28 April 2012

TEFLing at 35: a life gone right

Is 35 really the best age to be? According to a recent poll of British adults, it is:

‘[T]hose questioned said they expected people [at 35] to have reached milestones like buying a house, finding a partner and having a first child, but have several years to go before reaching the peak of their career at age 39…[it] is also an age when you can be at or around the peak of your earnings’.

At 33, I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that I’ve still got two good years left in me before commencing the slow march towards death (and six years left to become a globally-renowned something), but I’m always a bit depressed to have my progress as an adult measured by whether I’ve mated and whether I can buy stuff.

This is not my life. Neither, I suspect, is it the life of most ELTers – including the ones with spouses and houses.

Are we in this job because, as smug pseudo-philosopher Alain de Botton suggests, our lives have gone wrong? Or did we make choices to live differently? I thought my life had gone wrong when every other conversation I had in London was about getting married (I just hadn’t met the right man!), having children (my biological clock would soon start ticking!) and acquiring property (if I didn’t get my foot on the ladder sharpish I’d be sorry!). It’s only now, on the other side of the world, where I can create my own milestones and there’s nobody to insist that in time I’ll want the same things as them, that I feel my life is actually going right.

There’s a word for people like us: existential migrants. There’s even a (highly recommended) book about us, The End of Belonging by Greg Madison. According to the author – though I’m paraphrasing from Wikipedia here – we’re more apt to:

  • embrace perspective-broadening experience
  • prefer the strange or foreign to the familiar or conventional
  • value difference, especially as a stimulus to personal awareness
  • believe in the importance of trying to fulfill individual potential
  • value freedom and independence
  • view home as interaction, not as a fixed geographical place

That’s a life I can recognise; in fact I almost cried when I first read the book. So Britain, let’s have a wee chat. I will always love you and I will always be your daughter, but we’re going to have to agree to disagree on a few things.

I want to be a 35 year-old who has thoroughly considered whether getting married and having children are the right things for me, rather than the taken-for-granted next steps. I only want to own a home if I can’t imagine not living in it forever, and I can actually afford to buy it. I want to give away practically everything I own on two year cycles (but not my iPhone and not my stuffed dinosaurs).

I want to be a 35 year-old (and 75 year-old) whose desire to move and move and move is stronger than the desire to make myself comfortable. I never want to feel that I’ve seen enough of the world or lose that beautiful, raw sensation of leaving and returning to different ‘homes’, knowing it’s true that you can never go home again.

I want to be a 35 year-old who understands that the people who come in and out of my life are a blessing but I can’t hold on to them. I want to enjoy my own company.

I want to be a 35 year-old who feels confident in the work I’ve chosen to pursue and who learns for the love of learning, not studies for the extra pound an hour. I want not to be freaked out by the prospect of no computers, no photocopier, no board, no books, no desks and no chairs. I want to keep those students in my life who make me cry with laughter, cry with despair, and open my eyes. I want to mentor and be mentored.

I want to be a 35 year-old who has carved out a life to suit me, not everyone else, and I want not to be scared. Except of clowns. This is only natural.

Did I become a TEFL teacher because my life had gone wrong? Yes - but not in the way Mr Bottom would have you believe. What do you want to be at 35? Or 75?


  1. A fascinating read. Glad to know that there is a term for those types of people that enjoy travelling, working and broadening their horizons. I really believe that travel broadens the mind and it is such a wonderful career that I have where I am able to travel and work.

    1. Hear hear and thanks so much for reading and commenting :)

  2. I must confess that I am over that age mark and I can't see how life could be any better. I am just finishing up my MA TESOL degree and I feel like I am just getting started on life. I love teaching. I love my students and the richness they bring into my life. I love working with people who add so much to my life. And as a person of faith, I feel at peace with who I am and what comes next. Is my life perfect? Nope. But that is part of the adventure. There is always more, and that excites me.

    Thank you for sharing. Keep moving forward. No regrets. Embrace what happens in life and keep adding into the lives of those around you. And never give up your stuffed dinosaurs.

    1. What a wonderful comment - and worldview ('there is always more'...YES). Thank you. Congrats on getting to the end of your MA too :)

  3. This hits a few sensitive areas for me as a 36 year old. Very nice read and I want to read that book now. I love being a teacher, I love the purpose it gives me, I love living in a far and distant land, I love coming home at the end of a hard day at work and still have the passion to read more about teaching. I worked in finance for 6 years and there was never a single day that I looked forward going into that job. It's the more respected job but which is better for me??

    I am bored of being told what I should be, what I should own at this stage of my life etc. I am in stable relationship but have never been a person to want the white picket fence, the 2.4 kids etc I'm very lucky to have parents who never put pressure on me to conform. They see that I love my life as it is. Does that mean I stand still? Of course not, always move forward, but in the direction that YOU want to go.

    Great read!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I know just what you mean about being able to keep up the passion for teaching - there have been times when I thought I'd had enough, but then you read one fascinating article (or join Twitter!) and it's like going right back to the start when everything was new and exciting. I'd find it really tough going back to working in an office now.

  4. A great post, funny and fascinating. Sounds like that book is one ELTers need to read, those of us that stay in it (the 'lifers') *are* a kind of unusual breed, and it's always a bit weird going 'home'. At 37, I guess my best year is behind me too - but it was a pretty good year. So was 21. And I think 8 was my favourite. But I'm also excited about what I'm doing this year, and what's brewing for next year! I'm happy to have my family, and wherever I am or where they are is where my home is (I'm allowed more than 1!) and I'm happy to be always learning and changing even though my earning potential may be pretty laughable in the opinions of people whose opinion I don't value. Enjoy your life and you're already doing better than about a zillion other people. Sounds like you are doing that :)

    1. Thanks Sophia :) What happened when you were 8 and 21? I've never really thought about my 'best' year from the past, I'm always so glad to get older (except for the approaching death thing, obviously) and hopefully - ha! - wiser...

