By Garrett Garcia
It was January 4, 2016. I had just arrived in Istanbul, Turkey, two days before. Fresh out of college, the owner of a TEFL certificate for about a month, and jet lagged beyond belief, I somehow had to survive my first day of teaching 3-year-old Turkish kids whose English knowledge barely exceeded numbers and shapes.
This was also my first day in the so-called “real world.”
Two weeks after my college graduation and completion of the online TEFL course at the International TEFL Academy, I started my life in Istanbul, the city where I did my semester abroad in college. I was officially an English teacher. For the first time in my nearly 22 years, I didn’t need to say what grade I was in.
I had no life experience, not much in savings, and I was venturing completely out of my comfort zone. I had read so much about teaching English abroad, and I noticed that many people leave their careers in business or engineering, etc., to follow this dream. But I wasn’t one of those people. I wasn’t leaving a career. I was leaving school. So on top of entering this baptism of fire, I was entering into a new realm of my life: adulthood.
Teaching abroad was a perfect approach to growing up. The transition from comfortable life on the university campus to the untamed wild of reality is one of the toughest transitions to endure. You go from an organized bubble to complete anarchy. You have no direction, no end goal and no idea what to do. But by finding a job market where I knew I was needed, using nothing but my own interests and my native language, I was able to navigate through that wild reality easily and mature into, well..., a grown-up.
On that first day of teaching, I arrived early and sat on a bus bench in the rain, waiting as 9:00 am rolled around on my watch. At that moment, there were so many “adult” things I hadn’t done yet: signed a rental contract, opened a bank account without my mom or dad’s help, completed a wire transfer, registered my name on a utility bill, paid taxes or even made a hotel booking. Heck, I had barely ever cooked my own food.
Fast forward a little over three years, and here I am about to leave my comfortable, independent and accomplished life as a TEFL teacher with many of those adult tasks completed. Nowadays, they’re all second nature.
My adventure as a teacher abroad has provided me with so much professionally. I have worked at a preschool, at the headquarters of a bank and at a K-12 private school, teaching Grades 5-8. I have attended conferences, trainings, and trips. I have had professional observations and performance reviews. I have been on a committee. I have written or contributed to curriculums and yearly plans. I have signed an uncountable number of documents. My opinion on various issues has been sought out or requested from countless parties, and embraced with high regard. I have been held accountable for mistakes and credited with successes. I have made budgets and travel itineraries.
I have created units with specific learning objectives. I have supervised students on their own academic and artistic activities. I even developed and facilitated some of those activities. I have done community outreach to bring new people and ideas to my institutions of employment. I have been given the titles “English teacher”, “coordinator,” “consultant”, “trainer”, “director,” and even “Master of Ceremonies/Host.” And I’ve even gained working proficiency in a second language, Turkish. And all of this before the age of 25! I’m hopeful I can use these experiences and this professional maturity to talk myself into a job once I’m back home. I’m interested in pursuing the Learning & Development sector, where I can use my experience in English teaching, training and language services to help improve an organization’s effectiveness.
And from the work in this field, I’ve realized that teaching is not just standing in front of a classroom and delivering information about math, science or language. It’s like 3,000 jobs at one time. You’re a coach, a guide, a travel agent, a secretary, a psychologist, a motivational speaker, a copy editor, an actor, a custodian, a data entry specialist, a judge, a statistician, an architect, a translator, a security guard and a parent all at once. And even though it’s a hectic profession, it’s one that everyone must try at some point in their lives. Better to do it abroad, in my opinion, as it adds an element of adventure and spontaneity into every day.
As an English speaker, you are automatically valued for your potential to make peoples’ lives better, so I found it quite easy to get employed abroad. And that’s obviously the biggest concern for an ambitious new graduate. Furthermore, by spending early adulthood in the teaching profession, I’ve found many of my professional strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure this will help me as I look for work back home in the United States. And given the multifaceted nature of this profession, I can say that I now have ‘real world experience.’
