Blog

Updates – Technical

It’s been nearly a year since I last posted, and 18 months since the time before that. What’s taken me so long? Lots actually! More posts to come in future about what else I’ve been up to, but first some deadly boring (or really interesting depending on your perspective!) stuff about how I’ve hosted the site.
About a year ago, in order to save about £10 a year, I made the poor decision to move all my domains and web hosting from DreamHost to 1&1. DreamHost had been pretty good, and 1&1 turned out to be terrible. I never got the site working properly and whenever I tried I found their website was so unhelpful, always slow, and often not even working.

Now I’ve moved my domains to Hover, a really nice professional domain registration service, and the website to a Virtual Private Server at DigitalOcean, which provides incredibly cheap small VPSs ($5/month for 1 CPU, 512MB RAM, 20GB SSD and 1TB transfer – perfect for a small site like this) and loads of tutorials to get started with server administration and setting up a basic WordPress installation. I’ve also moved my email to FastMail, which offers a superb email solution.

The total cost of using Hover, DigitalOcean and FastMail instead of the awful 1&1? About the same as DreamHost was! So why use three different services instead of just going back to DreamHost? Well, I like a challenge, I was never totally satisfied with DreamHost (they’re great, but I’m very picky), I wanted to practise a bit with a Linux VPS, and also I didn’t make a smooth transition away from 1&1, but moved my email to FastMail, then the domains to Hover, then the website to DigitalOcean as I finally lost patience with those aspects of 1&1’s service.

It’s worked out really nicely, I’m totally happy with the setup now, and if time allows I might even blog again occasionally!

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Six Months in Japan – An Update

So, I’ve been in Japan for six months and I haven’t written a single blog post.
Why? Well, I’ve been having such a good time and been so busy making new friends and exploring this amazing country that I hadn’t even thought about the blog until my web-hosting renewal email dropped into my inbox.

I only have time for two quick notes:

First: I suspect I won’t be resuming regular blogging service while living in Japan. I’m enjoying life here so much and have so much going on that I don’t feel the need to moan onto the internet every week anymore. I also don’t have anything to moan about. Though I will say this to anyone thinking of teaching English in China: don’t, it’s not worth the hassle, Japan is far better. And to the “Japan is really expensive” whiners: I’m saving more in Japan than I was earning in China.

Second: I know the site looks a mess at the moment. When I looked at renewing my web-hosting I realised I could be saving a bit of money, so I’ve moved hosts. But it’s a hassle getting the site back up and running properly. I’ll work at it over time.

Moving Forward

It’s been a few months since I blogged. Why? Well, I was half way through a four part series on teaching – why, how, where and what. I wrote the first two, but then to write about where and what I realised I’d have to go into some detail about Xi’an and the school I was working at. At the time I thought that if I have nothing nice to say, I should say nothing at all, and so I said nothing.
Also at that time I was applying for new jobs. I didn’t think it would look good if a potential future employer googled me and found a long diatribe against my then current employer.

Anyway, I’ve now finished my contract in Xi’an and been back in the UK for two weeks. I’ve also secured a job in Japan, in Tokyo, for next year, so I’m preparing to fly out to Tokyo in just over three weeks. All the signs so far suggest that the school in Tokyo is far more organised than my old school in China, which will be a nice change.

I don’t know if I’ll continue the blog in Japan, or if I’ll ever finish the four part series I started in September. While the blog helped me organise my myriad thoughts and to vent and to some extent stay sane, it served as a distraction to getting out and getting to know the city in which I was living. It never took less than half a day to write each week, and I eventually gained a (deserved) reputation for spending most of my spare time in Starbucks on my laptop.

Keep checking for updates just in case I start blogging regularly again, but at the moment I don’t know what the future holds for my blog.

One Year On – How I Became a Teacher

There are many website and blogs giving lots of advice on all the different ways you can become an EFL teacher. I’m not going to try to replicate the wealth of information already out there, but rather, give my own experience.
There are so many acronyms in TEFL that I didn’t know where to begin. Fortunately, my flatmate for two years was a TEFL teacher, so he gave me the insider knowledge. To get a good job I needed to get a qualification, either the Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) accredited by the University of Cambridge, or the Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CertTESOL) accredited by Trinity College London. Doing either is much of a muchness, but apparently the CELTA is a little more practical than the CertTESOL which is more theoretical, so I chose the CELTA. I also had to pick a school where to study and gain the qualification.

I knew nothing about the reputations of individual schools in the TEFL industry, so I once again relied on the wisdom of my flatmate. He said to do it either at the school he worked at, or at an International House school. I wanted to get out of the UK and needed a clean break, and I thought doing the CELTA in the place where I wanted to eventually find a job would be a good idea. I checked the IH websites, and found that IH Barcelona offered a CELTA every month.

