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school of talk podcast blog banner featuring guest mia townsend for teaching abroad and traveling solo

In This Episode of School of Talk

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This episode features Mia Townsend.

Mia is a traveling teacher, mental health advocate, and avid traveler! She works as an ESL instructor both virtually and in-person across the globe.

Having spent the majority of her twenties and a good deal of her teen years traveling, Mia is often asked what keeps her traveling.

Her response is always the same: she travels to find community.

Teaching Abroad and Traveling Solo with Mia Townsend 

Episode Highlights:

  • What it’s like teaching in Japan, Thailand, South Africa, and Myanmar (Burma)
  • How a love for travel inspired Mia to pursue teaching, despite never thinking she’d become a teacher.
  • Tips for finding a community while living abroad including the country Mia highly recommends for solo female travelers.
  • How to overcome fears related to traveling and living abroad – even if you are a solo traveler.
  • What does a typical day look like for Mia as she teaches adults a second language abroad.
  • How learning a new language can benefit you as an ESL teacher.

Episode 1 Transcript:

Intro: You are listening to School of Talk. We’re creating a world where every child experiences the power of a great teacher. We believe education is the answer. It has the power to conduct change, improve lives, unlock ideas, create opportunities, and build connections.

It’s the single greatest investment we can make today to create a better tomorrow. That’s why we’re on a mission to train, inform and inspire educators around the world.

Each week, we dive into a topic related to education, teaching, and learning. Whether you’re an educator by trade or an educator by spirit, we’ve got something for you. Open up your mind, and get ready to soak in some new learning.

Class is in session.

Michelle: Today’s episode is brought to you by Teach Away. Teach Away offers a full suite of services to schools, aspiring and current teachers from helping travel lovers get certified to teach abroad to offering international recruitment solutions for schools to providing world renowned professional development courses.

Teach Away is here to create a world where every student experiences the power of a great teacher.

Okay, yet so my first question for you is, I would love to know a little bit about what inspired you to become an educator in the first place.

Mia: Great question, Michelle. I would say I don’t know if you’re a fan of Boy Meets World. But I grew up watching the show Boy Meets World and there’s a principal Mr. Feeny who really changed my idea of what it means to be an educator.

He always talked to students and gave the message of like believe, try, and do good. And I think that really impacted me knowing Oh, I could do that too. I can make a difference in someone’s life like Mr. Feeny.

Michelle: Oh, my goodness. ’90s kids are freaking out right now. 

Mia: Yeah, let’s talk about Boy Meets World all day long, I’m happy to do so! We’re inspired by a character but like such an amazing eye. That was sacred.

Later on, I had a couple of teachers who’ve like, truly changed the course of my my career path and my life by just believing in me and giving me the skills I needed to, to get to where I want it to be. And I, I’ve always wanted to be that person for someone else. So

Michelle: That’s fantastic. I love that you’re kind of paying it forward here with you. What inspired you to be a teacher and now you’re kind of giving it back to the kids? What are you teaching right now?

Mia: So I teach English as a second language. And I’ve been doing that for about seven years. I’ve dabbled in a few other subjects taught financial literacy in Cape Town, South Africa, not sure I was the most qualified, but it was a great way to learn. And I’ve also taught some basic computer skills as well. But I love teaching English because it’s an avenue for learning a lot about other cultures and sharing what you know, as well. So a really good fit for me, I think.

Michelle: And you said, you’ve been teaching ESL for about seven years now.

Mia: Oh, my goodness, I never thought I would be a teacher, honestly. But I have such a love for traveling and a love for learning. And I would say, I did a semester abroad in South Africa. And prior to that, I was studying special education in school, in college, and I was kind of bored learning. I hate to say it, but I was kind of bored learning how to teach. I really wanted to be learning about the world around me learning about the subjects, as opposed to just like teaching, classroom management, things like that.

So I did a semester abroad in Cape Town and came back and I thought, Okay, I need to continue traveling, I need to continue opening my mind up to the world. And eventually, I got plugged into an international community in rural Georgia State, Georgia. And I was working with newly arrived immigrants and refugees and loved, loved, loved learning from them.

My role there was teaching English was the first time I had really done that. More than a few hours during the day, and I just fell in love with it. It was just such a great, great way to learn about the world. And eventually, it led me to teach abroad and travel.

Michelle: That’s amazing. So you had a little bit of experience did you have to go and get certified in any way to teach abroad and travel.

Mia: So my first job abroad was in Japan. My first teach abroad job was in Japan and I didn’t need a certificate. I know now, schools prefer having that certificate. But for me, because I had had two years in college doing field placements, I was pretty confident in how to plan a class like a piano lesson. And in theory, I knew about classroom management.

