24 February 2014

Give it everything, or get out of the way

Photo by @CliveSir via @ELTpics
In two weeks, I’m leaving the sixth teaching job I’ve had in five years of working overseas. That might seem reasonable to you. Nobody stays in a job for life these days, right? Six jobs in five years is no cause to throw yourself under a tuk-tuk. Except I know why I have such trouble staying put, and this confession does not exactly cover me in glory.

I can’t make EFL matter to me. I’ve spent – wait – 14.3% of my life doing something for the sake of fancy apartments in sunny climes (with the exception of Tbilisi, where I lived in an ice-encrusted cave). These jobs have all been a means to an end, i.e. living abroad and seeing the world. They haven’t kept me awake, or made me cry, or made me proud. They have just been … jobs.

Before I left England in 2009 I worked for five years in ESOL, which some people might take to be an artificial distinction from EFL, but I cannot. In London, what happened in morning classes was directly relevant to what happened in the real world in the afternoon. The immediacy, the usefulness of what I was doing, kept me working 50+ hours a week for a salary that barely kept me in popcorn and lentils. On top of that, because 80% of my students were refugees or asylum seekers – and this is hard to say without sounding like a hand-wringing grief vulture – I felt like maybe I was actually doing something good for someone else. Teaching women to read and write from scratch, because as girls they hadn’t been considered worth educating. Offering a more or less consistent adult presence to teenagers who’d arrived in the country with no family. Since I’d had the random good fortune to be born in a politically stable country, wasn’t it the least I could do?
But I left. I left for the shits and giggles (quite literally, in fact, as my first overseas post was in a highly sociable teaching centre in Sri Lanka). The material conditions of my life improved immeasurably, but the sense of self and purpose I once had never really returned. Which is not to say that I stopped enjoying teaching, or trying to get better at it: I still get a kick out of being in a classroom. I’ve had some fantastic students, and I know how wrong-headed it is to say that because they could afford to be there, I somehow cared less about them. But I guess I am wrong-headed, because – with exceptions, like the woman in Colombo who attended for three months each year and spent the other nine saving for the course, or the man who got up at 3am three times a week to get to my 8am lessons – I did, and I do, somehow care less.

Like I said, this post doesn’t exactly paint me as the kind of teacher I want to be. It was over a year ago that I first blogged about needing to get out of EFL, and yet here I am, faffing about with Primary Grammar Box and wishing I was somewhere else. I need to stop doing what I’m doing. The choices I've made in terms of roles and organisations were perhaps less than judicious, but there are so many people who could have done these six jobs so much better than me: the phenomenal teachers of my Twitter PLN, who think so deeply and blog so eloquently, and who doubtless improve the lives of every student they encounter; colleagues who are still in the staffroom at 10pm on a Sunday laminating cardboard ants because it Just. Might. be the thing to get those disruptive kids engaged. There are too many half-arsed people in this profession already. And I’m figuring, all too slowly, either give it everything, or get out of the way.

Having said that, I’ve no problem with short-term teaching to keep a roof over my head. Freelancing ain't gonna keep me in popcorn or lentils either, and after 10 years I think I’m competent enough not to actually waste anyone’s money if they pay me to teach them English. I'd also be a pretty crap ELT writer if I didn't spend a bit of each year in a classroom. But what I should be doing with most of my life is writing, because I want so badly to do it better and that's what will keep me jumping ('jumping') out of bed each day, and probably volunteering with refugees, because that’s just the sort of leftist dishcloth I am. Watch this space, I guess. And oooooh wow cardboard ants can I -

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