Lessons Teaching Teaches

(Note: As of summer 2016, I am no longer an English teacher. The lessons below still apply.)

I have worked as an English teacher in Taiwan for two years. While I enjoy teaching, it was never my intention to become a career teacher. Many of the people reading this post will be in a similar situation: you wanted to move abroad, to learn a new language, to meet new people, and the best way to find work in the meantime was to teach English.

Fine. But while teaching may not be your end goal, I caution against viewing it flippantly, as a means to an end. This attitude damages your impact on your students, and on a more self-centered note, it often deprives you of an opportunity for self-development. Teaching a language requires you to sharpen so many skills that are often neglected at a ‘normal’ job back home.

Employers often question why a candidate “took time off” to teach abroad, and many teachers themselves also frame the experience this way. But it isn’t a vacation, and if you pay attention, work hard, and try to understand what you are doing, you’ll find that teaching can be as personally rewarding as it is enjoyable.

1. Effective Communication

When you are surrounded by people with a different linguistic and cultural background than your own, knowing how to speak carefully becomes extremely important. Before moving here, I was often told that I spoke too fast, that I mumbled, and that I swallowed some of my words. As a teacher of foreign language, of course, this is unacceptable. It was difficult at first, but I managed to slow down, choose my words more carefully, and guarantee that my meaning was understood.

This skill extends far beyond the classroom. In any industry, you may be confronted with the challenge of communicating with someone from outside your linguistic community. Even within it, precise communication is a must, and there is no better way to hone that skill than to throw yourself into the rarefied environment of a classroom full of students hanging onto your every word.

2. Identifying the Needs of Others

When planning lessons, you will quickly realize that not every student needs the same thing. This issue could take the form of content (many of my students are excellent speakers, but need practicing writing) or of approach (some students learn best using technology and media, and some find this distracting). A good teacher will never apply a one-size-fits-all methodology to all students, and the longer and more carefully you teach, the better your skills at tailoring your lessons become.

This is immediately applicable to the outside world. If you have a set of clients with different needs and desires, many of them unspoken, how do you uncover these and use them in your work? Teaching removes the blinders that focus you on your vision and requires you to look at how other people approach a problem.

3. Reframing Information

Not everyone finds learning fun. For some students, writing an essay in English is virtually indistinguishable from writing a multi-book epic on the principles of furniture construction in Klingon. Either they hate the process, the subject, or simply the requirement that they have to do it. But as teachers, it is our job to reframe these tasks as something fun, meaningful, and important.

Take grammar as an example. It’s not always fun to sit and do grammar exercises out of a workbook. But what if the grammar is particularly useful in crafting insults? What if you can’t suggest date ideas to that cute girl/boy without knowing how to use modals? What if that movie we are watching makes heavy use of all the past and perfect tenses, and you really need them if you want to understand why Batman is so bent on fixing Gotham?

In our professional lives, not every assignment can be sexy. It’s easy (read: lazy) to frame a change in code, or process, or what have you as something that “just needs be done done,” but where is the fun in that?

4. Not Being Condescending

This is probably a corollary to effective communication, but it deserves its own mention because it is deceptively difficult to understand. As teachers, it’s easy to frame ourselves as the experts and everyone else as a layman. And while this may be true from a certain point of view, it doesn’t go a long way in building a good relationship with students, many of whom may not even be younger or less experienced than you outside that classroom.

This idea extends into client meetings. Too many industries (I’m looking at you, advertising) behave as if the client is only barely able to understand the ‘ground-breaking’ work they’re doing. Teaching, as with consulting, is a collaboration, and everyone brings something to the table. Learning to work with your clients/students, rather than somehow above them or against them, is key to developing healthy professional relationships.

5. How to Teach

Obviously. Too many teachers think that because they know something, it’s just a matter of transplanting the information in their heads into the head of someone else. A good teacher remembers their own time in class, what made rote information stick, content interesting, and classes engaging. Over a period of years, a teacher comes to understand their students and their material such that it is second nature to pass it on.

In any industry, a new hire cannot be expected to understand everything they must do on day one. Every job is a process of training and adapting, and effective teachers are acutely aware of how to help others learn, and of when they’re wasting their own time or someone else’s. In time, teachers make the best mentors.


So, what have you learned while teaching abroad?


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