Rebecca Austin graduated from St Andrews in 2009 with a degree in Classics. She spoke to The Saint about how her early career has taken her east, to Hong Kong, as an English teacher.
Tell us about the early days of your career – how did you come to be teaching in Hong Kong?
I came to Hong Kong the summer after I graduated to work for the Chatteris Educational Foundation. This is a great option for getting a foot in the door – you can see if you like HK as a place and the schools here and gain some teaching experience without having all your qualifications first. The workload is not too heavy and the enjoyment factor is high (at least in the primary section) – lots of games, drama and speaking activities. One downside is that the Chatteris wage is low – I managed to live and travel on it just fine, but I’m yet to see another job here targeting foreign, native English speakers than pays as low as Chatteris.
And how did your degree help you?
Many people have the perception that classics is a bit impractical when it comes to job hunting. However, personally I found that classics was very relevant to teaching English, because it gave me practice in studying the grammar and structure of languages, and it helped me to understand English spelling and word meanings. In Hong Kong it’s no real advantage – I’m not sure people even know what my degree means – but it’s an ‘appearances matter’ type of deal and I think people have heard of my university. An English degree is preferable but it shouldn’t hold you back not having one. Without a degree you won’t be able to get a work visa.
So what did you do next?
Moving on from there (there are opportunities to remain at or move up within Chatteris, but for most people it’s a year long programme), the advantage you have is that you have experience working in a real school in Hong Kong – this is definitely what got me my second job. The disadvantage is that most people come over without any teaching qualifications, and they matter more here than in many of the Asian destinations people try when they want to spend a couple of years doing TEFL. I did the Cambridge CELTA right after I finished Chatteris and would highly recommend it – it gives you fantastic practical teaching skills and you owe it to both yourself and your students to have a certificate like this. However, go for the CELTA or CertTESOL; online-only certificates and weekend courses don’t count for much on your CV. A degree with a CELTA, plus some teaching experience (even if short term and voluntary) is really the minimum I would recommend for trying to teach in HK. If you already know you want to make teaching your main career, definitely get your PGCE before you leave the UK (or whatever the official teaching qualification is in your country). A difficulty you can run into if you start your teaching career abroad is finding that the local equivalent of the British PGCE is not recognized in the UK/your home country – a problem if you expect to return there one day, as you will then have to redo a qualification you already have.
Do you have any tips about choosing where to teach?
Without personal connections who are familiar with where you’re applying, it can be hard to make a good choice of workplace. Kindergartens and language centres are especially risky – some may have a light workload and enjoyable teaching atmosphere, while others may involve working under the boss from hell who considers 10+ hours of evening overtime each week and holding ‘events’ on most Saturdays to be normal. The best kindergartens will expect you to have proper qualifications in teaching early years. For teaching in state schools, the ‘gold standard’ is the NET Scheme run by the EDB (Education Bureau). They recruit mostly native English speakers to teach at primary and secondary schools in HK. The salary and benefits are excellent, and being part of the scheme offers you some protection against less scrupulous principals and heads of English!
So where are you now?
I am currently working in a government-supported but private English medium school. The advantages of this are that the level of English is comparatively high and I have a lot of freedom when planning my lessons, so I can do a lot of fun, creative activities. I teach three classes across three year groups their entire English programme and see them every day. I also very much do the job of a ‘real’ teacher, so have gained a lot of experience with skills like classroom management and co-planning and a better understanding of child development. I may not have a teaching qualification yet, but if I want to go down that route in the future I have already learnt through practical experience the basics of being a teacher. The downside to this job is that I also have all the extra duties of a local teacher. Some of these are standard for teachers (e.g. having a home class, doing parents’ evenings, etc.) but others might seem very odd to British eyes (e.g. lunchtime supervision for my class – no dinner ladies here – or writing formal assessment papers for lower primary level twice a year).