Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.10

February 10, 2005


Trading tales about teaching abroad

By Beverly Akerman

Valerie Markham says, “You don't know how good Concordia TESL training is until you go out in the world.”

She’s living proof that English can be a ticket to anywhere. In Montreal on her Chinese New Year break, she was one of five graduates who described the wide world of TESL — teaching English as a second language — to 75 avid listeners on Jan. 27, telling stories, showing slides and offering a warmly informal mixture of dos and don'ts.

“The Chinese have this concept that you can just memorize your way to fluency in a language,” she said. “Your job as an ESL teacher is to take all these words they've learned, and all the grammar, and teach them how to use it all in context.”

In China, “whole floors of bookstores are filled with books on how to learn English. They are curious about French too, but English is their big focus.”

Part of Concordia's Education Department, the TESL Centre is the oldest and possibly the largest facility of its kind in Canada. It offers three programs: a 120-credit Bachelor of Education, a 30-credit certificate, and a 45-credit MA in Applied Linguistics.

With a newly minted BA in English literature, Roisin Dewart went to Korea on a one-year contract. She taught English 10 hours a day, every day. "I was overwhelmed and terribly unprepared," she says now.

Back in Canada, she got a 40-hour teaching certificate. Then she visited Mexico and fell in love with the country. She posted her CV on a website, and got a job with a Canadian non-governmental organization for 200 pesos a week.

Although she had requested a rural posting, Dewart was unprepared for the Mexican definition of "rural." All she saw when she arrived in Tantayuka, Vera Cruz, after driving four hours through jungle from the airport, was "a cow in the headlights."

Another surprise: "I expected to be teaching children. Instead, I was teaching the teachers, who wanted to improve their English in order to pursue graduate courses.”

Six months later, still feeling perpetually under-prepared, Dewart returned home, determined to get adequate training via Concordia's TESL certificate.

Emad Buali returned to Saudia Arabia to teach English following his BA. He jumped at an opportunity to get a six-month qualification in order to teach air force cadets.

“Saudi society is very private,” he said. “There are work and home, not much in between — no bars, cinema or strip clubs. Expats don't mix with locals; women teach other women only, and single women might live under curfew, especially if they live in a compound.

“But salaries range from $70,000 to $140,000, all tax free," Buali added, as the crowd gasped. Also, forget stereotypes. "People there are just like people here. The overly-opinionated scare us, but they are a small minority."

Dennis Divsic is into TESL because “I love to learn, I love to teach and I love to travel." He has taught in England, Finland and the Czech Republic, where he met his wife.

Planning on being away two years, Divsic taught abroad for six. "You don't go to the Czech Republic to earn a lot," he said. His money-stretching strategy: work summers in England, then "live like a king" in Prague the rest of the year by going where the locals go for entertainment.

For Tarek Rifaat, teaching in Japan was "the best three years of my life — and not because I have a boring life!"

Employed through the Japanese government's Exchange and Teaching program, he encountered "a very hierarchical mentality.

“Don't make a mistake on the application form," he warned, "or it will be trashed." Annual contracts can be renewed for up to five years. Teachers who cannot speak Japanese are preferred. "Otherwise, you may be tempted to use it in class."

Marlise Horst, assistant professor at the Centre, hosted this edition of the annual exchange of “war stories.”

For information about the TESL program, please go to