I always recommend for people who don’t have that experience to get an in-person TEFL certificate, because it can just make you a lot more hireable. But I ended up getting a TEFL certificate three years ago for my online teaching job. So I know they’re two different forms two, you can do it in person, and it’s usually more expensive, but really valuable. Or you can kind of get a quick TEFL certificate online. And that’s what I did, but it was because I had the experience to back it up.

Michelle: That’s wonderful. And you said that you teach now, do you teach both online and in-person?

Mia: So before the pandemic (everything’s before the pandemic!) I was teaching in-person in Thailand and I loved my job. And at the same time, I was teaching in the evenings online, so I was kind of balancing both those jobs. And after the pandemic, it was just my whole world changed. I ended up coming back to the States. But I was so grateful to continue teaching online. So I kept doing that for the last two years.

And now I’m hoping to get back to in-person teaching again. Yeah, there’s a lot of good things to say about both online and in person.

Michelle: Yes, I think, online, I’ve heard there’s a good amount of flexibility, especially if you are in a different country, you can travel around, you can see the sights. But of course, in person is always fun. You may get to connect with the kids in a different way.

Mia: Exactly, exactly. I will say I’ve gotten pretty used to that flexibility. It’s really refreshing. I just got back from Costa Rica. And it was refreshing to know I could just hop over there teach online. And I was also taking Spanish classes. So you can really design the life that you want. The lifestyle you want from teaching online, but in-person interactions are really nice, too.

Michelle: Absolutely. So you’ve taught in South Africa, and you’ve lived in Costa Rica. Where are some other places you’ve been?

Mia: I spent the most time teaching abroad in Japan, almost two years. And, in Thailand, I worked at a boarding school there. And I also worked online and tried out living in different cities there. I’ve had some experience teaching in Myanmar, Burma for a while. Yeah, but I’m lucky to call a couple of countries home.

Michelle: That’s incredible. And is it ever stressful? Is it hard? Or do you just love it?

Mia: Everyone always asked me how I do it. Like, I get a lot of comments saying, ‘Oh, you must be so courageous. I can’t imagine picking everything up and just moving abroad.’ Especially in a country where I don’t know the language. But I have the same fears as everyone else. I read the news. And the news always shows the worst.

My recommendation for anyone wanting to get started is to book a ticket, apply for that job, get yourself kind of locked in, so you can’t really back out and just know you’re going to be uncomfortable. You’re going to be scared at first. But the more you do it, the more practice it becomes solo travel. And living abroad is one of the most empowering things you can do.

So you can start a little coaching group to help people get to that point. But I just love helping other people that take that leap because it changed my life. And I know it can change other people’s lives as well.

Michelle: What age level do you teach?

Mia: All ages. So I started in Japan teaching all ages. The youngest student I had is three up to adult age. I don’t normally have enough coffee to get through full-time teaching with children. So I prefer I prefer working with adults. But teaching kids has its benefits as well. They just know how to warm your heart. So I’ve had experience with both.

Michelle: That’s so rewarding to just to be able to try different, you know, different avenues of teaching and I was a teacher and I taught younger kids but I would imagine working with adults and being able to connect with them in a different way. would be so rewarding in itself. So that’s very cool that you get to experience it.

Mia: Yeah, definitely offers a different flavor. What’s your daily life like it? Where are you living now?

Mia: I don’t really have a home base. And I think traveling around so much has made me want to have more of a home base. So I’m planning on moving to a small town in Georgia in the States. But I hope to continue teaching abroad and traveling. I have a really strong relationship with my students in Thailand. And so I would love to do something where I’m partnering with them somehow. I’ve been teaching them regularly once a week, and it’s just good to keep in touch. So yeah, I would consider Georgia a home base.

Michelle: That’s very good. I’ve heard them I know you’ve mentioned Thailand a couple of times, I’ve never been. I have heard the best things about Thailand, the people, the culture, everything about it.

Mia: It’s amazing. I’m the type of person that likes a little less structure in a place. So Thailand offers that adventure. But it also offers things for any type of traveler. They have like luxury travel, you’ve got beaches, you’ve got a jungle, you’ve got delicious food everywhere. And for solo female travelers, it’s one of my number one recommended countries, it’s so easy to travel around. Pretty safe. It’s, yeah, it’s just so much fun. You have to go I have recommendations!

