TEFL’s Expectations vs Reality – Tristan’s Story

It was while I was studying International Relations at Lancaster University late on in my postgraduate year that TEFL came to my attention. In my field of study, you learn just how globalised we have become, and see how that will only increase. To really take advantage of this, out in the “real world” one must have international experience. International experience is a form of education, one that I sort to get from studying abroad, then TEFL came along and offered me more, as well as work experience – and as Oscar Wilde once said,

“You can never be overeducated”

I had pretty low expectations as to getting my TEFL certificate. I thought it would be a breeze, a few hours sat at the computer answering multiple choice questions – I couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was recommended TEFL Org UK by a friend and what they provided was comprehensive training. Something I can now say I am glad I received, as it really did help.

Deciding where you want your TEFL experience to be is one of the biggest decisions to make, and it is one that you will inevitably have to live with. I wanted to go somewhere that would be almost alien to me, a place where I had a real opportunity to immerse myself in the local culture and give me a chance to learn the language. Europe felt too close to home, the money in South America and Africa is pretty low, so I was left with Asia.

Every countries Visa regulations is different, and I found it hard to get a job where regulations were both tight, and the abundance of jobs available low. They wanted people with years of teaching experience. What I had narrowed it down to was Vietnam, Thailand, or China. China holds a special place in my family’s history with one grandfather stationed in Hong Kong for a large portion of his service, and the other grandfather having a connection to Chen Cheng (陳誠).

I had mixed feelings about going to China, I was told it was a beautiful country, and nearly everyone has an opinion on China having never been there – partially I think because of its status as a global superpower. Then there is the Orientalist media that I have consumed over my entire life.

I was glad to find it was nearly all wrong, China is beautiful but, China is not some backwater country, nobody is visibly oppressed, and people are not miserable. The line I always refer to when discussing this topic is

“Most human beings only think they want freedom. In truth they yearn for the bondage of social order, rigid laws, materialism, the only freedom man really wants, is the freedom to become comfortable.”

Living in China is certainly not as easy as it would be for me living in the UK, and you would be naive to think otherwise. That is not to say it is without its benefits, and with any big decision one must weigh up the positives and negatives.

The simplest of tasks exponentiate in difficulty thanks to the language barrier as well as the cultural barrier, and after a while you can discern the difference between them.

To those that are first embarking on their TEFL (spot the Marvel quote),

“You wonder what I see in your future? Possibility.”

Without TEFL I would never have experienced some of the greatest wonders of the world. The memory of seeing the Terracotta Warriors will forever be with me. The Taste of China will stay with me -unfortunately ruining Chinese Takeaway in the process. TEFL just allows you to do more of what you love, and if you love teaching then that’s a bonus too.

Teaching made me realise that when other teachers talk about how rewarding it is – they aren’t lying. There is something very special about witnessing these miniscule improvements in a student and look back over a semester or a year to see how far they have come. Being part of that is pretty amazing.

I was taught to teach entirely in English, and not to compromise on speaking even if they do not understand you. That goes out the window very quickly, a quick translation of one word can quickly bypass an obstacle and get you onto teaching the aims of the lesson. You have to change the way you speak, speed, tone, and a little bit of structure, otherwise you will not be understood.

Living abroad comes with all the challenges of living by yourself for the first time – you are in a city you do not know, with a language you may not speak and a culture that may throw few faux pas in your path. It is a lesson that must be learned. Pretty much anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and the most important thing it did for me, is forge someone who is self-reliant, and self-sufficient. A lot of people can help, and will help but, the whole experience is so much better when you do it all yourself.

When it finally comes down to it, I have no regrets about the decision I made to come to China. It has created so many memories but, the one that will stay with me the most, the highlight if you must – is when my family came to visit. I think in the back of their minds they didn’t fully believe me, how wonderful a place and experience this is but, once they saw my face and shared my experience, they knew it was true, all of it.

If you want to learn more about my experiences and observations follow me on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. Stayed tuned for #LetterfromZibo, a bi-monthly article series about everything and anything related to China and Education. Until next time, thank you.

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