Adventures in Teaching English Overseas

For those of you who don’t already know this, my very first, post-college, “adult” job was teaching English to business executives in Venezuela. After finishing my BA, I enrolled in a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) Certification program, with about twenty other people from England, Canada, Australia, and all over the U.S. It was an intensive, one-month course in Barcelona that taught us the structure and intricacies of all twelve tenses in the English language. It required us to memorize the phonetic alphabet and transcribe sentences in it. We designed lesson plans and did case studies of non-native speakers. We analyzed their speech patterns and accents. We learned how to teach English to people who didn’t speak a single word of it through gesturing to them, like in a game of Charades.

In the evenings, we did our student teaching by offering free English lessons to the citizens of Barcelona. The classes were open to anyone and everyone from all walks of life. Grandparents would show up with their grandchildren. People who were practically fluent would come just to practice, while other students would know only basic words and phrases that they had learned from watching American movies.

The TESOL Certification technically qualified me to teach English anywhere in the entire world, but after falling in love with the art and beauty and energy of Barcelona, the biggest part of me wanted to stay once class was over, and get a job teaching English there. But, I kept getting cautionary warnings from the instructors at the TESOL program that us Americans would have a rough time finding work. Schools in Barcelona could only legally employ citizens of the European Union, and there were plenty of those who were native speakers of English—the Scottish, the Irish, the British—all of which were glad to trade in the foggy freezing weather of the UK to teach English by the beach in Barcelona. The competition would be stiff, they told us, and our only hope was to work illegally.

This, however, did not discourage my American roommates, Julia and Alyssa, from “giving it a go,” as our British instructors would say. Julia was from New Jersey and she had majored in American Studies at Rutgers University. Alyssa studied Art History at one of the Claremont Schools in California, but was originally from Washington State. The three of us found ourselves in Barcelona taking this class because we had recently graduated college, and rather than immediately diving into full-time jobs, we wanted to find a way to get paid to travel. Teaching English would give us exactly that.

In hindsight, when I think about this, I am reminded of something one of my clients said to me during an English class in Venezuela. He worked for a software development company called Oracle. One afternoon, as I was sitting in his office and finishing up our English lesson, he looked at me a bit curiously and said, “You know, it’s really amazing, isn’t it?”

“What is?” I asked.

“What you get to do,” he answered. “That you get to travel all over the world and speak your own language the whole time, and get paid for it. And all because you just happened to have been born in a country that speaks English.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond because I knew that he was absolutely right. Language schools only hired native speakers, so we were the only ones who got to do this. Period.

Fair or not, Julia, Alyssa, and I decided to cash in on our destinies. During the culminating weeks of the TESOL course, I watched the two of them pore over job boards and print out thirty copies of their resumes so that they could take them door-to-door, to every language school in Barcelona. They were serious. And they were banking on the fact that some school somewhere in the city would be willing to pay them under the table.

Sure enough, they both eventually found work—and apartments—that they loved. They started taking Spanish lessons, made friends with other expatriates, and built pretty amazing lives for themselves. Alyssa stayed in Barcelona for about two years, I believe, and Julia fell in love with a tall, dark, and handsome fellow—a native of Barcelona. She stayed there for four years, and even today, is still going back and forth from New Jersey to visit him.

As for me, I didn’t quite have the vision and the tenacity of Julia and Alyssa. I got scared that I wouldn’t find anything if I stayed—that I would run out of money and be living on the streets—that I would inevitably crawl back to the United States, defeated and on the brink of starvation. So, I took the easy way out and found a job that came with a long list of guarantees. The company guaranteed me a cell phone and an apartment. They guaranteed me a work visa and free Spanish lessons, and they were even willing to pick me up from the airport and deliver me safely to the hotel they were putting me up in for the first few nights.

This sounded like a job I could handle. And yes, it happened to be in Caracas, which wasn’t a place I knew very much about, or even had a large desire to visit. But, it was a job that eliminated all of the leg work and was in a country that wasn’t nearly as far or as foreign as say, Japan or China. There were many cushy English teaching jobs in those countries, as well, but the idea of living in a place that has an entirely different alphabet (not to mention a different conception of what is edible and what is not) also seemed too far from my comfort zone.

So, Venezuela it was. And Venezuela it will be in my blog for the next few weeks.

I’m leaving for Washington D.C. only one week from today, and I will be spending all of spring break on the East Coast. I may or may not have time to write while I am over there, so I am going to be posting little snippets of my adventures in Venezuela because they are already written. I recently happened upon my old notebook that I kept while teaching there, and I found that it actually had some pretty interesting stories in it. I did quite a bit of writing in Caracas, which was partly due to all the crazy experiences I was having, and partly due to the simple fact that the apartment I was living in had neither television, radio, nor Internet. I can almost guarantee that if you tried living that way for even one week, you would be amazed at how much more creative and productive you would be, too.

For now, I leave you with a few photos of my teeny tiny bedroom in Caracas, along with a photo of the view from the balcony in my apartment where I used to sit and write.

Until next week,
~ Christy ~