Teaching English Abroad with Olly
Introductions: I recently caught up with Olly Richards from the UK on his experiences teaching English in Japan and Qatar. Olly is a linguist, lover of Crossfit and Cuban Salsa dancing, as well as food junky. He speaks 7 languages and is looking for more. His website helps to teach people about how to learn languages. See his site here for more about Olly and what he does. Stay tuned for more interviews in the future.
1.) Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you.
I’m Olly, 32, from the UK. My background is in music – I’m a jazz pianist, studied in a conservatoire in London and played professionally during my 20s. Studying in an international environment and the many friends I made from around the world during my time in London opened my eyes to the importance of languages. The many travel opportunities that came out of this experience inspired me even further and the combination of travel and language learning has developed into the most consistent part of my life since then! I left the UK for Japan in 2009 and have been moving around ever since.
2.) What first inspired you to teach abroad?
My background in languages meant that teaching English had always had an appeal to me. Living and working abroad using languages – it sounded perfect! However, changing careers is never easy, and it wasn’t till the economic crisis of 2008 that events conspired to make staying in the UK seem more and more unattractive, and moving elsewhere more appealing.
3.) Where have you taught English abroad?
In Tokyo, Japan and Doha, Qatar.
4.) Were all of your teaching experiences pre-arranged, free lancing gigs, did you just happen upon them, etc?
I found my job in Japan whilst still in London, which was (and probably still is) relatively easy to do. I did my interview and signed the contract there, and all the arrangements were made for me in Japan. It was a good way to do it, because as a first-time teacher you are quite vulnerable to cowboy operations. Once you get started in a job and hang out with other teachers you pretty quickly figure out the nature industry in the country you’re – who’s good to work for and who to avoid. From the stability of a full-time job you can scope other options and move on when the time is right. Which is what I did. I picked up some private students along the way to make some extra cash, but I didn’t want to stay in the ‘conversation school’ area for too long. Hours are long, money not great and zero recognition or professional support. I had my eyes on working for a large organisation which offered good pay, a professional environment and an interesting career path. I did my research, knocked on a few doors, and within a year had secured a job in the place I wanted.
5.) What are some resources that have helped you to become a better teacher in English?
It’s very easy to just coast along as an English teacher. In fact, most people do. My first job was so uninspiring that there was little incentive to improve my skills. However, when I changed jobs and found myself in a good, professional environment, the flame reignited and I set out on a pretty intensive path of professional development. There are, of course, many books that any good staff room should have, but I’ve found the most inspiration from attending conferences and reading blogs. I like the personal touch. Making connections with people is, for me, what it’s all about, and it doesn’t have to only be with students. In the blogosphere you can find the most passionate teachers of the lot and there’s so much you can learn from them. Meeting new people at conferences, watching their presentations, then going drinking with them afterwards is such a pleasure, and this inspires me to go away and work harder. I’ve since presented in many international conferences on a variety of topics and it’s been the highlight of my time in teaching.
6.) What have been some of your more memorable experiences teaching English abroad?
It’s so difficult to single out any particular ones. Obviously, there are all the benefits to living abroad (travel experiences, language learning, food), but specifically related to teaching, I’d have to say that it’s the relationships you develop with your students that makes it so special. This doesn’t happen with all students, of course, but as their teacher you become quite a significant person in their lives. In Japan, for example, hectic lives mean that many students will see you more often than their best friends! So you can form some special bonds and find yourself invited to unbelievable numbers of parties, dinners and random events. This is not such an easy experience to have if you are just travelling, and so is certainly a huge benefit of living somewhere and teaching. I will never forget my wedding party in Japan, where we packed out a restaurant with a huge gathering of people – students and friends – that we’d met over the previous few years. It was such a special event that I’ll never forget.
7.) What are some of the drawbacks (if applicable) of teaching English abroad? Are there any unforeseen difficulties?
Living abroad is one thing and the nature of the English teaching game is another. Specifically related to the industry, there are a number of potential problems, but these largely depend on your employer. I’ve been very lucky, but you do hear some not-so-nice stories! The worst thing that’s happened to me is occasionally having to work weekends. My feeling is that as long as you know what you’re getting into and have a signed contract, nothing too bad can happen. Things to be crystal clear on before accepting a job are: immigration and visa arrangements, salary (and deductions), working hours, days off and shift patterns, transport time and allowance, holiday entitlement, notice period and everything to do with your accommodation. If all that’s clear and in black and white, you should be fine.
8.) Has teaching English abroad funded all of your travels, helped to make ends meet, or something in the middle?
I’ve been able to travel widely and save money. But then again, I’ve had good jobs and lived in places with strong currencies. There are endless opportunities to make more money by taking private students and examining, for example.
9.)Have you taught in places where you could speak the local language? If so, in what ways do you believe that knowing the second language impacted your experience.
I learnt Japanese whilst in Japan. At first, I couldn’t speak a word, but after a year or so I was fluent. I can’t make this point strongly enough: speaking the local language changes everything. Before learning the language, you can only interact with expats and locals who are specifically interested in English (i.e. your students). This is fine, but learning the language puts you in a different place. You’re still an outsider, but now you can speak the language – you make friends and begin to understand the culture. Travelling around is now easy and more accessible. People don’t talk to you as a foreigner, but as one of them, which makes all the difference. Language reflects culture and vice versa. By learning to speak the local language you learn to make sense of the world around you in a way that is otherwise impossible.
9.) What have been the classroom layouts and demographics in your teaching experience(s)? Kids, adults, big class, small class, etc.
Literally everything, from one-to-one businessmen, to groups of housewives, to classes of 40+ junior high school students. Which do you think is more fun? The answer might surprise you J
10.) Do you see teaching abroad as a career path or just a way to help you travel and gain experience while doing so?
For me it is a career path, although I have moved into management now and am on a path that will gradually take me away from the teaching arena and into cultural policy. My wife is a teacher, though, and she loves it! I have no doubt that she’ll continue teaching and wouldn’t have it any other way!
11.) What advice would you have for someone who is considering teaching English abroad?
It can be an incredible experience, but, like a good single malt, one that gets better with time. Your first couple of years may be tough as you work less desirable jobs in order to build up the necessary experience to get the good ones. If you plan to teach for longer than a couple of years, make sure you start off on the right foot with a serious qualification (CELTA or Cert TESOL are the only good options) from a reputable place. Do not do a weekend/online TEFL course. Do your research on who to work for, but don’t pay too much attention to forums as you only tend to find people with an axe to grind. Once you’re working, continue your professional development by attending conferences and reading books – this experience will make you stand out when you come to apply for better jobs.