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How TEFL Took Me Across Morocco
Written by: Matt Nelson
Last Updated: July 19, 2021
I’m pretty confident that I wasn’t the only recent ITA alum to struggle with the question of “What now?” after finishing my online TEFL course last year. I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of jumping right into the job search, indecisive on what country I wanted to target, and wasn’t about to go for the age-old “spin the globe” trick. Before figuring all that out, I longed to travel again and to have that freedom to move that I had fallen in love with in recent years. Realizing that COVID-19 would make for a much different travel experience than normal, rife with closures and unforeseen challenges, I realized an international trip would feel less like a vacation, and more of an opportunity to put my teaching skills to the test, bolstering what I had learned in practicum. I had for a long time desired to visit Morocco - and with its tourism sector largely closed down, I figured now would be a truly unique time to see it, and that I could better focus on gaining teaching experience without all of the distractions that come from being in a touristy place. What resulted was an experience I could never have expected.
To find potential teaching opportunities, I created a profile on a platform called WorkAway - to search for Moroccan schools that would host me as a volunteer; without pay, but without having to commit to a contract. Of the many schools I had contacted, only a couple had initially responded with availability for me. The one I chose to start with was based in Casablanca but had a total of four schools in the region I could move between, and also claimed to help organize trips around the country for long-term volunteers. And so I planned to start my trip with work, and perhaps after getting to a point where I feel like I had earned a break, I would branch out and explore the parts of the country I yearned to see: the Sahara Desert, Atlas Mountains, Tangier, the blue city of Chefchaouen.
Teaching in Morocco
That first month was spent making connections inside the school and out, learning the local dialect and customs, trying all of the food, and observing other teachers' classes. I also had a couple of weekend trips - one solo and one with other volunteers, and so the first month came and passed before I could really sit down with the director and talk about teaching. Until that point, my role at the school was to engage in small group conversations with the students to improve their fluency - which was time-intensive and quite fun but wasn’t challenging me to the extent that teaching would. Having gained enthusiastic approval from the director, I worked with the teachers to see who would be willing to have me sub in for them and picked a number of evening classes to teach. Prior to this trip, my only teaching experience had been my ITA practicum, for which I had partnered with a local non-profit to give one on one English lessons over Zoom to immigrants from Syria desiring to improve their English as they adjusted to life in America. While that had been a great learning experience, it was a lot more comfortable than leading a class in person (which was difficult to find volunteer options for in my hometown in the midst of a pandemic).
I started teaching 90-minute evening classes, which were largely made up of young adults who are making time outside of their careers/studies to improve their English proficiency. I followed the approach of a teacher named Hanane, who graciously served as a mentor to me. I admired the way she filled her classes with engaging group discussions, as limiting teacher talk time is a must when your students are arriving tired after a full day of work or school. My initial lessons were far from perfect, yet I was encouraged and motivated by the student's desire to learn and engage with me. In a way, my time at the school was like a second practicum, but taken abroad, and was the perfect way to gain valuable experience and confidence ahead of future job interviews. The experience also shifted my perspective of travel from being largely a self-centered endeavor to one that was more outward-facing thanks to this opportunity to teach in a foreign setting. The school also gave me a taste of building a life in another country while also having the flexibility to move on as soon as I was ready (not to mention learn Moroccan culture first hand from the locals, and be privy to all of their travel recommendations). I made friendships in the school and local community; became a regular at local cafes and eateries; and I built relationships with many of the other volunteers (USA, China, Russia, France, Italy) who were passing through the school.
Teaching English Online while Traveling
After my first two weeks of teaching at the school, I took a break from Casablanca, as I was feeling pressure to visit the North before Ramadan started, which meant that the restaurants, cafes, and largely the entire country would close down. And while taking this solo excursion, I began teaching English online as a way to cover travel expenses. One of the volunteers at the school had introduced me to a Ukrainian online tutoring platform called Preply, which I decided to try out upon her recommendation. On this platform, you’re essentially running your own online tutoring business, where students can book lessons with you through a virtual classroom environment. You simply create your profile, add qualifications, a photo, bio, short video introduction (and this is crucial for prospective students, who will get a small impression of your accent and personality), and then set your own price and schedule.
Within a couple of days of setting up my profile, I received trial bookings with two students, one from Lithuania and another from Russia (being a native speaker, AND having a TEFL certificate were both big boosters to my profile); and in the following week, received three more trial bookings. I found this to be a great taste of the digital nomad lifestyle, as I could set my own availability, and work anywhere that had a decent internet connection. And the relationships I’ve built with my students have been so rewarding - on my flight home from Morocco, I met one of my students (who immigrated to the US from Korea) for dinner in New York City over a long layover. It’s impossible to anticipate the chance meetings and lessons that can present themselves to an open-minded and enterprising traveler.
While I have yet to begin the search for a full-time TEFL job overseas, this trip to Morocco was largely inspired by the investment that I made with International TEFL Academy to further my education. Through this experience, I gained the confidence both to teach in foreign classrooms and also to travel with a new and growing skill set with which I can support myself on the move. Whether it’s by teaching online, or contributing to a community on the ground where you stand, I’ve found it to be a more meaningful and transformative travel experience when you can find a way to work or give along the way. And making that decision to take a leap of faith and travel during such an uncertain time led me to discover a promising online teaching platform, and connected me with students that I still teach to this day. While I was preparing to leave Morocco, exhausted, but with a full heart - another school I had messaged months prior had finally gotten back to me with availability to teach, which made me hopeful that many more opportunities are on the horizon for travelers and teachers worldwide.
In concluding this post, I want to encourage anyone who is contemplating enrolling in a TEFL course, and anyone considering teaching while traveling, to just go for it. It’s amazing what we can learn by venturing out into uncomfortable territory, whether that’s at home or abroad, and well worth it thanks to all of the memories and discoveries you’ll make along the way, big or small.
Matthew Nelson is a 29-year-old travel blogger and English teacher from Des Moines, Iowa. He plans to tutor English online while traveling and writing about his upcoming visit to Europe and Asia in the summer and fall of 2021. You can follow along with his travels on Instagram @mattnelly.jpg.
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