Jocelyn Russell wasn’t game for a full-on TEFL certification and internship program. She had her sights set on the JET Program, aka Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, the government-run initiative in Japan that seeks international teachers to place in schools around the country. Nothing could shake Jocelyn’s dreams of cherry blossoms, zen gardens, and dizzying skyscrapers — so instead of signing up for a combo TEFL certificate and paid internship teach abroad program, she snagged her TEFL with us then ventured off on her own.

Read on to learn more about what an independently organized teach abroad experience is all about.

1. Tell us your background! What led you to want to become an ESL teacher abroad?

I was just a sophomore (2nd year) in high school when I first met exchange students who came to my town to study in America for one year. At the time, I was itching to make a break for the airport, a one-way ticket in hand to explore the world. I befriended most of the exchange students that came to our school in order to learn more about the world around me, but along the way, learned their stories and acquired huge amount of respect for them.

Coming from all corners of the globe to study in the U.S. wasn’t just exciting for them, it was a daunting, nerve-wrecking experience. Besides the fact that they were living thousands of miles away from home, to be going to school in their second language took nearly all of the courage they could muster and then forced them to build up some more.

All while they were teaching me about what it takes to travel around the world for an education, I began to develop the urge to be a part of that courage building process for young people around the world who want to study abroad. When I learned that one part of that process was in the teaching of English, in almost a split second, I knew what I wanted to do with my future.

2. Did you have any challenges convincing family and friends that teaching abroad is a viable career path? Tell us about those conversations and give advice for future ESL teachers.

Most of my family members knew that this dream of mine was probably going to become a reality when I had returned from my own study abroad experience during my university years. Many family members of mine were very accepting and supporting of my decision. Some of my friends struggled, since many of us were already moving to cities and states far away. I will be completely honest and I say that I did lose some friends after making the decision to come to Japan.

Whether or not I agree with their decision to break off our friendship is not up for discussion here, but my biggest piece of advice is to be 100% transparent with your family and friends when making the decision to go abroad to teach. Don’t beat around the bush or wait until you’re at your gate, preparing to board your plane. Be sure to tell them with enough time left to have lunch dates, weekend trips and small bonding moments before you leave.

At first they may not seem like they like your plan to go abroad to teach, but the more time you give them to think about it, the less stress everyone (including you) will have during your time abroad.

3. How did you come to find the JET Program and what most excites you about living and working in Japan?

My university (St. Norbert College) had a fairly large program with students from Japan who came for 6 months to a year to study English. I was also a Japanese minor with plans to study abroad in Japan for six months, so I became friends with many of the Japanese students who came at my university.

When I became a junior (3rd year), I set off for Japan and met other expats who were a part of the JET Program. I even got to take part in a month long internship in which I was an assistant to two ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in an elementary school. When I finished the internship, I knew JET was a program that I had to try for and I’m so glad I did.

Besides all of the amazing aspects to the Japanese culture that drew me here, it was mostly the hospitality. St. Norbert College tries to instill into it’s students the concept of “radical hospitality” and when I first came to Japan, I realized that “radical hospitality” is a part of everyone’s daily life here.

I’ve had some of the best, late-night conversations in Japan because the people here truly want to learn more about the world around them and are also beyond excited to share their culture and values with others. Japan is a country that really wants to dive more into cultural exchange and I wanted to take part in and help further its desire to advance cultural exchange.

4. Japan is more than Kyoto, Tokyo, and other big name cities. Where will you be teaching abroad — tell us about your placement and its pros and cons.

I am teaching in the exact center of Japan, in a prefecture called Gunma (about two hours north from Tokyo). While I live in a small city, I teach up a mountain where the junior high school only has about 50 students total. Although it has some of the benefits of a suburban town, many people (Japanese and expats alike) consider it to be inaka, or the countryside. That in itself is a pro and con! While getting around town can be difficult at times and the nearest mall and movie theatre is an hour plus commute away, I have been able to immerse myself into the community and create a great support system for myself.

While living in Tokyo can be great with the international community and trains to take you anywhere, not many people can say they have participated in local festivals, been invited to help their city councils make important decisions for other foreign residents, and be so warmly welcomed into the homes of their neighbors! Yes, there are times when I can get a little stir-crazy in my little mountain town, but I do believe the pros outweigh the cons.

5. There are tons of different options out there to earn a TEFL certificate. What made Premier TEFL’s attractive to you?

Right now, I am teaching students aged five to 15 years, but in the future I would like to expand my teaching career to include adults, particularly those who wish to learn business English. When I learned that Premier TEFL also offered certifications like Teaching Business English, Teaching Young Learners, Teaching TOEIC/IELTS, I was sold. Being able to share with prospective employers that I hold all of those certifications on top of a TEFL certification definitely has grabbed their attention.

6. What was your most unexpected experience while getting your TEFL?

How many lesson ideas were included in my TEFL course work! To be honest, I was fearful of learning mostly TEFL theories and not much in terms of applicable materials that I can put into my lessons.

That was not the case with my Premier TEFL course work. Shortly after finishing a chapter, I was already applying what I learned into my lesson planning and testing it out in the classroom.

I’m constantly going back to the Premier TEFL printable textbooks to find new ideas for my lessons and reviewing how I can better myself as a TEFL teacher. When I have a question or concern about my lessons or overall classroom environment, I can find excellent advice from the materials that I have received through my Premier TEFL training.

7. Did you find coordinating your English teaching job independently to be empowering, difficult, all of the above?

While JET Program participants often times work directly with Japanese teachers of English, there are many times when I am the sole planner and executor of English lessons.

At first, it can be very intimidating, having, all of a sudden, been asked to revamp an English curriculum or introduce a new method of teaching English to a classroom that hasn’t responded well to attempts from before. The first few times when you are the sole teacher and completely in charge can feel taxing and even messy, but the feeling you get when finish a lesson strong or have some students who responded very well to a point you were trying to make is the best feeling in the world.

When I look back at the teacher I was when I first came to Japan, I often felt anxious as I walked into the classroom. Now, I am starting to feel more confident in my ability to take new assignments as they come, be able to make a proper plan and command it well in the classroom where light bulbs begin to go off in the minds of my students. That feeling of satisfaction of how far I have come in a short period of time is indescribable, it is such a wonderful feeling.

8. Any last minute advice or ideas for our super-amped-to-TEFL-readers?

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, which can be hard to accept when you are a teacher. As teachers, we are not exempt from being learners ourselves. There will still be times when you need to back up, check your work, and own up to a mistake you’ve made, even if it happens in the middle of your class. Admit to your errors, but do so with grace. If you can handle your mistakes with ease, your students will notice and, in turn, be less fearful of making mistakes in front of you!

And always say “Yes.” Even it means you have to stay past your contract hours or go into school on a day off. You never know what experience may open up the next door for your career in TEFL!

Domo arigato, Jocelyn! We hope you have a successful year in Japan, full of sushi trains, vocab worksheets, and new friends (robots or not).

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