The story of an American expat finding a way to make a living abroad and loving it!!
Hi My name’s Ellen Dubois.
In 1985, I found myself newly married and living on the Rivera in the absolutely gorgeous city of Nice, France. When I went to try out the only English speaking church in town, I was quickly introduced to a fellow American and the first thing out of her mouth was “What’s your story?” Every expat has a story to tell about how she/he came to live in a foreign country. Here’s mine.
At the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma where I grew up, I studied communications. Best choice I have ever made. Learning the basics of public relations, marketing, advertising and journalism has served me well in almost every venture I’ve undertaken. Except for maybe, surveying. A little more math would have helped a lot!
After a four-year stint as a newspaper journalist, I had this crazy idea to try to find a job working outdoors. You know one where you get your hands dirty, where there’s a little manual labor involved (but not too much) and one where I could explore those dirt roads that I had been passing by. I immediately thought of surveying. My Dad knew how to do it and my grandfather had even built a theodolite by hand. “It’s in my blood,” I thought.
I started out at the bottom on a survey crew, holding this 15-foot wooden measuring rod and clearing the line-of-site for the crew chief. I was so bad at hammering stakes and chopping limbs with a machete that the crew chief quickly put me behind the instrument.
He was tired of barking orders at a novice. Oh I loved working that instrument.
However, my happiness didn’t last long before I was dreaming for adventure. My goal was to land a job on a surveying crew with the National Park Service and finally leave my home state. One semester at university studying trigonometry and surveying, and passing the Civil Service Exam, got me the qualifications needed to apply and land a coveted place at Glacier National Park.
A summer at Glacier and then a transfer to another temporary contract at Dinosaur National Monument, left me jobless, but excited about the future, in the Rockies. A little waitressing kept enough money in my pocket that first winter to ski at Steamboat Springs, Colorado and then the next at Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
In Jackson I’d heard about these seismograph crews looking for oil in the area and about how much money they paid. Ok, I think, “I can do this”. I typed up a half-honest resume and jumped in my car to scout around for seismograph crews.
Guess who my one and only interview was with? A French seismograph company who employed the cutest French survey chief! It wasn’t long before he became my boyfriend. I followed him all over the US looking for oil in such places as California, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas and eventually followed him to France where we were married.
Living in France was like a dream come true but tarnished a little by the hard work involved in acquiring the language, one of the most difficult on the planet (I’m convinced). It took 13 months of two-hour classes every morning (around 500 hours) and studying all afternoon to finally reach the end of the program.
Another six months waiting for my French working papers to come through (not an easy feat even though I had been married for over two years), and I was ready to go to work.
But how was I going to use my journalism skills in a French-speaking country? And ‘women’, at that time, were not hired to work as surveyors on all-male job sites in France . Where was I going to work? I rewrote my CV several times to apply as a bank teller, a car rental agent, a hotel receptionist. Nobody wanted to hire me because either I didn’t have the right diploma for the job or no experience in that field.
During my fruitless job search, well-meaning French people repeatedly suggested I teach English but I just couldn’t picture myself teaching ‘grammar’. I had no idea what it meant to be an English teacher.
I finally followed the suggestion of a close friend to set myself up as a freelance journalist. It was hard to cold-call communication directors and to land them as clients but after 9 months prospecting I had enough clients to keep this new ‘mother of twins’ busy.
I was also starting to be known in the expat community here on the coast, writing articles for the local English-speaking magazine, when the association ‘France-Etats-Unis’ approached me to volunteer leading their English conversation club. I loved doing it. I saw that sharing my language skills was rewarding and invigorating. Not just ‘grammar lessons’.
When my husband was transferred to the Paris region, I just didn’t have the courage to go out and drum up enough clients for a new freelance business. I was back to looking for another job. Ugh!
So while doing the exercises in a workbook on how to write a CV, I realized that in every job I had held throughout my life, I had always been designated to train the new guy. It was like a light bulb clicked on inside my head. ‘You were made to be a trainer. Why not try English lessons?’
My first boss assigned me to his advanced classes with no training whatsoever. He must have been desperate for a native speaker or maybe saw in me the personality traits needed for an engaging teacher: someone curious, a good listener, and educated.
I quickly found myself with a more-than-full schedule and until I learned the ropes relied on the ‘teachers guide’ accompanying various course books and an ‘intermediate level grammar book’ to survive.
I’ve loved this job from the first day and I’m hoping to spread some wisdom so you will love it too. It gave me the opportunity to be a kind of ambassador for my native country, the United States. I looked at my job as a way to improve understanding between the two countries. I shared my knowledge of American culture, our ways of doing business and educating, even about our way of cooking during these language lessons.
It was these cross-cultural exchanges with my students that I loved and I learned as much or more than my students. Wherever you are from, Australia, Great Britain, the Philippines, who cares, you have something cultural to offer your students and thereby enrich your life and theirs.
I admit, it wasn’t always easy to juggle work and raise twins. I worked for several language schools at once under temporary contracts, dashing around to different companies in the area. It took a good deal of planning but the flexibility of teaching adults during the day allowed me the freedom to control my own schedule and be available for my kids when they needed me. There was a ‘precarious’ side to temporary contracts, but during my 25-year-career, I was never out of work in a country with an unemployment rate of over 10%.
I’m now semi-retired and back in beautiful Nice.
I have the time to travel extensively with my husband in our motor-home around Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. We’ve seen Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Sicily, Morocco, Italy, Spain and Norway.
I’ve now got the time to create this website I’ve been dreaming about too. A website to help others find the joy of teaching Business English to adults and to succeed at making a living abroad.
If you’re thinking about working as a Business English teacher or are new to the job, start with the introductory page ‘New Teachers Start Here’. If you’re looking for continuous improvement as a business English teacher, begin with the page ‘Experienced Teachers Start Here.’
I’m so looking forward to reading your comments and to learning from you too.