We’ve previously talked to Sheldon about his adventure as a TEFL teacher in Japan. He’s having such a good time there that he’s not coming home anytime soon! Let’s hear more about his experiences and how he sustains his life as an expat abroad.

Sheldon hiking through Japanese countryside.

We LOVE your photos from abroad—they clearly indicate that you have a lot of personality! 🙂 Do you feel most like yourself when you’re traveling and teaching abroad?

I’ve certainly grown as a person and as a professional while being abroad. A person’s understanding of a place before going abroad, then the adventure while there, are not always going to match. But the natural scenery, buzzing urban jungle and pristine images of traditional sites and places really did awaken my senses.

My first night in Tokyo left me in so much awe, I felt as if I could have an out-of-body experience watching the dumb, amazed look on my face. As for working, I think I developed a stronger attitude to work than ever before. During my university years, I was a clear example of a slacker. It took miracles for me to get things done; I should have put procrastination down as one of my key skills.

Now, I think my university self would be stunned at how much work I’m doing now. I’ve gotten more determined and assertive about my career and destiny while living in Japan.

You have been teaching abroad for quite some time. How do you stay motivated to do a good job daily?

This may be cliche, but the fact that the students are counting on me is what makes me push through a busy day. There are students who are really hoping that these lessons make a difference.

For instance, last year I started teaching IELTS for the first time to a high school student. She was hoping to study at a Malaysian university and needed a bandwidth of at least 6 to satisfy the English requirement for her entrance.

On top of that, she only started lessons with me about two months before the test, and would only be able to see me once a week. If I said that was a little daunting, would you believe me? Well, we kept at it and to my relief, she earned her IELTS bandwidth and got accepted.

That was probably the most relieved that I felt all of 2018. It was the first time on the job, which I have been doing since July, that I honestly thought that I was making a difference.

Now, I’m teaching courses for students wishing to take TOEIC and EIKEN, and I plan to get them the scores that they need. Once you have the evidence that your students are benefiting from your teaching, you can’t deny that you are making a difference.

Sheldon enjoying a bowl of noodles.

What are your go-to activities or “back pocket” lesson plans that you always have at-the ready?

I keep adventure board-game and card-game templates on my work computer; I often use them for in-class activities to ease the students into the lesson and to have fun with each other in English. I throw in different kinds of rules and content to help students practice speaking with specific tenses and aspects.

I enjoy pelmanism card-games, such as matching synonyms, or a pair of images showing the same activity. These help me to start the lesson or to fill time or review previous things that we studied.

Sheldon doing arts and crafts.

While teaching English in Japan, what has been the biggest difficulty you’ve faced? How did you overcome/are you overcoming it?

I think a big challenge for teaching English as a foreigner in Japan is that there can be some kind of stigma? Sometimes you’ll have other people with whom you work with that think ‘this guy isn’t a serious worker, he’s just here to take adventure trips around the country and chat with friends on some network”. Then, you’ll find a lot of assistant teachers who sigh about being used only as ‘living dictionaries.’

This kind of attitude can be transmitted to students whereby they could easily get the impression that I don’t have to be taken seriously, and that English can be studied simply via translation without communication.

Breaking that perception can be hard, and it affects locals who study or teach it. But the fact is, there’s a lot of ESL teachers who are proving that we work hard and make a difference.

The greatest proof that I am a teacher comes from the knowledge and skills I gain through my studies and preparation. I have teachers and students who are eager to see me; why should I focus on the naysayers?

Sheldon skiing in Japan.

What are some advanced ESL teaching techniques that you’ve employed that worked?

Before working as a teacher, I wanted to become a theatre actor. I studied Speech & Drama at university and performed in several productions in my country. I didn’t think that I’d get to use anything I learnt from theatre for foreign-language teaching, but if you are trying to help English learners with speech, it can be helpful. Some things may already be familiar to any ESL teacher, such as tongue twisters.

That’s great for pronunciation, but there’s also exercises for inflection, rhythm, projection, and breathing. Yes, it might sound funny saying you need to teach people ‘how to breathe’, but it can be a skill, and it can help your speaking to get better.

Here’s a few I use for pronunciation and breathing. Have the students say a pair or set of sounds, such as “s,” “f,” “sh,” “h.” The students can say each sound long and slow, but gradually build up the speed until it gets impossible to articulate. By doing this, speakers should develop their ability to articulate different, difficult English phonemes quickly and regulate their breathing.

What advice will you give someone considering the life of a teacher abroad?

Just like what teachers tell students; do your homework too. Learn and research ESL teaching. If you make informed decisions, it’s going to make you feel a lot better. I was surrounded by a number of people who had done (and already wanted to go back just for the adventure alone) and had friends who were in contact with me while they were abroad and on the job.

I got a lot of information and it fleshed out what to expect. Imagine everything from costs and budgets (“how much money should I bring before I get my first paycheck?”) to learning what foods you may not want to buy at the supermarket, such as “Do you like natto? (fermented slimy soybeans eaten as a cheap breakfast staple in Japan).

Sheldon eating some Japanese cuisine.

You’ll get a lot of sound advice and recommendations as you keep in touch with people and make new friends. Learn about the agencies or potential employers you may want to work with, what kind of teachers or students you may meet, and what kind of place you may be living in.  

Of course you will be learning a lot everyday as you live and work in the new and exciting country you have chosen, but why wait until then? Find out now, your adventure in another country could be a few mouse-clicks away.