Alice Pilkington started teaching abroad in 2009 – she started working in Rome before moving to Istanbul, where she’s spent the past three and a half years teaching English as a foreign language to “everyone from 8-year-olds to company executives; students to bored housewives”.
Having taught in two very different countries to a diverse range of foreign learners, Alice shares the five lessons she’s learned about teaching abroad.
1. Don’t take things personally when you’re teaching
“I am probably not emotionally suitable for this job. I take everything very personally and if a lesson goes wrong or an activity I have taken time and energy to plan doesn’t work, I feel like a complete failure! It’s a trial and error experience but when things go wrong, they can go very wrong, and it really makes you doubt your abilities as a teacher.
“Having said that, the lessons that do go well can make up for these negative feelings. I shouldn’t take things personally; most of my colleagues don’t, and it saves them a lot of sleepless nights!”
2. Teaching abroad is incredibly rewarding
“There are very few feelings that I’ve experienced that are on a par with seeing a student use a word or skill that you have taught them – you feel like a proud parent! Equally, seeing a student improve over a series of months is so joyful. I have been teaching university preparation students for the past year. In September, they could barely say what their name was and what they did over the weekend. Nine months on and they’re capable of reading academic texts and speaking at length about marketing strategies and environmental problems. It’s a wonderful thing to observe!”
3. Teach more than just a subject
“Turkish students love hearing about how you enjoy their food and cultural traditions. Equally, they are genuinely interested in how things ‘operate’ in the UK, and love you to tell personal anecdotes. I tend to be very open with my students – even about my personal life. I think it is partly because I have striven from the very beginning of my career to be seen as their equal.
“Turkish students are used to having a huge respect for teachers, and there is a hierarchical system in schools here, which I can never go along with. In my first lesson with most students, I tell them that they must call me by my first name (usually you refer to teachers here as ‘hocam’ which means ‘my teacher’ and shows respect) and this can take a long while for them to get used to.”
4. Failure to prepare is to prepare for failure… Or is it?!
“Lessons that you spend hours preparing for generally don’t go as well as you had hoped. There were several times when I’d spend hours cutting and sticking things on pieces of card, and pictures all over the classroom, hoping it would get some vocabulary action going, only to start the class and get nothing back from the students.
“Conversely, lessons where you don’t feel very motivated or have no idea what you are going to do until you get into the classroom (which I call the ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ lessons) can turn out to be the best ones. I once had a lesson in which I was, admittedly, rather hungover. On the way to the lesson I grabbed a book called ‘Taboos and Issues’, full of discussion topics, which I used as a basis for a rather impromptu lesson on addictions, which was very successful indeed.”
5. Teaching isn’t easy!
“I think teaching is a love/hate profession. There are weeks when you absolutely loathe it and want to jack it all in, and then within the space of a lesson or two, you get inspired by something completely unexpected, rediscover your ‘joie de vivre’ and love it again!”