An interview with Dave Sperling of Dave’s ESL cafe

dave 2For nineteen years now, Dave Sperling has been maintaining, updating and adding new content to what is arguably the most successful online center for English language teachers. Dave’s ESL cafe, while offering insightful material to teachers and students alike, also helps job-seeking teachers find positions worldwide. The cafe’s forum is a great source of information, a place where people share their experiences and exchange ideas about specific locations and schools.

Chinese Tools is proud to present an interview with Dave, the cafe’s creator, a committed traveler and photographer!

Welcome David, I thought we’d start with explaining a few basic terms to our readers. What is EFL and ESL? Is there a difference between these terms?

The terms ESL and EFL are often used interchangeably these days. However, ESL is short for English as a Second Language and that is when students are studying English in an English speaking country. For example, when I was teaching here in the U.S., I was teaching ESL because my students were foreigners living or studying here. EFL is English as a Foreign Language and that is relevant to students who are studying English in their home countries.


What motivated you to start the website?

Well, it goes back to 1993 when I was a graduate student in Linguistics and I had just discovered the internet and computers and I really loved their potential.  When I started teaching in 1995, I began looking into how to create html, the language to develop webpages,  and I just experienced it and played around. I guess I had too much time on my hands! Eventually, I created so many separate pages that I had to consolidate them into a single page. That’s how Dave’s ESL cafe was born:  It basically became the menu for all these different pages. I think that in those days the term “website” didn’t really exist or wasn’t used as much!


Dave’s ESL café has become one of the most important sites in the field. What have you learned in the process?

Well I’ve learned a lot. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is to try not to do everything. When I was creating the site, I simply had to go ahead and implement any idea that would pop to my head. The result was that it simply became too much! There were pages I had to block because I couldn’t maintain them, some sections I had to drop because they were bad software that became vulnerable. But, as you said, the site has moved a long way since then and everything is much better now. I am able to keep it up.


Is the website a one man show? Are you the only one maintaining it?

Basically yes. I do have subcontractors; for example I don’t do any of the distant administrator tasks, I don’t deal with the servers. I have somebody that does that but actually no one works for me.  I pay a person or a company to maintain them. Sometimes I’ll hire designers and software developers, but on a day by day basis, I am the one working on it.


What about the content? Did you create all these great ideas for teachers and students?

I have a friend, who provided quite a lot of the material. His name is Denis Oliver. We became friends when he was teaching and he offered to create material. The content was created by both of us. For example he created the idioms section. But yes, all the material for students and teachers is self-developed.


What are the things you love about the website and what are the things you would change?

Well actually, I have already changed a lot of the things that I didn’t like. As I said, I removed sections that didn’t quite work.

But I guess it is easier to focus on what I love about the site (laughs)!  First and foremost, I like the idea that my site is a platform that connects people. It serves as a connection tool for students and primarily for teachers. It definitely helps them in terms of their job search. It gives them the opportunity to connect to people teaching in other countries.

The other thing I love is posting jobs! I post somewhere between 700 to 1000 jobs per month from countries all over the world. I feel the website can make quite an impact on a person’s life.  Through it, people can find work, move abroad, teach in another country and gain an experience that will change them for the rest of their lives.


Is teaching a good way of getting to know a country?

I think that teaching is a great way to see a country. One of the reasons I got into teaching was because I was an ardent traveler. I was backpacking around the world -Africa, Europe, the U.S. and Canada- and I was looking for a way to spend more time in these countries, to get to know the culture and the language and have the experience of actually living there.  So, yes, teaching is a fantastic way of experiencing a country.


What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of moving abroad to teach English?

Do as much research as you can! Learn about the country, the city and the school you are planning to teach at. Determine whether it is right for you. Find out whether it has a good reputation. Think carefully about where you want to stay: Would you prefer a rural area or a big city? Basically, do your homework before setting out for a place and make sure you are ready to move abroad. You have to be aware that you will be going through a culture shock.

In my experience there are three stages in culture shock. In the beginning,  you love the country you are visiting. Then you get a job, start working and a couple of months go by and you start hating everything about the place (laughs)! You get frustrated and annoyed with things that seemed exotic at first.  And then comes the third stage, where you have somehow settled in and you’ve adjusted. I think teachers have to be aware of all this, because otherwise they will start hating the country. In addition, they need to keep in mind that living abroad means being flexible.


Can someone make a reasonable living if they choose to teach English abroad?

Yes.  If we translate the payment in US dollars, in some countries you can make a lot and in some others the salary is low, but the cost of living is also particularly low. For example in countries such as Indonesia or Thailand, you might make a salary that is low by US standards, but it is much higher than the average local salary so you can live quite well. In some parts of China, especially in large cities, the pay is lucrative.


I noticed that you have a dedicated job board for China. I am guessing there is a lot of demand over there. What do people write on your forums about teaching in China? Is it a dream or a nightmare?

 I have three job boards: one is the South Korea job board, one is the China job board and one is the international job board that includes all other countries! Initially, I only had an international and a Korea board because I simply had too many job posts for Korea that I needed to separate them. The same thing happened with China a few years ago.

As far as the discussions on the forums, it might sound terrible but I don’t really read them that much. But I can tell you this: usually, there is balance. There is both good and bad things in China and, hopefully, teachers can get quite a lot of information by reading about other peoples’ experience.