Update on my journey to teach abroad and knowing when to quit

By Rachel

The second blog post I wrote for ASDNext was about my attempts to get a job teaching overseas and how my ADHD presented unforeseen barriers to this, especially in the form of my medication needs. I ended the post feeling frustrated and defeated, but continued to explore my options and try to remain hopeful.

Unfortunately, the update post I am bringing to you now is not the one I had hoped to make. As of the end of October, I have ceased pursuing an overseas teaching job.

Now some of this is more of a personal decision. I had done a little bit of one-on-one teaching, and while it hadn’t been a terrible experience, it left me still uncertain how much I would enjoy teaching an entire classroom every day. Even so, I felt that there was no way of knowing until I tried. Besides, as someone who is still strongly thinking of becoming a therapist one day, I figured it would do me some good to take a job that involves learning how to connect with and reach other people. Even so, I wasn’t always feeling 100% confident that a teaching job would be a good fit for me, or I a good fit for it. So, I had already decided when I made my last post that there was going to be a point where I would just move on. I had a few more teaching applications lined up and one or two more programs I wanted to try applying to. I told myself if none of these worked out within the year, I would give up on my attempts to find a teaching program.

My experiences over the next few months solidified my decision to abandon my plans. It became clear that I needed a slightly better resume to have a hope of getting into these programs. While it would be entirely possible for me to put the time and effort in to improve my resume in these areas – and was even assured by one program that they would likely accept me if I managed to do so – I decided this felt like too much additional time and effort for something that had only ever been meant as a career detour rather than a career path. Better to accept my losses, consider this a learning experience, and move on. Now that my final rejection has come and gone, that is exactly what I am going to do.

I wish that was all there was to this story. I wish it was just about my own folly, about realizing when something isn’t in the cards for me and accepting it gracefully. But this story is a little uglier than that and far crueler. Because the last rejection email I received, this one from a program in Thailand, informed me very directly that I was being rejected from the program due to my autism.

You see, like in the case where I was told my ADHD was the problem, I can’t really believe that’s only true in this instance. It just feels like they were the only ones willing to tell me.

Being told even once though was already bad enough, and I’ll admit I was angry. Strangely, it wasn’t even about being rejected. By the time that rejection had come around, I’d found the waiting and uncertainty so stressful part of me had even started to hope for rejection. I was ready to be done with this year-long effort I no longer felt fully committed to. What angered me was the fact it was due to my disability, and that they tried to sell it to me as an act of benevolence on their part. They claimed that previous experience with those on the spectrum left them worried about how I’d adjust to life in Thailand and that they believed that they were unable to provide me the support I “needed”.

These were bad excuses for several reasons. First, while I had never been to Thailand before, I had told them I had already lived abroad two times previously. The second time had even been in Israel, a country that does not have English as its main language and is actively experiencing intense civil unrest, if not war. I once slept through a literal missile attack. Making a big deal of the fact that I had never

experienced Thailand specifically (they suggested they might be convinced if I did a short-term volunteer program over there to “prove myself”) is such an obvious case of goalpost moving that it’s hard to believe I would even need to explain it. Secondly, I had already talked to the team that was working with me and assured them I would not need any additional support. I even pointed out that I had none during my two previous stints abroad either. Whatever potential situation or scenario they asked me about, I always made clear I would be fine handling it on my own and that there would be no issues. The only mistake I made was in admitting at all to any of my more prominent symptoms, even if that was always prefaced with the assurance that I knew how to manage them. It infuriates me to even know this was a mistake. In a better world, it wouldn’t have been.

Part of me wants so badly to name this program. They have barely any online presence (I was referred to them through a third party) so if I did then this blog post would likely be one of the first things to pop up if their name was googled in the future. But I don’t know that it’s appropriate for me to involve ASDNext in my own anger at a particular company, plus I don’t think I’m currently able to clearly see the full consequences of attempting to “expose” them for rejecting me. I admit though, I am so angry at them.

It disgusts me how they asserted they knew what was best for me. The way they so openly disregarded my own assessment of my needs to disqualify me based on the inability to provide support I never asked for. They may claim they’re just being cautious, but the fact is programs like theirs will accept neurotypical people who have never lived abroad or taught before. I read plenty of blog posts by such teachers admitting to this as I researched what it was like to teach English in these various countries. Thailand itself is well known for this, to the extent that more confident job hunters prefer to simply go to Thailand first and seek out a position from schools directly rather than rely on a middleman. But when it comes to me, suddenly they cannot believe I can handle it without ironclad proof. Having my assessment of myself doubted in this way was a greater slap in the face than the rejection itself.

I’m not saying I am owed a chance, and nor am I saying I automatically know for sure that their assessment was wrong. From their perspective, they’ve had bad experiences with those on the spectrum before (assuming this is even true, and not just part of their generic excuses) so they’re just being cautious. Maybe the experience would have turned out to be uniquely stressful for me. Maybe it would have turned out to be more than I could handle. I guess I’ll never get to find out.

