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Chilean Out

What do Pembroke students get up to after they graduate? All sorts of things, as it turns out! Adam Clark (2010) reflects on two years spent teaching English in Chile.

Adam 1Looking at an East Anglian 4pm sunset and feeling the freezing air sneak under my window, I’m thinking of the 32ºC temperature of a Chilean beach in January.

Why Chile? Because that’s where I’ve spent the last two years Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). Coming out of Pembroke with a History degree and no real idea of what I wanted to do, I was chatting on Facebook to a friend who mentioned his plan to go teaching in Chile, a country to which I’d given no more thought in my life than the occasional World Cup predictor demanded.

Five months later I was spending my first Christmas away from home with said friend on a snowy mountain in Patagonia. Dangerous thing Facebook.

Travel is one reason to do TEFL. A chance to get some teaching experience without immediately committing yourself to a PGCE might be another, or a desire to volunteer. Or you might just want to get out of your parent’s house and plan your next move while not being asked “when are you going to get a proper job then?” every five minutes.

Preparation for TEFL involves choosing where you want to go and getting qualified, which can happen in the UK before you go or abroad for those in a hurry. Asia is the most popular destination, with Japan and South Korea offering salaries high enough to save up for long trips. South Asia and Africa have more volunteering opportunities. Europe is more expensive but close enough for family and friends to visit, while South America has huge variety with a relatively low language barrier. Look closely at visa requirements and how much a potential employer will help you out before booking a flight.

Personally I had an interview with a company that promised to help with the visa and have a job waiting for me when I arrived while I was still in the UK, dependent on getting a qualification, which was an immense aid while I waded through Chilean red-tape.

The standard qualifications are the Cambridge-certified CELTA or the Trinity CertTESOL, both roughly 120 hour courses, including at least 6 hours of real classroom experience that can be taken as a one-month intensive course or part-time. There are numerous other TEFL qualifications, especially online, and many institutes or schools might be willing to take you on with a less well-known qualification or even just on the basis that you’re a native English speaker, but then you have to ask yourself why they’re willing to accept people without the standard qualifications and if you really want to step into the classroom without even a month’s worth of preparation.

Adam Torres del Paine Patagonia

The Torres del Paine in Patagonia

Even with a CELTA or equivalent, each lesson is a distinct challenge. A typical day might include a one-on-one lesson with a professor of Psychiatry helping them prepare for an academic conference before rushing to the school for a few rounds of ´What’s the Time Mister Wolf’ with 20 ten year-olds to try and calm them down enough for the test on times, then the small group of business executives who need to polish their formal English for the American client visit.

Doing TEFL abroad brings extra-curricular challenges as well. It’s possible (and even encouraged) to teach English without translating, but even xenoglossophobics¹ like myself will find that you pick up another language quickly when you need it just to get around the supermarket. Despite Chile being apparently one of the worst places in the world to learn Spanish, due to a machine-gun accent and a profusion of ‘Chilenismos’ that would leave any Spaniard scratching their head, four months in I was chattering away with unfounded but exhilarating confidence.

TEFL isn’t just a job for those who want to go abroad. Coming back to the UK after my first year for Christmas, I found cover work in the local English language institute and saved up enough money for my flight back in a month. There’s demand for TEFL in the UK and judging by some of David Cameron’s recent comments, there might soon be more. For those who miss Pembroke, there might even be a chance to come back and get paid if you have a chat with the International Programmes office about their Easter and Summer programs for Japanese students.

Relatively few people choose TEFL as a long-term career track, but even the least creative person should be able to get a few transferable skills on their CV. Adaptability (I lived in eight different places in two years and only 50% of the moves were my fault), no fear about public speaking and a willingness to take responsibility for leading a class are just a few skills you’ll develop as second-nature.

You can easily get some TEFL experience while you’re at university. In my second summer at Cambridge I went to China, where a class of 30 six-year olds were bemused by my penguin noises. I’m not sure how valuable the experience was for them, but it was invaluable for me. Start looking at the Careers website early and you should be able to find a program that covers travel and accommodation costs.

So if you find yourself staring at a preposterously early sunset this winter, think about TEFL.

Adam Perito Moreno Glacier Patagonia

The Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia

¹ ‘Xenoglossophobia’ – Foreign language anxiety. Thanks Wikipedia.

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