Friday, 6 July 2012

Travelling or Teaching?

The relationship between travelling and teaching English is an interesting one. It is becoming increasingly more popular as more and more countries are requesting foreign English language teachers. Countries like Georgia and Saudi Arabia are taking more and more foreign teachers per semester and they aren’t paying badly either. However, whilst I don’t see a problem with ESL teaching, what being an ESL teacher has taught me is that if you want to be a vagabond, if you want a meaningful cultural exchange, then shockingly, ESL probably isn’t for you.

There are benefits. I’ve raised all of the funds for my round-the-world trip whilst teaching ESL here in South Korea. For graduates fresh out of University with no real sense of direction ESL is a good opportunity, an opportunity to pay off some loans and experience a different culture. In essence that’s what I want to talk about. As an ESL teacher your experience of any culture will be biased (seen through the eyes of an insider not an outsider) and thus will drastically affect your vagabonding experience.

There are three main ways that you can go about teaching English abroad, there are obviously more than three but for the purpose of my argument we’ll talk about the most popular. They are: public school teaching (usually being hired by a government agency, EPIK, or JET are good examples), private school teaching (this is probably responsible for most ESL recruiting across the globe) and private tutoring. All offer vastly different experiences, but all of those experiences will put the vagabond in a foxhole, a closed space that promotes cross-cultural exchange but in a restrictive environment. A nine to five. A one to ten. A job.

Most of the teachers I know are under the same contract as I am, you’re led to believe that every experience is uniquely individual but when I meet with other teachers there are always more similarities than there are differences. The differences will be mainly aesthetic but the heart of the experience is almost always the same, of course it has to-do with the kind of person that you are. If you align yourself with the philosophies of vagabonding then you are probably a creative, intelligent and open person. However, what you get when teaching ESL is a very hand-to-mouth experience. I’ve been teaching here for a year and at times it has been a mentally exhausting experience, stupid lessons, besieged by boredom and mediocrity. This isn’t a useful banner under which to experience a new culture.

No matter how you approach a new country and a new culture you are going to come at it with pre-conceived ideas and assumptions and these will no doubt impact on your experience of the country. It is hard to be fully open in the 21st century as pre-conceived notions of places and people can be negatively affected by the media, by the internet and by globalization.

There is no calling to question the fact that from a hyper-globalist position the spread of English is a benign outcome of globalizing forces. Notably here in Korea in certain circles of Koreans can be skeptical about a kind of linguistic imperialism, that English teachers are rip-roaring through these countries, bringing their pre-conceived notions of ‘otherism’ with them, and whilst the spread of English is too complicated to be considered evil, the question stands, what impact does an influx of ESL teachers have on a country and its culture?

Phewey, big questions! What has this got to do with being a traveller anyway? Isn’t the point of vagabonding to infiltrate new cultures, to get under their skin, to understand them? Well, yes, and that’s kind of my point, how can you truly do that if you are experiencing the country through a teachers eyes and not through a travellers eyes?

I spend most of my days sat at my desk planning lessons, I spend most of my days looking at a computer screen, the time I am teaching I’m teaching English, I’m talking about my culture and my language. The time to experience this culture is reserved for after school, out on the streets, and that’s fair enough, don’t get me wrong, you do have time to get to know the place, but when most of your time is spent at school can you really call it vagabonding? How much of the experience is jaded through the eyes of your experience at school? I’m an expat. I work here. I live here.

It is not up to me to define what vagabonding is, what travelling is and what it isn’t. It’s not my place to question the motives of an expat community that is so vast and expansive that it becomes difficult to define. What’s interesting to me is the effect that English teachers have on cultures, how they change cultures, for better or for worse and whether an anthropologist, a social scientist, a traveller seeking answers to life’s big questions can find those answers when they become part of a global movement that is changing the lives of so many young people.

Food for thought.


  1. Hi Sean,

    Can't say I'm spiritual, but finding your blog tonight seemed like a mysteriously coincidental event. The site that linked me here claimed you were a Southamptonite. As am I. And raring to get out. Not long out of uni, English graduate, classic ole' story and all taken with vagabonding and getting the hellouttahere. I'm massively taken with the idea of English teaching as a way to save up between travelling spurts, stopping in Korea or China to save up then carrying on. Has your experience been, overall, a positive one in teaching? Did you have much training to begin with? Is it rewarding? Cheers for your time, it's great to get an insider's perspective,


  2. Hey Alex,

    Thanks for checking out my blog! I am indeed a Southamptonite, it seems like a lifetime ago that I walked those streets! Teaching English here in Korea has been a positive experience overall, there have been highs and lows but the rewarding aspects of the job (mainly the kids) has made it worthwhile. It's certainly one of the easiest ways to save for the 'big vagabonding Odyssey', but living in a place for this long, things that at first were exciting and new do tend to become common place and can sometimes irritate you. But, ya know, as with anything as long as you have an open mind and a positive attitude you can turn any experience into a valuable one.

    As for training, I did a TEFL course before coming here, at the time of my application you didn't need this in Korea but things have changed and now you need a TEFL or equivalent, as you have an English degree then you would tick the boxes and you wouldn't need the TEFL. I'm not sure about China. I've heard great things about teaching English there though.

    There are pro's and con's to the whole gig, I can only really speak for Korea but as a new teacher I'd definitely recommend working in a public school. You have much more of a support network and they provide a weeks training before you start which was invaluable. Private language institutes across Korea and across the world tend to pay better but come with many more challenges.

    Slainte, be well, be reckless, and good luck with getting out of Southampton, once you make the decision to do it, the rest will unfold quite easily.


  3. Thanks Sean, massively appreciated, this has spurred me on to no end. I'll let you know how it goes man,