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From Mainstream to ESL Teaching

by Abigail Burrow

Moving from mainstream to ESL is not a typical step in teaching. However, when I found myself in Asia on vacation in 2016, I realised how much of the world I wanted to see and I knew that teaching in Asia was a wonderful way to do it. I was ready for a brand-new challenge, but I felt that  teaching in international schools wasn’t going to provide the depth of change that I was craving. The country I chose was Vietnam and the city I teach in is Hanoi. I have written this article to pass on some tips to anyone who is considering leaving their mainstream teaching job in England and stepping into the “unknown”.

What to consider before you move

When considering the move, it’s important to address several different areas of your current lifestyle and research how these will compare in the country you are moving to. For me, being able to exercise, opportunities to socialise and access to fresh ingredients are all very important.

Prior to moving, I researched many other areas such as job opportunities, rental prices and how much I should expect to get paid per hour, however, I neglected the factors that make a city or town liveable for me.

Hanoi has fantastic opportunities to socialise and make friends along with affordable exercise options, such as personal training sessions, which can be very expensive in other parts of the world. However, I often find it difficult to find ingredients which I would like to use in the kitchen and, as I found out the hard way, it is very rare to find an oven in Asian homes. I’ve learnt to adapt my cooking style and become familiar with new ingredients, but I wish I had been a little more prepared for this before I left.

Small elements can make a big difference in the long run, so make sure you figure out your ‘lifestyle non-negotiables’ and research these when considering where to move.

My Experience of Teaching in UK Schools

Before I moved to Asia, I found teaching English to 11-18 year olds to be a rewarding, frustrating, humourous and challenging experience. Each day was unpredictable and you quickly built a rapport with the students in front of you, which is understandably more difficult when working with non-native speakers. The most challenging part of my days was  behaviour management and managing my workload outside of the classroom.

Behaviour management was, for me, more difficult in the UK than in Vietnam. The students I worked with often had no desire to be at school and, by teaching them, they sometimes felt that you were getting in the way of them doing something much more important (such as checking their phone). Of course, this does not stand for every student, but there was a sense of inconvenience and annoyance from some.

However, being in the classroom in Hanoi was a breeze in comparison to the amount of admin and marking which was expected of all teachers at home. It still amazes me how my teaching friends and colleagues from the UK manage to sustain the energy for this workload.

Marking books as an English teacher is time-consuming but, when students take the feedback on board and improve, it is obviously extremely beneficial. The frustration comes when every mark and grade needs tracking and inputting into several different spreadsheets, adding hours to your workload. Accountability for students’ grades comes in the form of ‘performance related pay’, if you don’t get it right then your wage could suffer.

My Experience of Teaching ESL in Vietnam

Unlike in the UK, where inputting data and making predictions seem to have become a priority, planning and delivering lessons is certainly the main priority for teachers at my language centre. It is 90% of what is expected of them. Teachers’ admin consists of choosing drop-down options for each student to mark their progress once a month and marking two tests over a 3-4 month course.

Not only is the admin easier, but so is the behaviour management. From my experience, there seems to be less apathy from students here in Vietnam. Problems can arise from frustrations which occur due to language barriers and miscommunication, however each class has a teaching assistant who shares the behaviour management workload with the teacher and handles all communication with parents.

I’ve found that when the workload is more manageable, teaching becomes more enjoyable because you’ve had the time to prepare quality lessons and have the energy to deliver them with enthusiasm.

Moving into the ESL Field

I expected teaching in the ESL field to be relatively easy compared to my previous job. In some respects, it is ‘easier’. There is certainly a much lower workload overall, but this presumption was a little naive. The style of ESL teaching is completely different to mainstream education and I had a lot to learn.

ESL teaching uses team games and total physical response (TPR) to meet lesson aims. To have students work in silence is often not the best way for them to progress; they need as much speaking, listening and pronunciation practice as possible. I quickly had to learn how to use games and TPR activities in the classroom. During lesson planning, I have to think about how to adapt each stage of the lesson which would’ve typically involved silent work in the UK, such as a writing task, into a communicative activity which is more beneficial for the students.

This being said, my use of questioning and guiding students to a correct answer has remained the same. You can still apply a range of question stems and higher-order thinking to engage students in their learning, it is just done in a different context.

Career Progression in ESL Teaching

Within my first year of ESL teaching, I moved into a management role which involves mentoring new teachers, developing and delivering PD resources and ensuring academic quality across the board.

Career progression is not a term which is synonymous with ESL teaching. Often, people think of backpackers making a quick buck when in reality there are many opportunities to move forward within the field and create a lucrative, sustainable career. I am able to progress in a supportive environment, surrounded by teachers who have the time and energy to develop their skills and genuinely improve their lessons.

Based on my experience of teaching in the UK, I’m not sure I would have been able to achieve a desirable work and lifestyle balance if I had taken a mentoring or management role there. It seems that there are too many other elements of the teaching role to juggle.

If you’re considering moving your teaching career abroad, don’t dismiss the opportunity to teach ESL. It can be extremely rewarding and provide a good level of professional development, challenge and progression.

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