The Harsh Realities of Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) has become an option for many disillusioned recent college grads when they realize their Humanities degree is not that high in demand. You can qualify to be a TEFL teacher with nearly any type of degree. You will fantasize about how you’re going to enlighten foreign minds, but like anything else, reality will set in. Luckily for you, English Teacher X is a salty-as-fuck veteran of this mysterious world. He has written several books and been blogging about it since 2005.

Raul: English Teacher X, you’ve been TEFL for 15+ years now. What’s the biggest difference you see now between new, cherry English teachers and when you were a newbie in the 90s?

ETXEnglish Teacher X: Of course, there are a lot more people doing it now in general, but surprisingly, I don’t see that much difference. Still plenty of middle-aged whoremongers/wife-hunters, plenty of young backpacker types, and plenty of clueless youngsters in search of a Real Authentic Cultural Experience. You’d think there’d be fewer clueless people with the Internet and all, but there are still plenty of wide-eyed innocents, many of whom end up ripped off but with a few interesting stories to tell the folks when they go back to working at the Cheesecake Factory. One thing you see a lot more of these days is middle-aged women getting into it for a midlife career change after a divorce or whatever. Eat, Pray, Love syndrome. My friend in Dubai says he sees a lot of them, and a friend in Peru says the same thing. They’re often also looking for romance—men are not the only ones unhappy with the dating situation back home.

Raul: What kind of “Authentic Cultural Experience” do most of the youngsters look for, and what is the harsh reality?

ETX

English Teacher X: Oh, you know, the usual—they think they’re going to learn the language and befriend the locals and such and go to traditional ceremonies and such, but they generally find that the only people who want to speak with them either just want to practice their English or rip them off somehow. Or have sex with them, maybe.

Raul: You spent nine years in Russia from 2000-2009 in an industrial wasteland you’ve named “Vodkaberg.” Russia changed quite a bit since those days. You mentioned that the same Vodkaberg doesn’t exist anymore. What changes have occurred?

ETXEnglish Teacher X: Oh, man, well, it’s pretty much a 180-degree shift. When I got there, they loved foreigners, especially Americans and Europeans, and everybody loved to drink and smoke and party, and people were very cynical about work and the government. Everybody was extremely sexed-up, and there was a lot of prostitution going on. People had very little hope for the future. There was very much an atmosphere of “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Now, shit, it’s like the Reagan 80s. First there were a lot of rules limiting alcohol consumption—no more drinking on the streets, can’t buy alcohol after eleven, can’t drink on trains, etc. Then depictions of homosexuality in the media. With the Ukraine thing, Putin has stirred up the patriots and the nationalists, and even one of my slutty, foreigner-loving female friends there was lecturing me last night on Skype about how everything in the American media about Russia is a lie. People want to work hard to get the Toyota Corolla and the iPhone. People do take care of their health a lot more, though, I guess, which is a good thing. I read yesterday that Putin is banning some of the Russki mat—curse words—from movies, theater, and TV. He seems to be trying to create a Puritan republic in response to the excesses of the 90s and early 00s. Oh, and in addition to that, to show the attitude of Russians recently—a friend and I were trying to talk to some Russian girls in Dubai last week and one of them told us, “I don’t talk to Americans anymore because of the international situation.”

Raul: Damn, so Russia is losing its unique Russian ghetto charm; what a shame. Where could a young, hopeful, future TEFL type go to get the same crazy social atmosphere as was prevalent in Vodkaberg during your stint there?

ETXEnglish Teacher X: Of course, your social life is what you make of it and anybody going to Eastern Europe can probably find enough alcohol and sex and general wackiness to satisfy them. But the kind of blind worship of foreigners—that’s hard to find these days. You’d need to go someplace that has endured a long period of isolationism and protectionism. North Korea, Cuba, Belarus. Just in general, the kind of places that are experiencing the sort of rapid economic growth and social change that Russia experienced during the 00s are places in the Middle East, and I hear people talking about places like Turkey, Ethiopia, and Lebanon a lot. Recently somebody sent me an email asking where the best place to go to have that experience would be and I answered, “Just go anywhere that people tell you not to go because it’s too dangerous.” I remember buying the train ticket to Russia back in 2000, and the women at the train station in Prague told me I was crazy; they would kill me. They didn’t, although not for want of trying.

Raul: Any random advice for any aspiring TEFLers?

ETXEnglish Teacher X: Well, I was thinking today that while TEFL is not much of a career choice, it probably combines well with your various possibilities for “location independent” jobs like freelance writing or running an eBay store or an affiliate site or whatever. As a teacher you’ll probably have enough free time to work on something like that, but you’ll always have something to do to meet people or to fall back on if your Internet job punks out for some reason.

~Raul Felix

Check out more of my writing at Thought Catalog

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