Teach English and see the world, but choose your Tefl placement with care

Two months into her teaching placement in Japan, Holly Catling was pulled aside by a colleague who gently informed her that, by pointing at students to answer questions in class, she was inadvertently making a very rude hand gesture.

''I had no idea,'' says Holly, a 24-year-old graduate from London. ''It seemed perfectly normal to me, but according to Japanese etiquette you should never use your finger to point at someone. The teachers didn't tell me for ages because they thought that the children should learn that foreigners act differently.''

Evidently, Holly's pupils were not the only ones facing a steep learning curve. ''I definitely matured a lot," she says of her year as a teaching assistant at a junior high school in Yosano, a coastal town two hours from Kyoto by train. ''It was a great experience, and it also made me more self-reliant and professional about work and deadlines.''

Holly's placement was arranged through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme, a graduate scheme run by the Japanese government to improve language teaching and promote cultural understanding in schools.

''The idea is for the JET person to bring a native speaker's perspective to the teaching, and make it more authentic and relevant,'' says an assistant coordinator at JET's London office. ''Some applicants have experience of teaching already, although this is by no means a requirement. And the transferable skills you pick up, like the ability to communicate and work in a team, are useful for future jobs.''

The active JET community in Japan organises events to bring teaching assistants together, creating a social network across the country. ''JET does try to support you,'' says Holly. ''I felt far more secure than if I'd just gone to teach in a school by myself. The nearest other JET to me was about 25 minutes away by bike, and there's a helpline if you have any big problems.''

The British Council also runs a language assistant programme, which is open to native English speakers who have completed at least two years of higher education. Max Munton, 23, became a British Council teaching assistant in China after graduating from the University of Liverpool with a degree in popular music in 2008.

''I chose to go with the British Council because they were sending about 80 of us out there on the same day, and I wanted to go with other like-minded people,'' he explains. ''Also, we had two weeks' intensive training in a language school in Shanghai which was free, so I didn't pay over the odds for a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl) course.''

After teaching in a high school in Guangzhou for six months, Max transferred to a kindergarten. ''I much preferred the kindergarten,'' he says. ''The kids had so much energy, and were really keen to learn. In the high school, I only had 40 minutes a week with each class, but in the kindergarten I had a lot more time, so I really got to know them all. I was just teaching basic English and polite phrases, but it felt really rewarding.''

Some specialist travel companies offer Tefl courses and teaching placements, allowing would-be teachers to travel abroad secure in the knowledge that they are not alone. ''We run two internships in Thailand and China, which provide that extra support for people who really want to go abroad, really want to teach English, but are a bit nervous about it,'' says Honor Baldry, from the volunteer travel and Tefl company i-to-i.

The internships last four to five months and cost £995 (for China) and £1,095 (for Thailand). This includes a standard 120-hour (China) or 140-hour (Thailand) Tefl course, accommodation, a living allowance and a reputable teaching placement, arranged by i-to-i. ''We know that interns also want to meet people, so we place them together. And there is 24-hour support,'' says Baldry.

Even with the degree of security offered by these programmes, the experience of teaching English abroad for a considerable period of time is life-changing. ''It was amazing, and in a way it's been hard coming home,'' says Holly, who will be teaching at a language school in Surrey this summer. ''I miss my life in Japan, but I know that if I go back I'd be homesick too. I feel a bit like I'm in between now, but at least I know not to point at Japanese students in my classes.''

For more information, contact JET programme: 020-7465 6668; www.jet-uk.org. British Council: 0161 957 7755; www.britishcouncil.org/ languageassistants-ela.htm. i-to-i internship: 0800 093 3148; www.i-to-i.com/teaching-internships/china

Suggested Topics
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Digital Account Exec ...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk