If you teach abroad, you’ll often need to find ways of working with your local ESL department or school.
This is sometimes difficult and occasionally very challenging; cultural and language barriers, as well as a lack of mutual understanding or, worse still, suspicion of each other’s motives, can make for a fraught relationship. More than anything, I’ve found that success in this area comes through patience, compromise and trust, and during my time as a volunteer with VSO in China, I learned some valuable lessons which might help others in similar lines of work.
Overcome Clashes with Local Staff Easily
Why Am I Here?
From the outset, try to understand how it is that a school like yours has invited a foreigner into their midst. Are they trying to foster communicative methodology? Are they particularly interested in teacher training? Do they want to impress potential students, or the local authorities, by the presence of a foreign face? Either through discussions with your parent organization, or through enquiries with liaison staff, find a way to articulate very precisely the role they see for you. If it’s simply, “We want the school to look good on TV advertisements,” then perhaps consider another school. If it’s more like, “We need foreign expertise to remedy methodological problems in our classroom,” then you’re likely to have a better professional experience.
What Are My Aims?
I’m a big fan of setting realizable objectives. In order to be genuinely realizable, they should be relatively small, not require extraordinary resources, be achievable solely by the people you have available, and relate strongly to your overall rationale for being in this placement. Ideally, they should be no more than a handful in number. Working with my VSO placement partner, I wrote a set of objectives for our first term in China which looked like this:
- Observe colleagues’ teaching and establish existing pedagogical styles.
- Work with department to discover extent of their interest in communicative methodology
- Try to get permission to visit several rural middle schools (a tiny, initial step towards setting up an INSETT program)
- Teach high-quality speaking, writing and methodology courses to raise the level of undergraduate work.
The first three required departmental permission, which often proved a major barrier. Not all of our colleagues were comfortable with being observed by the foreign teachers, so that aim achieved only limited success; that said, their refusal to be observed gave us some idea as to how traditional their methods were likely to be. Middle School visits threw up all manner of concerns, but we did eventually get limited permission to travel in exchange for doing various favors for our college; INSETT training didn’t begin until three years later. The final aim was entirely down to us, and I’m glad to say that we made a good start in our first semester.
Figure Out Your Hierarchy
In your first week, ask someone to sketch out the chain of command, and to articulate who you might approach with a particular type of question, be it scheduling and timetables, resources and copying, outings and special events, the student council, etc. We found that responsibility was often very specifically delineated and compartmentalized, so that one senior figure would have nothing whatsoever to do with another’s ‘patch’. Working this out also helps to avoid any chance of going over someone’s head by accident. It became very important, particularly in China, for us to understand who reported to whom, and what relative authority and remit they had.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
The extent to which we could get anything done in China seemed to depend on a combination of knowing who to ask, knowing how to ask, and ensuring that our reputations remained solid and unsullied. Positive feedback from the Communist Party members in our classes - often the class monitors - ensured that the department had no concerns about the quality of our teaching. Making sure we didn’t stay out until the small hours and find ourselves in a brawl, or in the wrong part of town, did our reputation no harm. Nothing spreads as quickly as scandal when you’re the only foreigners in a town of half a million.
Praise Them (Like You Should)
A sunny disposition and a strong interest in the local culture immediately endeared us to our colleagues. We requested language lessons and asked about local temples and natural features (lakes, mountains, ancient rice paddies); our colleagues never tired of showing their province to visitors who showed a genuine interest. This cemented relations and added a fascinating cultural aspect to our stay. The more cultural and geographical context you’re able to gain, the most relevant your advice can be, and the more you’ll be seen to be trying to fit in.
Ask for Advice, not Commitment
No one likes to be backed into a corner, so when you have ideas or need departmental help to get something done, frame your approach as asking for advice, not demanding a copper-bottomed commitment from people who almost certainly aren’t empowered to give it. Gauge feasibility carefully before making your approach; how likely is it that your Dean will consent to negotiating a complex student-exchange program with colleges in your home country, versus setting up an English Corner? Keep your expectations reasonable and try not to push too hard, even when what you’re asking for seems trivial. There’s always more going on behind the scenes than you realize.
Keep It Light
Especially until you know your colleagues very well, steer the topics of conversation away from the heavy stuff. Politics, especially matters of international relations, historic conflicts, disputed territory or flashpoint events, is a minefield for the newly-arrived foreign teacher. Religion is another; in China, we stayed away from questions of faith altogether, both at the behest of our government, and because it would have been very uncomfortable for everyone, as organized religions are treated with suspicion by Beijing. We were, however, asked all the time about money, and found it best to tell white lies about how much we were being paid.
Speak (Truth) to Power
Take every chance you get to gently argue your case with those in positions of authority. We met provincial governors, mayors and senior figures in the education ministry, and always made subtle points about funding, methodology, the importance of practical teaching experience before graduation, etc. These occasions were more often than not banquets organized in our honor, so we made sure our behavior was proper and that we had a couple of toasts ready in our broken but functional Mandarin. Once the ice was broken, some good behind-the-scenes negotiation could take place.
If I could pass on one more lesson - the hardest won of them all, in fact - it would be to admit, from the outset, that you are a single figure, battling a huge weight of habits and traditions.
Nothing will change overnight, and it’s perhaps true that little will change in the months or years you spend in your post. With small, achievable aims, an open mind, taking great care over what you say (and to whom), and a genuine curiosity for the place and its people, you’ll be well on your way to being an effective and memorable foreign teacher.
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