Watch the video below to see how our graduate Leigh stopped delaying her travel plans and decided to teach ESL and travel the world. Leigh talks about how she found empowerment by teaching English abroad, as well as how travel can empower women. Leigh also shares tips on what to pack for your adventure abroad, and advice for anyone thinking about teaching English overseas.
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Read some of the highlights from our interview with Leigh below:
- About Leigh
- What made you decide to teach English abroad?
- How did you find out about teaching English abroad?
- What was the certification process like?
- How long did it take to find a job?
- What was it like, as a woman, traveling alone?
- What kind of classes did you teach?
- What advice would you give women who want to teach abroad?
- Do you have any packing tips for future ESL teachers?
- How did your experiences traveling and teaching abroad empower & change you?
- Do you have any last tips for anyone preparing to teach English abroad?
Q & A with Leigh
Tell us about yourself
Right now I’m finishing my Master’s of Fine Art and Creative Writing. Part of the reason I came back to The States was to get that finished. I want to teach at a university eventually so that [her Master’s] is part of that.
My experience teaching abroad, I took an Oxford Seminars course in the University of Chicago in 2014…and then in 2014-2015 I lived in Japan and taught abroad there, and then in 2016-2017 I was living and teaching in South Korea.
I just got back last year, so it’s been a little bit of an adjustment. [I’m] having a little bit of reverse culture shock.
I did a little bit of traveling after my last contract. So I finished in February and was traveling until June of last year.
We actually found you on Instagram because you were sharing all kinds of really cool images of your experience teaching English abroad.
Yeah! I just had such a great time and saw so many great things. And not only do you go to the country you go to and really explore that but it just makes you want to go other places. It inspires you and gives you the lust and excitement for travel.
What made you decide to get certified and teach English abroad?
So I think I’m maybe in a little bit of a unique situation… A lot of people come out of college and they’re 22 years old and they don’t know what to do and they’re like “I want a gap year and I’m going to live abroad!”
I was actually in my early 30’s and I was in the position of being single for the first time in a while. I didn’t have kids, I didn’t have a mortgage, and I said “I always wanted to travel. Why am I not doing it?”
For me it was really like, if not now, when? If I’m not going to take the leap now, there’s never going to be a good time. You’re always going to be like “I wish I had more money. I wish I had lost a little weight before I did this.” I think you just put things off and you tell yourself all the reasons that you’ll do it later, and you put it off and tell yourself “someday I’ll do this, someday I’ll do that.”
I think really for me it was like “When’s someday? I’m living my someday. I need to go do it!”
How did you find out about teaching English abroad?
I was a substitute teacher for a little while. I had my bachelor’s but I didn’t have my teaching credentials. So I didn’t really go into that. I was working as a barista, I did office jobs for a while, and I always loved English. I always had a passion for English, and language, and culture. So I think I saw it as a vehicle of traveling. I saw it as a way of getting to see the world and also doing what I had studied. I studied creative writing. So it was a way of living the way I had prepared for in some ways.
How did you feel about going abroad by yourself?
I think you can do so much preparing… and when it comes down to it there’s only so much you can prepare for because there’s no way to know what it’s going to be like to be plunged into another culture where you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand the customs entirely…At a certain point you just have to take the leap…I was excited.
What was the certification process like?
There’s a lot of different routes people can take. I loved Oxford Seminars because it’s not just an online credential course. [It has] in-class experience and online experience… So I would go in and do some in-class experience teaching and practice and then the rest of it was online answering questions and studying.
I thought it was really valuable to have the classroom experience because I had done some substitute teaching but I wasn’t really a full time teacher so I felt like “I don’t want to be thrown into the fire” with teaching because you’re in a new culture. The last thing you want to do is not feel confident.
So I think it [the Oxford Seminars course] really helped me gain the confidence. You do a lot of exercises with your classmates and your teacher. I think they had us up on the first day teaching. It really helped prepare me.
How did you decide where you wanted to teach?
[Japan] was really far from my original thought. I had wanted to go to Europe but it was kind of difficult to get into…and hard to get a visa… So I started looking at Asian countries. And I’d always loved Japanese culture and life. I loved the food, and anime and all the fun things. So I thought [Japan] would be a good first place for me.
How long did it take to find a job teaching English in Japan?
It was relatively quick. It’s almost easier than getting a job in the US if that makes sense. I feel like sometimes [in the US] when I finished college and I had my bachelor’s and I was sending out resumes, [I would] just never hear from anybody, or [I would] go on an interview and never hear back. It was really frustrating. But it felt like when I had my [TESOL/TESL/TEFL] Certification, people were recruiting me. I would get to choose [between teaching jobs]. People would interview me…and it was really interesting because I got to pick the place I wanted to go and what would be a good fit for me.
