(Editor’s note: Matt has wholeheartedly allowed me to vent my difference of opinion & give my tuppence on this piece. So I have.)
Deciding to teach English abroad is not a career choice; it is an abandonment of career choices. Seen justly as the lowest rung on the white-collar career ladder, its practitioners need only satisfy one entry requirement – that of being able to adequately speak their own language (Editor’s note: You what?. I once saw elephant spelt “elafant”. Well, the “teacher” was fromSwansea). It takes about a month to qualify as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher, but passing the exam doesn’t mean you have become a real teacher. Real teachers have to study and take exams and are routinely monitored and assessed – they are professionals. EFL teachers are not professionals. Qualification gains you entry into what is surely the most rackety and shambolic of all white-collar professions, home only to chancers, bluffers and the very, very lazy.
EFL teachers are a middle-class diaspora (Editor’s note: Except for the oiks who stumbled into it) , spreading out from Britain, Australia, America and Ireland across an English-craving planet. At their most noble (or at least in their own minds) they are using EFL teaching as a way of earning enough money to do something more interesting somewhere else (in this sense they resemble the famous stripper who is using her job to finance college tuition). Their age, wealth and circumstances vary significantly, from university failures to burned-out former professionals to post-children divorcees (Editor’s note: Or in Thailand, see the divorcee gone peacock gay & living in house full of young men, or the guy on the lam from robbing a post-office & is now teaching a class of Thai kids), but what all of these proselytising English speakers do have in common is flight: they have all absconded, dropped out, bunked off, using English teaching in the same way as previous generations might have taken holy orders or headed out to the colonies. A career in English language teaching is not a destination in itself, but a cushioned escape pod, into which mutineers from bourgeois (Editor’s note: Hmmm …) life can safely find refuge. It is a retirement option for those who are too old for formal education but still too young for a pension.
In abandoning routine in order to travel, English teachers are perhaps unconsciously following a tradition which reaches back to the Grand Tour in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (designed to “complete the education of an English gentleman” ). Foreign living has always garnered kudos through exposure to high art, beauty and culture, and this kudos lives on today when travel (as opposed to its bastard cousin, holiday-making) is discussed. There is an unflagging belief that travel enriches and deepens and makes possible personal renewal and this explains some of the appeal of teaching English abroad when compared to its domestic alternatives. To take a current example of this belief, today’s non-fiction best-seller is something called Eat, Pray, Love. Telling the story of a woman in her thirties who abandons her high-achieving career in order to “pursue her own journey” and to find “pleasure, devotion and balance”, it feeds on feelings of superficiality in its audience, who yearn for meatier fare than passive consumerism and suburban routine. The message is always the same: “real” life, profundity, meaning, is elsewhere. So why not drop out and travel to India and be spiritually awakened? Or rid yourself of shallow materialism and travel across the Americas? Why not free yourself completely and, butterfly-like, find a new, richer and more profound way of living abroad?
Paradoxically, one reason why “freeing yourself” is often in reality so unsettling is that it leaves you with so much freedom. Freeing yourself “from” is easy (and delightful – there is real pleasure in resigning, giving up, walking out), but as anyone who has tried it knows, you are then left with the more niggardly question of what to do next. How, in all senses of the question, are the newly free supposed to live? And what’s more, all this unwelcome choice isn’t the only hazard. They have taken a first step down the career mountain (in a culture where every upward foothold must be hard-fought for and defended) in order to enjoy an altitude where the breathing and the living are easier. But perhaps their descent has a momentum of its own and they have triggered an avalanche. Perhaps the selling of the family home or the delaying of the university place or the resignation from the promising career will coincide with global economic collapse and the would-be spiritual traveller will be left materially ruined. For the western middle classes, there is a long way to drop (Editor’s note: For the oi polloi, it was either this or the military & we’re too lazy for the army) and a lot to lose when they give up their place in line. Much safer, when faced with this uncertainty, to ease themselves gingerly onto the next ledge down and not to risk the lower altitudes, the unknown. The English teacher abroad can be found on this ledge, still within climbing distance of their old life, country and career.
And what of the profession itself? These people and the whole (non) profession of English teaching abroad invite and perhaps deserve mockery. With little training, limited or no scrutiny of their methods in the classroom and the native speaker’s natural lack of introspection as to how their language works, teaching is often haphazard and confused. The English language is routinely insulted, abused and misrepresented, a situation not remedied (and often worsened) by the schools and institutes in which most teachers end up, which vary from the shabbily respectable (Editor’s note: Ha!) to the semi-criminal. All teachers quickly come to realise their new status in the eyes of their employers, even the most honest of which regard them as little more than middle class transients – unreliable, unprofessional and given to sudden disappearance. The EFL teacher’s peers are not university lecturers or state-employed teachers, but call centre operatives and receptionists. Their salary, blind to past experience and actual ability reflects their status as low-end service industry employees. And like burger slingers and security guards staff turnover is high, wages are low and there is no such thing as career advancement. (Editor’s note: Ha! Ha! Cowboys the lot of them!)
It would be easy to ridicule someone who has chosen to abandon an envied career for the wages of a nightclub doorman (Editor’s note: Some good mates have done “security” work. It’s far better paid) . But while it is easy to laugh at the muddling nature of EFL teaching and teachers, there are some points in their favour which should be noted. Indeed, these pseudo teachers might be defended, or even cautiously celebrated for having made such a decision. Their first defence is purely comparative: as so many professions in post-industrial western societies are at their core valueless, what difference would one more make if it were also found to be valueless? Anyone can reel off a list of entirely useless jobs and industries. Marketing and public relations, to take two modern and well-paid professions, are easy targets, but no less deserving of pillory for that. And what about website designers, advert-makers, hairstylists, personal shoppers, store card administrators, brand managers …? What about anybody involved in the production of any of the million useless products currently being churned out for bloated western consumers? In a final reckoning, any job not related to the production and distribution of food or to the protection of citizenry is at its heart, expendable. And that is surely the majority of them.
However, the defence doesn’t rest with the ‘not as bad as….’, or ‘no worse than…’ arguments. In order to see why EFL teaching might be, (mutedly) celebrated, consider its historical context. The EFL industry has developed in the wake of the Pax Americana (or American global hegemony, depending on your politics) of the second part of the twentieth century. English is, currently, the global language of business and its speakers are considered to have an economic advantage over their rivals as a result. If (or as) American power and dominance fades, EFL teaching will fade with it, perhaps only to be remembered, if at all, as a historical curiosity. I would argue that those people who teach English abroad are just enjoying a perhaps brief window of historical ease, in the same way that their forbears might have enjoyed a period of temperate winters or the discovery of new and fertile land. And what’s more, those who have, through a variety of circumstances and reasons, inched themselves away from torpor and routine (even if only to enjoy a respite before sinking again into new torpor and fresh routine) should be applauded for at least dipping a first toe in the water of fresh experience. Talk of the cultural or spiritual value of doing so might be fanciful and any hope for wisdom or insight deluded, but, in the words of another European who worked abroad (and who was writing in quite another context):
“…..the good intention, the courage to resist the existing state of things and prevalent prejudices, and to recognise the vileness of our present condition, is worth something anyhow.”