Teaching English Abroad: Advice for Teachers and Lessons Learned at Washington English Center by Devin Foil

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Former Volunteer Devin Foil sharing Thanksgiving with his Chinese students

I teach English at in the little town of Pengshan, China. Whether or not my students are English majors, keeping them engaged is the priority and the challenge. The hands-on experience that I gained from the Washington English Center helped prepare me for teaching abroad. I really learned how to engage with my students, and connect with them. Below are some things that I learned at WEC, and have since practiced more of here in China:

Don’t rely too much on the lessons from the textbook
In my experience, following a lesson straight from the textbook can be very dull. It literally puts some of my students to sleep, and it really is no fun for the teacher. Textbooks are great guides and they are indispensable for grammar lessons, but they have no personality. This is where being a teacher is fun. I like to combine my own ideas with the lessons in the book. Sometimes I’ll show my students a YouTube video. Sometimes we’ll play a game that complements the lesson well. These kinds of activities get the students’ heads off of their desks and into the lesson.

Spending more time on your lesson plan is always worth the effort
A good lesson plan will always yield a good class session. I try to be as specific as I can in my own lesson plans. I tell myself small little details like, “Remember not to pass out the worksheets until after the recording is done, that way the students can focus on the listening first instead of fiddling with the worksheet.” These little details can be excruciating to insert in to the lesson plan, but I am always glad that they are there when I am teaching.

Pay attention to student feedback
It is easy to get defensive when a student gives some critical feedback, especially after you spent hours developing an awesome lesson plan. However, the student is usually right and his/her feedback can help your lessons immensely. I took the advice of a student from my discussion class, and everyone has enjoyed the class much more ever since (including myself). If your students don’t give feedback, then ask for it from one of your more vocal students. It is well worth the effort of asking. Just remember that feedback is not a challenge to your authority over the class, it is simply a suggestion from a person who knows how he/she would like to be taught.

General Thoughts on Teaching Abroad

I enjoy teaching English abroad, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested. There are times when it is very tough, but those times pass and you usually come out tougher and wiser. I have 4 pieces of advice that might help soften up the tough times:

1. Be open and have a sense of adventure. This is a little cliché, but let me explain what it really means. Having a sense of adventure means being ready for the little comforts of your normal life to be stripped away from you. Be prepared to sweat. Be prepared to be cut in line. Be prepared to be stared at…constantly. Be prepared to have the same conversation over and over and over and over again. Be prepared to not be able to explain yourself in sticky situations. All of these things make the adventure. You might have some cool traveling vacations, but those are the fun times. The adventure is being vulnerable in a culture that is not used to you.

2. Take care of your own self. What I mean is that that you should do everything in your power to make sure that you are A-OK. Just because you are a foreigner in a school does not mean that the administration will take it upon itself to ensure all your bases are covered. Ask questions. Always ask questions. Otherwise, if you miss something important, it will be your fault.

3. Don’t be afraid to say no. Students will probably like you and they will probably ask you to speak at their club, go out to dinner with their class, or just chat for an hour in the coffee shop. The administration will want to utilize you. It’s paying for you to be at the school after all. It might want you to do a lecture, participate in English corner, and teach an additional class. If you say yes to all of these things, you will have no time left for yourself. When you are working in a foreign country, a little me-time goes a long way. Don’t be afraid to say no to students. They’ll get over it. The same goes for the administration, although that can be a bit trickier since it handles your paycheck. Gauge what you can get away with and what other teachers get away with, and plan your nay saying from there.

4. Working abroad is much different from studying abroad. You may want to teach English in the cool country that you studied abroad in as a college student. You may have fond memories of that country and want to relive some of those times. Don’t expect that to happen. Working in a foreign country is much different than studying in one. It makes sense. Working in the US is much different than going to school in the US. It’s no different abroad. You will run into all of the classic work/office problems and drama. That stuff exists outside of the US too.

Conclusion
After the first semester of school, student reviews were posted and I was ranked the #1 foreign teacher out of the 7 foreign teachers in my department. I am very proud of this fact. All the foreign teachers at my school, including me, have a TESL certificate. The difference between them and me is that I am the only one with previous experience. I gained this experience at Washington English Center. Without the hands-on exposure to real English classes that WEC provides for its volunteers, and without the support of my students at WEC, I would not have learned the skills that are necessary to be a good teacher. I am confident of that

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