If you have been following my blog you might have read my reflections on teaching after my first year here in Prague. I’ve now been back for three months. It’s been a little quiet on my blog, but traffic shows people are still dropping by to get information.
Now that I have my own flat again…
…and had time for a little trip to the lovely city of Carcassonne in France…
…I have a chance to update you on what it is like coming back.
So, what have I learned? Strangely, if I had to give ONE piece of advice to ESL teachers who have been working for a couple of years I’d say: Quit. Then start over.
Now, this may seem like strange advice, but it is not so different from the way people have to leapfrog from company to company to move up the corporate ladder.
What has changed?
Value of experience – time:
After returning I very slowly took on new classes to try to build a good schedule. I quickly found that most people want someone with a couple of years experience. This puts you at the top of the list, and gives you the opportunity to pick and choose the classes more than the first time around. The result? My week now looks like this:
Monday: 16:00 to 21:00
Tuesday: 08:00 to 09:30 and 17:30 to 21:00
Wednesday: 08:00 to 20:00 with very few breaks
Thursday: 08:00 to 12:30 and again from 18:30 to 21:00
Friday: 09:30 to 10:30
This compact schedule allows me plenty of spare time to lesson plan as well as extended weekends to travel without huge opportunity cost. I am averaging around 21 hours (not teaching hours which are 45 minutes) per week, and could easily take more if I wanted to.
Value of experience – money:
When I left Prague in the fall of 2014, my best rate was 350Kc per hour (60 minutes) and most classes were still at 300Kc per hour. Since I have been back many of my classes are at 375Kc per hour or better, all the way up to 500Kc per hour. This may not sound like much but 300 to 375 represents a 25% increase in pay. Factor this by my average hours and, allowing for cancellations, that equals 28,000 to 31,000Kc per month. A much better wage that I was making last time around.
Value of experience – variety:
Where in 2014 I was working for two schools and a handful of private students, in June 2015 I sent out 10 different invoices. These ranged from schools (one large and two small ones) to direct to companies as well as individual students. On top of this I still maintain four individual students who pay by cash. Not only does this give me more control over what course to take, it gives me the security of being able to drop a class or contract and not starve to death.
The variety also makes teaching more interesting. Currently my students include IT professionals, accountants, homemakers and students. I teach mostly as close to home as possible including skype lessons to students in Poland and Germany. I also spend one day per week in another Czech city where I can work the entire day as well as take my own Czech classes.
Even if you don’t intend to leave Prague and return like I did, it might be an idea to drop classes that are not profitable or enjoyable so that you can make room for the good stuff.
Ah, summer in Prague! Beer gardens, walks in the park, long warm days. You’ll wish you had more time to be outside instead of teaching. Fortunately you most likely will. This applies to teachers like me who work for schools or private students and teach either in companies or privately, if you teach children in a school setting you were already expecting to have free time over the summer.
When you take TEFL training, and even when you accept a contract with a school, nobody mentions that your summers will be quieter than you expected. This is my second summer in Prague and now I know what to expect, but the first summer was a little stressful. If you are new to the ESL world be aware:
Students take vacation. This is normal and expected of course, but it leaves you with holes in your schedule and since they are all early cancellations this also means holes in your income.
Classes get cancelled for the summer. You would think this isn’t a surprise to the schools but somehow it seems to be. I thought maybe it was just my school but a random survey of other teachers confirms this. Three of my 90 minute classes took the summer off and I wasn’t informed until the day of my final class with them. Not a nice surprise! The loss of 1350Kč per week is noticeable.
Classes end. This happens at other times of the year as well, but expect it in June as it is the end of the semester. Some classes run on terms and, again, your school might not warn you in advance.
What to do to cope with this problem?
Save. Those busy winter and spring months are the time to put something away for now.
Ask your students. In the late spring I have a lesson I do that is all about travel and vacations and I have adapted it to work in most of my classes. This is a perfect time to simply ask “Hey, what vacation plans do you have? What happens to your ESL classes over the summer?”. Don’t expect your school to communicate this to you. Avoid surprises. Alternatively, ask your school – they will certainly be asking you about your summer plans so it is a perfect time to have this conversation.
Take your own vacation. If you are planning to take a break, this is a good time to do it with a minimum loss of income.
Take on substitutions. The one upside here is that summer is also when other teachers will leave – either for the summer or for good. If you are staying and can be flexible you can take on extra classes. I’ve worked hard to be on good terms with the person in my school who handles substitutions.
Try intensive courses. If your school offers intensive English programs you might be able to get involved. These will be high intensity, up to eight hours a day of teaching for anywhere from one day to a week. The benefits are a good experience and a great way to top up your earnings while not really needing to cancel many of your normal classes.
Not to worry, come September things will pick up again and you’ll look back on these quite summer months fondly.
Enjoy the summer!
Whew! It’s hard to be believe I’ve been here over a year already! Time flies.
2014 has been challenging. My accident in January kind of side-tracked me but I am back on track, more or less. Over the last four days I had a chance to teach a high intensity English/presentation skills workshop and it was a chance to reflect on how far I’ve come since May of 2013.
