Yes, I’m back. I’ve been largely ignoring and avoiding this space since around 2016 but especially since 2018, spending time doing other things in the Trumpocene epoch. It’s been a strange ride. I’m coming back in the hopes that I can revive this writing space and make it into a record like it was before, of good and bad and things that are going on in the world and in my own life.

A rundown of the last couple years:

  • Left Korea, went back to Iceland
  • #Noroparty2017 disrupted Workaway in Iceland
  • Moved to Hanoi, Vietnam
  • Spent a summer in Italy/Austria
  • Moved to Fuzhou, China
  • Worked for 1.5 years in TEFL again
  • Started writing a novel (still unfinished)
  • Global Coronavirus Pandemic in 2020

That’s the personal timeline, but there are also considerations of the wider conversations that need to be had.

I’ve been teaching English as a foreign language outside my native country since 2011. Next year will be the tenth year that I’ve been in this industry, and it will be the longest I’ve ever worked in a single place since I graduated from university for the first time, too. It’s partly due to the global pandemic that I’m sure we’re all sick of hearing about incessantly, but it’s also to do with finding an okay TEFL job and sticking with it for a longer period than normal.

There’s a lot to be said about the ways that teaching English abroad has changed since I started doing it, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that my personal experiences may or may not actually apply to the broader state of TEFL these days. I’ve spent a considerable chunk of my life doing this, though. It’s likely that trends I’ve noticed are not isolated and apply more broadly. I find that some things never change, some are in the air and changing rapidly, and some are intractable and borderline “universal” wherever one happens to teach.

When I got into teaching English abroad, it was partly because the economic circumstances of my early 20s were what I considered at the time to be quite dire. I graduated in 2010 from my undergraduate degree, and I was the only person I knew from my cohort who had a job locked down on graduation. A six-month temporary position with no benefits, but still, a job. In the supposedly-Great Recesssion’s wake, I and many others I worked with emigrated to East Asia and Latin America to live a life that we were promised an undergraduate degree in a social science would bring us (i.e. shelter, food, insurance, paid time off). Many of us stayed. Still more did a “TEFL Bounce,” where we tried to do something else and go back to our own countries but ended up back abroad teaching. It shouldn’t be like this, but having a degree is no longer a guarantee to a life with the basics. I know a fair few who moved back abroad to be able to have their own apartment and health insurance.

The next few years are likely to continue and deepen the “Lost Decade” from 2009-2019 that people now in their early 30s weathered doggedly since those times, and I believe this will eventually lead to a higher than current amount of people looking for work abroad teaching English. Maybe it will even become a thing for people in our 30s who want to be able to live with relative security in a time of economic upheaval.

The problem is that things aren’t as they used to be.

Of course, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a big-ass global pandemic going on and that this has disrupted everyone’s life on Earth including some nomadic tribes and isolated folks in the Arctic. So yeah, we’re not in normal times at the moment, anyway. But the ways that TEFL has shifted have the potential to make a difference in future recruitment and hiring practices, the day-to-day experience of teachers abroad, and the overall context of language teaching more broadly.

For a start, many places are absolutely desperate for English teachers at the moment. Because at the beginning of the pandemic it was a little bit nervewracking to be in China, a lot of foreign teachers left. Some left immediately, some left after their contract was up, and some left because they got bored during lockdown, only to be locked down elsewhere later. This means that even in the weirdest places, simply being a foreigner who can teach English is in the highest demand its been in at least a decade.

Paradoxically, this is the opposite of where things were heading pre-pandemic. With the rise of online English companies catering to the rising Chinese middle class (among others), it was getting a little sparse. Companies that had always relied on in-person lessons began a haphazard and often retrofitted process to move into this space because they were getting their butts kicked by the newcomers. This made the whole of TEFL a bit more contingent, a bit more confusing, and a lot more pressurized than before. For the moment, we used to have 11 teachers in our office. We now have four full-time and one who swings between our office and another.

In-person lessons were obviously off the table as soon as the pandemic got rolling. That meant that everyone had to be able to immediately make the transition to online remote lessons, which was hard at first but became acceptable as time went on. It’s a decent replacement for the kinds of classes that I’ve always taught. Being able to do emergency remote learning or online classes in general is likely to be useful over the next couple of years, if not forever, so the six months that I spent online was well-spent.

But there are bigger forces even than that in play. English teaching as a force in the world may be waning somewhat. There are enough people who speak English well enough now, native or not, to teach those who really need it. And beyond that, there’s the possibility that translation, text-to-speech, and wearable tech may eventually make it less appealing to spend years mastering a language in general.

Perhaps it’s just me and my bubble, but there appears to also be a contraction in terms of the goals for learning a language. My students just want to pass their school exams with better marks, for the most part. They aren’t very interested or even particularly aware of the outside world that they could unlock with fluent English. They aren’t interested in making foreign friends. They don’t read news in their native language or in English. Things are more local and less broad. The wide expansive dreams of the past in terms of a global village are everywhere under pressure from a resurgence of nationalism, nativism, and populism (as I’m sure I don’t have to lay out for any Statesians reading).

Not to mention the added physical and logistical separation that the pandemic has introduced.

It’s still a good job to have, overall. But like most things in 2020, it’s hard to predict where TEFL is likely to move next. For the moment, we can continue to teach and hope that the impact is a net benefit to our students.

5 thoughts on “On TEFL in 2020

  1. Coleen: This is an insightful commentary. In terms of how TEFL is changing, I keep meeting people here in New Mexico who have jobs teaching Chinese students English over the internet. This may be contributing to the shrinking of these jobs teaching in person.

    1. I am one of those people 🙂 I also TEFL live. Well, I did. But I notice that my online students and their families value English much more than my public school students, so maybe it’s also a shift in expectation of English education in school versus extracurricular.

  2. “They aren’t very interested or even particularly aware of the outside world that they could unlock with fluent English. They aren’t interested in making foreign friends. They don’t read news in their native language or in English. Things are more local and less broad. The wide expansive dreams of the past in terms of a global village are everywhere under pressure from a resurgence of nationalism, nativism, and populism (as I’m sure I don’t have to lay out for any Statesians reading).”

    I teach in Korea and see the same attitude from my elementary students and even other teachers. I’m studying Korean and my coworkers and students take it for granted that I speak their language and don’t see the parallels— that language is the basis for communication. I also teach middle class Chinese online and the attitude difference is astounding. It makes my job more meaningful when students and parents understand the importance of a second language in our global world.

    1. In Korea, this has been the case for a long time. It’s not to say that there isn’t a shift underway there, too, but I legitimately had students in 2012-2013 who would brag that they had never betrayed their beloved peninsula by having a holiday abroad. China is a massive place and a lot of the work that I do in my current city is test-focused and lacks the vision about second languages and their actual communicative use.

      The attitude here is very similar to how I remember the attitude in Korea being in my first jobs abroad, so maybe what goes around comes around too.

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