It takes a certain kind of person with a certain kind of strength of character to accept a job offered by employers whom they haven’t actually met, in parts of the world which they might not have set foot in before, teaching students whose culture may well be one they’re not familiar with, and, most often, embarking on this trip into the unknown quite alone.
From Trivial to Traumatic
Even once the culture-shock and settling-in period have been addressed and put behind them, not only will the intrepid EFL teacher abroad have to deal with those trivial, but sometimes grindingly tiresome, day-to-day problems, such as flat tyres, blocked drains, or the need to pay bills at post offices which have opening hours which coincide precisely with your own working hours, without the helping hands of family and old friends, but also the more gut-wrenching challenges of periods of intense stress, relationship issues, even ill-health or bereavement, or any one of those emotionally demanding life experiences that can make even the pluckiest of souls feel as if they’re being put through the wringer. And all without your usual support network or the comfort of your most familiar environment.
Even the good times may turn out to be less joyous than they’re supposed to be, when, for one reason or another, you’re forced to spend Christmas, birthdays, national holidays, and so forth, far from your loved ones, and sometimes completely on your own.
“No man is an island,” the old saying goes, but an EFL teacher abroad is forced, on occasion, to do the very best imitation of one that they can muster.
Old Friends Who Have Just Met
Of course, it’s far from impossible to make new friends, but it takes some time to bond closely enough with near-strangers to be able to weep on their shoulders in a moment of sadness, confide in them about money worries, or to want to spend New Year’s Eve with them, and they with you. This means, in practical terms, that you may well be obliged to face some of life’s trials and tribulations relying only on your own emotional and psychological strengths, bringing a whole new world of meaning to the terms ‘self-comfort’ and ‘self-sufficiency’. That doesn’t mean, however, that the capacity to bond with new friends, and to collaborate and mutually support, is irrelevant to a TEFLer – they most definitely need this ability too, if they are not going to spend all of their overseas years in not-so-splendid isolation.
We Only Part To Meet Again
Let’s not forget old friends – keeping established friendships alive and flourishing, despite distances and infrequency of reunions, is in itself rather challenging, and the regularly occurring farewells, to both friends and family, can be heart-wrenching affairs, however, there’s no time to mope – an EFL teacher has to be back in their classroom with a smile on their face, a lesson plan in their brief-case, and all the patience and focus any good teacher is supposed to have in bucket-loads, just a few hours after having bid a tearful good-bye to elderly parents, siblings, or even their off-spring.
A TEFLer also has to have the ability to nest-build at lightning speed. Especially when the housing is sub-standard or downright bleak, you need to be able to set up home as quickly as possible, at least with the bare minimum of elements which will prevent you from feeling as if you’re living semi-permanently out of a suitcase, or in what looks and feels very much like a Chinese or Arab version of your old student digs.
Starting Over (And Over)
In a professional world in which permanent contracts are pretty much inexistent, and one- and two-year contracts are the norm, a TEFLer will have to become adept at integrating quickly into new work-places, accepting the role of the new boy or girl with as much grace as he or she can muster, since it will have to be played rather more frequently than in other professional fields. Very often, just as the ropes have been finally learned, it’s time to move on again to pastures new and unfamiliar.
Culture Shock and Awe
If new work-places can present a long series of obstacles between arrival and full integration, then the challenges of integrating into a new culture can rise before you as insurmountable as Mount Everest; orientation workshops offered by employers rarely do more than scratch the surface of the complexity of a country and its customs, traditions, taboos, and laws, both written and unwritten.
However complex they may be, it might well turn out to be that accurately deciphering the implications of your new country’s laws, customs, and social and religious practices is actually less complicated than figuring out how to get a phone contract, or convert a driving licence, or even just getting utilities put in your name; local procedures for these apparently banal but essential operations can reveal themselves to be as perplexing as, well, the equivalent operations back home – the key difference being, you had a lifetime to pick up the know-how needed to function as a citizen back home, whereas now, you’re going to have to crash-course your way to knowledge, mostly through a great deal of time-wasting trial and error.
Tough Ole TEFLers
So, the ability to read between lines, to collect information swiftly yet accurately, to multi-task and to have endless stamina, have to be added to extreme flexibility and self-containment, an adventurous spirit, great empathy, willingness to collaborate, and all the other character traits required to make a go of it.
I think it’s more than fair to say that TEFLing isn’t for everyone; perhaps it would also be fair to say that it isn’t even for all those who are actually doing it – we’ve all seen colleagues who have struggled to cope with the multiple sources of stress which, in this kind of lifestyle, are pretty much unavoidable. So, although hordes of us do the job and survive, some even flourishing, there are some casualties to be counted. There’s no shame in finding it all a bit overwhelming at times, nor in taking stock that it’s not the job for you – for it really does take an extraordinarily high level of self-reliance and flexibility to do TEFLing for a long-term living.
And those who do manage it long-term, thriving and prospering as they go, cultivating and maintaining relationships and family bonds, moving from job to job, country to country, making the most of each and every experience, each and every encounter, emerging from it all enriched, fulfilled and smiling? In the words of the Baird’s famous toast (but curtailing it before it gets to the morbid bit): “Here’s tae ye! Wha’s like ye? Damn few!”