Michelle: Okay, we will connect after I would love to go. It sounds amazing. And yeah, I think that’s really good to know, too. Because I think a lot of solo travelers, probably particularly female solo travelers would have some hesitations, because like you mentioned the news is scary. And there are lots of reasons holding you back, you could come up with a lot of excuses why not to do something, but I think it’s nice to hear from someone like yourself who’s done it, that it’s maybe not as scary as it sounds.

Mia: It’s not and you’re never alone. I think when people think of solo travel, they think, Oh, I’m just gonna like, not gonna be able to talk to anyone, I won’t know how to get around. And there are moments where you are alone. But there are so many people just like you who are doing the same thing, so many different ways to connect with people. But also, being a solo traveler, makes you a bit more approachable. And I find it’s the best way to learn about a culture because people are more willing to come up to you and say hi, whereas if you’re with a group, that’s a little bit of a different feel.

Michelle: Definitely, I totally understand that. And just jumping back to your experiences as a teacher, you said that you have taught predominantly adults and you’ve taught them English as a second language. What’s a typical day for you as a traveling teacher?

Mia: It’s different if I’m teaching online versus teaching in the classroom. If I’m with students at a private school, they would have a set curriculum. But when I walk into the classroom every day, my routine is kind of the same, I always want to make sure my students are feeling comfortable with me and comfortable with each other.

Because teaching English is a little bit different, you have to get people talking. And it’s really hard to do that if you’re not comfortable with people around you. So I start with some type of icebreaker warm-up game. Something that gets students talking and a little bit out of their own head where they’re thinking about someone else, maybe some group, team building activities, things like that.

And then we jump into whatever the target goal is for that day. And then teaching online. It depends on which platform you work for. But one of the platforms I work for is Cambly. And that is a conversation-based company. And so each student is different. But I often start with just general like getting to know your questions, like “how was your week,” if it’s a regular student, or I’ll ask them to tell me something they want to work on.

Sometimes we read news articles or play games. There’s a lot of resources out there if someone’s trying to figure out how to start teaching.

One really good website I like is called sticky ball dot net. And another one I use for news articles or lesson planning is called NKU.

Michelle: Oh, that’s great. Yeah. Because, you know, I spoke to someone else last week. And it’s so important as a teacher, like you don’t have to reinvent the whole wheel. Yeah, find things that are already out there. Find things that will work well for you and pick a few Things to stick to instead of trying to, like, invent everything yourself.

Mia: You’re right, like don’t reinvent the wheel, somebody else has already done it. And it’s worked well for them. So as long as you can add your own flavor to it, and your own unique style of teaching, I think it’s gonna be okay, and you’re going to do a great job. I also tell people, like the best resource you have is yourself, right? Like, if you are in a place where you don’t have any materials, maybe you don’t have any props. Use yourself, like, do some big gestures, or draw pictures, things like that to connect with your students.

Michelle: I love it. Yeah, I think people appreciate like, you’re in a new place, you’re vulnerable. In a sense, they’re learning a new language, they feel a little vulnerable, I think there’s a place that we can kind of find some common ground there to work from.

Mia: Exactly. And I also recommend, like, if someone is teaching English specifically, it’s really good to also be learning another language or to have that experience abroad, because it gives you so much more empathy for that year that your students might have on the first day. You kind of understand what that process is like.

Michelle: Absolutely. That’s such a good point. Thank you for bringing that up. What would you say is the hardest part about traveling and teaching abroad?

Mia: Great question. It’s not so much the teaching part, I think, more so being abroad when you might be missing some big events back home. That was kind of the hardest part for me, I don’t often get homesick.

But there are times where maybe it’s Christmas, and you don’t have vacation time to go back home. Or maybe you’ve got a friend getting married, things like that, you kind of have to learn how to build your own community where you’re at. And that takes time. And that’s okay, that that takes time. And it’s okay to feel homesick. But it’s a challenge definitely living abroad. And if you’re living in a place where the culture is totally different, the first time I experienced like, big culture shock was in Japan.

Give yourself some grace and know like, you’re not gonna know how to do everything perfectly, that’s fine. You may not know how to communicate, that’s okay. Give yourself some grace and know like, you’ll get there. And it takes practice.

Michelle: That’s amazing. And it’s such a good point. Because I would imagine I would probably feel a little homesick if I went to a different place for a long time by myself. Are there any tips you have about finding a community or the, you know, the schools that you’ve worked in? Are there other teachers that you made friends with? Or how does that work?

Mia: Yes, this is like one of my favorite things to do, is just finding different ways to connect people and for me to build the community. So if you start off teaching abroad, you do kind of have that built-in community already with your school. But it takes an effort. So when I went to Japan, I just remember thinking, you know, I want to get to know my coworkers, I want to be friends because we’re spending the majority of our days together in the classroom.

