I always knew I wanted to teach abroad. The toughest decision was actually putting aside the thinking and starting the doing. I knew I would be quitting my job in a tough economy. I knew I would be diving into a country where the most knowledge I had of Spanish was California’s roadsigns and my mom’s broken phrases when I was a kid. But after studying abroad in three countries, I knew teaching abroad was the next natural step.
My experience in Chile was different than what I’d imagined. From living with a host family, to being the only foreign teacher in my town, it was a semester of good times and some of those big “ah-ha!” life moments. I’ve been back for a year, and in hindsight, I can see how much teaching abroad has strengthened me, challenged me and defined my future goals. Would I do it again? Absolutely. But if I was to ever pack my bags for round two, here’s what I’d do differently.
1. Studied the language before arriving
I assumed that because I knew French, then learning Spanish would be a breeze. Nope! I imagined my brain would magically soak up Spanish thanks to the powers of total immersion. While total immersion definitely helps, I should have given myself at least some foundation in Spanish.
My host family didn’t speak a word of English, (well, they knew “sister”, “brother,” and “breakfast”), and that first month was intense. It also would have been more respectful of me to learn their language -- even some free online courses, a few helpful apps, or language learning podcasts would have helped!
2. Been less afraid of the language barrier
Looking back, I should have branched out more to the locals during the weekdays. I know I was focused on establishing my new routine, preparing for lessons and bonding with my host family, but I think I may have missed some local activities because of the language barrier. Learning a language takes a lot of courage, and putting yourself in entirely new situations is best way to do it.
3. Packed better classroom clothes
Unlike traveling, where you can throw on pretty much anything, teaching abroad requires a certain dress code. I knew I would be teaching in a cold climate, but I didn’t realize just how important it was to pack clothes that were both waterproof and semi-formal.
My classroom didn’t have indoor heating, and there were many days I didn’t take off my coat or gloves. While suitcase space is precious, it’s definitely worth taking a close look at everything you pack to make sure you’ll be comfortable in whatever classroom you end up in: dry, humid or frigid.
4. Stayed vegetarian
I wanted to adapt and fully immerse in the local culture, so I wasn’t very strict with my vegetarian ways while living with a host family. Because I’d only been vegetarian for a few years prior, it was an easy transition back. Looking back, I realize that eating vegetarian abroad is challenging, but totally do-able. There’s a fine line between respecting the local culture and staying true to your own lifestyle.
5. Saw the bigger picture
Before leaving to teach in Chile, I checked out some blogs of people who’d taught in my program. Their posts were inspirational and informative, with perfectly crafted captions and jaw-dropping photos of epic landscapes.
Anytime you go abroad, there will be both fun and not-so-fun days, and it helps to see this bigger picture.
Looking back, I realize that their posts didn’t dig deep into the frustration and culture shock that comes with living abroad. Realizing this might have made adapting to the struggles of teaching abroad easier. Anytime you go abroad, there will be both fun and not-so-fun days, and it helps to see this bigger picture.
6. Looked into more side-job opportunities
I would have loved to get more experience tutoring privately. I didn’t want to pack my schedule too full, but even a once-a-week teaching lesson would have been a great way to earn extra money teaching abroad and get to know the locals in a more substantial and real way. Having that intimate relationship would've undoubtedly added great value to my overall experience.
7. Been more aware of culture shock
I was a bit unprepared for Chile’s effect on me. The culture shock didn’t hit suddenly, like you’d expect with some countries the moment you step off the plane. It happened slowly, and I didn’t even see it coming.
I assumed I was just frustrated at other things: not knowing Spanish, being constantly cold in the classroom, or the lack of real coffee (which meant many un-caffeinated mornings.) These little lifestyle changes all added up. Looking back, I wasn’t really aware what was happening, or else I may have founder quicker ways to deal with the culture shock.
8. Taught in a rural area
Even though my program didn’t let us choose our placement towns, we could request a city size. I requested a metropolitan area, and was placed in a town of about 140,00 people. Other teachers were placed in towns with less than 1,000 people. At first, I was thrilled with my situation, but hearing my colleagues’ stories of teaching in a rural area intrigued me. I wish I would have been more daring and expanded my comfort zone by requesting a more remote region. It’s a once-in-a lifetime opportunity!
9. Packed more teaching materials
“Pack less” is the ultimate travel mantra. I did, but I had a lot of days when I wished I threw in a few more unique materials from home. There are certain essential teaching tools -- English-language props like postcards, maps and magazines would have come in handy. After all, you won’t be taking these items home, so you’ll have the extra space later.