To get on the course I had to fill in the application form, which meant learning some English grammar for the first time since I was at school 10 years ago, and pass an interview so the tutors could asses my commitment to the course and so my likelihood of completing what is a very intensive month of training. I was accepted onto the course, so told my boss at the Department of Health my leaving date and booked a train ticket from London to Barcelona.

I arrived in Barcelona late in the evening and went to the apartment organised by IH. I was staying with a Spanish teacher from IH, and the apartment overlooked the Parc de Joan Miro, next to Place Espanya.

The course tutors aren’t kidding when they say it’s intensive. Five days a week in the classroom, with hours of homework every night and assignments to write at the weekends. They also had us teaching on the first day. In hindsight it was “only” 20 minutes, but with no experience at all 20 minutes seemed like an eternity. I am glad they did that on the first day though, to get the initial fear of standing at the head of classroom out of the system as early as possible meant by the second day we were all relaxed.

There were 12 people on the course, and the first day consisted of getting to know each other through six different activities. We were then split into two groups of six for our teaching practice groups. Six activities, six people in a group. The tutors said they hoped we were paying attention, as our 20 minute “lessons” were going to be those activities so the students we were practising on could get to know each other.

Overall the course was really good, and when I’m planning lessons I still think to myself “what would Rosa or Andrea (the course tutors) do”.

After the course came the task of finding a job. We were told that by chance there was one job available at IH. Me and Ed, another trainee, both applied. I went in search of IH’s DoS and, finding her office empty, left my CV and covering letter on her desk. Ed found Andrea and dragged her to the DoS’s office to give an instant recommendation. Ed got the job.

I quickly realised that Ed basically got the last teaching job in Barcelona for that academic year, and I broadened my search. After a week I had three job offers in Spain, Russia and China.

The job in Spain was from a school that contacted me after seeing my CV online. The job offer came after a phone conversation in which nary a question was asked of me. The school was very small, just two classrooms, and most of the phone “interview” consisted of the owner telling me how it’s a really nice town of around 10,000 people, and it’s only half an hour on the bus to the big local city of 70,000 people, and that’s only two hours from Benidorm. It all just sounded a bit small for me. In my first job I want to have proper support and I wasn’t convinced a two-teacher school could adequately provide that.

The job in Russia was for a large school in Moscow. The interview was conducted by an American and actually had proper interview questions. There was also a section in the interview for grammar questions. I must have done ok because I received the job offer. But, on researching the school online, I found a lot of negative comments from ex-teachers.

The job in China was recommended to me by another EFL teacher friend who had worked there. He said I should email the DoS. I did, and then I had another phone interview. This one with proper interview questions, but without a grammar section. I got offered the job and, not being able to find anything negative about the school online, I accepted the offer and started applying for visas and doing everything that needs to be done to move to a different country for at least a year.

It seems in TEFL that the less attractive the place to work is, the lower the pay but the higher the benefits. For my job in Xi’an, as a first year teacher I’m paid ¥6,000 a month, but the school also organises and pays for my apartment, and also the return airfare to my home airport.

They don’t, however, take into account the fact that where my parents live, the closest thing I have to a “home” and where I was living for six weeks preparing to go to China, is in the middle of nowhere and it costs a lot on public transport to get anywhere useful. My train from Carlisle to London was £100, but the flight from London to Xi’an was only £500, and the return ticket to Manchester to apply for my visa was about £60.

As I would come to learn, it’s the little oversights in detail such as this that cause such frustration in the job.

More to follow next week when I’ll write about where I’m teaching, and what it’s like being a teacher.

One Year On – Why I Became a Teacher

Four years ago when I finished university I needed a job pretty much straight away. A committed procrastinator, I went to a few temp agencies and was eventually sent for a job in the Correspondence Unit at the Department of Health, the UK Government Department that oversees the NHS in England. I had to commit to stay at least three months, and there was the chance of promotion after six months. My initial job was on the admin team, opening the hundreds of letters received every day from members of the public, Members of Parliament, the Royal Family and health industry executives, scanning those letters and logging the details of the correspondents into the system. It was dull work but I made it interesting by gradually reforming the processes and procedures to be much more efficient and sensible. As my boss would eventually admit four years later, I’m very good at “managing upwards”. After six months I got the promotion from the admin team to a drafting team, actually writing replies to some of those letters. I had to use my real name, and occasionally disgruntled correspondents would write about my replies on their own blogs, hence why only now, a year on, do I feel comfortable disclosing on my blog where I used to work and ‘linking’ these two parts of my public life.

