Write your job description.
Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have survived this long in Germany and the Czech Republic by working as an English teacher. When I first set out on this little adventure, I took a TEFL course based in Prague, which taught me valuable skills on how to teach grammar, vocabulary, and how to set up a white board using snazzy colors and time graphs.
Then I started teaching for realsies.
My first job in TEFL was at Berlitz in Prague. This experience had a lot of pros, and a lot of cons. One pro was that it was basically teaching for idiots, in that they have all of their own material and teachers were mostly restricted to using that. This sounds negative (and in my opinion, it is for the students), but for teachers it meant that prep time was nearly nonexistent and it was easy to crank out tons of classes every day without thinking much about them. However, a big con was that often there weren’t that many classes to crank out, and despite their courses being among the most expensive in a town crammed with language schools, their teachers were among the lowest paid.
And all those skills I learned in the TEFL course? Pretty much out. Some tactics I held onto of course, but so many of them that dealt with using different source material, bringing creativity in, and so on, were out the window with the official Method we were supposed to use.
Then I came to Germany and was thrown into the deep end. Right off the bat I had ten classes at one school, with more coming as the year went on. I was supposed to be working freelance, and therefore for more schools, but for a long time I literally did not have free time to work anywhere else. The schedule plus the prep time was far more than I had done in my previous two years of teaching. All of a sudden I had a bunch of different books, vastly different needs, and this time there was no cookie cutter.
I was kept pretty busy that whole first year here and then rough financial times led to a bunch of classes falling off. And, as I’ve noted before here, you can apply to every school in town but if no one is hiring, you’re out of luck.
With a little persistence and a lot of help, I stuck it out though, and over the last few years have built up a pretty steady business. I’m no longer at the mercy of one school, which is a HUGE relief, and I am much happier when I’ve got a good variety of groups. Sometimes you get one that is a bit of a struggle, but if you have one right afterwards that is peppy and excited and involved, that goes a long way.
I’ve now been doing this for more than eight years, and was chatting to a fellow teacher friend of mine the other week about how neither one of us feel like “real” teachers. He had attended a training session recently, and was so impressed by some of the other people there. They had been in Germany teaching for 10-20 years, were totally settled here, and were Teachers. Capital T. Neither of us feel that way, despite the fact that we’ve both been doing this almost as long as some of those people had. I wonder if they have similar discussions with their friends.
If I don’t feel like a teacher, what do I feel like? I’ve given this a fair amount of thought and there are a few skills that I think are under-emphasized in all those wonderful TEFL training courses. However, I don’t think I would have made it this far if I couldn’t do the following things. Grammar and 3-page lesson plans did not make the list, sorry to disappoint.
- Fake it til you make it. I am not a morning person. I would much rather be in bed than on a train at 6:30 or 7am to make an 8:30 start time. Which is actually pretty reasonable. 7am classes also exist, for some ungodly reason. When that group comes in though, the teacher can’t be dragging ass, because someone has to act like they want to be there. Which leads me to…
- Acting! In normal social situations, I am also shy. I would never go up to a group of people and just introduce myself unless I absolutely had to. In this case, it’s my job to walk in and act like I’m not completely intimidated by a group of eight professional adults.
- Reaction time. I’ve always been quick. Not physically (godawful at sports), but with a comment or a wisecrack. When a question comes up and I can come up with an answer or a definition or an explanation off the top of my head, it’s great. I do get stumped occasionally, but usually I’ll try to look whatever it is up later and shoot them an email. You have to expect the unexpected and react as best as you can. I think that has been extremely beneficial when it comes to unplanned situations in class, which brings me to…
- Flexibility. In TEFL, we learned to write out every single thing we planned to do in class, down to how we would say some things. One school I work for requires us to write long form lesson plans and it makes me absolutely crazy. I procrastinate on those things for as long as humanly possible. I never use them in class because 1) I know what I’m going to do, I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me and 2) half the time, something comes up and the whole thing goes off the rails. If a student brings in something they want to look at, or a question comes up that leads the class in a direction that was unplanned but helpful for them, isn’t addressing that so much more important than following the “plan”? Yeah. It is. Do you know what happens when a teacher says, “No, we can’t do that right now, it’s not on our plan. Maybe next week.” The students get annoyed that their needs aren’t being addressed. If you are too rigid, and can’t adapt quickly, you won’t last long.
Possibly my favorite part of this job is getting to talk to so many different people and hear so many different takes on life. I’ve learned so much about so many things, and heard so many stories that I would never in a million years have come across if I had stayed back in Wisconsin. To say that that is invaluable is an understatement.
I think if I had come here and only had the perfunctory interactions with Germans at the supermarket or government offices, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have lasted this long. It always bums me out to hear that some people come here for business or with the military, barely interact with the actual people here, and think Germans are cold or rude or what have you. They are not. They’re a lot of things, some good, and yes, some bad. I think if my job, despite some headaches, has given me anything, it’s given me the chance to see so much more of the good. But they don’t teach you that in the TEFL courses either.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a 31-day challenge series for the month of May, in which I aim to spend at least 15 minutes writing about whatever strikes my fancy. Results may vary.