Teachers’ Stories: From Small Town Kid to Teaching English in Turkey
I’m from a small town of 60,000 people in the middle of Wisconsin called Oshkosh, famous for Oshkosh B’Gosh. Very few people from there ever go abroad or even have a passport. When I decided that I wanted to explore the world after finishing university, I had no idea how to do it. This was also back in 2006 when the huge wealth of information now existing on the Internet was just not there.
Whether you have experience abroad and people around to give you advice or not, deciding to leave your home country for another is a big leap. Questions abound like “can I make enough money”, “how do I pay my school loans”, “how do I do anything without speaking the language?”, etc.. These are very real questions that, no matter how much you research and prepare, you really won’t know the answer to until you just go.
That’s what I did. Through the Internet I found a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course in Prague. We emailed back and forth and had a few conversations on the phone, after which I took a leap with only $6,000 in the bank and bought a one-way ticket for Prague. Packing two large suitcases full of clothes along with my computer, I boarded a plane for Germany, where I planned to spend a few days, before heading to Prague by train.
Unexpected Difficulties are the Norm
Filled with excitement and nerves, I didn’t sleep the entire 8-hour flight. Arriving at the airport, I immediately found out two things – I couldn’t find anyone that spoke English, and my credit card was locked after trying to use it in a foreign ATM. Luckily, I had booked a hostel ahead of time, so that was paid for, and had about 100 Euros in my pocket for food. The hostel had emailed me that I needed to take the S-bahn to the hostel, although I had no idea what that was. I walked around the airport saying “S-bahn” and got pointed in a few different directions. I ended up getting aboard a bus with a big map that said “S-bahn” on it, which I assumed was the German name for the city bus system. After sitting on the bus for an hour and a half, we ended up back at the airport with the driver just giving me a funny look. Again, I asked “S-bahn” and he pointed me in a different direction.
I finally figured out that the S-bahn was the German name for the metro and, after a lot more wandering, found where to buy a token and the destination the hostel had mentioned. Now remember, I was doing all this while dragging 100 pounds of luggage around with me. Getting to the hostel, I found out I would not be able to enter my room until 2pm. It was only 10am. I was exhausted and actually fell asleep in the hostel lobby for 4 hours until someone woke me to tell me my room was ready. At the hostel, I was also able to contact my parents via email, who got in touch with my bank and were able to unlock my account since I’d given them power of attorney before leaving.
My journey to Prague was just as bad. I had one connection to make and, unfortunately, the train had a problem, causing a delay. I missed my connection. Having no idea what to do, I went up to the ticket counter where nobody spoke English and they issued me 4 new tickets. It appeared that my new schedule would require 4 additional train changes now. Luckily, another American girl was standing on the platform who turned out to be in the same situation, but who was also actually living in Prague. This was a lifesaver because a) she could pronounce Czech words when she saw them written and b) she had a cell phone that worked in the Czech Republic.
I actually, again, had not slept the night before and had planned to spend the entire train ride sleeping. Now, I had to remain awake to catch a connection every hour. Our train tickets were hard to decipher, but we figured out the cities we needed to get to for each connection. There was often only 5 minutes between the train stopping and the next train leaving. We found that many platforms were far apart from each other and there were no platform names or labels anywhere. Each stop for a connection was a frantic race where we ran around shouting out the name of the city we needed to get to and looked to anyone that pointed us in a new direction. Many times, people just gave us blank looks, either because we were running around and screaming, or because our pronunciation of the Czech words was terrible. Twice, we just got on board the train as it was starting to move.
Finally within the Czech borders, I was able to call my school where I was taking my course. If the girl I met hadn’t had a cell phone, they would have been at the station at the wrong time to pick me up. They never would have met me, and I would have had no way to connect with them. Luckily, someone was able to answer the phone and they got in contact with the person picking me up. A new time and place were set up and they met me at the train station on a cold and snowy night in November. His name was Chris, and you can bet I was happy to see him.
Somehow, It Always Works Out
The entire experience was bewildering. I didn’t know where I was, how to get places, or what to do if there was a problem. However, in the end, it all worked out. I know very few expats that don’t have at least one similar story. The thing is, there is always a way and many, many people will help you out. The first time you do it, the language, the culture, and just the lack of knowledge seem insurmountable. But thousands of people do it every year and they make it through. I often think back to this time, and compare it to 4 years later where I arrived in Vietnam and my new school had not sent anyone to pick me up. After having lived abroad and, now experienced dealing with the many, often unprofessional, schools out there, I was not surprised. I had a few back-up addresses in Vietnam already for hotels, looked around for another English speaker, and we hopped into a cab to take us into the city. I didn’t even contact the school (and they didn’t reach out to me) until the next day where I just showed up for orientation. After a while, you can just get by in any country and deal with any situation. But it’s that first time that’s the toughest.
As for me, my course at the Language House in Prague helped me greatly to land my first job teaching in Turkey. Over the years, I worked up into teacher training and then school management, finally building my own bilingual immersion school in southern China. My original plan to stay abroad a year had turned into 10 years with me visiting more than 20 countries, marrying a Turkish woman, and having our first child born in Shanghai, China. Now we’re back in the US where I run a language school for children here. So, if you’re thinking about taking the leap, my advice is to just do it. You will learn a tremendous amount about yourself and how to get by in even the most difficult of situations. As challenging as many of them were, I wouldn’t change my experiences abroad for the world.
Tips for Your Move Abroad
- Check your financials. Unless you are a licensed teacher going to work at an international school, you will not be able to save money. Make sure you have at least $5,000 in the bank and enough to make your monthly school loan payments while you’re abroad.
- Give your parents, or someone close, power of attorney so they can manage your financials as needed while you’re out of country. Believe me, this is extremely hard to do from abroad.
- Have at least one MasterCard and one Visa and always carry at least $500 in cash. I once got stuck in Cambodia where I had 4 credit cards not work at ATMs. I literally made it out of the country with $2 in my pocket.
- Reserve and pay for hotels and teacher certification courses beforehand. Get their addresses and phone numbers printed out as well as saved to your phone. You can always take a taxi from the airport by showing an address.
- Online or weekend courses can probably still be enough to get a job, but I strongly recommend taking a full month-long course. You will thank yourself later for how prepared you are. They also always help you find your first job.
- Bring your smart phone for the Wi-fi. These days, it can be an easy way to contact people through email or Skype (you probably want at least $10 in Skype credit).
- Pack light. I once lived for 6 months out of a medium-sized travel backpack. You really don’t need to bring much with you. In most countries, you can re-purchase anything you leave behind for quite cheap anyway.
- Be ready to be extremely flexible. Things will not work out as planned and you’ll need to be able to go with the flow.
- Research schools of employment thoroughly. There are a lot of shady institutions out there.