Every year the Department recruited around ten permanent staff members to work in the Correspondence Unit, and while the jobs had to be offered externally and the recruitment process couldn’t favour the temp staff already in the Department, most of the jobs ended up going to internal candidates. The first year I didn’t apply because I was planning on leaving in the summer to go and cycle around the world for a few years. As you can read elsewhere on my blog, that didn’t work out as planned, and three months later I was back at the Department of Health writing letters.

I was reasonably content working there for a while. By that point, most of my friends were people I’d met through work. The commute, for London, was brilliant. It took only a quarter of an hour from door to door using the tube (I once got from my front door to my desk in 12 minutes!). The slight social cache of working in the “machinery of Government” was nice, and there were frequent opportunities to locum for a few days in senior officials’ or Ministers’ private offices. How many people can say they’ve accompanied a Government Minister to a Parliamentary debate, or watched a World Cup football game in the Secretary of State for Health’s office? (The Secretary of State had to attend a, erm, meeting, with all the other Ministers down the road at party headquarters. Honest.)

Soon after I returned from my failed attempt to cycle around the world, the Department held another recruitment round. This time I applied, but I missed out because I didn’t put enough effort into my application.

A year after that there was yet another recruitment round. This time, I put loads of effort into my application and I had a great interview. But at the last minute, the number of available posts was cut and I just missed out. Then there was a general election, a change of Government, and all civil service recruitment was frozen immediately and indefinitely.

I’d worked at the same place for almost four years, on a temporary contract, without any of the usual civil service benefits like pensions and holiday allowances, for less money than most of my colleagues.

I knew I wanted to leave, but it was always so easy to stay. Then I was given a new role that I really didn’t want. A few years back there was a scandal at a hospital in the midlands called Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. The hospital was badly managed and as a result between 2005 and 2008 anywhere between 400 and 1200 patients died that shouldn’t have. The Department of Health was involved, as it oversees the NHS in England. The Correspondence Unit was involved, as a lot of the correspondence received is from people complaining about NHS services and we had received some letters about Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. The Department of Health isn’t the correct place to complain to about NHS services, so we would answer the letters giving the official NHS complaints procedure and contact details. At the time, no logging was done of the complaints received, so no analysis could be conducted to see if there were many serious complaints about individual hospitals. That obviously had to change.

At first, the system was updated so details of the complaint could be entered, but it was surprising how few of the drafters on permanent contracts and who only had to write replies to seven letters a day managed to to correctly enter these details, so then a dedicated complaints team of two people was created. The team would scan read every letter received, pick out the complaints, log the details of the complaint including its severity, then allocate the letters out to be replied to by drafters. The most serious complaints would be kept to be answered by the complaints team itself. The head of the Unit had to pick the second team member. As no one wanted the job of reading serious healthcare complaints all day, a short list of four was created and we all had to give reasons why we shouldn’t have to do the job. My reason was that if I was given the job, I’d quit.

Guess who the job went to. Yup. Me.

When my boss told me, even she said it was good opportunity to go and do something that I really wanted to do. I had to stay another three months while I worked out my exit plan, which turned out to be just enough time to establish and refine all the procedures needed for the complaints team to do its job properly.

I had some requirements for my exit strategy. I no longer wanted to live in the UK, I wanted to be able to travel and find work abroad relatively easily, I wanted a job I could explain in a few words rather than a few sentences, and I wanted a job that would be relatively safe even in the economic downturn that was, and still is, dragging on.

The obvious choice seemed to be Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

Next: how I became an EFL teacher.

One Year On – Overview

A year ago I left my job in London to become a teacher of English as a foreign language. An awful lot has happened since then, so first I’ll fill you in with a broad overview. I left London to go to Barcelona to study for the Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA). This is the basic qualification needed to properly enter the world of TEFL. The course took the whole month of September and was very rewarding. The plan at the time was to stay in Barcelona to teach, but unfortunately I misjudged the timing of my course. Most of the jobs in Barcelona – and all over Europe – start in September. By the time I finished at the beginning of October there were only scraps of part time jobs left.

Instead of staying in Barcelona, I started to look elsewhere and a friend tentatively recommended a school in Xi’an in China that he had worked at. In early October I returned to the UK to start applying for my visa and shutting down my life there. At the end of November I was finally ready to fly out to China and begin my first teaching job.

Nine and a half months on and I think I’ve made good progress as a teacher and I’ve grown and developed a great deal as a person.

Now, a more detailed review of the past year: why, how, where and what.

Explaining the Absence of Blogs

When did I last blog? Almost a month ago? I admit that it’s a pretty poor effort, but in truth I’ve wanted to blog and I’ve written the blog posts, but recently they’ve been too private to put online on a blog, especially one that I know my bosses read. Maybe one day bits and bobs from the past month will end up in a book. But, as it’s just over a year since I left my job in London to go to Barcelona and train to be an English as a second language teacher, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on the past year, more to come