`Children bowed politely before asking a question'

The culture shock of a foreign classroom can be the prelude to a fascinating career in English language teaching, reports Matt Rodda
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The Independent Culture
When Gaynor Markham first walked into a Japanese classroom, she was shocked. There were just 12 children in the room, and each one bowed before politely asking a question.

Until then Gaynor had taught children with special needs in an inner- city comprehensive in Leeds. There had been rowdy behaviour and few resources, and as head of department she had sometimes had to work 18-hour days, but there was not the order she found in Japan.

Gaynor had been teaching PE and special needs in the state sector for 11 years. Her enthusiasm had been ground down by a bewildering series of changes as the national curriculum was introduced. She finally decided that she needed a change, and opted for teaching English abroad because she had always planned to travel, and had studied a course teaching English as a foreign language (a TEFL course) some years earlier.

She was one of thousands of people who teach English abroad, looking for a new career in an interesting place. Teaching English is a global business and British-owned language schools have an estimated annual turnover of pounds 1bn. Around 700,000 visitors come to the United Kingdom every year to learn English, and even larger numbers study in schools abroad.

Gaynor was 32 when she went to Japan in 1990, and she stayed in the country for two years. She found herself in a culture that was more different from what she was used to in the UK than most people can imagine a foreign country to be. But Japanese culture was fascinating, and she found that people were extremely generous to her.

``Japan was very different; it was wonderful for me. I had small classes and motivated students, and no shortage of resources,'' she recalls. ``People were very kind; one company took me to Hawaii on holiday, and I went on foreign trips in Asia with other businesses where I had taught staff.

``You heard about Westerners who were lost, who asked strangers the way and got taken by them on a 15-minute taxi ride to get them to their destination."

Teaching English as a foreign language is a good career option for older people, as well as for new graduates who want to see the world, Gaynor thinks. That's why she's trying to persuade her stressed-out friends to consider it.

It is an opportunity to make friends and enjoy teaching, she says. You can get jobs where accommodation is provided. And the pay can be good, too. ``Japanese culture is amazing, as is the way the whole country is so highly organised.''

One thing that surprised her was the patient way passengers waited for the Tokyo metro, standing behind white lines painted on the platform. Such discipline helps with the problems of living on a densely populated island.

Gaynor worked in a language school run by the London-based company Saxoncourt. She taught for 28 to 30 hours a week and took a total of six weeks' holiday a year, at Christmas, Easter and during the summer, as well as taking Japanese public holidays. Japanese-run English language schools work Japanese hours, and get fewer holidays.

``I got time to enjoy visiting places such as Hiroshima and Mount Fuji, and there was more work available if you wanted to do longer hours,'' she remembers.

Once foreigners got to know Japan they could avoid spending a fortune by finding cheaper places to eat, for example. The standard of living was high, but tax much lower than in Britain.

Yet Gaynor felt that some aspects of the country remained mysterious. Friends rarely invited one another home, she discovered; it is something the Japanese do not tend to do. Their houses are small, home life is private and friends prefer to meet each other in restaurants.

``I dearly loved Japan, but I now have a more senior job in TEFL, organising courses for youngsters who come to Britain. But, perhaps, one day I will go back.'' she adds.

How to start an overseas career teaching English

Anyone who is interested in a career teaching English as a foreign language should not have to search to the ends of the earth to find a job.

The British Council advises people who are interested to contact the major providers of training courses. Jobs abroad are advertised in the press.

The British Council runs a voluntary accreditation scheme for schools that provide high standards of teaching and pastoral care. Schools that pass an inspection are allowed to say that they are accredited by the British Council.

The English in Britain Accreditation Scheme is run in conjunction with two industry bodies representing language schools. Of the 1,100 schools in Britain it covers 350, which teach around half the foreign students learning English in Britain.

Some of the main organisations offering training are:

l Trinity College, London (0171-323 2328)

l The RSA/ University of Cambridge Local Examinations Board, on 01203 470033

l Details of more courses are available from the British Council, on 0161-957 7755. The British Council also has a website offering more information. The address is: http://www.brit coun.org/ english/insteach.htm