Looking for a job? Well, thousands of people around you are looking, too. They may have applied to the very same postings as you. But each individual’s experience can vary greatly; a combination of upbringing, society, family, personal choices and a sprinkling of destiny makes you the candidate you are today. So what if your past experience doesn’t fit the job you’re applying for? With some rearranging of thought and an outside-the-box perspective, you may discover that you already have some of the work experience you thought you were lacking.
The best examples that come to my mind are the ESL teachers who travel to a foreign country to live and teach—especially those with years of experience under their belt who are now looking for work back in Canada. I have many friends who lived in Asia for several years as working professionals, who have been confronted with unemployment here at home due to an apparent lack of experience. I argue that teaching anywhere, and particularly in a far-away locale, offers exceptional work and life experience.
While I didn’t build a career as an educator, I did complete a three-month stint as an ESL teacher in Central America a few years back. The learning curve was steep and slippery—anyone who has ever taught a classroom full of teenagers knows that you can gain more experience in a two-hour class than you will at a two-hour staff meeting!
Teaching basic ESL to a group combines public speaking, project management and team leading. It was with a challenging class of teens—about 25 co-eds—that I learned to deal with unprecedented obstacles. While I’ve been intimidated when meeting with CEOs or executive staff at an office job, the butterflies in my stomach were like prehistoric beasts on the morning of my first class. Getting over a very human fear of being the centre of attention isn’t easy.
With my lesson prepared, I started to teach—but I couldn’t get anyone to participate! I found myself at the front of a large classroom, sweating from every pore because of another burning hot day in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Twenty-five sets of eyeballs stared at me and 25 pairs of lips hung ajar at this wide-eyed Canadian “teacher” who apparently did not seize their attention spans. Aside from realizing the true nature of karma (I’ve mentally apologized to my old high school teachers for my own teenagehood), I could either sink or swim. And damn it, I hadn’t come to Costa Rica to drown, so I took off my shoe, hid it under a desk for everyone to see, and hopped around on one foot, searching animatedly for my “lost” property. Finally, I saw smiles. By the end of the lesson, they had learned what it meant to have an item, to lose it and to find it again, as well as several new words like shoe, desk, chair, etc.
A few classes in, I found that some silliness eased the language barrier. I let the students take turns being the teacher when we played a variation of hangman to get them comfortable with English spelling; I even performed some desperate slapstick comedy when acting out new words or actions—most of the time it worked well. They laughed, they learned and they participated.
Never in my professional experience have I been faced with such a challenge. What became a funny story is also evidence of learning to think on my feet (pun optional), to speak to a room full of people, and to not run away when those people resist making a connection. When giving myself pep talks in a Canadian office setting, you can bet that I remind myself of how I was able to lead, teach and engage a really tough crowd. I wouldn’t recommend jumping around without shoes to entertain the panel at a job interview, but if you have the experience, do advertise that you have well-honed (or honed-quickly-under-pressure) leadership and communications skills that many other interviewees won’t have. And it was all because you had the guts to leave the familiar and try something new and different. To me, that is an ideal job candidate.