29 April 2011

‘Every break should be inspirational’

Above, my first class and, below, some of my other classes
I read that on the side of a tin of Nescafe coffee. Of course, Nescafe’s advertising meant every coffee break should be inspirational but I took their message literally. Let me explain …

After I broke my ankle in Istanbul back in April 2008, I was stuck in my 50-square-metre-small apartment for almost six weeks. I was very unstable on my crutches and it took ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation – the New Zealand government department that’s supposed to ensure accident victims are well cared for) about four weeks to get me a wheelchair, so I couldn’t easily venture out.

Day-to-day living was easy enough – I was lucky to have friends who visited me often; my workplace was only 5 minutes away, so my workmates took turns delivering and collecting work to and from me; I ordered my groceries online and had them delivered; and I became quite speedy at zipping about on my wheeled office chair, the fastest and easiest way to get around indoors.

Still, I had a lot of time – too much time – with nothing to do … except think. So, I put that thinking time to good use. I have always loved travelling and, even though I had only been away from New Zealand for a couple of weeks before my recent holiday had been cut short by my accident, I knew that I wanted to travel more, and for much longer. And I really wanted to live and work in other countries, so that I could more fully experience their cultures.

But how could I make my dream come true? I’m no spring chicken, so no country would give me a working holiday visa. I had to find some other way. I googled, I followed links, I researched different jobs … and finally focused on the idea of teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). It was ironic really – my last teacher at primary school, Mrs Brownlee-Smith, had told my mum many years before that I should become a teacher but I’d always dismissed the idea.

For the past ten years I had been working in the publishing world, as Operations Manager at Auckland University Press, but it was time for a positive change. I discovered a TESOL course scheduled for the end of the year at the University of Auckland so sent in my application, attended an interview, sat an entry test, and was accepted. I later took 4 weeks’ holiday from work to complete the course.

I also needed to finish my undergraduate degree as many of the foreign teaching jobs seemed to require a degree as well as a TESOL qualification. I had been studying as an adult extra-mural student for many years but still had four papers to complete my Bachelor of Arts. I finished one paper in the second semester of 2008, another paper at summer school, then the last two in the first semester of 2009, finally completing my double major in Classics and History.

The day I returned to work after the TESOL course, in December 2008, I resigned. And six weeks later I started my first teaching job, at Language Studies International, where I’ve worked ever since. That first day, I was scared stiff! But my students were lovely and responded positively to what I was teaching, so the morning passed quickly. I was mentally and physically exhausted, but also exhilarated and I felt a huge sense of satisfaction. I was already looking forward to the next day!

I feel I have been incredibly lucky. To be honest, I chose teaching as a means to an end, as a way of achieving my travelling goals. But I believe I have discovered my true vocation. I love seeing a student’s eyes light up with understanding. I love it when they ask tricky questions because it shows they’re really thinking about what I’m teaching. I love seeing their progress from being barely understandable to almost fluent. I love the crazy moments when I find myself miming some word or concept to make it easier for them to grasp and I love the laughter we frequently share. I love meeting students from all over the world – almost every day they teach me something new about their countries and their cultures. The only thing I don’t enjoy is having to say goodbye to all the wonderful people I meet.

So, it turns out that my (ankle) break really was inspirational. It gave me the time to re-evaluate my life and to set in motion a series of changes that have truly been life-changing.