TESOL in the United States Versus TEFL Abroad

by Caroline Hazelton

TESOL in the United States

I’m an English as a Second Language teacher (not to be confused with an English as a Foreign Language teacher) and I have chosen to remain stateside in America. When I first announced the intentions of my career, I was completing an internship in Guatemala. My teammate replied “Why stay in the States? You’ll lose the adventure.” For those of you considering a career in ESL, here’s why I choose to teach English as a Second Language in the States versus teaching English as a Foreign Language abroad.

What’s the Difference?

First, let’s take a look at the difference between English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). It’s all about (as a real estate agent might say), “Location, location, location!” The difference lies in what the majority of a country speaks. If I’m in an English-speaking country teaching English, I’m teaching ESL. However, if I’m in a non-English speaking country as an English instructor, I’m teaching EFL. Both have distinctly different purposes. For example, one learns English to live and survive while the other learns it for vacations abroad/communicating with foreigners. Both are used interchangeably at times but are vastly different in purpose.

But now, let’s get to the answer of what my teammate asked me while we were in Guatemala: “Why?”

Why stay in America to teach English?

English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

Here’s my story. Here’s my “because” to that teammate’s (and possibly your) “Why?” These reasons are not for everyone, but rather that of my own.

I find working with immigrants to be of great purpose that I can fulfill.

Nine years ago I taught my first ESL class to a group of Central American immigrant women at an inner-city mission in Texas. After an entire summer of using my gifts of language and teaching to meet their needs, I found a career that I forever wanted to be part of because there was a purpose that I could fulfill. I meet people with stories of horrors beyond our privileged American first-world-problems-self can dream of, but they have found refuge in our homeland. I watch their English grow, and opportunities open for them. Plus, I get to teach about my home. I get to be the “know-it-all guide” of my beloved homeland – and it’s rewarding. I never stop feeling blessed whenever I’m teaching ESL students because I can give them part of what they need.

The flexible hour possibilities of ESL leave time for a family or a second job.

TESOL in the United States students

In addition to being a language buff, I’m a wife to a successful scientist and mother to two young children. At this moment, I can’t work a full-time job due to my family responsibilities. ESL classes are held in the evenings for students employed during the day, so I can stay home with my children but still do what I love. ESL classes are also held in the mornings or afternoons for housewives or international students. I can always pick up more hours as my children get older. Additionally, the part-time commitment to ESL allowed me to work a “main job” as a Spanish instructor before my second daughter was born. I look at my life teaching ESL part-time while still having ample time at home with my 1- and 3-year-olds plus supporting my husband and his career and I think, “Man, I’ve got it made in ESL!”

You experience the world without the unknown.

English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

I’ve always had a deep love for foreign cultures, so it shocked me when my months overseas during undergrad left me lonely and miserable. In personal experience, I’m more of a short-term tourist than a long-term visitor abroad. Yet I cannot stop learning about cultures beyond my own. That’s why I love ESL – you experience the world while enjoying the familiarity of your own nation. I am able to enjoy other countries simply by teaching a class! Nonetheless, there’s always room to hop on a plane (we are headed out to Polynesia in April for my husband’s conference!) should I want. 

Things to Point Out

I wanted to wrap up this post by a few pointers:

  1. I did not address the growing popularity of English as a Foreign Language online learning platforms as a flexible option. In fact, I teach on one right now.
  2. Remember that EFL and ESL still follow the rules laid out for second language acquisition. The difference is the curriculum (suited for different audiences and needs) and motivation (ESL students have more at stake than EFL students).
  3. Although I wrote about teaching immigrants, there is no “one size fits all” student in ESL. You see immigrants, visiting scholars, international students, visiting tourists, refugees (different political classification than immigrants), etc.

Guys, don’t worry about losing the adventures of teaching English abroad – in ESL the world comes to you. ESL is for us language nerds who need to be doing humanitarian work or for that person who loves other cultures but needs to stay in their home country. And with good reason – the current political climate of our country loves to build walls. Go rogue. Don’t build walls, but tear them down in ESL.

Students in Guatemala

Teaching and Learning Abroad in Spain

In the upcoming weeks, I am going to post a series of interviews titled Teach Abroad. Each week, I will introduce a new teacher and the area of Madrid where he or she will work. I will be asking each teacher a set of questions. I am starting the series with information about myself. Throughout the year, I will follow up with the teachers updating their information and experiences.

Here is My Story Teaching and Learning Abroad in Spain:

My name is Leesa Truesdell. I am from Coral Springs, Florida and recently graduated from Florida State University with a Masters in Education. I have always wanted to work assisting others to fulfill their dreams.

Why did you choose to come to Spain/Europe?

“My family is of Hispanic heritage. I have wanted to live abroad since my undergraduate studies. After getting my Masters, I realized that I wanted to come to Spain to learn more about the culture because my ancestors were from Mallorca. Generations ago, they traveled to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, which is where my grandparents were born.”

What are your goals while you are here?

“While living in Spain, I have several goals for myself. It is my intention to continue this work throughout my life. I have a professional toolkit and in my kit, I consider my tools my skills. I am always up for learning more and adopting new ideas about teaching from others. While in Spain, I would like to immerse myself in the Spanish culture to practice my Spanish conversation skills, understand more about where my family is from and, most importantly, continue to learn. I thrive on learning from others in all aspects of my life, both social and professional. The greatest skill I can work on is the art of listening; my number one priority, while I am living in Spain, is getting better at communication.”

