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Challenges of a Middle Aged TEFL Teacher
I looked around the teacher lounge as I frantically tried to prepare for my next class and remind myself what a gerund was. I saw young kids all huddled around talking to each other and suddenly I felt like I had regressed back in time to my high school years; feeling like an outcast and trying to figure out where I belonged. Ok, maybe I couldn’t quite call them kids since they were all college graduates, but in my mind they looked like kids. And I’m pretty sure that in their minds I could’ve been their parent. I was nearly 39 years old and somehow had found myself surrounded by peer colleagues that were all 17 years younger than me. “Why am I here?” was a question that I found me asking myself quite frequently.
I had left a healthy 6-figure salary and Director level position in an international fashion retailer to make $13 an hour as an ESL teacher in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam. Had I lost my mind? In another weird twist, my ‘boss’ was also a decade younger than me. Most of my corporate career I was the young boss managing a team of people older than me; it felt really strange to be on the other side.
However, I came to Vietnam willingly. In fact I was excited about this turn my life had taken – really excited. I had broken free of the stuff that holds much of us hostage in jobs that we don’t like or places we aren’t interested in. I got CELTA certified , and came to HCMC to teach ESL because it was a way for me to experience a new culture and have the challenge and thrill of living abroad. It was a way for me to keep ‘traveling’ and experience new things. I also secretly had a desire to learn how to ride a motorbike in what I deemed the craziest traffic in the world. But now I was having a very intense pang of regret.
I was after a challenge, and I definitely got one…or two…or three…
I didn’t expect to be so at odds about giving up my old life and career as I had already been traveling around the world for a year happily. However, I quickly learned the lesson of ‘traveling to a place is very different than living in a place’. Once I unpacked my bags in Vietnam and got back in a ‘work’ setting it all snuck up on me. I was homesick. I questioned my decision to give up such a lucrative career and professional identity to teach ESL. These waves of regret came often in the beginning as I settled into my new chapter in life. And quite honestly I might have succumbed to the wave if the US hadn’t been having it’s own financial tidal wave melt down in 2008. In fact, it was probably the financial crisis that kept me in Vietnam during those tough times of adjustment the first few months. So in a way, I was probably the only one thankful for the financial crisis.
My solution to homesickness was time. It takes time to settle into a new place and a new life, even if you are an expert traveler. I came to learn that my leadership and business background was actually what made me a successful, in-demand teacher. Older students loved me, and I had immediate respect as a mature businessperson. My manger even recognized that the value and breadth of experience I brought to the classroom was different than my younger colleagues.
In addition, outside the classroom I put my networking skills and business maturity to work finding ways to utilize my background so I felt like I wasn’t throwing it away. I started a side business consulting and running websites for small businesses. Plus, I used my time in Vietnam to develop into an entrepreneur; something I never would have had the time to tackle when I was in my old corporate position.
The Age Gap
My other big challenge was trying to figure out where I fit in; where was my tribe? I came to HCMC solo and 39 years old; I was absolutely in the minority as a female. Sure, there were plenty of other 30/40 year old women around the expat communities, however many of them were married with kids. I felt like an odd woman out; not quite fitting in with the expats, and not quite fitting in with the ESL teachers who were either kids right out of college or retirees. It left me feeling empty and made me miss my friends at home more.
However I learned that if I was willing to put myself out there, I might not be able to meet someone exactly like me, but I was able to meet people who I had things in common with. I have been single my whole life, and I’m used to having to go out and find my relationships. I started to use the internet and expat forums to find people with my interests. Before I knew it I was enrolled in weekly swing dancing classes, and a photography group that met once a month.
The key for me was realizing I would have to put effort into meeting the type of people I wanted to meet. Sure, it would have been easy to just hang out with other ESL teachers all the time, but I was looking for other connections. I started going to networking events and really immersed myself in the expat community, which is different than the ESL teaching community in Vietnam. Many of the expats were there working for corporations and I found I could easily relate to them as most were in my age group. However I also found it was important to really be immersed in both communities as the ESL community seemed more connected and integrated into the local community which I loved. It took a while, but eventually I had a whole diverse group of friends including expats, ESL teachers, other single women, and local Vietnamese.
In the end, I learned that running a classroom was much like running a meeting. It improved my presentation skills, and by the end of the year I had become quite comfortable with public speaking and had honed my leadership and entrepreneurial skills further. These were all things that would be valuable if I wanted to go back into a corporate career. By sticking through the hard times and adjustment period, I had grown as a teacher, a businessperson, as a friend, and I had gained some great swing dancing moves!
Sherry is a long-term traveler, blogger, and photographer who did her CELTA at Teaching House, got a job teaching in Vietnam, and hasn’t stopped moving since. She writes about her around-the-world adventures on Ott’s World and is a co-founder of Meet, Plan, Go!, a website and travel event teaching people how to take their own traveling career break or sabbatical.
Latest posts by Sherry Ott (see all)
- Challenges of a Middle Aged TEFL Teacher - February 29, 2016
- Missing the Old, Embracing the New: A Food Adventure - January 18, 2015
- Overcoming Fear: Driving a Motorbike in Vietnam - October 2, 2014