Curiosity Never Killed This Cat: Tales from a Career Teaching English Abroad

This post was written by Matthew Clark

We first met Stephanie during the development of our Teach in Spain Internship, as she was a participant on the program and kind enough to share her TEFL experiences in Madrid.  We quickly learned that Stephanie has held several other interesting positions, making her an easy choice to be our “Featured Teacher” for this month’s newsletter about unique TEFL teaching jobs.

My story as a TEFL teacher (Or, if you prefer, “Curiosity Never Killed this Cat”)

I am a curious girl. Curious about people, places, things… my curiosity has no borders and extends across the world. To satisfy this curiosity I have become a fierce traveler. My desire to travel most likely started at the age of seven, when my father took a job in Tokyo. We stayed three years there and a further two years in Taipei. We spent our summer holidays in various European cities, and it became quite natural for me to learn to communicate with people who spoke a different language. Although, admittedly, my young self was mostly motivated to communicate my desire to try some new food… even to this day, I rate my travel experiences with the food I have eaten. My taste buds were formed on Asian cuisine, but for me Italian homemade minestrone soup, French pastries and German sausages always remind me of summer.

We returned to the states when I was 11, and it was then I began to plot my escape. I got my first chance in 1995 to move to London, and I have never looked back.

There is a common thread that holds TEFL teachers, particularly lifelong teachers, together. We are all lovers of the world. The cultural intricacies of foreign lands excite us. Learning to communicate and maneuver in different countries becomes a challenge we cannot pass up. We come in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds but we all share that same feeling of excitement the moment we enter a new country to work. It’s an amazing rush that usually lasts at least a year for me, and only starts to subside after I have learned the language properly and established myself. Then I know it’s time to move on. But many teachers find a country and adopt it as their own.

I became a TEFL teacher later in life, after splitting with my partner and basically having to start over. I used to work as an editor and copywriter in the UK, but after such stability for ten years, I needed to find myself again. I remembered having a conversation with a TEFL teacher in my past, and thinking, “he’s living the life I want to live”!  So I hopped on a plane and went to Costa Rica to do a TEFL course.

Getting a TEFL degree in Costa Rica was challenging. Supplies were rudimentary and internet access, printers and decent materials were virtually nonexistent. At the time I complained bitterly about this, but now I realize that this was actually a brilliant experience – I learned to teach in the most fundamental way, using body language, repetition, silly games and my own personal brand of charm to teach. I equate this guerilla-style teaching to baptism by fire.

My next job was the complete opposite. I took a summer job in the UK at a posh language school for students and business people. We had internet, interactive whiteboards, and classes composed of mixed nationalities and ages. Some of my fondest memories are of the camaraderie that was formed between the foreigners in the classes, and the curiosity of each other’s cultural background.

For example, I had a group of Saudi students in my class nearly the entire summer. The Europeans usually stayed two weeks but the Saudi boys were studying English to get into University.  I loved to watch these two very different cultures mix… their curiosity eventually overcoming their shyness of one another’s differences.

One day my lesson got hijacked – we were talking about cultural stereotypes, and when Ayed, one of my Saudi students started talking about Saudi Arabia, all of the Europeans were so interested in what he had to say about women’s rights, basic freedoms, etc. that when it was time for the 20 minute break, nobody budged – they all wanted to stay in the class and ask each other questions about their different cultures. It could have gotten ugly but rather everyone tried to reach out and understand each other. To this day I believe if this situation were repeated in classrooms everywhere, we would maybe have a more balanced, integrated world.

My next TEFL experience is the current one that I am living in Madrid. I teach business English to Spanish people in companies. Again, this is a different type of teaching; some companies have all the bells and whistles, some don’t have anything. And this is not classroom teaching. This is individuals or small groups who need to be assessed and who have specific requirements for their jobs. It is more difficult because you will have several different “classes” each day, and they all have different levels, needs and even books. And you get quite fit from running around on the metro, trains or bus; physically it is exhausting, but like all things in life, you get used to it after a while. You definitely don’t need a gym membership when doing this job.

But one common factor in all my classes in all the countries I have lived in: people are usually as curious about me as I am with them. Most of my students love to hear my stories of my escapades as a guiri (foreigner) in their city. We usually start the day with “What did you get up to this weekend?” And social, curious girl that I am, I always have a story.

Some of my students have become friends – we meet for lunch or copas (drinks). I know some teachers don’t like to become friends with their students, but even to this day I am in touch with Ayed and others from my classes. I have long since learned the fine balance between friendship and professionalism and I usually take my cue from the students themselves. For me, it is important to make a connection to my students. Because in essence you are part teacher, part motivator, part entertainer. In individual classes I have had students break down and tell me they are getting divorced, or have a health problem, etc. Sometimes you are part therapist. But once you make that connection, teaching becomes easy.

The one drawback to my TEFL teaching experience is money. I may never get rich teaching English, but I’m lucky; I worked for years in startups and have a retirement plan. This year I am teaching less and writing more. But if you are curious about the world, if you wonder what the locals are really like in a country, how they think, work, or feel about the world… there is no better way to satisfy that curiosity than in a TEFL classroom.