The Dark Side of TEFL

Last winter was rather difficult for me.  I had just moved to Prague from the US and finished up a month-long TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certification course (at The Language House), and it was essential I find a job. I told people I was looking for work, but in actuality it took me two months to muster the courage to actually apply anywhere. In March I even wrote a whole blog post about it (see My Post-TEFL Slump). But I want to talk about what happened after I got hired, and how my slow start was a sign of things to come. As winter slipped into spring and then into summer, I was still struggling.

Now I want to clarify, I don’t think my story is necessarily the norm. Many, if not most, of my peers from my TEFL course were already working within a month after we finished our course, and probably would have started even sooner if it weren’t for Christmas slowing the application/interview processes down. But, although not the average, I also wasn’t the only one. A couple other people lagged along with me. I can’t speak as to their reasons, but for me it was very challenging to believe in myself, even after the course. I had discovered teaching was challenging in a way that seemed perfectly designed to bring up my personal insecurities. So I want to take this opportunity to put my thoughts out there, especially for anyone who suffers from any kind of anxiety or depression, as a big life change such as this one can be really challenging (though don’t get me wrong, it is definitely do-able and can be incredibly rewarding).

I’d moved abroad in order to change my life, travel, see the world. I’d chosen teaching as a career not out of an interest or any experience in the field, but because it was practical. I speak English natively, and there’s a market for native English teachers here in Prague and many other cities and countries. It’s a job that could open the world to me, and that appealed to me greatly. It still does.

But I’d never taught before, at all. I’d worked with animals for several years, and the change was more difficult than I expected. I felt like I was under-performing, and was really hard on myself no matter how encouraging my mentors and teachers were at The Language House. It’s a great program, and works well with a large spectrum of personalities. But as I tend to internalize all my problems and try to sort them out by myself, this resulted in a lot of feeling of isolation and inadequacy. Not just during my course, but for the next six or seven months or so.

Even after I got hired, and had positive feedback from students and observers from the language school I worked for – I still felt negative about my career as a teacher. I felt unsure if the students were making any progress, or whether my lessons were worth what they were paying. I didn’t know how to lesson plan quickly without sacrificing my confidence that it would be a good lesson. And I didn’t know how to spend more time planning without feeling resentful that I was putting in a lot of effort for no pay. It seemed like all my lessons seemed to go more or less the same, no matter if I planned ten minutes or ninety.

It got to the point where I was so convinced I was a rotten teacher that I thought couldn’t keep on with the career, even though I love my new life in Prague overall. The career was the only piece that wasn’t clicking for me. So I attempted (and utterly failed) to re-start again with another new career, as a freelance writer. Turns out, my feelings of inadequacy aren’t limited to teaching. And at least I was already earning an income with teaching, so after a month or two I abandoned my short-lived half-hatched plot to turn freelancer, and went back to teaching. I’m glad I did, as finally, after nearly eleven months here, I’m finally comfortable in a classroom. It came to me much later than it did to a lot of people, though it’s still not perfect.

My adjustment has come mainly from changing the kind of teaching I do. This spring I was working for three different language schools, teaching about 13 lessons a week. This was part-time and I still felt overwhelmed at times. I saw each student once or twice a week, for 60 or 90 minutes. All my classes were one-on-one with adults, many of them with a focus on business English. I didn’t realize it, but this was not where I could perform at my best.

I didn’t take any photos in my one-to-one lessons. Here’s a photo of a tram stop I went to twice a week instead.

My current job which involves traveling to a new Czech or Slovak village every week, and teaching a five day conversation course to public school kids. I now teach 6 lessons a day – over twice as much as before – to groups of 15-25 children. Due to the short-term nature of each course, I no longer have to worry about how I’m affecting the long-term progress of my students. The balance of how long to plan is still a challenge for me, but teaching more or less the same exact course each week has helped considerably. Every week I improve on my main curriculum, while I’m able try out a couple new activities at the same time. If I ever return to teaching students in Prague, I’ll have to learn better how to measure long term progress. But lesson planning is not nearly as stressful as it once was.

Teaching groups instead of one-on-one has given me a lot more leeway while in the classroom, giving me precious moments when they are assigned group work to collect myself and prepare for the next activity. Teaching children general topics instead of business topics to adults has enabled me to actively have fun in my own class – I’ve designed a photography scavenger hunt lesson that I do with each week’s students, and I enjoy it as much as they do (if not more, sometimes!). Making these changes has made a huge difference.

Some images from teaching, my photography scavenger hunt, and the gifts I got from the lovely students in Jirkov this month

I have gained something really valuable the past few months- a better sense of confidence in myself as a teacher. I have gotten consistently positive feedback from my students, their regular English teachers, and my boss, and it has helped a lot. I feel much more optimistic about my career, and I think no matter what jobs I have in the future, I will continue to improve. 

Not everyone will go through the same issues as I did, but as its not a story I commonly see discussed online, I wanted to bring it up. Everyone else seems very happy and confident as teachers when you open any random article about teaching abroad. However, in person, I’ve had plenty of conversations with other teachers who’ve had at least some similar thoughts and feelings, to some extent.

So if you’re considering moving abroad to teach English, consider whether you are moving abroad in order to teach, or if you will be teaching in order to live abroad. If it’s the latter, be prepared for a real job that requires hard work and a lot of your time. Be prepared for some emotional instability, especially if that is something you’re predisposed to. But don’t lose heart either – as with most things, with time and experience, the stress levels out and you can gain confidence. And never forget, when you feel like giving up – make changes. Kepp trying new avenues and you never know which one will work out.

Overall, moving abroad to teach was definitely worth it. I have no regrets about moving here, as I love the perpetual wonder I have for my surroundings (Prague is truly beautiful). I love learning Czech and exploring the culture here, even when it seems inscrutable. I have made wonderful friends that I hope to keep for a long time, and I wouldn’t trade it all in for a nine-to-five back home – not even for a million crowns.

On a great day when my teenage students took me out to see Karlovy Vary last month