After finishing his English literature major at university, Sheldon, originally from Durban, South Africa, hit the road and landed in Japan. And went far. Where did he end up, and what is he doing now? Read on to learn about one man’s teaching abroad success story.

Tell us about yourself! What makes Sheldon, Sheldon?

I used to think that what made me Sheldon is my love of English. I enjoy it right down to the history and etymology of it, and of course, the world’s literature written in English. I thought of myself as retiring introvert. I was beginning to turn into a career student, with 8 years studying and working at the same university in South Africa.

I’d probably be living in some ivory tower and stay put all my life if I didn’t decide to take a chance on going to Japan. So instead, I’m in the Far East visiting places I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. I’ve had to grow in ways that wouldn’t have happened if I never left Durban. I guess I’m still learning who I am and I wonder what I’ll become in the future. As the Japanese saying goes, “life is learning”, so that’s what my life is.

Sheldon wearing traditional Japanese garments

You’re from South Africa, that’s awesome. Is teaching English abroad a common career or job that South Africans seek? Why or why not?

I think since the early 2000s, most South Africans would go from high school to a job, if not from college to a job. But now a lot of young university graduates take travel abroad more seriously. I know many of my former peers from university went to Japan, South Korea or China, among other places. I’d say there’s a substantial increase in the number of South Africans, especially in their mid-twenties going to other parts of the world.

Sheldon eating some Japanese food

You have been teaching in Japan for quite some time. Can you summarize your overall experience, year-by-year?

The first year was the toughest adjustment, my whole life was thrown into unfamiliar experiences and meetings with new people from around the world, not only Japanese. I had to get used to Japan and learn quite a lot on the job.

From the second year, a lot of the people I met left and faded out of my life, but I stayed put so that the journey into Japan meant something to me personally. I was able to travel a bit and learn more about the country I was living in.

I’ve been to places you’d wish to visit if you went to Japan, like the urban jungles supreme of Tokyo and Osaka and the tropical paradise of Okinawa.

From the third year on, I started to get better at being an English teacher. Before that, I felt like a tourist on a working holiday, but now I was beginning to take my job seriously as a potential career.

During the 4th and 5th years, I sensed that I should plan for the future, so I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to do next. Towards the end of my fifth year on the job, I was earnestly applying for other jobs around Japan. I was going to keep on teaching English as a foreign language, one way or another.

As luck would have it, I’ll be going into a new position in Toyama City this July, right where I live now, teaching students from a range of ages and levels.

Sheldon holding a bunch of flowers with a butterfly on them

What do you know now that you wish you knew at the onset of your life as a teacher abroad?

I wish I studied how to teach English as a foreign language ahead of traveling so that the work I was doing in Japan would be easier to get into. I was an English literature major; English language teaching was a different story.

If I did courses like Premier TEFL’s Intro to IELTS-teaching course and others at an earlier stage in my life, I would have had more confidence heading to Japan. Having teaching skills is the key to staying on in another country because knowing what you’re supposed to be doing relieves you of a lot of stress.

I wouldn’t say knowing a different country’s language fluently is an essential skill, but trying to pick up more and more lingo as you go along will help you to feel more in control over your situation.

Sheldon taking a selfie

What age group of students do you focus on and do you have any tips for how best to work with this age group?

I liked to teach young adults; I got used to teaching high school students while in Japan, but a lot of them learn English because they have to take it, not because it was a choice. Having encountered some senior high school kids and college students who are really keen on their English development and it’s great to work with them. I think it’s important to try and spark local students’ interest in English by making it fun and meaningful.

If they can use the knowledge you impart to them to enhance their understanding of international culture, they’ll appreciate it a lot. A lot of them already like western music, actors or movies, so they’ll feel closer to those sorts of things if you teach them about those. English is not a form of public, daily communication in countries like Japan, so you can’t rely on convincing them to learn English to use it in society at large. So you need to show them that learning English can be entertaining and stimulating for personal use.

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Do you have any other tips or advice for someone on the fence about teaching abroad?

Having this chance to visit another part of the world is not always an easy choice to make, but it will be well worth it. You’ll learn how to improve yourself, gain valuable experiences and make connections you didn’t know were possible.

Even if it’s tough at times, you’ll get stronger and be able to return to your home country with motivation and insight. Even if you don’t return just yet and wish to visit other places, that’s great too. There are a lot of places to see and experience out there, make the most of the opportunity while you have it!

Baie dankie, domo arigato, & all that jazz. Best of luck!

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