While I’m thankful for the professional experiences I have had through English teaching in Turkey, I must say that by choosing this adventure, I have become exposed to both the perks and the difficulties of adulthood. I have learned to persevere through the resistance that real life has thrown at me. From registering my address to gathering documents for work permits, plus managing my relationships and duties around the office, I’ve grown tougher and gained much more endurance through completing the tasks meant to be completed by independent adults; in fact, I actually enjoy it.
I also learned about the many perks to adulthood too. I have been given ID badges, contracts, and plane tickets purchased on my behalf. I have worn a tie to work every day for the last 2 years. Every day, I drink fresh coffee that I purchased myself. I have a work email address, and an official automatic ending after my emails. I’ve been given gold, scarves and coffee mugs as tokens of appreciation from my work. I have lots of money saved. I have traveled the world, hitting 13 countries and covering most of Turkey in these 3 ½ years abroad. I’ve ridden airplanes with students, colleagues and friends, which always made me feel special while growing up. I have a hotels.com membership and collected enough nights to gain silver status. And of course I’ve earned my Frequent Flyer miles too.
During my TEFL adventure, I also learned how to find meaning and purpose outside of work, where I can still have fun and channel my inner kid. It’s necessary to find that as an adult in order to let loose during the dog days. By just putting yourself out there, it’s easily done while abroad. I have a nice network of private students, whose parents pay me to play games and speak English with their kids. Moreover, I joined an English-speaking theatre group, where I met many dear friends from all over the world. I’ve been in four plays, and starred in three of them. I’ve also found odd jobs as an actor in a commercial and as an editor for a construction company’s website, jobs I was given just because I speak English natively. From work and play, I’ve seen just how far knowing the English language can take me, and it’s made me ever more thankful and aware of my luck and privilege. And on a personal note, I found the love of my life and got married!
Prior to graduating from college, I remember talking to my dad about what to do with my life. I didn’t know what it was, but I told him I wanted to do something interesting with my early 20's. I didn’t want to immediately rush into a job in a major American city when I could’ve been traveling the world and making a unique story for myself. I had spent almost four years in a bubble, and I didn’t want to feel limited in a job while still young. Now, four more years later, I have felt an amazing sense of freedom and mobility, really bursting that bubble.
I also didn’t want to be the guy at age 30 who says, “You know, I wish I did that when I was in my 20's.” However I also don’t want to be the guy who wants to go back to that life. It’s important to move on when you know you got to get out of the game. My acquired wisdom over the years has given me that perspective. And now that my time is nearly up, with the completion of my wife’s U.S. Immigrant Visa application, I can honestly say at this point that I lived a dream in my early 20's, and I’m okay with closing it down.
I’m so happy I took the risk, and now that I’m ending this period of my life on my own terms, I can pursue a new opportunity without the desperate nostalgia that plagues us as we grow. It’s been a wonderful 3 ½ years, and I’m excited for the next chapter.
Overall, my advice is this: if you’re only 1% sure that you want to embark on this journey, do it. You won’t regret it. And to the 21 or 22-year-old kids who have no idea what they’ll do after crossing the graduation stage, I can’t stop myself from recommending a gig like this. I got a huge return on investment. It’ll give you some direction, leave you with stories, introduce you to interesting people from all corners of the world, hopefully net you a bit of cash, and mold you with a unique kind of wisdom. I’m happy and sad to complete my TEFL time, but while I came into it as a kid, I’m happily checking out of it as an adult. And without a doubt, this adventure was the best way to grow up.
Hailing from Cortlandt Manor, NY, Garrett Garcia, 25, completed his B.A. in history from the University of Vermont in 2015. After graduation, he immediately shipped off to teach English in Istanbul, Turkey. Over the duration of 3 ½ years, he taught English to preschoolers, adult business professionals, and Grades 5-8. You can follow along on his adventures via Instagram @garrettmaxwellgarcia.