Have English, Will Travel

Gail Westbrook Issue: Section:

I think I was born to wander. My favorite childhood memories are of month-long car trips, from Iowa to the Southwest, on two-lane roads that followed the railroad tracks.

I never asked “Are we there yet?” My first term paper was on Marco Polo and my favorite record album was Frank Sinatra's “Come Fly with Me”. I can still close my eyes and see the flying fishes playing as the dawn comes up like thunder out of China cross the bay. I traveled a fair amount in my young adulthood, living in Europe for a year, North Africa for a few months, England for three years. I visited Mexico, more than once, and saw Machu Pichu before the tourist deluge. But my traveling days came to an end with the child-raising years, wonderful years, a different kind of adventure, ...but still. I used to say, swinging with the kids in our local park, that when I was 50 I would take 3 years “off” to walk around the world. As 50 approached, that plan seemed less and less practicable (could still decide to do it at 70, though, or 80....?), but I had a new idea – I would get certified to teach English as a Foreign Language and work my way to some of the places I had always dreamed of living.
In those days, you could get a job without a degree and without having taken a certification course – today you tend to need both in many parts of the world, especially if you want to obtain an official work visa. I had lived in Northern California for 20 years, and had a friend who recommended Transworld Teachers, a school in San Francisco that no longer exists. They offered 2 programs, 4 weeks full time, or Saturdays for several months. I chose the former. It was the most intense 4 weeks of instruction and practice I have ever experienced and well worth the price, though similar programs today can cost considerably more than mine did in 1993. On the other hand, you can now get certified in many different parts of the world and your school will often help you land your first job. Googling TEFL certification courses, I came up with 185,000 results, and picked one at random, www.vialingua.org. I know nothing about them but their fees look to be within the going rate (around $2000 USD), they offer courses in Hungary, Argentina, Greece, Italy, Vietnam, Turkey, Mexico, Thailand, Cambodia, Portugal, Brazil, Russia, Chile and Italy and they say that with their job placement program 85% of their graduates have a job before they finish the course. That doesn't mean you'll like the first job, or stay with it, or get enough hours to make it viable on its own, but it can be helpful to have one on your resume as you look for the “right” situation for you. As it happens, my first job was less than ideal.
In 1994, certificate in hand and husband along for the ride, I set off to see the world. We eventually landed in Krakow, Poland, where my first job turned out to be a cover for a rather ruthless American entrepreneur – I doubled as his personal secretary and resigned after opening a letter threatening to tear his face off. Desperate to find a “real” teaching job, I got hold of a local phone book and pounded the pavements, seeing parts of Krakow I never would have discovered otherwise. I was finally hired by a lovely British Indian linguist who had a class none of his regular teachers were willing to take - teaching employees of the Road Building and Maintenance Dept. - at 7 am. I told him I was his woman and had the time of my life. When I unexpectedly had to return to the US before the end of the year, my students presented me with a huge bouquet of flowers and the men lined up to kiss my hand, tears flowing freely on both sides.
I have since spent a year in China, a life-long dream.

I was a college professor living on a Beijing campus, teaching students from every part of China, most of them from the countryside, some the first in their family, or their village, to attend college. I was so nervous my first day in class I was trembling, until I noticed that the students were all shaking too, and clutching each others hands under their desks in absolute terror. We had a great year.

When classes were over I

sailed down the Yangtze River

on a local boat, before the

completion of the 3 Gorges

Damn, and steamed into

Shanghai at sunset, past the

colonial Bund, visions of

Robert Mitchum dancing in my


Later I spent a year living and teaching in Alexandria, Egypt, another dream come true. My students tended to be bankers, maritime transport workers and teenagers who wanted to get into college in English speaking countries, but there were others, like George, who was looking for a wife, and Manal, who was looking to get out of the house. And I was sent out on contract to Senghor University, where I taught very motivated mid-level professionals from the former French colonies – a course I was well paid for and would have paid for the privilege of teaching. On the breaks between teaching sessions, my husband and I traveled to upper Egypt, and sailed down the Nile in a felucca.
We spent time in the Sahara, at an oasis where Alexander the Great had left his mark, and snorkeled in the Red sea, off the coast of the Sinai. I made life-long friends in both China and Egypt, and gained an understanding of the cultures that I think would be hard to acquire any other way, barring marriage to a local. While living and teaching in Hanoi, Vietnam, I joined the Friends of Vietnam Heritage, which opened doors to private art collections far more interesting than anything in the local museums, and monthly meditation days at a local pagoda on the outskirts of town.
Teaching in Cuenca, Ecuador, offered the possibility of trips to the mountains, jungle and coast, and thanks to the extended visa that came with this job, we were able to live on the Galapagos for three months, where I had the opportunity to do the kind of volunteer work I had always wanted to do.
And then, ahhh, there was Buenos Aires, Argentina, the capital of an imaginary empire, as someone once described it. The question is not if we will go back but when.
There are drawbacks to every career, of course, and English teaching abroad is no exception. If you want, or need, to get paid, you will often be teaching the middle and upper classes, though there are certainly opportunities for outreach to less affluent populations if you can pay your own way and don't need an income. And occasionally you get burned. My first job in Hanoi sounded great on the internet: I loved my students, enjoyed the other teachers, and appreciated the opportunities offered by the school to do volunteer work on the side. That was until payday rolled around and I discovered that ALL the teaching I'd done had been voluntary. Many broken promises later, the teaching staff gave up on ever getting paid and walked out en masse, poorer but wiser. Fortunately, even a few years later, it's easier to go online and research a school in depth before you sign on the dotted line. Negative experiences tend to make it to someone's blog.
In 1996, when I was looking for a job in China, I paid an agent a small and worthwhile fee to find the right job and set me up with a contract and work visa. Now, however, you can go to a job-listing site like Dave's ESL Cafe and find a whole section devoted to jobs in China, just click and apply. Despite the huge increase in teachers certified to teach English as a Foreign Language, my experience (so far) has been that there are still lots of opportunities out there. But there are some restrictions. It is virtually impossible, for example, for an American to get an official teaching job in the EU, as preference and work visas are only for EU members. It doesn't mean you might not be able to advertise and tutor privately, but residency would be a challenge. There are many countries where most of the English teaching jobs are under the table, so you will be hopping across a border every 3 months to renew your tourist visa. Argentina is one of those places,, but we found the boat ride from BA across to Colonia, in Uruguay, a pleasure, not a pain. There are parts of the world where it's easier to be a male teacher (the Middle East, Korea) and others where it's probably easier to be a female teacher, particularly a young and blond one (Japan). But I wouldn't recommend letting anything discourage you from trying to go anywhere that really interests you. I have no idea where our next port of call will be but I did see a listing recently for a job in Burma, “where the dawn comes up like thunder out of China cross the bay.
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