It has been a slow day in the office for weeks now. Most of the teachers are feeling the lack of energy, and there is an eerie calmness, something that can only be best described as radio silence. It is a far cry of the usual festive and hyper mood from clock in to clock out. WeChat is surprisingly quiet, no plans for the weekends, and no sharing of funny GIFs and emojis. It got me thinking when I went back to my apartment how we easily lose our drive to teach.
There is always that down time where we lose track of our motivation. Similarly, I’ve seen a lot of “fresh off the boat” teachers failed to maintain that feeling of excitement to teach in a foreign place or they just fell short of their expectations. They get overwhelmed by the new culture and work environment. We all need a boost of excitement to enjoy what we love doing— and that is teaching.
Here in this article, I will share to my fellow EFL teaching professionals and soon to be teachers the 3 reasons I keep in mind whenever I feel the need of reminding that teaching is an exciting job. This article will come in handy to soon to be landing/thinking about signing their first international teaching gig and to current teachers who are not feeling motivated at the moment. These are based on my experience — been there, done that kind of thing — as an English teacher in Beijing for more than 2 years, and counting.
1. It’s rewarding
Oh yes, you may find it cliché. I don’t blame you. I’ve heard this a lot from passionate teachers, and it becomes their everyday pitch for self-motivation. For those who have signed their first EFL contract (congratulations and welcome!), I guarantee you will find your own version of rewarding soon. For me, rewarding is having that privilege to create an impact in my classroom. When a class starts, it is show time; tables and chairs are ready, PowerPoint is up and running, teaching aids and materials printed out, lesson plan is already prepared, and my teaching smile is on.
A few semesters back, I started teaching my Grade 5A students past perfect tense. It was their first time to learn a more complex version of past tense. I was met with deep sighs of hesitation, low motivation to learn, and multiple attempts to kill the time, which are all quite normal reactions. I told them learning something new, whatever endeavor that is, the beginning is always the challenging part. It is always my sales talk before the real chalk and board discussion begins. And it usually works on both good and bad day.
I planned my lesson carefully not to overexposed them to the nitty-gritty of the grammar structure to avoid the risk of potentially boring them. It is my responsibility to shape the future of their young minds. I incorporated parsimonious ways to explain the tense in fun and engaging way. With that, there were grammar games, singing of songs, practice, and more practice, and lots of food involved in the process. At the end of the semester, they were able to use past perfect tense perfectly without even knowing it.
That right there is a reward, a tap on my shoulder, an unspoken gesture of gratitude, a token of achievement — just take your pick. So, the next time I hear someone says teaching is rewarding I have a treasure trove of students stored on my mind and their journey toward learning. Every time I think about it, it brings joy to my heart and yes, it is very rewarding.
2. I get freebies
It doesn’t have to be my birthday or teacher’s day. No occasions necessary. Every day I get freebies — love, hug, smile, gifts, and long-lasting friendship. It is an unfortunate reality that teaching is the underdog profession on this planet. And if you don’t appreciate and celebrate little everyday milestones in the job then this not the right career path for you.
For EFL teachers we endure culture shock, language barrier, loneliness, and in some cases, a lack of administrative support and there is a tight room for professional development. Despite these imperfections, getting freebies totally change my mindset and they create an impact in my personal well-being. It makes me happy. Every time my students show up in school, they always got something for me. It could be a piece of bread, candy, a new toy they want me to try, or a little Picasso in the making showing off his masterpiece. I got a student who gave me her last piece of bread upon hearing I am hungry. She literally stared at me until I eat the bread. She was genuinely happy seeing me getting something to eat. And oh, their warm smile, tight hug, and casual attempts to conversate with me in English are absolutely priceless!
One time, I was feeling blue and my over-all drive to work that day was extremely low. Thankfully, I sorted out my lesson plan way ahead of time — days before — so everything was set. All of a sudden, a loud, reverberating sound of “Hello Kennnnnnn!” took my attention and there was Grace, a short, pony-tailed Grade 2B student, running from the lobby toward me with her arms wide open. I got the best hug that day, and sadness was gone in an instant. That hug was the happy pill that I needed to put my fighting spirits back together. I tell you right now, no one gets more hugs than teachers, and we get lots of them for free.
Freebies are not just material gifts; they are more personal. Getting them are only afforded to us the chosen few, the ones who are in the EFL profession. As a foreign teacher in China, smile and hug are the freebies I get all the time. I am experiencing culture from the inside and although everything in China moves on its own pace — like a class has to stop because a parent brings in a large cake for her son who is celebrating his birthday — the best part of it is, I just go with the flow.
3. Long-lasting friendships
I want to piggyback on reason number 2. This is a freebie that makes me really proud and excited on being an EFL teacher. Being a teacher our influence lives on even after our students left the school. It stretches into their personal lives. I could still remember my Grade 2 teacher who inspired me to be a better person. We all have stories of inspiration from our teachers that helped shape who we are now as a person.
I don’t know about you but I get excited when September and February start. After weeks of holiday I can see my students again. Some have grown an inch taller, prettier, smarter, more polite, and some are the same naughty, little fellas. They may not notice it but I have appreciated their effort to show up to class prepared and ready to take on new knowledge. We learn together by sharing our triumphs and commitment to learning. We build a lasting impact on each other’s lives.
I am teaching multiple classes of different English level learners. In total, there are about 100 students with different personalities, ambitions, family upbringing, social background and learning styles. They all have individual needs that have to be addressed. They are under my care. I make sure they are safe and attended at all times. No matter how difficult that responsibility is, the bottom line is we are family. And family takes care of each other. As my fellow EFL teacher once told me, “I am not their teacher, I am their mentor.” I couldn’t agree more.
Let me tell you a story of my former Grade 7B (writing fiction and non-fiction class) student named David. David’s parents decided to move to a different district in Beijing that is laboriously far from our school (Beijing traffic during rush hour is insane); and so, he has to transfer. Few months forward, I was out on a walk to a park which is close to David’s new school and at that time I had no idea he is learning there. He saw me crossing the street. I was on my earphones so any outside noise like someone shouting my name is blocked. He grabbed my shoulder, while gasping for air, and said “Hi Ken”. We had a wonderful time talking about his new school, classmates, and teachers. He ran all the way from where he was at, dropped what he was doing just to personally talk and catch up with me. It is a friendship that I will forever treasure in my life. I will remember each of my student, probably not all by their names but from the moments we shared together. It was my intention to change the world when I signed up to work overseas, and yet it was me who have been given the opportunity, a very unique one, to meet amazing students who have significantly touched and changed my life in the most humbling way.
I can go on the list as there are many things that make me excited about teaching. I guess by now you have figured out that I love being a teacher. Ponder on those three thoughts if you are an EFL teacher whose motivation is running low; if you are a student whose life was at some point touched by a teacher; and if you are a new teacher uncertain on the road ahead. Life happens. Deal with it. There will always be roadblocks along the way, but think of the young minds you inspired to reach their full potential. It happened in your classroom. You helped them change the way they see the world. We, as EFL teachers, facilitate that change; don’t forget that. Now folks, that is something to be excited about.
Kenneth Charles Lambo works as an English teacher at a training center in Beijing. On his spare time, he binges Netflix and his favorite TV show of all time is Breaking Bad. He is currently enrolled at University of Saskatchewan’s CERTESL program to become a certified English language teacher in Ontario.