It scares me, it scares me not

After graduating from uni, I spent about a year and a half after uni pursuing writing projects, with the naïve goal of becoming a full-time indie romance writer within a few years. As you can imagine, this didn’t quite work out, and I eventually decided that, for the short term at least, I needed a day job.

I applied for a position doing trilingual customer service at a well-known online sex toy company. The interview went well, and during my two-week trial period, all of my colleagues told me how great I was doing and how it was normal to be nervous about the work at first. I found talking to customers on the phone and live chat nervewracking, and my A-level French and German hadn’t really prepared me for writing formal emails about packing labels, but I was confident that within a few months I would land on my feet.

And then, with practically no prior warning, I was told I didn’t have the job, on the grounds that my languages skills weren’t up to taking credit card numbers from horny Germans over the phone, and I wasn’t worth the cost of training up.

I was at a complete loss. All throughout my teenage years, I’d been surrounded by people telling me You’re so great at languages! and You won’t have any difficulty finding a job, and so on. I felt unanchored, drifting through a cruel, corporate neoliberal job market where my one defining skill wasn’t actually very marketable.

So, with no perspective on what to do, I followed my mum’s suggestion to do a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching for Adults) course at the local further education college. She herself had done the politically dubious TEFL abroad shtick, living in Tanzania and China for a few years, and it couldn’t hurt to try. It would guarantee me an income for however long I decided to stick with it. And after some initial trepidation about the ethical side of it, I decided that, while it would be impossible for it to be 100% kosher to work in a job sector built on imperialism, that actually it’s pretty hard to avoid that whatever you do?

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, I soon realised that I loved teaching. I’ve done theatre, public speaking, vlogging and other things of that nature before, but there’s something so electric about standing in front of a class, mediating communication, bringing smiles and understanding to people’s faces. I’d never considered myself a people person, but I was absolutely, undeniably a Teacher.

And that brings me to where I am today, more or less. I’ve been teaching English (with a few dabs of Esperanto on the side) for a year now.

I’m still living in the area where I grew up, which firmly breaks the TEFL mould. I should be jetsetting around the world, shouldn’t I? I had actually signed a contract to work at a school in China last year, but I cancelled at the last moment. For me, there were too many question marks hovering around it: 1) I had just started medically transitioning, and I had no idea how feasible that would be in China; 2) I’d never rented a place by myself before, let alone moved halfway across the world; 3) I would be moving away from all my friends in Europe, which could have disastrous impacts on my mental health.

Ironically, the usual reasons for being nervous about such a prospect (not knowing Chinese, culture shock, lack of confidence in teaching) were not an issue for me. Which made it all the more frustrating, as it seemed something I was meant to do but couldn’t due to personal circumstances.

I know now that it is possible to medically transition in China, and I will soon have all my paperwork sorted out with my new name, smoothing out the transition (🙄) between countries significantly. And I’m much more centred and stable with my mental health now, enough that I think I would manage, and even greatly enjoy, living abroad.

So what am I waiting for? In China, I’d get paid almost twice as much as I do now, and with a free apartment to boot. And I’d be working in a modern, exciting place, in the perfect environment to learn one of the world’s most important languages which I’ve been meaning to get back to for a long time.

As I’ve worked over this past year, though, I’ve realised lots of things. For one, the TEFL world is strikingly different from the Modern Foreign Languages world. They use different terminology, they get paid and treated differently, and they have drastically different career paths. TEFL teachers usually travel around for 10-20 years, get sick of teaching, and then switch to management or recruitment or some other similarly ghastly thing. MFL teachers tend to fit within a more traditional education structure, going on to a senior teaching role, or maybe a more general educational position.

The thing is, what I love is teaching. Specifically, languages. And there’s a strange kind of narrowness of mind that comes with teaching English. Most TEFL teachers are staggeringly monolingual, even after living in a country for decades, whereas MFL teachers actively embrace learning about other cultures. After all, it’s their job!

