TEFL Teaching: Expectations vs. Reality

Let’s be honest, no matter how much you love teaching English, or how well prepared you are for a TEFL class, there will always be times when your expectations don’t quite match up to reality.

You might, for example, spend hours preparing the “perfect” lesson, only to find that the students have already covered the material with another teacher, or that they haven’t reached that module of the book yet. Perhaps they’re unclear about a grammar point that you covered last week and want to go over it again. Or maybe only a few students have bothered to show up, rendering the group work you planned useless. Of course, in theory things like this shouldn’t happen, but in practise they can and often do.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist / control freak; I like things to go exactly as I envision them in my head, and anything short of that I often perceive to be a complete catastrophe. As you can image then, when I first started teaching English I found it very frustrating when my expectations for a lesson weren’t met. I would fret over the smallest of things, and constantly doubt my abilities as a teacher. I soon realised, however, that teaching is a sink or swim business; if you want to stay afloat you have to learn to be flexible and roll with the punches. With a classroom full of students staring up at you, there’s just no time (or privacy) for a meltdown.

As anyone who has ever completed a teacher training course like the CELTA will know, lesson planning is a huge part of learning to be a teacher, and rightly so. It’s vital to be able to plan your lessons properly, as your students need to progress at the right pace in order to finish the course on time. They will, most probably, have to sit a test at some point, so you need to make sure you cover all of the material necessary for them to pass. You also want your lessons to be fun and engaging, and for your students to feel as though they’re following a logical learning trajectory. All of this takes planning, especially when you’re a new kid/teacher on the block.

Now, with the importance of lesson planning duly noted, I’d like you to take the plan that you’ve just spent the last hour perfecting, and throw it out of the window.

No wait, what am I saying?

Put it in your paper and cardboard recycling bin.

I sense your hesitation, and you’re right; perhaps throwing your plan away entirely is a step too far. But you catch my drift, right? What I’m trying to say is that the second most important skill a teacher can have, after planning, is the ability to adapt when plans falls through. If your students aren’t grasping and/or enjoying what you’re teaching them, you’re going to have to try something else, and fast.

There are a whole host of variables that can change the course of your lesson at any given second, especially if you’re teaching young learners. Kids get bored and are easily distracted. As such, it’s nigh on impossible to follow a plan down to the very last word. There’s always one child that races through the worksheet twice as quickly as everyone else, so having back-up material is a good idea (word searches are your friend).

With adult learners, though they’re (generally) better behaved, there are other issues that can throw you off course. If you teach in-company Business English, for example, you’ll probably find yourself caught between what the students want to learn, and what their employer (who is paying for the lessons) wants them to learn. This requires a careful balancing act on your part; you need to keep your students interested and motivated, while still covering the material that the company has requested.

These are just a few of the realities that might dash your expectations of the perfect student, class or teaching experience into smithereens. But never fear! It’s all a learning curve and there’s nothing like being slapped in the face by the cold, harsh hand of reality to make you into a better, more experienced teacher. Try to think of each lesson as a living, breathing organism that needs to constantly evolve and adapt in order to thrive. Expect the unexpected, and you’re less likely to be caught off guard.

Outside of the classroom, there are other expectations that come with teaching English abroad. It’s likely that you were first drawn to TEFL by the allure of travel and adventure; of exploring not only a foreign land, but new depths of character within yourself that, heretofore, you never knew existed. You only half-jokingly shout “so long suckers!” as you leave your friends and family at Departures, elated by your conviction that you’ve escaped the dreary monotony of “normal” life. As the plane takes off, you sit back in your chair, close your eyes and dream of all the exotic food you’ll soon be eating. By the time the cabin crew are handing out the inflight meal, you’ve already named dozens of the free-spirited, like-minded people that you’re going to meet and instantly form meaningful, life-long friendships with.

Oh, sweet naivety.

Don’t get me wrong, some of these things actually do happen. TEFL is exciting and challenging and it will change your life for the better. However, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

Let me tell you a little story. My first teaching job was in Seoul, South Korea. In the months leading up to my departure I was in a state of frantic excitement, with all of the above expectations (and more) playing out in my head on constant loop. Despite what you might be thinking, I wasn’t disappointed: I had an amazing year. I learned how to be a teacher, I became a more confident and independent person, I travelled around Korea, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, I ate a lot of delicious food, I made some great friends, AND I fell in love (five years on and we’re still going strong). Dreams really do come true. However…

On my very first night in Seoul, I arrived late and was picked up at the airport by a man who didn’t speak any English. I was driven across the sprawling city in the dark and dropped off at a tiny apartment in a slightly questionable-looking high-rise building. I peered nervously out of the window and was met with the disquieting sight of a large, red neon crucifix hovering in the night’s sky (I later learned this was just a regular church). There was no Wi-Fi, so I couldn’t Skype home, and I was too overwhelmed to venture out and sample the local cuisine. So, I locked the door, grabbed my laptop and climbed into bed. I put on an episode of Friends that I’d already seen a hundred times, and cried hot, salty tears into the Dunkin’ Donuts meal that my driver had left me with. Yep, there I was, living the highlife.

Obviously, things got a lot better, but what I mean to say is this: TEFL won’t change your life overnight. In fact, leaving the comfort of everything you’ve ever known and starting not only a new job, but a new life in a foreign country, is hard. All of the amazing things that happened to me during my year in Seoul took time. Just as is always the case in life, the accumulation of new experiences and friendships was gradual.

And just as is the case with teaching, you’ve got to be flexible with your expectations.

So, a word to the wise: your apartment will probably be tiny, your students rowdy, and many of your friendships transient. Indeed, people will yo-yo in and out of your life at a rate that’ll leave you feeling dizzy. After a while, you’ll come to the slightly disappointing but perfectly obvious realisation that actually, deep down, you’re still you, no matter what continent you’re living on. And, while you’ll undoubtedly have a lot of opportunities to travel and explore at the weekends and on holidays, you’ll also have a full-time job with its own pressures and responsibilities, just like those poor suckers you left back home.

The title of this blog, ‘Expectation vs. Reality’, is a phrase which generally implies a sense of disappointment: the idea that reality is never as good as what we imagine it to be. With TEFL, expectation and reality are undoubtedly going to be different – you’re stepping out into the unknown, after all. “Different”, however, is not synonymous with “worse”.

In my experience, the reality of my life as a TEFL teacher has outdone my expectations in so many ways, precisely because it’s real. Of course, this means that sometimes it’s challenging, but there’s no yin without yang, right?

And you can trust me when I tell you: the highs definitely outweigh the lows.