An avalanche can be triggered by the slightest of movements, a small rock rolling down the side of a mountain. As it falls, it gains momentum and slowly a whole face of the mountain follows in its wake, cascading down in a deafening, blinding explosion of snow. A powerful, lethal domino effect…
To put it plainly, that’s my metaphor for how I went from teaching one hour of English a week to, in the space of two weeks, seven to ten hours a week with eleven different students.
It started small. An online advertisement sent by a friend. Another online advertisement that led to a phone call, which led to an interview, which led to another interview. And now I have more requests for English classes than I can fit into my weekly schedule. This is why I tell all those would-be-haters, Ye of little faith, back home that while having a liberal arts degree certainly doesn’t stack the odds in your favor, people can and do find work with a B.A. in French. That and a combination of people you know, being in the right place at the right time, and various other jobs/internship/qualifications. The most important thing is to have that first job, that first experience, and you are a thousand times more likely to be hired.
All that being said, it’s hard to try to teach ESL classes in Europe, especially in France. You go to the language centers, and they want CELTA/TEFL certifications. You go to the after-school tutoring companies, and they want experience. You go to the middle schools and high schools, and they want you to first pass a national exam and pointless Masters. You try to freelance it, and you know nobody, and there are a thousand other advertisements online. Plus the British can always trump you when it comes to visa requirements and hiring priorities. You go to Paris, and your rent costs too much. You go to a smaller city, and there’s not the same amount of work as in Paris. You realize that you might speak your own language but you have no idea why you say what you say. You realize that everyone outside of an English-speaking country learned jargon that you have never ever heard of (“phrasal verbs” or “modal constructions” ringing any bells?). And that no matter how hard you try, some people can just not successfully pronounce the letter “H.”
But why should you try? Because, for one, you appreciate that while not everyone speaks English, they make a valiant effort to speak a language other than their own native tongue. And that you are not more privileged than a non-native speaker English teacher, just because you happen to speak one of the variants of English without thinking. Do you know how to explain to someone when to use can rather than could or shall rather than should? Teaching English abroad forces you to question yourself, your language, your perception of the world. It makes you appreciate being able to communicate in someone else’s native language, to even be able to teach someone in French, let alone a subject as complex and erratic as the English language. Because, let’s face it, teaching English does not necessarily imply teaching in English, even for purists who insist on full-scale immersion and improving oral comprehension. If someone is going to pay you fifteen bucks an hour once a week, you can bet that they don’t want to pass those sixty minutes understanding twenty percent of what you are saying. All they need to do for that is to turn on an American TV show.
But oh what fun and what headaches and difficulties and epiphanies and joy and frustration it is to teach English! Teaching in itself is tiring and time-consuming, but teaching a foreign language – when only half of your students are actually interested and the rest are either forced to learn it by their parents or required to to pass an exam – is the real gauntlet of the teaching world. And teaching English in a country where you are barely there legally, and there are one hundred other people who would like to be in your shoes, and the hours are bad, and the pay is subpar… Teaching English in France is for the brave of heart.
I’ve done the Hokey Pokey, I’ve “I spied”, I’ve gotten locked up in London Bridge, I’ve taught the basics of Bingo, I’ve reiterated the rules for pronouncing “-ed” verb endings, I’ve sung “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” I’ve translated ad lib a dozen complex business texts, I’ve “How do you do-ed” and “Nice to meet you-ed” and I’ve traveled all over the city, running to and fro from bus stations and language centers, cafés and campuses. I’ve worked with four-year-olds, ten-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, twenty-year-olds, twenty-five-year-olds. And somehow, I have still retained my sanity.
It’s language-learning in reverse. It’s unlearning, relearning, faking it, ad libbing. It’s scratching your head at all the various pecularities between British English and American English. It’s knowing the superlative, the subjunctive, the passive voice, the present perfect, subject-verb inversion, relative pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, and so much more. It’s a whole lot of n’importe quoi.
And sometimes I say to myself, maybe I should move to Thailand or Korea. I’ve heard there’s better pay.