The good stuff….
In the last year I have met fantastic students. Some genuinely interesting and motivated people have sat across from me.
I’ve gotten to see inside many companies in Prague and see how they operate. There are such a variety of places to teach and that part is never boring.
My skills have improved exponentially. What would have terrified me a year ago is commonplace now, no stress at all! It’s a nice feeling.
I’ve seen Prague through the seasons, cold and wet, hot and humid and everything in between. We’ve had storms that sneak up in the middle of afternoon and dump centimetres of hail on my window ledge.
What has changed dramatically from the start is my balance between private students and school students and I hope to continue to add more private students as time goes by.
And the challenges…
Cancellations are, in my opinion, the biggest challenge to face a teacher. People get sick. People go on vacation. People are busy. There are weeks where it feels like you didn’t teach anyone at all.
Communication with schools is my second most challenging issue. Often you will be contacted last minute to take a class and only after scrambling to try to accommodate will you find out that, in the end, it was cancelled.
Maybe the less obvious challenge is keeping things fresh. I have conversation students that I’ve been teaching for a year – that is 50+ classes of conversation and it can take an effort to come up with new ideas.
Recommendations for new teachers?
Recycle. Recycle. Recycle. Try to take classes of similar levels and goals so that you can use material many times, even if you have to adjust it slightly it saves time over creating new material.
Back to backs are your friend! Push hard to find classes that fit together thus saving you transit time. If you are about to accept a new class be sure to ask yourself what the opportunity cost is – what else could you fit in that time?
Relax. Be yourself. If you work for a school you will face observations, these are a good opportunity for feedback but be sure to separate technical feedback from stylistic feedback. We are all individuals.
Have fun with it!
It’s great when you have a regular class that you like and can look forward to meeting your student(s) every week, but I’ve learned I really enjoy an alternative: substitutions.
During the last week I doubled my class load from my main school by taking on as many substitution classes as I could. I’ve spoken to other teachers and there are mixed feelings about “subs” and some teachers avoid them like the plague.
What can you expect?
There are some negatives to consider:
- Short notice. Most subs come available one or two days before the class, and some only the day of the class. Flexibility is key.
- Unpredictability. Often you will get a sub and then have it taken away again within minutes as the class was cancelled or rescheduled. I’ve learned it is better to lesson plan as late as possible. Don’t expect a consistent income from these classes.
- Confusion. One Tuesday I got up early to make my 8 o’clock sub an hour from home. On arrival I found the permanent teacher already there! There was confusion about the dates and I was supposed to come the following week. The following Tuesday I was back, setup and ready to go, when a student came in to inform me they had cancelled the class the previous week. A little frustrating to say the least, but with the minor benefit that I still get paid for both classes as it was not my fault and I did show up.
- Mixed abilities. It might say “pre-intermediate” on your course sheet but don’t be surprised if you show up to find students who can barely say hello. Your group of six people might only be two in the end. Have a backup plan, and a backup backup plan.
But the benefits can make it worth it:
- Extra income. Throwing a couple of extra hours into your week can be a nice bit of padding and make up for your other regular cancellations.
- Flexibility. You can keep a morning or two free for yourself and only take on the extra work if you want to.
- Interesting people. That nice feeling of meeting new students for the first time just happens over and over! Most of them will be happy to meet you and want to learn something about you.
- Interesting material. Chances are very good you won’t have to follow a text, the regular teacher will want to continue in it, so this leaves you free to do something fun and interesting with the students. Pick something you like to teach.
- Less lesson planning time. If you have been teaching for a while you will have a stack of lessons to pull from. Keep a few of your favorites for each level and use them as your sub plans. Almost no preparation required.
One thing I have learned is if you want a substitution you have to ask for it. Try to get on good terms with whoever manages subs for your school and talk to them so you come to mind when something comes up.
Being Canadian isn’t something I give a lot of thought to, we usually aren’t a very patriotic people and I’m less patriotic than most. One of the things I admire about a lot of the people I meet is a distinct sense of culture. Most or my students can easily point to something they consider to be “Czech” – often beer or food – and then ask me to tell them something that is typically Canadian and I am at a loss. It is too big a country with too many different cultures mixed in. Usually at this point it comes up that I don’t like hockey, and can’t even skate. Still, many of my students want to know something about Canada.
Fortunately a friend recently posted something that helps me explain some things about Canada and also works wonderfully to demonstrate how not all English is equal. Or comprehensible. Language can indeed be a barrier to communication:
“I’m going to collect the loonies and toonies out of my knapsack and head to The Beer Store for a two-four. On my way back, I’ll pick us up a double-double and some timbits, then we can have that back bacon for breakfast. If you spill your Tim’s because I’m driving 20 clicks over the speed limit, I’ll give you a serviette to use in the washroom. And don’t worry—I’ve got a mickey of vodka to put in our caesars. Save me a seat on the chesterfield, eh?”
