When and where did you teach abroad? Did you go with a program?
On Christmas Day, I left my job and apartment in Toronto to travel to Mexico City. I knew I was going for at least a year, possibly longer. I went with my then-partner, and I did not have a job lined up, just some contacts and friends I had made from earlier trips.
What is your major or area of study? Does your industry have international components?
Well, I have an associate's degree in Photography/Photojournalism and at the time of my trip, I had just graduated from York University with a B.A. in Anthropology & Professional Writing. I'd also completed a one-month TESOL certification course. During my BA, which focused on cultural anthropology and archaeology, I completed a semester abroad in Belize and really enjoyed pairing travel with cultural study. This all ties into my Mexico City experience because, although most ESL companies require their teachers to have a B.A. and a TESOL certificate, every hiring manager I met commented on my additional degree in anthropology as a huge bonus and asset in the industry. In short: all cross-cultural experience has career value in one way or another!
What made you want to teach English abroad?
I was born and raised in Barbados and traveled a lot from a young age. My family had a boat and we were always sailing around the Caribbean, visiting different islands or taking longer trips. I emigrated to Canada when I was 15 years old and moved all over Ontario too, so I was used to moving around quite a bit by the time I reached university. Before going to Mexico, I had lived in Toronto for five years and was starting to feel restless. Before leaving I didn't have a specific job lined up, but I thought that teaching English might be a wonderful way to travel and explore different cultures and countries for extended periods of time. It is a great way to meet new people from all walks of life, form relationships and immerse yourself in a different culture.
How did you conduct your search? How did you select your program/country and/or find an employer abroad?
After travelling to Mexico City for a vacation previously, I realized that one week just wasn’t long enough. I'd fallen in love with the city, the food and the people -- and wanted to return. Because my partner at the time had a professional connection with a production company in Mexico City and knew he'd be going for an extended stay, I made the decision to head abroad without knowing exactly what job I'd have. After that, it was just about finding an experience that would support my desire to live abroad. I had my TESOL certificate, and had already taught ESL in Toronto, so finding an opportunity in this field seemed natural.
Describe the application process. What made you successful?
Once abroad, I researched different ESL companies in the area I was living and sent my resume and cover letter to the companies that appealed to me. I only heard back from one company, called Perfect Lingo. I had an interview at a coffee shop in a nearby neighborhood. I made sure to arrive 15 minutes early and wear the one and only professional outfit I’d packed. The owner of the company met with me and was lovely. She herself had a thick Irish accent and when I began to talk, she said, “Oh, good, you have an American accent!" which immediately relaxed me. She asked me questions about my experience teaching ESL and because she had made me feel at ease, I conveyed confidence and a positive attitude – so she hired me on the spot!
What was the biggest surprise about your teaching experience abroad?
My experience with Perfect Lingo was much different from my experience teaching ESL in Toronto. In Toronto I had my own classroom with 15+ students. The students had desks and it was a much more formal setting. I often had to really put in a lot of effort to get my students in Toronto to open up and talk; it was always a bit of a struggle. But teaching ESL in Mexico City I would travel to people’s houses or workplaces and give one-on-one lessons or small group lessons to three to five students in a very informal atmosphere. My job in Mexico City was to focus much more on conversational English and fluency rather than an official grammar program.
I was VERY nervous at first. Up to this point I had followed a textbook and a curriculum, but now I was responsible for outlining and creating the entire lesson. I wasn’t sure I would even have enough material to talk about. But to my surprise, I absolutely loved it! I met really interesting people who welcomed me into their homes. I would teach at 7am, before they would go to work, so normally we would have an hour lesson over coffee and baked goods. I also taught people on their lunch breaks and also taught a weekly social issues conversation class with an evangelical church group. All of my students were amazing. They were so keen to learn English that they really pushed themselves and we never ran out of things to talk about!
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities while abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
I started taking one-on-one Spanish lessons with a tutor, in exchange for me providing him with English lessons! It was really great and helped a lot with my Spanish. I loved the informal setting and the undivided attention, which I wouldn’t have normally gotten in a classroom. Language learning mixed with full immersion was an opportunity I would never have gotten in Canada. I also got in the habit of going with a group of new friends to the movie theater every Wednesday, followed by drinks in a bar, which was great for my Spanish because everyone was chatting about the film, forcing me to be fully immersed! I also formed amazing relationships with my students. Some of them invited me over for dinner with their families and I played with their children. One of my students and her daughter even took me on a two-hour drive out of the city to see the pyramids! Everyone was truly so gracious and hospitable; it made me recognize how different our notions of hospitality are between the two countries. I hadn't done anything similar for my ESL students in Toronto.
What made your experience abroad a success?