So that was really a great experience for me and I had a lot of options. [Oxford Seminars] has a really great graduate placement service. You get an advisor and they help place you… so it was a really easy, painless experience.
What was it like, as a woman, buying a one-way ticket and traveling abroad alone?
I found it really empowering to travel abroad as a woman. It helped me take more risks, and make decisions and stand by my decisions, and have my voice heard.
I think living abroad, you also learn to be a really good listener, because a lot of times you don’t understand everything that’s happening. You don’t understand every word that’s being said. You don’t understand the customs. So you really want to take a step back sometimes and just observe and make sure you’re not offending anyone. A lot of people come in with a mindset of “I’m [still] in America and this is how we do things here,” but you have to open your mind to a new experience.
What kind of classes did you teach?
In Japan, I taught “mommy and me” classes which are one-year-olds and their moms – and that was a lot of basic colors, shapes, music, lots of dancing – and then all the way up to 19-year-olds. So I taught a whole range of classes and I taught at four different schools. So I got to see a lot of the country that way…
My second posting, when I went to South Korea, I was in a kindergarten class. So I taught 5 and 6 [year-olds] and then after school I taught 7-10 year olds.
What advice would you give women who are thinking about teaching English abroad?
Just do it! Don’t think about it. Don’t think about the excuses of why not or why you can’t. Don’t let that fear drive you away. I think that you have to make a decision and just kind of follow through with it. And then it all just kind of happens very quickly and follows along with itself.
Find yourself a community there. I met a really great community of women who I traveled with. In my first job I was living in Gifu, Japan. We did our training in Nagoya and then everyone went to different parts of the country. So I made these great friends in the first two weeks and then we all went to live in different places, but it was great because someone would call me up and say “Hey! Want to go to Nagano this weekend?” And I’d be like “Yeah!”
It was really cool. I met this really wonderful community of educators and women travelers [who were] not just from the US, but also from Scotland, from Australia, from Canada, from all over the world. It was really cool.
Do you have any packing tips for future ESL teachers abroad?
I think I over-prepared like everyone who packs. It’s like “I’m going away for a weekend. I need 6 pairs of shoes!”
I ended up packing two large suitcases, which for a year is reasonable. I kept it to that because otherwise it’s too hard to travel around with. I think the thing to think too is that…you can go to a grocery store[when you’re abroad]. When I went to Korea I bought a bicycle. I bought a comforter for my bed. I bought a lot of the things there. You don’t need to bring as much.
Clothing was big for me. I wanted to make sure I had clothing that fit because an extra large is like a medium in our size or a small… but other than that everything you can get there and sometimes it’s fun to try new stuff. I loved trying the cosmetics there. They have so many cool things that we don’t have yet. Especially Korea. It’s like the cosmetics capital of the world.
How did your experiences traveling and teaching abroad empower & change you?
I think that there’s a current… climate of division among people and I think that traveling really teaches you empathy and it teaches you understanding. And…when you listen to people and sit back and really listen to their lives, I had so many touching experiences with women when I went abroad.
I was actually in a motorbike accident in Cambodia about a year and a half ago. I went off a bridge. It was really crazy but I remember… I was sitting in the village. Someone was going back to get the bike out of a tree. It was insane. I was kind of in shock and I was crying and all these women just came out of their homes and they were touching my face, and one got ointment out of her purse and was putting it on this really big scratch I had on my face.
There’s a language that doesn’t have words between women. It’s the language of “carers” and of empathy. And I think we need so much of that in this world.
It was so touching to me because they were living in this really abject poverty and they just had nothing, but they gave me what they could give me, and they took care of me when I was in a really vulnerable situation.
And I had so many experiences like that that were so touching. Like I would get lost in Japan, and little Japanese grandmothers would take your arm and literally walk you to where you needed to go. Or you’d leave your umbrella behind and they would chase you down to give it back to you. I just had so many wonderful experiences like that.
I think it’s so important for women now to have a broad worldview, and I think education is so important, and traveling and meeting people from different places is so important to expanding your worldview and understanding of things.
Do you have any last tips for anyone preparing to teach English abroad?
I would say to anybody, I had fears. There were definitely fears I had going abroad and things you have to overcome in your own mind, but change can’t really come unless you’re in an uncomfortable situation. You have to force yourself outside of your comfort zone to have true change.
I just urge women to take that leap. You’ll have the most amazing experiences of your life.
I’m working now and people are always saying “You’ve been where?! You’ve done what?!” and they’re just so amazed but it’s like “You can too…”
Take the leap. Take a risk. You’ll really grow as a person, and just become more confident in yourself and who you are.
Follow Leigh’s adventures on Instagram or on her blog.
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