What classroom life in Australia is really like…

Teaching English as a foreign language in Australia is not for the relaxed TEFL teacher. The majority of students are from China, Japan, and South Korea and standards are high. If you’re thinking of going to Australia to teach English, then get qualified and even gain some experience before you go.

Bad Hair Day outside the Opera House
How was TEFLing in Sydney?
My experience as a TEFL teacher in Sydney was a bit of a roller coaster. I started on a low. Coming from Brazil and Ecuador, where the focus was mainly on conversational skills, I was put in my place during a two-day trial. Bearing in mind that I went for the interview wearing combat trousers and about fifteen tacky bracelets that I picked up along my travels (did I actually think that was cool?), I was lucky to get a trial.

“I don’t think your level of grammar is high enough for our students,” said the Australian Director of Studies.

“True, but I can learn the grammar; just give me a chance to show you.”

She agreed, but she’d been right. She let me have a couple of lessons to get to know the group of Chinese students, but I could sense the change in demand. They wanted to know why for all my explanations and I wasn’t prepared enough. During the observed lesson they ripped me to pieces.

“You need to brush up on your grammar if you’re serious about working in Sydney,” said the director.
Working for Mr Kim
A couple of weeks later I managed to get a job working for an English language school for Korean students. The Director, Mr Kim, was a well dressed, serious man. He tested me on grammar in the interview and luckily I was able to muster up an answer, but there was a different problem.

“We don’t use set books here, there is no syllabus; you can make up the classes. The students prefer the personal touch,” said Mr Kim, clasping his hands together.

“I see,” I said, panicking inside. How was I supposed to make up my own materials?

Mr Kim gave me a grammar reference book, a few sample lessons, and told me to send him my ‘personal’ worksheets so he could print them the following morning. Off to the internet café I went.

I was forced to look for my own material and really think about my classes. Despite spending three-hours to prepare a four-hour class, there was a great sense of satisfaction teaching my own lessons. The workload was high and the students were draining too.

My four Korean female students were about as talkative as a group of dopey koala bears. Discussions normally involved me asking and answering my own questions. They loved the grammar and vocabulary activities, but life in the classroom was dull. I lasted about a month, during which time the students faded away. I wasn’t bothered when Mr Kim sent me an email saying not to come back the next day, but he could have done it before I’d spent three hours planning my next class.

Teaching in Oz
A Real Job
As mentioned in my last blog my fun really started when I began working for Maewill in Manly, a super spot in Sydney. It was a proper language school with great bosses, fun teachers, and eager (a bit too eager) students. Mae welcomed me and gave me a couple of week’s trial.

The teachers worked on a rotary system so you did grammar and vocabulary with one class and then a communications lesson with another. The students were from China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Brazil, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Teaching mixed classes were fun, but challenging. The Brazilian students were as enthusiastic as ever and we got on well because I’d been to their country. The Eastern Europeans were serious in comparison, but a good laugh too. I found some Chinese students hard to click with at first; mainly because they demanded overly complex explanations. 

One student, a feisty Chinese girl called Petal, ripped me to pieces on my first day.

“But why is that the present perfect, why?” she said, getting irate.

“It just is,” I wanted to say, but I had to keep my job. “I’ll tell you after the break,” I said. One of the other teachers showed me a better way to explain the present perfect and during the next lesson Petal mumbled a thank you.

It’s not just about English
It was tough going but I enjoyed the challenge. Before every class I had to study the grammar and get my level up. Over the three months I learnt a lot about English and became a better teacher. I also got on with the Chinese students. They opened up when I mentioned I’d been travelling alone and was in Sydney without family.

“But you no miss family?” one asked.

“Of course, but I enjoy the adventure of being alone.”

“And you no scared of travel alone?”

“Sometimes,” I said, going on to tell them about the dodgy incidents that had happened to me in Ecuador and Brazil.

I felt sorry for the Chinese students. Their parents seemed strict and looked down on any type of non-academic activities. Some students felt uncomfortable walking about the centre of Sydney.

“A lot of people laugh at us,” said Petal.

“Then laugh back,” I said. I encouraged them to get out and about at the weekends but when Monday morning came round all they’d done was study.

I enjoyed working at Maewill, but I was bored in Sydney. After the adventure of South America I was craving a more exciting culture and I missed learning a language. Plus with the working visa situation you can only work for one employer for three months. So it was time to leave. Photo by Herry Lawford

“Don’t tell the Chinese students you’re leaving until the last day,” said Mae. “They tend to get emotional.”

When I told my classes most Chinese started crying. I felt sad too, they were a decent bunch. As I was about to leave, a few gave me presents, sweets, and cards. One wrote me a letter. Inside she thanked me for teaching her English, but also for opening her eyes about getting out and seeing the world. She said how she’d gone to the centre of Sydney on her own for the first time, just to walk about, rather than studying. Her name was Petal.

Teaching English as a foreign language in Australia is tough, but rewarding. Mixed classes are great fun and teaching English to students from all over the world is a rewarding experience. Do a TEFL course and get qualified before you go though, and maybe get some work experience too. Are you thinking of teaching in Australia? Or are you there at the moment? Drop me a comment and let me know.

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