Working in a school where there is no formal curriculum, no standardised assessments, where playing games is the norm and students are impeccably behaved, is not preparatory for a teaching career in the UK.
Yet increasingly young people are choosing to spend their gap years teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) overseas – in exotic destinations such as Thailand, China or Costa Rica, where they believe they are gaining invaluable teaching experience to take back a UK classroom.
During my gap year I did exactly this. I went to Thailand where I was "teacher trained" by a company which resembled a tour operator more closely than an education provider. For an extortionate fee I was provided with five-star accommodation at a luxury resort on Koh Chang, seven days of classroom-based training, two afternoons of classroom experience and plenty of time to relax on the beach, ride elephants and enjoyed the many bars and clubs that Thailand is famous for.
Two years earlier I did a PGCE in the UK. It required extensive evaluations of pedagogical literature, countless teaching observations and teaching experience equivalent to a full-time teaching position. This was a long and arduous process and was not comparable to the TEFL teacher training course in Thailand at all.
'A tourist who teaches'
Upon my return to the UK I decided to pursue my interest – and agitation – in this matter further by undertaking a PhD on "TEFL tourism". After three years of research into the motivations and experiences of TEFL teachers I concluded that, in many instances, the teacher is not, in fact, a "teacher" as we know it here in the UK – rather they are a "tourist who teaches".
On completion of my TEFL course, I relocated to a beachside town named Chonburi in the south of Thailand. Here I worked in a government-run school where I was paid £600 a month. My daily activities consisted of playing games with the students, designing and writing my own exams and then taking part in some kind of social event, such as a school play or a teacher gathering. As a qualified teacher, I knew that this was by no means representative of teaching in the UK, but my colleagues were, unfortunately, less informed.
TEFL is not a PGCE
Securing a place on a PGCE programme in the UK at a good university is no easy feat and many of my TEFL colleagues were teaching in Thailand in order to gain experience and to enhance their CV. Little did they know, this was a walk in the park compared to what they would experience back home.
Differentiation. Plenaries. Behaviour management. Schemes of work. Administrative duties. These were concepts that the Thailand-trained TEFL teachers had no idea about. They were ill-prepared for a teaching career in the UK and disillusioned about what teaching really is.
This is not only an issue for the TEFL teacher. The universities who recruit them and the schools who hire them are not aware of these stark differences in educational systems and job profiles, resulting in employers and educational providers having unrealistic expectations of the skills of the teacher whom they have recently recruited.
Hayley is a Senior Lecturer in Tourism and Aviation specialising in TEFL tourism at Buckinghamshire New University. She tweets at @Drstainton