Making a career move in your 30's - 40's
For many people teaching TESOL abroad is more than just a gap year, it is a move in the right direction and the beginning of a new career. I usually reflect on my experiences, but this time we are taking a look from another perspective on my favorite part of living abroad, English Camps. This interview was conducted by one of my fellow colleagues and always puts a smile on my face to know we've had such a positive impact on people's lives. For more information on the Global Teaching Adventures' English Camp program, click here.
Sitting over a cup of coffee in the Hua Hin Thailand Starbucks, Sidney beams as he talks about his recent experience as an English Camp Teacher. “It was magical. It makes you feel good to do something for little ones who come from a poor background.” Sidney was relating his experience with the practical training portion of his Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification course.
Sidney was one of 16 South African TESOL students participating in an English language camp for students in the Hua Hin school district that is managed by Global Teaching Adventures (GTA). Sidney recently arrived in Thailand to take the one-month GTA TESOL course and become a certified English teacher. In my previous posts, I mention finding the right TESOL course for you, and in Sidney's case, he chose to be a part of the training course in Thailand. The camp was the practical training portion of the TESOL course. What is interesting about Sidney’s story is that he does not fit the mold of someone you would expect to be teaching English abroad. He is not a university student seeking an adventure during a gap year, nor is he a recent college graduate looking to build work experience. Sidney is a 45 year old father and husband with nearly 20 years’ experience in logistics and once owner of a successful logistics company. It may be surprising that a person with a family and lucrative career would decide to relocate to an unfamiliar land to start a new career. The more one asks around about the experiences and profiles of South African English teachers across Asia, the clearer it becomes that Sidney is no exception. There seems to be many middle-aged, mid-career South Africans teaching English abroad.
Sitting in the back of the TESOL classroom, with the beach only a stone’s throw away, Sidney is a quiet, intense presence. He is short, stocky, with a wide smile, slicked back, jet- black hair and a penchant for island print, tank-top shirts. On the rare occasions that he speaks in class to ask questions or provide feedback to his peers, he has a strength and purpose in his voice that compels others to listen. This strength and purpose is also present when meeting with him one on one. Sidney at one point was enjoying tremendous success with his logistics company. Perhaps his biggest success was landing a lucrative government contract. “I had a lot of experience and my business was very successful,” Sidney explained. “I was able to give my family everything they wanted. I spoiled them. I didn’t know it at the time but that contract was the beginning of the end of my company’s success.” Several months into the contract Sidney was approached by local politicians who demanded kickbacks. Sidney resisted. “They came back several times and each time I told them no. Then, finally, I stopped getting paid by the government for the work my company was doing.” After keeping the project afloat a further six months financed with his own savings, Sidney’s company went bankrupt. Crestfallen, but still optimistic, Sidney reentered the job market. He spent the next three years looking for work, even jobs way below his skill level and experience. He was short-listed for several positions but was never selected either because he was more experienced than his would-be supervisors, or because he was an outsider who didn’t fit into the white group or the black group. “That was my lowest point,” Sidney recalled emotionally. “I have to say that I was really considering just giving up on life. If it wasn’t for my family and positive nature, I am not sure I would have been able to make it through.”
It was at that moment that Sidney heard about opportunities to teach English abroad. “I heard through a travel agent that there were teaching jobs and spoke to an agent… I just wanted to make a major change in my life,” Sidney recounts. “I am the kind of person who is not afraid to make a change.” Sidney sat down with his wife of 18 years and his 15 year old daughter and discussed the opportunity. They decided together that they would all move to Thailand. “We are going to start a new life… Let me put it this way,” he added, “We have no plans to return home any time soon.” Sidney has just finished the course and is waiting to be placed in a teaching job. “I don’t care what part of Thailand I end up in. I have really enjoyed my experience so far and I am just going to take it as it comes.”
While not following precisely the same trajectory, Andrew’s story of how he came to be an English teacher in Thailand shares some important similarities with Sidney’s story. Andrew is a 33 year old, college educated physical education teacher and administrator with abundant energy and enthusiasm and an intense passion for sports. Chatting in his flat in Hua Hin wearing a baseball cap with the brim pulled low over his forehead, partially obscuring his eyes, Andrew talked animatedly about his experiences teaching, coaching and mentoring kids in physical fitness and sports. “I really love working with kids and helping them become more active,” Andrew said. “I believe strongly in helping kids.”
Andrew spent the last 12 years in various coaching and physical education positions at schools and on youth sports teams. His most recent professional experience was the most formative of his career thus far. It was the first job where he was hired to be a director of a physical education department. “I was in charge of everything. I oversaw several teachers, developed the curriculum, coached and mentored the kids, and interacted with parents. We turned the school athletics around from nothing to make it the pride of the school.” Andrew enjoyed his one and a half years at the school immensely. “The parents loved me and the school was very happy with what I did for their athletics department,” he recalled with an air of accomplishment. Then misfortune befell Andrew. A new principal was hired and the school enrollment shrunk significantly due to poor management. Andrew was retrenched. As he looked at other employment options locally, he became dismayed. “I knew that I was overqualified for many jobs out there. I hated that I had to actually remove things from my resume so that it wouldn’t look like I was too experienced because it hurts your employment prospects if you are too educated and experienced. It’s unfortunate.” Andrew’s disillusionment with his job prospects and the realities of the South African job market caused him to explore a more radical change. “I just wanted to get out of there for a while and not have to deal with that kind of stuff.” Andrew has just begun his course at Teach Travel Asia™ in Hua Hin but is already brimming with confidence that he has made the right decision. “I can’t wait to get in the classroom, he said smiling widely. “This is what I live for.”
Talking with GTA managing director Kevin Meldau, it is clear that the experiences of Sidney and Andrew are examples of a growing trend. Walking with Kevin the short distance from the school to the beach, and finding it hard to keep up with his long gate, he gives a brief rundown of his company’s evolution over the past ten years that the company has been in operation. He has a personal way of connecting with people that immediately puts people at ease. He quickly turns to the topic of TESOL student profiles. “We have seen a major shift in the age of our students over the past two years,” Kevin points out. “A lot of this has to do with issues in the South African job market. People are getting fed up with unfair treatment in employment. But they are also beginning to realize that they can make equal or even better money working in Thailand…and the cost of living is much cheaper.” Kevin explains that the percentage of GTA students who are middle aged has increased from about 10% in 2008 to 50% so far this year. “People in their 30s and 40s are coming to Thailand in big numbers and they are staying. They view Thailand as their new home. It is really great to see that they have some options to make a new start.”
- Johna Hunger