Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Teaching a little and learning a lot

Peter Flynn was forced to emigrate to find work, but it has made him a better teacher and given him opportunities and experiences he could never have previously imagined.

Fri, Apr 6, 2012, 07:28


I was forced to emigrate to find work, but it has made me a better teacher and given me opportunities and experiences I could never have previously imagined, says Peter Flynn.

Peter Flynn at Kellie's Castle, Batu Gajah

I ALWAYS WANTED to be a teacher. I started college in 2006 when teaching jobs were almost guaranteed, but things had changed drastically by the time I graduated from my HDip in UCC in 2010. Recruiters from English schools visited the college during our exam year, but I was dead set against the idea of emigrating.

English schools sounded like terrifying places, and I was determined to stay in Ireland where I would be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

By April the following year, I had only had three days of substitute teaching. I hated signing on. I had worked hard for my qualifications, and was desperate to get off the unemployment register as quickly as possible. So, when a friend who was back in Ireland for her spring break recommended I try applying for a school in Malaysia, I didn’t see what I had to lose.

I applied to give me something to hope for, more than anything else.

When I travelled to London for the interview, I told very few people that I was going. But I was offered the job on a two-year contract. It seemed like a very long stretch.

What did I know of Malaysia back then? I had read as a child that it was home to a strong-smelling fruit called the durian and the Petronas Towers, which at the time were the tallest buildings in world. I had also been instilled with a notion that I would be fried red by the unrelenting sun and bitten into a state of invalidity by the mosquitoes.

It was bitterly hard to leave all my friends and say goodbye to my parents at the airport. Luckily, I settled in very easily, and found a flat with a lovely Filipino family. I now work in an International School, where there is a healthy mix of Malaysians and expatriates among both the staff and the students. As well as being a specialist history teacher for the Junior School, I was given duties as diverse as swimming instructor, football coach and assistant director of the school musical. It is hard to search for downsides in your situation when you are kept so busy. It is also making me a better teacher.

As they live in a former British colony, Malaysians generally speak good English, and I am learning Malay. I cannot understand why anyone would refuse the chance to learn a new language, but a lot of expats get by without Malay and see no need to learn it. The Malaysian teachers in school really appreciate my attempts to learn. They are not offended when I speak it in a thick Irish accent.

In college, I hadn’t travelled further than Britain, and I’m glad that this has given me a chance to broaden my horizons while I’m still young.

Peter at the Cross of Magellan, Cebu, the Phillipines

My first trip outside of Kuala Lumpur was to Batu Gajah, an old-fashioned, pretty, sleepy little town where my friend’s great-great-grandfather had been a policeman. Since then, I’ve been to Singapore and the Philippines, where I experienced hospitality (and karaoke parties) like I’ve never known before.

My favourite journey so far was with another teacher to the Malaysian rainforest. There, we lived for a few days with the Batek, an aboriginal tribe. We tried to learn their language, eat what they ate, and we engaged one as a guide to the beautiful, secluded corners of the jungle.

My friends here are mostly Malaysian, English, Filipino and Indian. I have tried to meet other Irish expats, but I haven’t formed any lasting relationships with any. Can friendships based solely on nationality endure for long?

Homesickness surfaces now and then. My parents Skype my mobile phone a few days a week, and they visited me here last November. I can see how my friends are on Facebook, but I prefer writing them letters. No amount of Facebook notifications can match the feeling of getting a letter in the post. Reading their letters here make me realise how unique our Irish wit is. I miss that more than I miss red lemonade or Irish sausages.

Very few of my classmates are employed in Ireland now. The Croke Park Agreement really scuppered any chance we had to get a job. From what I read, things do seem to be picking up slightly though, and I have every faith that I will be able to go back to Ireland at some stage in the next few years.

My time in Malaysia has lifted a veil in my mind, and if I return home to find there is no work for me there, I won’t be afraid to look for a job abroad again.

If I had stayed in Ireland, I wouldn’t have had this wonderful experience, or the opportunity to put my teaching skills into practice. I hope I will return with a competitive advantage over that young and inexperienced graduate that I was before I left. For that I am grateful.

– In conversation with Ciara Kenny