Washington Monument selfie

Have you ever taught before? If not, what was your career field?

“Yes, I recently taught English as Second Language (ESOL) at Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University with their Continuing Education Department. Before that, I taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Colombia while doing my summer internship. Before earning my Masters, I was a substitute teacher where I learned different teaching methods and classroom management. I chose to substitute over having my own classroom because I wanted to better understand how different classrooms in Florida public schools operated. I also wanted to better understand what skills each student was learning and at what age.”

What do you think teaching in Spain will be like? Where are you teaching this year?

“Since I’ve spent the past two years studying Curriculum and Instruction, it will be interesting to see how that applies in Spain, especially, when it comes to English as a foreign language. I did not know what to think when I went into public classrooms in Medellin, Colombia and after that experience, my mind is pretty much open. I learned so much from that experience; it made me better understand how to adapt to whatever situation might arise in a classroom.

I will be teaching in a suburb south of Madrid called Alcorcón. I am looking forward to teaching secondary or high school. This will be a new age for me to teach. I’ve taught adults over the age of 18 and elementary age levels. High school will be a fun challenge.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad and also, why did you choose to teach in Spain over other countries?

“I chose to teach abroad because I want to learn more about immersion for second language learners (SLLs). In Spain, I am the second language learner who is learning Spanish. When I return to the United States, I will have a better understanding of what challenges ESOL students face before and during classes. As a teacher, one of my main goals is to understand the needs of each student. I believe having experienced being an SLL myself, I can be a better teacher. I chose Spain because I wanted to learn Spanish as a second language and because Spain has importance in my family lineage. This was the best place to start my journey on how to be the best teacher I can be.”

What would you like to accomplish while you are in Spain?

“While in Spain, I would like to learn how to communicate in Spanish effectively. Speaking and listening are my priorities while I am here. I can read and write pretty well and with practice, those two communication skills can be done from anywhere. I also would like to get a better understanding of myself while living in the Spanish culture. Self-awareness and improvement are always necessary throughout life because while I am learning- I am growing. Growth requires awareness then change, which in the end requires self-improvement.”

What are your perceptions of Madrid so far?

learning abroad sun rise silhouette travel

“Madrid is a great city. Every time I go out for a walk, I am always finding something new about the city that has it’s own unique charm. My favorite part of the city is Retiro Park—it never gets old. I can walk through the park twice a day and see a plethora of sites along the way: dogs, babies, street performers, people on roller blades, kids playing in the grass during a birthday party, a couple on a first date, or my favorite thing to see—the sunset from the statue at the boat pond—best view in the city.”

What assumptions or expectations did you have before you came here? Have you found them to be accurate or inaccurate?

“Before I came, I thought I was going to have a hard time understanding what people were saying to me. My summer in Colombia definitely helped me with my language skills and getting over the initial language barrier. My first couple of days, I felt a bit rusty. After that, I felt like I could start asking for the things I needed. If I could not remember a word, I just pushed through it. In Colombia, which was my first experience living abroad, I had a harder time pushing past the barrier.”

What has been the most difficult experience since you arrived?

“The most difficult experience for me was the heat and not having air conditioning (AC) to sleep at night. I managed to get past it, and in Colombia I got used to it as well. However, Madrid feels hotter than Florida and Colombia combined. This past August was very hot. In Florida, it’s extremely humid and hot during the summer. However, we jump from AC building to AC car to AC building and so on. I managed to survive the heat and a few sleepless summer nights. It was totally worth it!”

What has been the best experience?

“The best experience so far has been meeting my friends and now, my extended family here in Madrid. We all arrived at the same time in August so it feels like we have morphed into what is now a family. It is hard to imagine that I have been here almost two months. Time is flying by.”

How do you feel about the integration of the culture so far? Are there things that you have embraced or are hoping to embrace?

“The integration into Spanish culture has not been difficult for me. Adapting to other people’s schedules was the hardest part for me. Spanish time is exactly what it means in the States, “Spanish time.” In Spain, things are more laid back, in general. People typically arrive within a 15-30 minute window of the expected time of arrival. Also, normally I am a type A personality, especially with my calendar and planning. However, the old motto “adapt or die” has served me well. There is not much consistency. Therefore, you must go with the flow and adapt to not having control of things that are affecting your life such as appointments, etc. It will happen when it happens and just go with the flow. I have embraced this new concept of go with the flow and quite frankly, it has helped me live in the moment.

The people I meet and the experiences I encounter contribute to my writing of learning abroad. I feel very fortunate to be on this journey and look forward to sharing the experiences of my friends and colleagues in the upcoming weeks. On a personal note, I would like to take a minute to thank the interviewees who have taken the time to meet with me. Also, a special thanks to my editors and photographers. I have learned so much from speaking with each of you. Stay tuned for our second connection.”

“Go with the flow” – Leesa Truesdell

Please check out part two where I describe my experiences teaching abroad in the Community of Madrid, Spain. I discuss challenges and how I manage daily tasks in the classroom!