In short: teaching is hard. Yes, you know English really, really well. But do you know how to teach the conjugations of irregular past tense verbs? Do you know how to explain the difference between “I will go” and “I’m going to go”? Do you know how to control a group of 35 (or, in my case, 55) children who don’t speak a word of English and think your class is an excuse to goof off?
I did not.
On my first day at my teaching job in Spain, I walked in to a class of Spanish 7th graders, most of whom had never met a foreigner before. They had next to no English skills and had never had an English teacher who really spoke English. They were shocked enough by the color of my hair and my super-weird clothes, and then I opened my mouth.
I introduced myself, told them about where I was from and how I would be working with them over the course of the school year. They stared blankly at me. One kid pulled out a cell phone. A couple in the back started whispering to each other. They didn’t understand a word I was saying, and I was losing them.
I tried to shift gears. I explained the game I had planned.
The teacher tried to help me, explaining the game in Spanish and trying to motivate the kids to participate. But it basically failed, because I had never done it before. I had no experience with kids, or with leading a class, and I didn’t foresee all of the little problems that would arise. I couldn’t have, because I had absolutely no training.
Working with the older kids at that high school, I realized that I didn’t really know why English sentences are structured the way they are. They were studying for their college entrance exams, and I was not nearly as helpful as I could have been. I didn’t know how to describe the various uses of the word “get,” and while I understand how to use the future perfect in everyday speech, I had no clue how to explain it.
Having never been taught how to make a lesson plan, I spent most of my free time scouring the internet for ideas. I didn’t know how to structure a class effectively, or how to deal with multiple levels in one group, or how to manage rowdy students. I would be awake late at night, landing on the same websites I’d ruled out hours ago, desperately looking for ideas. It was stressful and demoralizing.
For most of my first year, I was just not a truly effective teacher. It took a long time (and a lot of frustration, tears, and stress) to get good at it.
After two years in Spain, I took a contract in Thailand. I thought I had been trained on the job, that I would breeze through the new position. Then I found out that my kids were second graders, and that there were 55 of them in a class. FIFTY-FIVE. They spoke almost no English, and because I looked different and wasn’t dressed in the rigid uniform of their regular teachers, they didn’t take me seriously at all. Teacher Savannah’s class was party time. Two boys on opposite sides of the class would hurl erasers at each other. One kid in the back would occasionally stand up and just start doing gymnastics. One of them tried to stab his neighbor with a pencil.
It was utter madness, and I didn’t know how to handle it. My classes in Spain, for all their problems, had been small, and I had been able to yell and them in Spanish if things really got rough. But 55 kids who only speak Thai? I was helpless.
Luckily, my school had a great training program, and the veteran teachers were extremely helpful. By the end of my first semester, I had those kids behaving themselves and learning a lot. But the first few weeks were very, very hard. I spent my time feeling stressed, confused, and inept. My lack of knowledge and training made my introduction to Thailand much less happy than it could have been.
When you move abroad to teach, you’ve got a lot going on in addition to teaching. You’re trying to learn a new language. You’re experiencing culture shock. You’re homesick. You’re making new friends and have new coworkers and a new house. You’re eager to explore this new country and don’t want to spend hours outside of work planning for work.
All of this is manageable, but it can start to feel pretty crushing if you’re spending your days feeling unsuccessful at your job. It’s just an extra layer of stress that can color the whole experience. Preparing yourself with a TEFL course makes that transition so much smoother. You’ll know how to manage a class, and already have had some practice and feedback on it. You’ll understand English grammar from a learner’s perspective, and know how to explain this complicated language to a newcomer. You’ll have learned how to plan an effective lesson and how to cope if a lesson plan fails. Trust me when I say that these are things you do not want to learn while 55 Thai children throw paper airplanes at you. Here are 5 more reasons you should get TEFL certified, even when it’s not required.
A TEFL certification course can be fit into your school or work life through online training, or it can be another leg of your adventure. Greenheart Travel offers a course online that includes the in-class, hands on student teaching that is so important in learning how to become an effective teacher. There are also in-person courses in Chicago, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Spain. With a TEFL under your belt, you won’t find yourself before a class of blankly staring Spanish teenagers, or a hoard of truly anarchic Thai kids. Do it for your sanity.