Lone Child in Classroom
© Keith Ellwood

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.

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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.

Notes from Tokyo © *Solar ikon*

#1: You’re Curious About Cultures

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.

School Room in Zambia, Africa
School Room in Zambia, Africa © Steve Jurvetson

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.

  1. I have a great respect for people who can teach English or other languages well, especially in a group setting.

    I consider language teaching to be something of a performance art: good teachers are so animated and so much larger than life in order to overcome communication (and attention) barriers and get their messages across to allophone students. Especially in immersion teaching!

    I have never taught ESL and recognize that I don’t have the energy or…the spark…to do it well. But I really admire the people who do.

  2. And not all ESL teachers like travelling. And most surprising of all, not all ESL teachers who live abroad actually want to be there, some would rather be at home given the right job prospects and family situation!

  3. Fabulous post and great topic. I couldn’t agree more. Especially number 2. One of my favorite things about traveling is being immersed in area outside my language-comfort zone. It’s incredible to be surrounded by people and words you know nothing of, learning to get by on body language and expressions until hopefully picking up on some of the basics.

  4. @Shaula, that’s true, language teaching is a bit of a performance – but I think you’d be surprised at how the spark and energy appear when you try it, even if you don’t think you have it.

    @Alex, I hadn’t really thought about that – but I guess down here in Oz the economic situation is so strong that if you go abroad to teach it’s usually because you want to – you can earn more in practically any job by staying here instead.

    @Debo – you don’t need a whole teaching degree to teach ESL. Depending on the country you might need basically nothing!- but the ideal combination is any kind of degree (required in some countries) plus something like a CELTA certification.

  5. I can see the points that Ms. Kendle is trying to make here, and I also respect her experience as a good English teacher when traveling in different countries. However, in my opinion, it is not a rule that applies to everybody.

    To afford travel should not ever be the reason for anybody to become an ESL teacher. That is also what makes Ms. Kendle successful in handling both of them. Ms. Kendle is an English teacher at first and then she finds the way to be immersed into different cultures by practicing her professional. If someone just wants to make a living by teaching when traveling around, it would be a disaster to the ESL industry as its reputation would be destroyed by those who randomly pick up the job to survive abroad.

    Economically, it is not a wise choice as well. People devotes considerable time to acquire the ESL certificates. Out of the same amount of time, they could make more money from their original jobs which are most relevant and helpful to their personal careers as a whole. Even after they obtain the necessary certificates, it may not be that easy to land a job in the destination country, especially if they are not there already.

    Lastly, fun and leisure are the essence of travel to me. I really don’t want to bear any responsibilities of a serious job after I finally manage to flee away from my own for a while.

  6. Thanks for the comments, Kelly. Actually, I probably should admit that I really *did* become an ESL teacher just so I could travel. I wanted to live abroad and that was the easiest way! Worse than that, I didn’t even particularly mind where I lived, as long as it wasn’t my home country, and Japan was the easiest place for me to get a job without any experience, at the time. By chance (or not?) it turned out that I loved both Japan and teaching, so I continued and ended up teaching in other countries. So I’m one of those who randomly picked up the job to survive abroad … sorry!

    However, I definitely agree that being an ESL teacher is not an economically wise choice :-)

  7. Hola Amanda,

    I have always enjoyed your articles, but this one in particular. I am an English teacher for a non–profit Arts, Education, Language and Literature Project Fundacion Arte del Mundo in Banos, Tungurahua, Ecuador. We recently opened a Children Interactive Library in order to promote literacy and a love of books. We are seeking volunteers (and slightly paid … enough to survive on) English teachers, librarians, etc. No ESL certification is necessary. Experience is welcome!

    Email us: [email protected] for more info


  8. @Jody, thanks for the kind words. Hope you get some volunteers over there in Ecuador … if only my bank would allow me to pay my mortgage in good deeds instead of dollars I’d be on the next plane myself :-)

  9. Great article! I especially appreciate numbers 3 and 4, sometimes you really have to make a complete fool out of yourself!

  10. I totally agree, Amanda. However, rather unfortunately, there are those who use TEFL as a means to satisfy their travelling dreams, and not taking the profession seriously enough, helping fuel its backpacking image, especially in foreign lands. So, although I agree with your four points, not everyone is cut out to be a teacher, be it English or otherwise. Those who are not prepared to devote twice as much time in preparation as the class itself would be well advised to think twice before jumping into the pool.

  11. I love the part about awkward situations! Yes, we can all relate to those times travelling when we run into the most awkward situations. It’s funny to look back on them but not necessarily great at the time. I love your article, you are a skilled blog poster and I look forward to keeping up to date with your posts.

  12. I myself have had experience teaching English as a second language in Rural China this past July. Everything you mentioned here, especially the awkward moments, I have experienced haha! I can totally agree with you when you say “Learn the local language”. Not only will it help you while out and about, but the locals will look even more highly of you if you can speak their language.

    One example of this is when I was at a fruit stall in rural China. I just put the produce on the counter and the shopkeeper got the hint that I couldn’t say much. She rang me up and I handed her the money. Once she handed me my purchases I told here “Thank you” (Xiexie) in Mandarin and the smile on her face was something I will not forget. She was so enthused that I could speak some of her language that she told me “you’re welcome” (Bui buche) in Mandarin. I bet I made her day. My point is, if you learn even a small amount of the local language, the locals will be very impressed and will be even more warm hearted towards you than they already are.

  13. Interesting points, but also worth mentioning that not all people are wired the same way. I have met several English teachers here in the Philippines who generally teach in China and other countries (mainly because salaries are better than the Philippines as well as the Philippines having English as a second language). But many of the people I come across just wouldn’t be suited to the environment of even the word “work”. Travelling comes first and generally they hussle a lifestyle that keeps them afloat. Not the best way of life but seems to suit a lot of people who may struggle with classrooms of kids.

  14. I’m considering whether to possibly do teaching in Japan during my gap year. Luckily I ticked all the points you mentioned.
    I do agree with breaking the ice by making yourself look like a bit of an idiot, I do it all the time anyway.
    Really like the ideas you came up with in this article.

  15. I am an ESL teacher in Shanghai.
    I am looking to teach ESL online.
    Any suggestions?

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