Going East: Teaching English in Asia

WEB-kids play

Students in Scarlett Losch’s class play outside in Beijing, China. (Photo Scarlett Losch)

For Scarlett Losch, an average day at work involves teaching four groups of children between the ages of three and six. The older students learn basic sentence structure while the younger ones play games to remember English vocabulary for food and  parts of the body. She has her own classroom and her own office, and educates about 100 children each day. Losch says she is always amazed at how quickly the kids in her class pick up the language. She makes a respectable salary, earning around $1,800 each month, in addition to an extra $1,000 she makes from tutoring and teaching art classes. Her students don’t call her Ms. Losch. They call her Su Jiā Lì.

Losch is a teacher in Beijing, China. She moved there to be an instructor after deciding that her first year of film studies at Ryerson would be her last as a student. Despite not having an undergraduate degree, experience in teachers’ college, or even a completed Teaching English as a Second Language TEFL certificate, she was easily able to secure employment.

TEFL or TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) is an online course that qualifies one to work internationally as a language instructor. While there are several variations of the course structure, the minimum requirements consist of 100 online hours and six hours of practical experience.
There are currently about 80 countries with viable job markets to teach English, according to the International TEFL Academy, an organization that provides training and guidance to prospective international English teachers. Destinations in Asia are the most popular.

While a TEFL certificate is preferred, and can sometimes lead to higher salaries, uncertified applicants can still get hired, so long as they are over the age of 18. This means that young people who were recently students themselves can be the ones leading the classroom.

Before she left for Beijing in August 2012, Losch enrolled in a course with Global TESOL College. The organization provides several levels of certification, and the most basic of them costs $995. Losch says she felt prepared to be an instructor upon her arrival, but reflecting back on her introduction to teaching now, she says, “I’m not going to lie, it was a bit of a joke.” Her job was secured and her bags were packed before she had even finished her certification, which, even after a successful year as an instructor, she has yet to complete.

Ian Davis, the director of admissions at the Chicago-based International TEFL Academy, says that the program does deliver adequate training to teach abroad. “It is a tough course that dives into language acquisition,” he says. “Most alumni say they’ve never felt more prepared.”
During his six years with the International TEFL Academy, Davis says he has seen rapid growth in the desire to teach English abroad. Approximately 100,000 jobs are available for international English teachers. The majority of people filling these jobs are in their mid-20s, and will stay abroad for only one to two years.

This high turnover creates constant new opportunities.

But teaching abroad is not for everyone, Davis says. As well as having to be a fluent English-speaking adult, he says, “It takes a certain kind of person to do this. Teachers have to have a sense of adventure and be willing to get their hands dirty.”

Without hesitation, Davis says the largest job market is in China, where the population of people learning English is greater than the entire population of the United States. Some teachers are provided with health care, paid vacation, housing, and even airfare. All of this, in addition to an average monthly salary of up to 12,000 RMB (approximately $2,000 Canadian), makes this country an ideal destination for students looking to travel and pay off their student loans concurrently.

Former Ottawa student Annisa McNish’s story of securing a teaching job illustrates Davis’s point. After graduating from Everest College’s lab technician program, McNish moved to Shanghai, China, where her boyfriend had already been living and working as an engineer for nine months.
She took a few weeks to settle in and begin her online TEFL program. Before she was even certified, she posted her resume on Kijiji. McNish was called that same night about a position at a nearby school and was hired at the end of her interview. She started work the following day. McNish now maintains an English immersion environment with children aged three to nine who spend 45 minutes with her, followed by 45 minutes with a Chinese teacher who is fluent in both languages.

Like most other English teachers in China, she earns a substantial monthly salary of 14,500 RMB (about $2,600) and has been using the money to travel on her vacation time and even pay off student loans. McNish has visited Hong Kong and is planning a trip to South Korea but says that, since arriving, her most memorable experience has been touring the Great Wall of China.

She acknowledges the benefit of proper training for this type of position. “I definitely feel I could have been more prepared,” McNish says. “But all the lessons are planned out so you don’t have to do too much. It’s so easy once you get started.”

After completing the TEFL course, and working with other international teachers who have shared their tips to engage young students McNish says, “TEFL teaches you how to teach the simple grammar rules native English speakers take for granted. The most important part was how to take lessons and turn them into games and exercises.”

Enriqueta Zafra can speak to a different kind of language teaching experience. She has been teaching Spanish to Ryerson students since 2004, but her position requires much more than an online certificate.

She says that it can be great to be taught by a native speaker because teachers should only be instructing others if they have been immersed in the language or were born speaking it.

Challenges can arise when teachers are not able to translate their instructions into the language spoken by their students, Zafra says. “If you know the language you can easily explain difficult concepts,” she says. “You can help make connections.”

In addition to simply being competent with the language, Zafra says there are distinct personality traits that make successful teachers. These include patience, the ability to assess different learning styles, and the ability to convey culture as well as language. Ultimately, she believes that teachers can either study their whole life or take a quick course, but when it comes to teaching something as complex as English, online practice can only take instructors so far.
Losch’s experiences abroad have proved successful even without extensive training. Both of her sisters had young children and she says that being around them helped prepare her to be an international teacher. She joked, “Kids are the same no matter where you go. They all want candy and ice cream and for you to pay attention to them.”

The job has had lots of payoff. She recalled a young girl from Japan, named Masako, who spoke English well but was very shy. Losch and Masako would sit together during breaks and use an iPad to translate their conversations.

The two developed a meaningful bond that made Masako more comfortable around others. Losch was equally excited about Lyla, another student who tried hard to improve her English in every class. “If she was 21 years old, she would be my best friend,” Losch says.

Losch says she is certain moving to China was the right choice for her. “Deciding to quit school and leave everything and everyone to go to the other side of the world was the best thing I have ever done,” she says. “I’ll never regret it.”

Q & A with English teachers abroad

Jessica Pehme, 23, has been teaching English in South Korea since Fall, 2013. She graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a double major in Business and Political Science.

Hannah Rolland, 23.  is also an English teacher in South Korea. She moved there just one month ago. She graduated from Carleton University  where she majored in Religion and minored in History.

Q: How much do you make?

J: I make $2,100 a month. My apartment is paid for, but I pay for gas and electric.

H: My monthly income is $2,100 a month. However, I don’t pay rent and I didn’t pay for the flight to get here.

Q: What do you think of  TEFL courses?

J: I thought the course was incredibly overpriced. It’s a huge amount of money for a very generic course on teaching. I did not feel particularly prepared for teaching because of the course, but because of my history as a swimming teacher and sports coach.

H: My boyfriend and I took a course through Oxford Seminars and it was a great decision. Not only was our teacher amazing and very knowledgeable, but she she constantly made us teach the class so she could give us feedback. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t feel half as confident in the classroom. Yet, there is no way to teach someone to be a teacher and the best way I learned was when I got here and jumped into a classroom.

Q: What is your most memorable moment?

J: My most memorable moment in the classroom so far would have to be my first day teaching. My first class was 80 minutes. I was supposed to be teaching English to two energetic four-year-old boys. Four-year-olds can barely sit through a 20 minute TV show. They know no English, so I communicated purely through actions and nodding as they rambled on in Korean to me. I’m lucky superhero stickers and ball throwing require no words.

H: I was teaching an 8-year-old boy named Bean. The other students were sick that day so it was only him and I. He has the messiest hand writing and I know he can do better, so I try and push him every class. That day, for some reason, he actually tried and worked harder than I have ever seen him work. He wrote the most amazing little essay (yes, he is 8 and can already write an essay!) and his handwriting was unbelievable. I was so proud!

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 26, 2014.

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