  5. "At 33, I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that I’ve still got two good years left in me before commencing the slow march towards death"

    Thanks for this lovely post and bringing me back to thoughts of TEFL (after a month in the Thai islands). And thanks ^ Martin ^, for showing it to me on FB. At 51 I am a bit closer to what you call the slow march to death, but have found it speeds up and seems to get faster and faster as you get older. As I only started the second part of my life when I did my first degree at 40 and the Masters (with Martin) at 50, I am happy to have sold my house and car and everything else and have very few possessions and no stable home, but places to go back to to see friends occasionally. I teach at a university in Thailand, which is challenging but enjoyable and the students make it all worthwhile.

    To have got off the treadwheel of UK life, but not foolish enough to think I have got off it totally, has made made my life infinitely better, at times lonely, but generally a fantastic improvement. It is I who chooses where I work, in which continent, country, city or town. To rely only on oneself but be relied upon by ones' students, is challenging, hard work, scary at times, as there is such little support, yet wonderfully rewarding, not financially, but in the smiling eyes, happy faces and trusting body language of those lovely students.

    Do not listen to those people who tell you you should have a mortgage, car and 2.4 children. Get off the treadwheel (and onto a different one, but one you want to be on) and live your life looking forward to going to work.


    1. Brilliant comments. Thank you. 'I am happy to have sold my house and car and everything else and have no stable home' - what a liberating sentence :)

  6. What a great post, Laura. At 55, in a 30 year marriage, having had the same job since I was 22 and having lived in the same country all my life, you might think I do not, cannot, relate to your story.
    Nothing further from how I feel about this.
    It is wonderful that you make your own choices, that you let neither your family, nor people or society dictate your life and that you go for the things that really matter.
    Moving to new places, living in different parts of the world is just wonderful. I wish I had had the chance to do that. But with my background, at the time I graduated, it simply was not an option for a non-native speaker.
    I think that in whatever situation or whatever age you are, what you describe is an inner way of "being", a way of looking at life, a way of living.
    And that is not just about being married or not, having children or not, staying at the same place forever or not.
    It is about being open, willing to learn, loving your job, having a passion, feeling good amid your students, counting your blessings and being grateful for what you have.
    It is about meeting people like you, communicating and feeling bonds beyond age, continent and backgrounds.
    So follow that path you have chosen and I can tell you: there are many many good years still to come;-)
    Thanks for sharing this and oh, you write so beautifully....


  7. Hey Mieke, sorry it's taken me so long to reply but thanks for saying all of these things! Totally agree it's more about attitude than the things you actually do or places you go...I think I conflated two things (living abroad + having a particular mindset) to suit my own ends :) I also occasionally wonder what I've lost by coming overseas - whether, when I'm older, I'll miss having such a deep connection to one country and culture. Who knows? But anyway thanks again for the lovely comments, really appreciate you taking the time to read the post and to make them :)

  8. A lovely post, Laura, and one that's obviously struck a chord with a lot of us.

    I live in Santiago, and on the way to work I go through the Cathedral Square every morning. And a big proportion of the pilgrims turning up there are obviously retired people who are fit enough to walk several hundred km for fun. So the slow march to the grave is gentle, and it goes through some nice places.

    (Everybody's afraid of clowns. Especially other clowns.)

    1. Thanks Alan. Both the pilgrim and clown comments are very reasurring :) You're the first person I've met working in Chile - how's Santiago? *slightly jealous*

  9. Hello Laura,

    What a great post! As I mentioned on my blog, I have been thinking about this for ages now. I loved the way you captured your thoughts, feelings and hopes.

    As a new 35 year old, I think your list of things that you want to be are very helpful!

    I often think about this field that I sort of happened to fall into and happen to love being seen as a dead-end to many. I think that the idea that anyone can do it or that it something to do in one's 20's as a cure to wanderlust do a lot to add to that thinking.

    I think I will print this post and share it with the next person that is thoroughly confused about what the hell I am doing with my life. I'll say, "My friend Laura put this about as well as anyone could, so please have a read and then we can talk about it."

    It has been great reading your blog and getting to know you.
    (no pressure for more mosts....really).

    Best wishes for the new year.

    Yours in friendship and existential migration,

    PS One twitter highlight of the year was getting an apology from smug pseudo-philosopher Alain de Botton who said something along the lines of "If I ever said such a stupid thing I am sorry" in reference to the quote.

  10. Lieber Unknown,

    2. Thanks for taking the trouble to come back to this and comment so long after I wrote it. I'm honoured to be part of your 12 of 12.
    3. The Alain de Botton thing kind of made my year too, but I didn't want to say. Maybe I should remove the 'smug' above, huh?
    4. I will try very hard to blog more often. I will. I've been meaning to blog since Xmas Eve but what I've actually been writing is a biography of Moliere and something on the history of nail art (strangely fascinating), so you can see what I'm up against.
    5. Thanks so much for like, everything, in 2012. You rock.


  11. I know I'm 5 years late to the party but thank you sooooo much for this. I am 35 and about to embark on a TEFL course having become frustrated by my teaching job in the UK/questions about houses/babies/settling down etc. I'm currently feeling such a range of changing emotions and I can't believe I've stumbled upon this when I have. Seriously, thank you-I really needed to read that today. Lucy

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