Teaching abroad can be one of the best decisions you can make, and you learn so much important stuff about yourself and about the world. But! It’s important to be realistic about what your life will be like as a teacher in another country. Make sure you’re properly prepared for the experience and have the capacity to make a positive impact wherever you end up! Here are some things that no one tells you about teaching English abroad.
This one seems like a, “well duh!” but honestly, in all the daydreaming that happens about what life abroad will be like, people forget. Of course, you will have amazing experiences, meet new friends, and travel as much as you can, but the reality is that the vast majority of your time abroad will be standing in front of a classroom. That, or sitting at your desk preparing for your next classes. Or doing something relaxing after school because teaching can take it out of you some days. I don’t mean this in a negative way at all, but generally the 8 hours/day of being at school doesn’t make it into everyone’s daydreaming. Although it doesn’t sound great on paper, there are so many positives to spending all those hours at schools. You’ll make friends with your local co-teachers, you’ll actually get to know your students and you’ll learn to be a much more patient and organized person.
Despite all the wAnDerLuSt you’ll see on Instagram in the destination you plan to teach, that’s not what the average day looks like. Once you get settled into your new apartment and job, you’ll start to establish a routine that you’ll follow in the same way you follow your routine at home now. You’ll pop in your headphones in the morning and commute to work without thinking about it, you’ll teach the same classes at the same times, you’ll have your favorite dinner spots to stop at after school, and you’ll binge the same shows on Netflix you watch every night before bed. Some days you might even be a little *GASP* bored. But that’s okay! Life can’t be exciting at all times – that would be exhausting.
It’ll hit you every once in a while, especially at first, and you’ll be in awe for a split second thinking, “Whoa! This is my life! It’s, like, my life at home except I’m in Thailand/Italy/Colombia. Hm weird. Okay time for class.” But honestly, it’s one of the best things about living abroad. In those moments, you realize that you have the grit and tenacity to be successful, even in a new place, even with a new job and likely with a previously unknown language.
Despite your best intentions, you can still negatively affect your host community, colleagues and or students if you’re not conscious of the role you play in their lives. Oftentimes within the teaching abroad world, a lot of people go into the experience incredibly naïve about the job. It’s such a common path for people to take, after college or as a career break, that it’s easy to fall into thinking, “Teaching can’t be that hard if everyone is doing it!” Teaching may come easy to some people, but for most, it takes time and practice to become a good teacher and if you go into a job unprepared, that’s a disservice to the students and the local teachers who work with you.
Get quality training for the job you’ll be doing, educate yourself on the culture as much as possible, and give yourself the room to adjust to your new environment (i.e. don’t travel every weekend). Culture shock is real, and you need more downtime in the beginning while you’re adjusting to your new surroundings. You don’t want to be that teacher who comes to class every day mentally/physically exhausted and cranky.
Understand that it’s totally fine to have personal reasons for wanting to move abroad, but you need to keep your host community in mind too and how you can best serve them. If that seems like too big of a responsibility, reconsider going on an extended holiday instead and circle back to teaching abroad at a future time.
A common problem that many English-speaking teachers don’t realize before they start teaching, is that they talk very quickly. For teachers working with young or beginner-level students, slowing waayyyyy down is necessary to increase student’s comprehension of your lessons. You’ll also discover the survival tactic of matching the level of English of the person you’re talking to, adding in as many words in the local language as you can and using lots of miming and pointing. It’s a tiring way to communicate, but it usually makes for some laughs and it’s a great way to learn new vocabulary! After a while, that’s just how you’ll talk, all the time – slower and shorter sentences. You and your foreigner friends will also start to speak in an English-hybrid language, sticking in random local words to everyday conversations, which further adds to your new way of communicating. It definitely becomes a funny habit to break when you return to your home country!
This varies from country to country, and even from school to school. In most Western schools, falling asleep in class is a generally not allowed and if a teacher catches you taking a snooze, there’s usually some consequence. Although kids will be kids no matter where you are in the world, there may be a legitimate reason a student is sleeping in your class. In places like Thailand, your students may be getting up very early in the morning to help with the family business, whether that’s a restaurant, farm or store, and may have worked late the night before as well. In places like Korea, it’s not uncommon for students to attend public school all day, private school at night, with some private tutoring in between and homework for all three at the end. Sometimes, the foreigner’s English class is the time to get some rest, and that shouldn’t be punished. When you start teaching, make an effort to learn about your students. You can do this inside and outside the classroom: create lessons on interests and hobbies, make yourself available in between classes, or join extracurricular activities.
Teaching is not an easy job and it’s not for everyone. Some people thrive as teachers and spend years abroad doing it; some even return home to pursue a graduate degree in education and change the whole course of their career. However, others find that the role as a teacher doesn’t play to their strengths and they don’t enjoy the job as much as they had anticipated. If you find yourself halfway into your contract and not loving the profession, don’t beat yourself up over it. The best thing you can do is commit yourself to your students and finish your contract, be the best teacher you can be for that time and move on to another field when you’re finished. Anyone who has taught abroad has met at least one teacher who doesn’t necessarily like teaching but wants to stay abroad, so they continue teaching as a means to an end, AKA a paycheck and a visa. They usually aren’t super committed to their jobs or improving themselves to be a better teacher, and their students are the ones who are affected the most.
As a foreigner in a different country, you’re going to learn quickly that most things are done very differently than you’re used to, whether that’s how people line up to get on the train, how an office is organized, how to deal with conflict or how you’re supposed to manage your classrooms. At some point, you may find yourself thinking, “Wow, this would be way more efficient if we did x,y, or z instead.” Whether or not your solution is right, it’s not up to you to make any changes, especially if you’re only there for a short time. Think about if your job hired one new employee from another country who came in hot trying to correct the way you and your coworkers had done things for years? You probably wouldn’t like them too much.
There’s a variety of reasons to go with the flow in this matter, but there are two main ones. Cultural nuances you may not yet recognize are at play, and a foreigner stepping on those nuances may offend some of your coworkers. The other reason is that you’re likely going through culture shock, which means you’re hyper aware of everything that is different, and you may not realize that you’re just reaching for something to control. This always serves as a lesson in patience and cooperation as you’ll learn to adapt – a very useful skill that will follow you after you leave.