One of the little-known aftereffects of space flight: picking up gum wrappers off the street.
A blog entry about TEFL inspired by an astronaut? Comparing teaching English as a foreign language to exploring the mysteries of the universe? I know, it seems like an implausible connection or a rather lofty aspiration.
I read that inspiring line in that inspiring book and immediately thought of perspective. And insight. And it is these two simple yet profound concepts that space flight and teaching EFL have in common. In abundance.
Let me explain.
You don’t quite need the level of dedication, personal investment and intense higher study you need to train as an astronaut in order to teach EFL. You don’t even need a degree in teaching. In fact, while in Ireland you do need a degree (it can be in any subject) and a reputable TEFL qualification to work in a recognised school, in many countries, or many of the schools which have featured in the Irish press lately, you can get away with no training – just being a native English speaker.
Now, the taking a TEFL qualification course that doesn’t mean you’ll be a good EFL teacher. The CELT course, for example, is one month of intense training (ask any of our recent CELT participants). Not everyone passes. You are required to give up your social life for a month to stand a chance of getting through the prep and coursework. (It’s great fun though! A great bonding experience after going through that with your course mates – and you do learn a lot). After the course you are well grounded in the essentials to go off and teach and get the best out of your students. You know enough to start practising the teaching craft, which really only starts to develop with experience.
But, often TEFL is perceived as a lesser status than other teaching professions. People think of it as a stop-gap, or something to do to facilitate a year or two of partying abroad. It doesn’t always provide regular work or income. It’s not as well paid as state teaching, and you do not get the generous holidays!
However, it is a unique profession for many reasons, and not just those two reasons I promised it has in common with space travel (I’ll get to those in a minute!). It does allow you to travel. It allows you to pursue other hobbies/studies/careers – most of our teachers have only morning lessons so many spend the afternoons lecturing, doing music, art, writing books, writing PhDs… It suits people who want that flexibility. It can give you a taste of teaching to see if you want to do a degree in the subject. There are quality training and development opportunities for those who want it. There are international conferences, research opportunities, a wide variety of areas to specialise in (materials development, ed tech, teacher training, leadership & management, business English…).
And then there’s perspective and insight. In troubled times of worldwide conflicts (and history teaches us we are always in times of conflict anyway), when we look at the root causes of war we find that: “…the greatest single cause of conflict is our fear of the other, of ‘them’” (Keane, 2011 in the introduction to Hegarty, 2011). We fear what we do not know, what appears different and a threat to us and what we have and believe in. We fear the unfamiliar. We look at news stories presented to us via ubiquitous news sources, 24/7, giving us a biased (because, of course, it is edited by those with their own fears) perspective on wars which appear barbaric and unjustifiable. We can hardly bring ourselves to comprehend yet can often bring ourselves to judge.
Working in TEFL brings you closer to the unfamiliar and makes it familiar. The students in front of you, in between learning about verb tenses and new words, teach you more than you will ever teach them (if you allow this to happen). You are drawn into ten different worlds. You hear a story about a war that seems so far away, in every sense, from your life and are struck by commonalities. You are able to link the story on the news to a decision, thought or belief you have in your own life. I’ll never forget one incredible student, a proper gentleman and educated professional who would chat about everyday worries he had about his then expecting wife and family issues in general. On an important anniversary related to his home country, he stood up and told us he had never had cause to touch a gun until war broke out in his town and he was forced to take up arms to protect his family. It brought it home to all of us that protecting and supporting your family is something which drives us all, whatever the context. Seeing a conflict on television and then speaking to someone who is affected directly by it the next day affords those in TEFL a perspective and insight which brings the world closer together. Chatting to students from closer countries (in distance, though often further away in culture than we think) breaks down stereotypes and forges links and friendship.
Working in TEFL, even without ever leaving your home country, gives you an insight into people’s lives, families, struggles and dreams. You expand your perspective on world events and are afforded a perspective hidden from everyday view, one which – without excusing violence and war – may lead you to a little more understanding and a little less judgement. As @ observes, you may just take a little better care of the world you live in.
And so, one of the little known aftereffects of TEFL: the privilege of unique insight and perspective of the world and its citizens from the viewpoint of the front of your classroom.