10 Things to Know Before Teaching Abroad

steve patton's students

So you’ve made the decision. You’re going to teach English abroad. You’ve done the research, decided on the country that is right for you, and potentially committed to spending the next year or so of your life in a foreign country. Congratulations! It’s exciting, it’s scary, and if you’re like most people, it’s more than a little overwhelming.

Let’s face it; there is no way to prepare for everything when you’re about to embark on a period of extended travel. You are going to face plenty of unexpected challenges and adventures that you can’t possibly anticipate right now, and that’s okay!

With that said, being prepared can help you make the most of your experience abroad. There are definitely many things that I wish I knew before teaching abroad that could have made my transition a bit smoother, and I’m sure that most ESL teachers can relate. Every one’s experience is going to be different of course, but here are some lessons learned along the way that I think most prospective teachers could benefit from.

1. Patience, Patience, Patience

Traveling is probably the best way to practice your patience. Whether you’re headed off for a week at Disney Land or a year in Katmandu, just about everything is going to take more time than you imagine, and it’s best to accept it now. Especially if you are traveling to a less developed country, be prepared to practice deep breathing and counting to ten. Your employer will likely not have the same sense of urgency that you are used to, government services will come with even more red tape, and public transportation will not always be on time. Try to embrace it and revel in the slower pace of life, because you’ll probably miss it when you return home!

2. Don’t Expect To Change The World Overnight

teaching abroad in georgia with greenheartPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

Teaching ESL can be incredibly rewarding. The look on a young student’s face when he finally grasps that new vocab or grammar lesson is truly priceless, but don’t expect a miracle every day. Teaching ESL, as with teaching anything, is a slow and methodical process. Not everyone is going to become fluent in the language by the time class is over.

Don’t expect perfection, and remember that when students leave your classroom with a even a slightly better understanding of the English language, you have put them on the path towards achieving their full potential. Embrace the little victories every day.

3. You Aren’t Perfect Either

Students aren’t the only ones that get bored in the classroom. Like any job, teaching day in and day out can become monotonous. You probably won’t wake up every day feeling excited to face a room full of hyper students (especially if you stayed a bit too long at last night’s happy hour), but finding your enthusiasm is important. The old adage "fake it till you make it" really applies here. A good attitude will rub off on your students eventually, but a bad attitude will catch on instantly. You will be a much better teacher when you’re enjoying yourself, even if you feel like an actor sometimes.

4. You Will Get Homesick

It happens to everyone at some point or another. You’ll miss your friends, your family and your familiar home, and that’s okay. Understand that being homesick is part of personal growth, and it will pass eventually. I found that when I felt particularly disconnected, it helped to write emails home to my friends and family. The simple act of telling my best friend about my week, or writing about an interesting road trip was always a cathartic activity, and in addition to making me feel closer to home, I amassed a collection of writing that I was proud of.

5. You Will Have More Free Time

Even if you are working full time, you will probably have more off days than you’re used to. It sounds hard to believe now, but it’s easy to get bored! Use your free time wisely. Plan trips and activities with your fellow teachers and take advantage of the long weekends and vacation time to travel around your region. Who knows when you’ll be back!

playing with elephants in myanmar

Take classes in the local language and try to improve your skills. Create new activities and games for your classroom. That season of Arrested Development on Netflix will still be there when you get home.

6. You Are Wayyyy More in Demand Than You Think

Finding a job is obviously of first and foremost concern for most people when arriving in a new country. It can be very tempting to take the first opportunity that comes your way, ignoring factors like an inconvenient schedule or a horrendous commute. After all, you need to eat!

However, you should understand that in most locations, ESL teachers are in high demand (and can get paid a lot of money. It depends on the job market in your particular city of course, but don’t be afraid to look around a bit and wait for an offer that feels right. Sometimes you don't even need a college degree to get an English-teaching job.

Even if it means pinching your pennies for a while, you will have a much better experience if you don’t have to wake up at 4:30 AM to take the bus an hour and a half to a low paying job at an unorganized school.

7. It’s Easy to Get Sick

You may be the type of person that “never” gets sick. I know I was. But traveling tends to have a way of wreaking havoc on the ol' immune system. Strange foods, a different sleep schedule and a new climate can all contribute to not feeling 100%, so try to stay ahead of the curve. It’s tempting to want to experience every single new food (and beverage) you can right away, but pace yourself. Try your best to keep a balanced diet (maybe go veg?), and remember that you might not need to stay out until last call on Tuesday night.

And just because you’re in an unfamiliar location doesn’t mean you can’t exercise! You don’t need a fancy gym. A long run at sunset can work wonders for mind and body, and be a great way to explore a new city. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I made a habit of attending nightly public calisthenics in the park – a thoroughly entertaining way to get a decent workout and experience a cultural institution.

pink and purple sunset in thailand

8. You Will Need To Stand Up For Yourself

If you aren’t a confrontational person, standing up for yourself can be difficult, but it’s sometimes necessary when living as a foreigner in a new country. Sure, it might not be worth haggling over an extra fifty cents with a street vendor, but if your cab driver is trying to charge you way more than he should, or your employer doesn’t want to pay you what was agreed upon, it’s okay to speak up.

No one else is going to do it for you, and you’ll be a more confident person if you practice asking for what you want in a clear and polite, yet firm manner.

9. Get Ready To Learn

Honestly, I kind of expected the TESOL training and certification program that I signed up for to breeze. I thought it would be something of a formality, like that big lecture in college where if you show up to class and put forth half an effort you get an A.

But TESOL certification was actually way more intense than I imagined. For four weeks, the class demanded my full attention, and the final exam was a little stressful. After being out of school for almost two years, I had to remember how to be a student again!

10. You Won’t Want To Leave

Of all the things I experienced while teaching in Cambodia, perhaps the biggest surprise was how sad I was to leave. After over a year of living and working abroad, I was greatly looking forward to seeing my family and friends back home, but when the time came to board my return flight, I was way more affected than I anticipated. For some, figuring out a way to make teaching abroad a lifelong career is a viable option. Others may choose to close the chapter on a well-lived experience overseas. The important part is to continue living as a global citizen. Find a way to incorporate your love for travel into your everyday life, and teaching English abroad can be just the beginning!

You’re about to begin the adventure of a lifetime. Don’t over think it. Your most rewarding experiences will likely come out of nowhere when you least expect it, so prepare as much as you can, but ultimately, embrace the unexpected. I’m sure that in no time you’ll have plenty to add to this list.

Photo Credits: Greenheart Travel and author.

Steve Patton
Steve calls Boston home, though he spends as much time on the road as he does in any one place these days. He's part of the marketing team at...