Teaching Traveling: Welcome, Alexa, a traveling teacher who connected with me because we both had the same wonderful TEFL teacher, Natalie!
Alexa, tell us a bit about your background.
Alexa: I’m Alexa Hart, a 25-year-old southern California native who spent the past two years teaching in Seoul, South Korea. Before moving to South Korea, I got TEFL certified in Cusco, Peru with a fantastic volunteer organization and English-language institute called Maximo Nivel.
Initially, I went to Peru to volunteer with no intention of getting TEFL certified. I had just quit my first “real” job of five months and didn’t have much of a plan other than go to Peru. While I was there, I learned that Maximo Nivel offered TEFL courses. With the encouragement of one of my soon-to-be TEFL trainers, I signed up.
Realizing that I could teach English pretty much anywhere in the world got me super excited. I chose South Korea because it was safe, had good benefits, and had lots of different teaching options. Also, I had never been to Asia, and I really wanted to see more of the world.
Growing up, I was fortunate to have parents who loved taking my sister and me on exotic vacations like the Galapagos Islands and Uganda, where I contracted malaria! They passed their love of travel on to me.
TT: Fascinating! Tell us more about your travels.
A: Teaching in Korea allowed me to fund all of my travels in Asia. The benefits are great and allow for a comfortable lifestyle. Despite short vacation time, I’ve managed to go to Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, and China (twice). My contract in Korea ended in March 2012. I am currently on a three-month trip to India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
My most recent trip was to Coron, Philippines in December 2011 for a week. Coron was the perfect tropical getaway from wintertime in Seoul. The mere beauty of the surrounding islands blew me away. The white, sandy beaches and limestone cliffs looked almost unreal. Plus, it hasn’t been discovered by too many tourists, so it had a wonderful local charm to it. The people were also very genuine and friendly.
One of the highlights from the trip was becoming Scuba certified. As someone who is a weak swimmer and is a little afraid of being underwater, this was quite a feat. I was pretty nervous the whole time, but it ended up being really awesome.
I got to see some incredible Japanese wrecks from World War II. They were completely covered in coral and were mesmerizing to see. In total, I completed six dives and went deeper than I ever thought I would go. Turns out that facing my fears is very empowering.
TT: It is so wonderful to hear of the travels made possible by your TEFL certification and teaching abroad! How did you choose your voyage destinations?
A: My boyfriend and I were almost set on going to Bohol, Philippines. But for some reason, I opened up my trusty Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, and I happened to come across Coron. The more we read about it, the more we wanted to go. We did some more research on the attractions and the Scuba certification, and it seemed ideal for what we wanted. It did not disappoint!
TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly funny.
A: I have a lot of entertaining stories from my travels, but I’ll stick to my most recent one.
There’s no way I could leave Korea without eating live octopus. Some Koreans consider it a delicacy, so I had to try it. Surprisingly, I liked it better than cooked octopus, but that’s not saying much. One of the people I was with said it tasted like snot, which is not that far from the truth in my opinion.
This is how it all went down. Some friends and I went to the massive wholesale seafood market in Seoul. First, we picked out some live octopi at a stall. Then, we brought the octopi to an underground, jam-packed restaurant, where the chefs chopped up the octopi and brought it out to us on a plate, still wriggling.
We had to make sure to chew carefully because the tentacles were suctioning to our mouths! To test the strength of the suction, my boyfriend picked up a tentacle with chopsticks and stuck it on a liquor bottle that was on the table. I was bold enough to try the head (eyeballs still attached). After chewing for a few minutes and getting nowhere, the salty/snot flavor was really getting to me, and I had to spit it out.
TT: Hilarious!!! How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?
A: I have become much more culturally sensitive through traveling and teaching. Before coming to Korea, I thought that adapting would be fairly easy. I actually had a pretty rough beginning and experienced culture shock at work with my supervisors. Understanding different cultures has allowed me to make sense of things that seem strange at first.
Traveling and teaching are also similar in that you have to be creative if something doesn’t go as planned. I have learned the importance of improvisation and flexibility both on the road and in the classroom.
It’s also amazing how few words need to be spoken to convey a message. Sometimes the best way to communicate is through miming and actions. I have used this technique throughout my travels and while teaching. It may look silly, but it gets the point across.
TT: Absolutely! How have your travels impacted you as a person?
A: There’s no doubt that traveling has significantly changed me as a person. I am much more confident and sure of who I am. Being able to navigate my way around unknown places gives me a sense of accomplishment. I have also learned more about my personal strengths and weaknesses through my travels.
I feel really fortunate to be pursuing my biggest passion (travel). I love sharing my travel stories, and I love hearing stories from other people. Because I love travel stories so much, I recently created a site called Atlas Sliced, where people share their travel stories on camera.
TT: Excellent! What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?
A: My biggest piece of advice is to research different options and see what would be a good fit for you. Before you sign a contract or decide on working somewhere, make sure you talk to plenty of teachers who have worked there.
The more people you talk to, the more you’ll get a feel for what the job will be like. First-hand accounts are crucial.
Even if you’re not a certified teacher, you can still travel and teach. Getting a TEFL or CELTA certification will open up lots of different options abroad. Even though some places don’t even require an English-teaching certification, it’s usually preferred.
Lastly, be proactive. There are so many ways to teach and travel. Sometimes the hardest part is getting started.
TT: Excellent advice!
Readers, what questions or comments do you have for Alexa?
The author, Lillie Marshall, is National Board Certified Teacher from Boston who has been a full-time public school educator since 2003. She launched Teaching Traveling in 2010 to share expert global education resources, and over 1.6 million readers have visited over the past decade. Lillie also runs Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog, and DrawingsOf.com for educational cartoons. Do stay in touch via subscribing to her monthly newsletter, and following on social media with the links below!