I also use quite an unusual teaching methodology called TPRS. It’s all based around the theory of Comprehensible Input, espoused by professors such as Stephen Krashen and Bill VanPatten (my two personal linguistic idols). Essentially, it’s solid, modern linguistic theory, made attractive and fun through storytelling and theatric techniques.

While it receives great resistance from grammar-textbook-“principled eclecticism!” language teachers, it at least has a sizeable and lively representation among MFL teachers (and even Latin teachers!), whereas there are practically no TEFL teachers using it. It’s hard to assert that your way of teaching is valid, and to convince the students they’re actually learning something, when it goes against all your colleagues’ methods and all the textbooks and curricula the institution at hand is used to.

So I find myself at a crossroads of sorts. Whatever happens, next academic year or the year after, I need a change. My options are:

  1. Go teach abroad in China (or Spain!) and try to find a school that accepts my methods
  2. Do a PGCE (postgraduate teaching qualification) in modern languages and teach in the UK (and possibly later in international schools abroad)
  3. Do a Masters in Language Acquisition, giving myself the formal credibility to assert my teaching style, and providing the option of doing a PhD in linguistics in future
  4. Stay in the UK, but find a school that is interested in TPRS

I’ve been mulling all these over for the last several months, and there’s no clear advantage to any of them. I could pick from several job offers to go to China within a few days, because I have desirable qualifications and experience. On the other hand, the UK government is currently providing generous bursaries for language PGCEs, meaning I’d be fully funded for a year, with slightly more money than I’m currently making. For a Masters, I’d have to save up for a year or two, but I could do that easily if I took a job in China. As for the fourth option, it’s the safest, but also the one most within my comfort zone, which I want to try and avoid if poss.

Financially, the clear option is 1). But as I mentioned, the culture of TEFL just raises my hackles, whereas the idea of teaching Spanish or German or Japanese is dreamy to me. It’s a weird dilemma for a language nerd like me. If I was teaching English abroad then, hey, I’d be living in a country with another language! But if I was teaching MFL, learning foreign languages would be a core part of my job.

It’s worth putting this all into context: the UK is currently going through an educational crisis. In 2017, 80% of teachers considered quitting their job, many institutions are resorting to crowd funding to cover basic costs, and core subjects such as music are being entirely cut by many schools. Language departments in particular are languishing: last year only 3000 students in the entire country sat German A-level. Business Studies and Sociology each had around ten times as many students.

It’s an era of budget cuts, neoliberal micromanagement, and painfully ineffective syllabi. Am I an idiot for thinking I could be the One Pure Teacher, the innovating storyteller who fights back claims of non-conformity with cold hard statistics of effectiveness? Languages aren’t learned the same way as, say, maths is, and there’s mounting evidence in support of Comprehensible Input methodology. I hate to say it, but languages just have the potential to be more fun and uplifting than mathematics and physics. On the flipside, they also have the gloomy power, when done poorly, to mire students in linguistic complexes (“I’m no good at languages”) that haunt them for the rest of their lives.

I’ve had it relatively cushy in my teaching career up to now, working in a small private school with class sizes that rarely reach more than ten. So it’s hard to know whether I’m being overly optimistic, or whether teaching MFL is exactly what I’m supposed to do. I’ve done activist work in the past, but I don’t think I’m meant for the front lines of protests. But teaching, teaching in a radically empathetic, theoretically-sound way, working in institutions that need vibrant, queer teachers? I couldn’t wish for anything more.

So here I stand, plucking the petals of the soothsaying flower: it scares me, it scares me not… Do I dive headfirst into a career that has the potential of dousing me with petrol and setting me alight, while also holding the chance of massive personal growth, or do I go with the safe, profitable, flexible option, which, while it won’t make me miserable, may leave me feeling unfilfilled?

When I put it that way, the choice seems obvious: get yer swimsuit on and hop to the diving board. If only it were that easy!

Image by inkknife_2000, used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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