So I would have once-a-month parties in my apartment, just like bring food, we’ll do like a cultural exchange thing. And it really launched into this. I don’t know it just gave me a really good feeling of knowing people on a deeper level. I also recommend using Couchsurfing. There are a ton of different sites out there. Host a Sister is one for female travelers.

But you can always reach out to people in whatever country you’re in and ask you don’t have to be hosted. You don’t have to spend the night at their place. But you can ask for like, I want to get to know someone here I would love to get to know the city. Are you free to like, give me a tour. That’s a great way.

Also, sitting in a coffee shop by yourself. Surprisingly, I’ve met a lot of people doing that or in some type of restaurant. Um, just be approachable if you want to be approached and smile, say hi. Other people are probably more shy than you are. So if it really helps to take that first step and say hi, and a lot easier than you think it might be.

Michelle: That is so cool. I’ve never even heard of some of those websites you mentioned. So those are great for people to know.

Mia: I’ve got a long list and I’m happy to give more recommendations. Feel free to reach out.

Michelle: Thank you. And you said you taught in a private school. How many people would have been in your class at one time?

Mia: Yeah, it varied. I had my smallest class size was two students. I love smaller class sizes. I think five students is like, is also a good number. My biggest class size was 18 students and it was mostly high school boys. And it was a good challenge and a fun class to figure out. But it definitely varies.

Michelle: Very cool, very cool even with 18. All the teachers in North America are jealous! Eighteen is like, the smallest class.

Mia: That’s what I love about working at a private school, I think because class sizes are usually smaller public schools. I had some friends who worked in public schools in Japan, and you get, like, maybe 18 is the smallest size, and 40 or 50, or 60 is what to expect.

Michelle: Um, and I’ve asked you what the hardest part about teaching abroad is. What is the best or most rewarding part?

Mia: So, it is the most empowering thing you can do, and it is fun. I think a lot of people think that life is going to be so different and so challenging. And in many ways, it’s you’re working, you’re building community, it’s really similar to your life back home, yet, you’re in a new place, every weekend, you can go explore somewhere, you can meet new people, you’re out of your comfort zone.

I think when you know that you’re able to, to do those things yourself, you’re able to learn how to manage the train system, you’re able to know what food you like at the grocery store, know how to cook it, which is surprisingly difficult if everything’s in a different language, editor script, and it’s like, I don’t know what I’m buying, but I’m gonna buy it and figure it out.

Michelle: Google, a lot of Google.

Mia: That was really helpful. They don’t like the image where you can just take a picture, and it’ll translate it, that’s great. Um, but I think the feeling of empowerment and confidence you’ll have after knowing you can do those things. It sticks with you for the rest of your life like, and you’ll want to keep doing it over and over again.

Michelle: I love that. I think it’s about building up that resilience a little bit to things that scare you. And then realizing that they’re actually not that scary when you’re in it. And it’s actually probably closer to your normal life than you expected to.

Mia: Absolutely. Once you get past those little hurdles, like you mentioned, like a language barrier and things like that. And you can kind of create the life that you want. I think it’s refreshing when you’re in a new place, and nobody knows you. So you have the chance to just be who you want.

Michelle: That’s so cool. Like, reinvent yourself, you know, right. And me, I just want to ask you, if there’s a single message or something that you want to close us off with a recommendation and idea.

Mia: I want to give a message I think for anyone who’s on the fence about taking, taking that leap to move abroad. To just do it, just go start scared, get uncomfortable. Because it will change your life. And I’m here to help you along the way. If you need it, feel free to send me a message Mia on the Map on Instagram or miaonthemap.com. I would love to see you take that leap. And I’d love to help coach you along the way.

Michelle: Amazing, I love it.

Mia: Thank you so much, Michelle.

Michelle: Thanks again to Teach Away for sponsoring today’s episode. If you’re interested in teaching abroad, if you absolutely love to travel, or if you’ve been cooped up in your home for the last year and a half and are itching for an adventure, Teach Away can help you see the world while teaching English abroad. They’re hosting an information session that will explain to you how you can teach English online or abroad.

And by signing up for the session, School of Talk listeners will receive a 20% off coupon to use toward one of Teach Away’s internationally recognized TEFL courses. So head over to go.teachaway.com/podcast to learn more about teaching and living abroad and find out where teaching can take you. Sign up for a free session and receive a 20% off coupon for one of their TEFL courses!

Outro: Thank you for listening to this episode of School of Talk. If you enjoy today’s episode, be sure you subscribe to the podcast. If you love today’s episode share this with a friend. Class is dismissed.


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