Teaching English abroad: Q&A with a former teacher


Many students and recent grads – with humanities backgrounds and other academic disciplines – choose to teach English in foreign countries, either as a break between academic years or shortly after graduation. It gives them a full-time job with decent pay, work experience, teaching experience and a means by which to travel the world.

I know several people who are currently abroad or leaving within the next year. I recently interviewed Liam Caldwell, a McMaster alumnus with an honours BA in French literature, who spent a year teaching English in France, to get feedback from his experience.

Q. Why did you choose to teach English abroad?

A. I wanted some time to explore more of the language than what was available in a classroom setting, so I took time off between my third and final year to go teach English in France and explore in my spare time.

Q. How did you decide on France?

A. I majored in French literature and wanted to brush up on my spoken French, simple reason enough. Although Korea or Japan seemed very tempting, what with samurais, sushi, technogadgets, gundams and kimchi, I wanted to come back with having learnt something about myself as well as improved upon what I had been studying the past 12 years of my life.

Q. Why did you do this just before your last year? Do you wish you had done it sooner, or waited until after graduation?

A. I firmly believe that I made the right choice to flee the country after my third year. Before I had gone, my marks were dismal and work ethic was shit. I needed to get away and re-build myself so-to-speak; to work on interesting and motivating tasks to make me think outside of a student’s niche.

“I travelled quite a bit across France, England, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. I also really really enjoyed the food.” —Liam Caldwell

The program really helped me help myself. I made up lesson plans and activities on a day to basis. I went out on the town meeting new (and sometimes strange) people. It really bolstered my speaking skills and understanding of French culture.

Had I done it earlier, I don’t believe I could have had the same rapport with my students. I taught ages 15-23, from both technical and academic levels. I doubt I would have been taken seriously or held the same authority if I were to have taught at 21.

Putting travelling off until after graduation is a waste of time. If I were to have waited, I would not have been able to pour everything I learnt and experienced into my final year. As a result of such, I raised my [CGPA] from a [C+ to an A-] and made the Dean’s Honour list for the first time in my academic career. At times, I would be asked what I was doing in the French program if I were already French. Haha – big surprise, work pays off.

Q. What were some challenges you faced?

A. Getting the students interested in the material I presented. Getting out of Paris after dark. Getting my work visa (I never did finish the application). My apartment burnt down. Making friends was tough at first, because most people my age were my students… but I managed to find a few and we still keep in touch.

Q. What was your favourite part of the experience?

A. Every month and a half I received two weeks paid vacation. I travelled quite a bit across France, England, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. I also really really enjoyed the food.

Q. Would you consider teaching ESL classes in Canada and do that as a job (either part-time or full-time)? Why or why not?

A. Sure! But I’d be hard pressed to teach English to someone who spoke Chinese or Fulani. I think to effectively teach a new language to someone, I’d need some understanding of how they think linguistically. It’s definitely a consideration.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where Danielle interviews a recent grad who will teach English as a second language abroad later this year!