helps program members with housing, job searches, and any other issues that may arise during their time overseas), as well as Marcio and Rita Hernández, my Quiteño host parents (strongly in favor of intercultural exchange, LanguageCorps also arranges home stays for the duration of its teachers’ TESOL course).

The following Monday, my eleven classmates and I found ourselves standing at the Ecuadorian Experiment in International Living, nervously awaiting the start of our SIT or School for International Training (http://www.worldlearning.org) TESOL Certificate course. With a week of Spanish lessons (SIT purposely includes a week of language classes prior to the certification course so that its prospective teachers gain the experience of a student learning a foreign tongue) under our belts, Andrew, Gillian, Jannan, Liz, Matt, Margo, Nick, Nicole, Rachel, Rozana, Seth, and I were then consumed by a 130-hour, sleep-depriving course that constantly challenged us throughout four extremely intense weeks. In spite of the fact that the TESOL course was very hard, it was worth every difficult second nonetheless.

Our facilitators, were not only very accommodating, but also superb instructors. Through their wide variety of role-play activities, classroom exercises, and written assignments, Justin and Elías taught the dozen of us many different aspects of effective English teaching. More importantly, they observed each one of us practice teach in front of Ecuadorian students for a total of six hours. They also provided my peers and me with crucial feedback after each lesson.

Looking back at the beginning of my TESOL certification course, I was scared and had absolutely no clue about teaching English abroad. When the course ended, however, I felt confident and prepared to demonstrate the new skills I had acquired. There’s no doubt that I was grateful for my SIT TESOL experience, especially since it helped me land a job almost immediately.

Even though nine out of us twelve opted to stay and work in Quito, I was one of the three people from my TESOL group that chose to teach in another town. In truth, I had heard great things about Cuenca (a tranquil, historical city in the southern part of Ecuador) and, furthermore, asked my Corps Advocate, Andy Gavilanes, to put me in touch with the Centros de Estudios Interamericanos (CEDEI); a school at which I once pondered studying abroad during my undergraduate days.

Hearing from Andy that I had my TESOL certification, CEDEI’s English Department Director promptly asked for a phone interview with me. At the first opportunity I, therefore, called her and subsequently completed an online application as well as a Language Awareness Test, which she later e-mailed to me.

Within a week of receiving my certificate to teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), I was offered a job with the Centros de Estudios Interamericanos (Centers for Interamerican Studies). As a result, I sadly said goodbye to my TESOL course friends as well as my host family, and instantly flew to colonial Cuenca, the capital of the Azuay province, which is nestled in Ecuador’s Southern Sierra Andes.

Ever since my early arrival on that late-October morn, I have worked for CEDEI in a number of different capacities. First, I started out administering placement exams, which are oral and written evaluations needed to place prospective students in appropriate courses based on their language levels. Next, I taught a pair of intensive (Monday though Friday, two hours per class for five weeks) English courses and led a handful of Advanced Conversation Clubs (two hours every Saturday morning during a regular, ten-week cycle). Now, I am in the heart of my third cycle with CEDEI, teaching one intermediate and two advanced English courses successively (Monday through Thursday, an hour and fifteen minutes per class for ten weeks).

I’ll admit it; I often find my job frustrating. It’s really hard putting up with lazy, misbehaving students at times. In addition, teaching is exhausting. I probably spend just as much time working OUTSIDE of the classroom, either lesson planning or correcting papers, quizzes, and tests-which I don’t get paid for. And the money I do earn isn’t anything to brag about.

On the other hand, the incomparable enthusiasm and drive of several of my students make teaching very rewarding and fun. By the same token, my pupils not only learn from me, but I also pick up things from them. Their different personalities and learning styles have certainly taught me how to be a more versatile educator. It’s been an incredibly valuable exchange.

As far as compensation goes, my monthly paychecks are enough to cover the rent and keep my belly full. I also get remunerated in other ways, such as visa support and I have the option to attend free Spanish as well as dance courses. Lastly, I have made some good friends (gringo & Latino) and live in one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever seen; which also allows me to speak Spanish whenever I want. For all of these reasons, I can’t complain too much. The pros definitely outweigh the cons.

With that said, however, there’s yet another explanation as to why I am still working for the Centros de Estudios Interamericanos.

My father once told me that “you can build all the buildings and donate all the money you want, but the only way to truly change the world is through people.”

And so, whenever I get down and begin questioning my desire to continue with my current occupation, I just think about what my dad said. His words always remind me to give my learners everything I have.

You can greatly increase your chances of teaching English abroad by getting your TEFL certification in advance.

Meet the Author:

Tyrel Nelson graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2003 with a B.A. in Journalism and Spanish Studies. He spent two years working with Habitat for Humanity and is now currently teaching English abroad in Ecuador.

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