After reading this I realized that about 90% of my ESL students would have only a vague idea what the hell we were talking about.
Loonies and toonies? Okay, so we can figure out it is money quick enough. But what kind of country calls its currency a loonie? This leads us back to waterfowl – the loon that appears on our dollar coins. Introduced in 1987 to replace our one dollar bills, they quickly became known as loonies. So in 1996 when the two dollar coin was introduced the name toonie was quickly adopted despite other suggestions.
Knapsack, rucksack, backpack – all more or less the same thing. I can’t explain why Canadians adopted a word of German origin to describe this essential accessory.
You will notice it is not the beer store but instead The Beer Store. Only people from Ontario will see the difference. When I was a kid I remember it being called Brewers Retail – renaming themselves The Beer Store is marketing brilliance, it’s what everyone called them anyways.
And a two-four? Easy, we buy our beer in cases of 24, the way nature intended! The idea of this quantity of beer seems to make many of my students very happy.
The next couple of references come from what can only be described as real Canadian food: Tim Hortons. Coffee, doughnuts, food, and named after a hockey player – how much more Canadian can it get? You will find them on every corner, in every town, everywhere. Starbucks pales by comparison.
I’m not a coffee drinker, another strike against me as a true Canadian I guess. Standing in line at Tim’s, as we affectionately call it, you won’t hear anyone order a tall non-fat soy latte. No way, the most common thing will be an extra-large double-double – 24 oz of coffee with two cream and two sugar. Not enough sugar to get you going? Add an order of timbits. What other companies do with the holes they cut out of the doughnuts is a mystery – Tim’s cooks them, covers them in various sweet substances and sells them by the hundreds.
Reflecting our British connections, you will often find the option of back bacon on a breakfast menu – a different cut of meat than the traditional bacon found elsewhere. Outside of Canada you might find it referred to as Canadian Bacon. Once again people from Ontario might disagree and call it peameal bacon, a leftover name from when the meat used to be rolled in cornmeal for a distinct taste and yellow colour.
Need to clean up a little? Here, have a serviette, or napkin. Perhaps not as common as it used to be, but still heard all over Canada. This is also a good time to introduce the idea that we don’t use toilet to describe the place where you go, only the actual toilet. Washroom, bathroom, restroom, facilities, we will go to any length to avoid saying toilet.
Had enough of all this? Open that mickey of vodka and let’s kick back and relax. There seems to be some disagreement about what a mickey is, and where the name came from but it is generally accepted to be about 375ml of alcohol. Perfect for carrying with you.
In your living room you might find a sofa, couch, or chesterfield. In some places a chesterfield is a specific kind of couch covered in buttons and quite plush, but for us it can be anything multiple people sit on. It’s becoming an older word and fewer people use it now, but you still might be invited to have a seat on one.
Last, but certainly not least. Eh? Canadians will stick this at the end of sentence, always with a question mark. It’s our way of inviting comment, asking for confirmation or just checking if you were listening.
Take it easy, eh?
After writing ESL lesson plans all day it is hard to get motivated to write a blog post, so I went looking for inspiration where I often find it: Ted.com. Then I realized that while I use Ted all the time with my students I have never mentioned it here! Inspiration found.
While many people are familiar with Ted most of my students have never heard of it. Ted itself uses “Ideas Worth Spreading” as a catchphrase but I use “Passionate people talking about things they care about” with my students.
- It’s real. So many of the ESL texts use artificial situations and boring topics (I often think of “See Spot run! Run Spot, run!“).
- Variety. There are talks on anything you can imagine and I can always find something my students will like.
- Bite-sized. With talks between three and twenty minutes it is perfect for lessons.
- Subtitles. All talks have English titles available and many have Czech as well. I ask students to try without subtitles first.
- Video based lessons. If you aren’t familiar you can use sites like Dirpy to download the videos. I use Dirpy because it lets me edit the length of the video to remove the introduction.
- Homework: Ted is a great way for students to get a little English into their day. Rather than me choosing a video I often ask students to pick something of interest to them.
My Top Five:
“My stroke of insight“. A brain scientist suffers a stroke. A passionate talk with good measured speech and understandable vocabulary. It’s too long for a lesson but I frequently use this as a first homework assignment with a new student.
“Let my dataset change your mindset“. Hans Rosling makes statistics exciting! As many of my students are business professionals they enjoy this and find it informative. There are other Hans Rosling talks that are short enough for lessons.
“Try something new for 30 days“. As the title says, get out of your rut. This is my go-to lesson if I am substituting an upper intermediate or advanced class. It’s fun and there are lots of good activities around trying new things.
“Smash fear, learn anything“. A systematic approach to learning new things. At sixteen minutes it is too long for most lessons but it can be edited down.
“John Francis walks the earth“. A man who takes a vow of silence and refuses to ride in vehicles. I have a soft spot for this one as it was the first Ted talk I ever watched. Funny and moving.
With new talks being added daily you are bound to find something that interests you, and a lesson based on something interesting is always easier to write and easier to teach with enthusiasm.