Andrea Hernandez is a third-culture kid and world citizen in its truest sense. She was born in Colombia (where her parents are from), but grew up in Spain until her early teen years, before moving to London. Andrea now lives in Scotland, where she’s studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. She’s also (spoiler!) taught abroad. Read on to learn more about Andrea’s fabulous journey!
Tell us about yourself! What makes Andrea, Andrea?
I love being around kids, and I love travelling! Sometimes I am able to combine the two, like when I went to Thailand for a volunteer project. But if not, I am usually volunteering with different charities or organisations that work with kids, like Befriend a Child in Aberdeen. I’m a kid at heart myself and I adore Disney, which is probably why I relate to kids more.
You’re currently teaching abroad. Awesome! Tell us about your unique journey to working abroad as a teacher—including your TEFL course experience.
I traveled to Thailand in the summer of 2015 to do a volunteer project which included a couple of weeks teaching English as a foreign language in different Thai schools. First I was based in Wang Nam Khiao and did one week working with a local school. I was there with a small group of other volunteers from different countries around the world: U.S, U.K, China and Belgium.
We rotated through different classrooms and year groups throughout the week. I got the chance to be with nursery kids where we taught them animals and colours, with primary school kids where we revised numbers with them and finally with secondary school kids where we taught a bit more advanced things following their coursebooks.
We had to plan the lessons according to the year group and what they had already been learning prior to us coming, but it was a lot of fun to play with the children during breaktime. The second week I went to an orphanage and the english teaching there was less formal, we simply hung out with the kids and taught them English in a natural way, such as by playing with them, talking to them etc. We never received TEFL training as the time we had to teach English was very limited, so I’m really looking forward to this opportunity to continue to expand my skills as a teacher!
What advice do you have for non-native English speakers who dream of teaching English abroad someday?
If your English is up to standard, you love kids and are up for a different challenge, then you should have no major problems fulfilling your dream. Having a good foundation of English is very important though, as you will probably be asked a million questions that you might not know the answer to, so being prepared is a must.
However, don’t worry excessively about your accent. Everyone around the world has a different accent and way of speaking, there is no right or wrong and the important skill you have to implement is communication. As long as you can communicate with the people you are teaching and as long as you teach them to communicate with you, there is no need to be self-conscious.
What makes teaching abroad an attractive pursuit for you? Can you tell us about it and how it motivates your work?
For me, it’s about the cultural experience I get from teaching English abroad. Different countries have different cultures and for me it’s crucial to be in a culture that I feel comfortable in. I have travelled to different parts of the world, like Hong Kong, U.S, Mexico, Europe etc, and everywhere it’s different, but I don’t always feel comfortable in every place I go. Some cultures are too similar to the one I am used to and there is not an opportunity for me to learn something new; others are too contrasting and I find it really hard to adapt.
When I decided to teach abroad, I was looking for a culture that was different enough from mine that I would get the opportunity to learn and grow, but open and friendly enough that I wouldn’t feel cast out as a foreigner. I happened to find Thailand and instantly fell in love. I have been to other countries since but none feel like home the way Thailand does.
When you are in a place/culture that you feel happy in, you not only grow as a person but you cherish every moment of your time abroad. Be specific and focused when choosing where to teach if you decide to go abroad—if you end up someplace that you hate you might not get as much out of it as you would expect.
What has surprised you most about life in Thailand? Does it differ significantly from Scotland, where you study?
Since I grew up in Spain, I am used to a warm, welcoming, culture. In London, sometimes that’s hard to find. In Scotland people are warmer but there is still a significant individualism typical of Western countries. When I travelled to Thailand for the first time I was happy to see that people were warm, welcoming and very friendly.
Strangers have helped me without expecting anything in return and sometimes without being able to speak my language. Thailand is the country of smiles and I couldn’t agree more: everyone always has a smile on their face.
Since it is a developing country some people live in what we would consider poverty, but their hearts are made of gold. Some might not have much but are ready to share whatever they have with you. I found that very precious and contrasting to Western countries.
What insider tips do you have for other TEFL teachers considering working in Southeast Asia?
Southeast Asian countries are known for their culture of respect and politeness. In Thailand we learned to never touch people’s faces or their feet without consent as they are considered the dirtiest part of the body. We also had to be very respectful of everyone. Making a ‘wai’ is commonplace, it’s when you put your hands together as if in prayer but only lasts a few seconds and you bow your head at the same time. You use that to express gratitude, thanks or respect towards someone else.
We also had to bow upon meeting someone else to establish respect. Depending on the age of the person the bow had to be bigger or smaller. For example, to greet an elder person you probably want to bow deeply. I know this is also common place in countries like Japan, but every country is different and shows respect differently.
My tip would be get acquainted with the customs of the country you are going to, especially around respect, before you actually get there so you don’t accidentally offend anyone. And obviously be prepared to integrate and adapt your behaviour to their cultural customs and norms, so you become more open minded and grow more as a person!
Thank you Andrea! Merry travels and happy teaching!