April 01, 2015
Reflections of an English Teacher Working Abroad
If education is the key that unlocks the doors of opportunity to limitless choices, then English is the passport one uses to travel to uncharted destinations. At least, this has been my experience. A few years after I graduated from Susquehanna University, I found myself in a white-collar professional rut, and I started thinking about the ways in which challenging my assumptions about my own potential could be a means to revitalizing my professional life. As 2008 approached, I started to revisit my ideas about what was possible and why. What really mattered and why?
In early 2008, I started looking at Teach for America-type positions where a candidate could work during the day and earn a master’s degree in the evening. While pursuing a lead for such an opportunity in Philadelphia, I came across an interesting job ad from a recruiting company in South Korea. Apparently, South Korea was hiring English teachers. As I carefully combed the website, it seemed that I fit every basic qualification: I was a native speaker of English; I had a bachelor’s degree and no criminal background.
The notion of traveling halfway around the world to potentially live for years seemed like the perfect way to start a new year. So with my renewed passport and Korean E-2 visa in hand, I boarded a plane for South Korea, where a teaching position at a nursery school awaited me.
Just before I left, I was given the most valuable advice that I have probably received thus far on my journey: Be open to the possibilities that this opportunity may lead to in the future. In other words, don’t be afraid to let the journey take on a life of its own. In the different countries that I have visited and the different jobs that I have had, those words have echoed in the back of my mind.
Two years later, when a teaching position became available in Iraq, I didn’t hesitate. By then I had learned that sometimes black is really white and up is really down, and that which seems so large and insurmountable is, in fact, quite small. When Osama Bin Laden was announced dead at the hands of the U.S. Navy SEALS, being able to see the photo of his dead face, one eye an empty socket, all over Al Arabia news was a surreal experience. When ISIS eroded the border between Syria and Iraq last summer, I didn’t have to watch CNN for the latest report. I just had to listen to my students talk about how their relatives were fleeing southern cities, some of them dying on the front lines of yet another war.
When I taught in Iraqi Kurdistan last summer and fall, nearly every student I taught had at least one relative fighting in the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military. Seeing the history of violence willing to repeat itself for the second time in 10 years reminded me that America has never left me. Her foreign policies, culture and economic practices, emulated by much of the world, have followed me along for the ride as if her DNA were embedded in the very pages of my passport.
I was reminded of her presence when the 2008 economic collapse sent the Korean Won spiraling out of control, reducing most expatriates’ salaries by 30 percent. I was reminded of her in the new housing developments and shopping mall centers of Erbil, which seemed to rise from
the ashes of war. And I was reminded of her by the power vacuum created by ISIS, which most Arab Iraqis I know would say is the result of America’s failed attempt at nation building in Iraq.
When I started my master’s degree program in 2011, great emphasis was placed on experiential learning, the belief that the most meaningful learning occurs through experience rather than theory. Many in the field would argue that this is precisely why so many ESL learners who memorize English grammar rules to perfection struggle with basic conversation. The quality of the experience defines the outcome of the product. This is the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far: The experience of learning, of testing out hypotheses and questioning assumptions, is where citizens of the world are born.
Teresa Hernandez is a Selinsgrove, Pa., native who graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing. She’s teaching English in East Africa for the spring term.