4 Reasons Why Travelers Make Great English Teachers (and Vice Versa)
I was a traveler before I became an English teacher, but I soon discovered that these two things fit together remarkably well. So far, I’ve taught English to foreigners in four different countries and have definitely realized it’s no coincidence that nearly all my colleagues have the travel bug as bad as I do.
Are you an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, who hasn’t yet become a traveler? Or a traveler who’s considering dabbling in some English teaching? Here are a few reasons that can often mean doing both is a great idea.
Or in other words, if you travel to Paris you don’t just want to see the Eiffel Tower. You want to see how the French go shopping and figure out whether they’re impolite or just a little stand-offish when it comes to speaking English. Being curious about cultures is an essential part of being an ESL teacher, because showing an interest in their cultures is the best way to make a connection with your students.
Now that I teach a multicultural class, it’s even clearer to me how an interest in other cultures both feeds my teaching and in turn, my travel bug. If I meet a new class I’ll instantly quiz the Slovak student about what’s changed in Bratislava since I was last there — because, of course, post-communism means such places still have all kinds of things changing.
A student from El Salvador will soon be asked about the differences between their country and others in Latin America, all places I’m hoping to travel to one day. And if I have several Koreans in my class I’ll be closely watching their interaction as they get to know each other and figure out how to be polite to their superiors (which, apparently, means anyone born even a year before them) while speaking a foreign language.
#2: You’re Interested in Languages
Learning a bit of the local language — or more than a bit, if you can — is guaranteed to make your travels more rewarding. On top of that, if you’re curious about other languages you will fit perfectly into the life of an ESL teacher.
The act of learning even simple parts of a foreign language helps you understand the process your students are going through. And learning the language that your students speak helps you understand why they make particular mistakes.
For me, learning about odd similarities between languages is what most piques my interest, either on the road or in class. Take a silly example from mathematics: the pie chart. Most of my Asian students told me that in their languages they use phrases that translate very logically to “circle chart”. Brazilian students told me they call it a “pizza chart”. And, although I’m still wondering if they were pulling my leg, French speakers told me it’s a “Camembert”!
#3: You’re Good at Dealing With Awkward Situations
Any long term traveler can rattle off a dozen or more awkward situations they’ve found themselves in. Saying no to a lovely Estonian woman who desperately wanted us to come and stay with her so we could teach her son English was awkward (and it was true that we already had somewhere great to stay); dealing with an Egyptian police officer who insisted I pay a rip-off fare to a cheating taxi driver before he’d let me leave the country was a touch on the awkward side too.
But somehow, standing in front of a group of foreigners desperately trying to learn English produces more awkward situations than you could imagine. You don’t want to laugh at them when they tell you CEO stands for “Chief Execution Officer”, and you don’t want the shy Japanese girl to be offended or tearful when a loud Spanish-speaker says that they can’t hear a word she’s saying.
A sense of humor or the right sympathy at the right time, or whatever skill you use to diffuse an awkward situation, is what makes you both a great traveler and an ideal English teacher.
The sense of humor or the right sympathy at the right time, or whatever skill you use to diffuse an awkward situation, is what makes you both a great traveler and an ideal English teacher. Perfect this and you’ll have students hanging off your every word. Even the ones they can’t understand.
#4: You Can Laugh at Yourself
There was that time in the hot spring in Japan where I had no idea what the procedure was for undressing and washing — yes, I laughed at myself. And in Tunisia when I almost fell off a stationary camel I had a good chuckle too. Laughing at yourself is not always easy to do, but it’s a great skill to develop.
When you’re teaching a group of English language students, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to tell them that “chocolate” is a countable noun when their textbook says it’s uncountable (and really, it depends). You’re even going to make spelling mistakes when you write on the board, and you’re not going to know the answer to every question your students ask you. No problem — it’s okay to be human, laugh at yourself and promise to check up and get back to them.
Laughing at yourself in an ESL class is also a great way to break the ice. Do something silly and your students will feel that they also have the license to take risks and make mistakes. I’m sure laughter leads to the best learning.
Not All Travelers Love Teaching English
Having said all this, I know there are some travelers who gave ESL teaching a go and just didn’t enjoy it. Perhaps it sometimes depends on the school and the local environment, on the poor wages, or on unmotivated students. I love it, so I’m totally biased and can’t figure out why, but I’d love to hear your comments if you fit this category.