But I do feel that people who are neurotypical or otherwise non-disabled (or who are at least presumed to be) don’t have to prove themselves this way. They don’t have to be defined by the failures of their peers. It reminds me of how women in male-dominated careers often remark on the immense pressure to never fail, lest their failure is held up as proof that women are simply unsuited to that field. If a neurotypical person proves unable to rise to a challenge, that does not mean that neurotypical people are all collectively unsuited to whatever it is they failed at. To even suggest that would be considered absurd. Disabilities (especially ones existing on such a wide spectrum as autism) rarely affect any person in the exact same way. While assumptions can be made about a group, each person in it is still very much an individual. Yet it is still considered acceptable (even among the well-meaning) to assume a person’s limits based only on their disabilities. The onus is on us to prove those limits wrong. If we can’t, then this is cruelly used against others. Why do we think it is ok to put such pressure on those already struggling? Why do we not think it’s cruel to use their failures against their peers? The right to be defined only by your own successes and failures is a privilege I think is rarely discussed, though it is denied to so many marginalized communities.

Sometimes, it truly is meant as kindness. Not even in a covering-our-asses way, but from a place of genuine concern. Yet it feels just as cruel. I remember an interviewer for another program who explained he couldn’t in good conscience put me in this position where I didn’t speak the native language and had no previous experience teaching in a group classroom setting. He drew on his own experience, in which he had been in such a situation when he first started teaching abroad, to illustrate to me how stressful it could be. I believe strongly that his concern was genuine, especially since he went as far as to give me a way to contact him again for an interview if I managed to gain more of the skills and experiences he felt I needed. I also must concede that he was part of what convinced me to reconsider continuing to pursue this goal as I did trust his assessment of the stress it could cause. But even in all of this was the admission that he had still made it through that terrible stress. He’d been tossed into the deep end, but he had managed to swim. He had been given that opportunity to sink or swim on his own, but he was not going to afford me the same. I could not even say that he was wrong to do so, but even as he tried to remain as encouraging as possible, I found myself fighting back tears. It was upsetting, I realized later, to be doubted like that. To be told that as I was, I was not enough. That he could not believe in me.

It isn’t an experience exclusive to those with disabilities, but when you do have one it’s hard to shake the feeling that it played a part. I look back on this year of failed attempts and wonder how far my neurodiversity tipped the scales of doubt each time I was rejected. How many opportunities might I have had without it? It is a pointless road to go down, but I’m not alone in traveling it.

While working on this post, I saw an article from the website Disability Scoop that discussed the findings of a recent study, on a topic that hit close to home for me at this moment. In this study, 22 physicians from around the United States were interviewed anonymously about barriers to providing care to individuals with disabilities. In the process of discussing these barriers, it transpired that some found accommodating patients with disabilities to be “burdensome” or contended that some accommodation needs might be overblown or entitled. Some reportedly used ableist language. There were open discussions about how to turn disabled patients away without facing legal repercussions, such as by claiming that they could not provide the right sort of care due to insufficient resources (sound familiar?). Though in some cases these feelings of being unable to provide proper care may have been genuine, that still means people in need of care were getting turned away from it. The sample size of this study was incredibly small, so its ability to generalize nationwide physician attitudes is limited, but to me the fact that these attitudes were present even amongst this small handful says something. And it’s not something good. Reading it all raises the question; if even some healthcare providers would rather turn us away than deal with us, how can we hold out hope for employment? For me, I know it isn’t that dire. I have options. But for others? I’m sure it is.

I want to say again that I do not believe I was ever owed a job. These programs’ responsibility is to (hopefully) provide schools with the best candidates they can find. Even my decision to give up was partially fueled by the feeling that if I had struck out so many times, perhaps it was a sign I wasn’t suited to this. Plus, I made many mistakes (perhaps chief among them disclosing my autism diagnosis at all) out of naivete. I assumed things would be easier than they turned out to be. I hope to look back on this as a year-long learning experience and be glad it at least gave me plenty of practice in job applications and interviews.

Still, I don’t think the frustration and anger I’m feeling are unwarranted. This past year of rejections has not been good for my self-esteem. Even as I remind myself that I have made great strides in other areas of my life, especially in expanding my self-advocacy work, it still stings to fail at a goal. I’m tired of falling short of what other people need me to be in order to “make up for” my disabilities. I long for the freedom to be mediocre, to bumble ahead not knowing entirely what I’m doing. Others can think I’m using it as an excuse for my failures if they like, but I’m not going to pretend the ableism I face isn’t there.

No matter what though, I won’t let the ignorance of others make me ashamed of who I am. Angry, yes, but not ashamed.