18 August 2017

Joan Selby is a 35-year-old digital marketing strategist who lives in LA. When we found out about her unusual experience working as a TEFL teacher in Ukraine, we wanted to know more! Joan kindly agreed to be interviewed by us. Read on for some fascinating insights into a TEFL teacher's career break!

[Note, Joan is American and we've provided UK English terms and explanations where relevant.]

Road to Carpathian Mountains, Ukraine where Joan Selby taught TEFL English

Tell us about your career break

I was an ESL [English as a Second Language, usually called TEFL in the UK] teacher. I loved teaching. However, it was almost impossible for me to find a steady job and I was struggling for quite some time.

I’ve worked for three employers as an ESL teacher. The first one was Wilshire Language School in L.A., between 2013 and 2016. This job didn’t give me the excitement I needed. I believe I was doing a good job, but I came to a point when I was no longer doing it with pleasure. That’s when I decided I needed a change.

And I did something unexpected: I went to Ukraine. The GoGlobal summer camp 2016 seemed like the perfect opportunity for me. “If you want to change the world, inspire a kid” – that’s the motto of this organization. And yes, I wanted to change the world!

I loved Ukraine so much that I decided to extend my stay there. I took a job as an English teacher at a private school, GreenForest, and I stayed for another six months.

Oh well, I had to come back to L.A. because my family needed me... and I was getting homesick, to be honest. I wasn’t inspired to look for another teaching position. I decided to try something else, so I applied for work at SuperiorPapers. I’m working as a digital marketing strategies and a freelance writer, and it’s exactly what I need at the moment.

Why did you decide to teach English as a foreign language? Why Ukraine?

Teaching – that used to be my passion. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I chose to be an ESL teacher because I knew this path would be exciting. Different cultures, different languages, various mindsets and social standards... I’ve seen it all.

As for Ukraine, it was a random choice, actually. I was looking for opportunities to teach abroad and I googled. When I found out about the GoGlobal summer camp, I knew it was the right thing for me. I wasn’t wrong. Ukraine gave me an experience that changed my life. The people I know here say I came back as a different person.

Can you tell us a bit about your course and getting your qualification?

A TEFL certification is not required in volunteers' programs like GoGlobal but I have a CELTA [internationally-recognised TEFL qualification]. To join GoGlobal, I had an interview and that was it. I had the needed skills and I wanted to volunteer, so that was it. They asked for certificates, but the procedure was pretty simple.

When I applied for a job at the private English school in Ukraine, they also needed to see proof of my education and certificates. I'm a huge fan of online courses so I sent a few of my certifications from Coursera (e.g Understanding Russians: Contexts of Intercultural Communications, Speaking to persuade: Motivating audiences with solid arguments and moving language).

Joan Selby's TEFL students in Ukraine, where she taught English on her career break
Joan's TEFL students

How long were you away?

I stayed in Ukraine for 9 months.

Can you tell us a bit about living in Ukraine? How did you find it being an American woman in Eastern Europe?

Let me tell you about the best bit: the people. Ukrainians are the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong; American kids are great, too. They are a bit wilder. Ukrainian kids, however, have that simple joy our previous generations used to have. They are so honest, it hurts. The connection with them was deeper. Maybe because I was a foreigner, I was able to see how special they were.

As for the food: cabbage everywhere! When I first tried the famous borsch, I hated it. I also hated the varenyky, but I had to act like I loved them. Funny thing is: I actually start loving the food after the short adaptation period. Surprise, surprise: I do like these pockets of dough and cabbage in all its forms. Holubtsi (stuffed cabbage) are my favorite now.

As for American women in Eastern Europe, there was nothing unusual. Yes, I was seen as a foreigner, but the people accepted me in their own circle of friends. It didn’t take long before I started feeling at home.

Tell us more about the organisation you went with

GoGlobal is a social organization that’s developing a volunteer movement in Ukraine. It’s focused on promoting knowledge and use of foreign languages: English, German, Spanish, and French. Check it out; it’s pretty cool!

What did you do when you came back? What changed?

No, I didn’t return to the same job. My living situation was changed. I had to return because my parents needed help. There were huge hospital bills, so I had to find a job that paid better than teaching. That’s how I ended up becoming a freelance writer and digital strategist.  

Do you think your break helped you become a freelance writer and digital strategist?

Yes, it did. I became a better writer thanks to this experience. When you’re aiming for success in the freelance writing industry, experience makes a lot of difference. I’m better at tackling topics on Russian and Ukrainian literature, since I experienced the vibe of that culture and I understand those authors better now. Experience is everything.

Carpathian Mountains, Ukraine where Joan Selby taught TEFL English

What were the best and/or worst things about your TEFL experience?

The best part was the teaching itself. I enjoyed every single aspect of it.

The worst part? Well, Ukraine has lower living standard when compared to the USA. The restaurants, clothes, utilities... everything is cheaper. That’s good. However, the paychecks are lower, too. It was impossible to save money. Don’t get me wrong; I went there to volunteer at first, so money was not my focus. However, I realized I couldn’t keep doing that for a long period of time. I would still go to Ukraine again when I get my finances sorted out, but it was impossible to stay at this point.

How do you think it has changed you?

When you live in a foreign country for at least few months, you adopt a whole other mindset. I believe I’m a bit calmer. I also see myself as a better, more patient teacher.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about your career break?

It was the best decision I could possibly make. For that period of my life, it was the right thing to do. I have only one thing to say to people who are considering the same thing: do it.

Thanks so much to Joan for doing this interview! You can connect with Joan Selby on Twitter and Facebook.