I was genuinely excited and open to all experiences and I think that helped a lot. I tried new restaurants, cafés, food. I did some “tourist-y” stuff, like bus and walking tours, which actually helped me get a lay of the land. I also walked every single day, exploring different parts of my neighborhood and taking public transit to explore new areas. I listened to advice and tips from friends about how to safely navigate the city. I had a denim jacket with a secret inside pocket where I kept my money and ID while I was exploring to avoid being pickpocketed and I didn’t wear any jewelry. I told friends before and after I got in and out of taxis (for safety) and I would mostly only venture out alone during the day.
I cannot stress enough how much of a wonderful experience it was for me to be able to immerse myself in a different culture, learn another language and experience something different as a young woman. I think it really helped me to understand the world in a more nuanced way than before and I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking about it!
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
The three months leading up to the trip I picked up extra classes and taught double days. It was exhausting but I knew I would soon have a break and it was very worth it. I also had some savings put aside that I used to pay my student loans and other expenses back in Canada while I was away. I rented a small apartment in Mexico on Airbnb and negotiated a discounted rate for a long term stay which helped a lot with the price but the rent was still remarkably more affordable than in Toronto. I sublet my apartment at home too, which alleviated a lot of my anxiety, knowing that when I returned, I would have a place to live.
It of course was also helpful that I travelled with someone else and was able to split costs and expenses. This made the trip much more feasible. I went into the situation with the knowledge that I would not be saving money for that year and it would be all about the experience. I cut costs wherever possible. I took public transit, even though I often stuck out like a sore thumb and many of my students thought I was crazy. I also bought food from the local market, which was much cheaper than the larger supermarket chains and also was a fun way to practice my Spanish.
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture while you were abroad?
I learned to try and use precise and short sentences to get my point across. Still keeping my sentences grammatically correct for my students but omitting flowery language. I also used a lot of dramatization and gestures, acting out verbs and different words so that it was easier to connect words with meanings. I also used a translation app on my phone, but tried only to use that when I really could not find any other way to get my point across.
Do you have advice on how to handle a cross-cultural classroom?
Keep it fun, light and respectful. Try to encourage students to speak as much as possible. Take notes for corrections but don't interject until after they are finished speaking so as not to interrupt their flow and ruin their confidence. Ask tons of questions, I learnt that people really love talking about themselves if you create a safe and fun atmosphere. Be genuinely interested in the culture and people's stories. If you try to learn from your students, you will set an excellent example for them to also try and learn from you.
What did you miss most about home?
I missed my friends and family but a lot of them came to visit me during my year in Mexico City, which was a lot of fun! I enjoyed playing tour guide and showing them my favorite spots. Mexico City, for the most part, is pretty safe, but when I returned to Canada after my year abroad it was nice to walk home alone at night without worrying something bad would happen to me. I was able to let my guard down in Toronto, which was something I took for granted before this experience. I also took for granted the ability to drink water out of the tap, which you should definitely not do in Mexico City if you are a foreigner! The last thing that I noticed when I returned to my apartment in Toronto was how quiet it was. Living in Mexico City was a constant barrage of noises, smells and sometimes overwhelming stimulation. Street vendors constantly yelling, organ grinders, trucks driving around with loud speakers and a man with a smoky coal pot on wheels with a very loud steam whistle. Every Monday and Friday a large marching band would practice in the park near our apartment. There were always loud, colorful noises and I loved it, but sometimes it's nice to sit in your home with some peace and quiet.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
My future career plans are to go back to school to get a master’s to increase the amount of money I can make in the ESL field. I feel this is a good time to return to school, while travelling is off the table during COVID-19.
Danielle’s outstanding Q&A illustrates the perfect attitude for cross-cultural learning and immersion! While abroad, she took every opportunity to explore her surrounding, being truly adventurous while staying street smart and safe. Instead of staying with her partner, she reached out and connected with locals at every phase of her journey. Her story also demonstrates the close ties between cross-cultural competencies and career success – Danielle discusses how her global focus in college ended up increasing her hireability in the ESL field. Now, Danielle intends to pursue a master’s to further increase her potential in the ESL field. After COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted, we’re sure that Danielle will once again be on the move, exploring new corners of the world and increasing her global perspective further. While Danielle already has extensive experience, she might consider reviewing her international resume to ensure she is speaking about her many international skills in the best way possible. We wish her luck!
- The Global You will help you conceive of your many international skills from a new angle.
- The Culture Tree is a useful tool for anyone traveling abroad long-term. It will help you to understand and recognize the origins of behavior in foreign cultures (and your own).
- Teaching English as a Stepping Stone to Your International Career will give ideas on how to parlay your English teaching experience into further international opportunities.
- Marketing Your International Experience to Employers is a good touchstone article for anyone with international experience who is looking for a job either at home or abroad.
- Read and study the examples in the International Resumes section to start building a successful resume.