10. Asked my co-teacher for more guidance
My program required a once-a-week meeting with our co-teachers to go over lesson plans, but my co-teacher was frequently very busy. Oftentimes, meetings were postponed or cut short. At first, I wondered if this laxness towards schedules was apart of the local culture (to an extent, yes, and it’s best to adapt), but I soon realized that I needed to step up quickly if I was to be a successful teacher.
Balancing your needs while respecting the local way of life is a fine line. It all depends on your approach, so do it early rather than wait. I also underestimated the value of the insight my co-teacher could've shared with me -- they're a wealth of info, so take advantage of it!
11. Found employment independently
I loved my program, but if I was to teach abroad again, I would directly apply to a school. Teaching abroad through a government program like I did provides a degree of stability, but it comes at the cost of freedom to make your own choices, such as housing.
I think I was a bit nervous about showing up in-country without a job and applying to schools. However, that’s way it’s done in South America, and next time, I’d just go for it (even if the first couple of months felt like a train wreck)!
12. Made my social media private
To this day, I still get a trickle of Facebook friend requests from my younger students. Looking back, it may have been easier to change my Facebook name or set the privacy settings so students couldn’t find me. It all depends on what you’re comfortable with, but keep in mind with social media -- once one student finds you, it may as well be the whole school! It's best to beat the punch by changing your profiles to private altogether.
13. Taken more photos with people
The everyday people I lived and worked with are my favorite memories. There were many mornings I’d have tea in the teacher’s lounge and chat with the school’s Mother Superior, who had a lot of interesting things to say about everything from climate change to technology.
The everyday people I lived and worked with are my favorite memories. I wish I had more photos of those!
At lunch, I’d visit the cafe next door and talk with the owner who loved to play “Hotel California” on repeat. I wish had photos with these awesome people!
14. Gone to Easter Island
It's a five hour flight from mainland Chile, and the most remote island on Earth. Big adventures like this are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Looking back, I could have just gone without a few weekend trips and saved for this epic adventure. Budget for a big experience if you feel like it’s a now-or-never chance. Make the effort to take advantage of the unique travel opportunities in your new region.
15. Spent more time with the host family
I think I spent a good amount of time with them, but if I knew more Spanish, I know I would have been more involved. Host families provide deep cultural insight, and it definitely would have been a more enriching experience if I had integrated more. Don't be afraid of those initial awkward conversations -- embrace them!
16. Been more involved with my school
My school had a lot of cool events, from Student’s Day, to teacher field trips to some national parks. I declined a number of events because they sometimes conflicted with travel plans with my fellow co-teachers. I didn’t miss everything, but I do wish I had made a bigger effort to get to know the local staff.
17. Been more creative with lesson planning
There’s only so much you can do with your lesson plans with limited resources, but it all boils down to your creativity. I used music and art supplies extensively, but definitely could have created more unique games for the students, even with limited resources. There are a lot of ideas and resources online that I didn’t know about or use.
18. Expanded my network
I should have branched out beyond my host family and local teacher friends to find people with like-minded interests, or to discover new ones. Maybe there’s a yoga group or couchsurfing meetup in your region. You never know what doors might open if you make an effort to make new friends abroad!
19. Limited internet time
I was one of the lucky teachers who had internet in my host family's house. Skyping and blogging were my two biggest activities, but I could have went a bit without the technology each every evening to spend more time with my host family.
You can always return to your technology, but your time with the local community is limited.
Anyone living abroad needs to find a good balance between personal time (we all need it to unwind), and really immersing yourself in the local environment. You can always return to your technology, but your time with the local community is limited.
20. Not spoken any Spanish to my students
Some of my students had very low levels of English. Communication was really tough with one group, so one day, I translated a few instructions into Spanish. I tried to limit how often I did this, but all it took was one day, and from then on, that class always defaulted into Spanish. Even if you know the local language, never let them know you speak it!
21. Traveled solo on the weekend
Oftentimes, I was surrounded by fellow expat teachers on the weekend. We explored and traveled together, but like any group, we all had to agree on what to see and do. I remember one woman in our group was different. She set her own itinerary. She would be with us for some weekends, but if she really wanted to see something, she had no problem going off solo to travel for a few days. Looking back, I wish I had been more comfortable making plans on my own and traveling solo. I would have seen more!
22. Read more literature from the host country
I’ll always remember the day I told one of my students that I was from Berkeley. I didn’t expect her to know much about it, but turns out, she’s obsessed with the city! She read a book by Isabele Allende, the famous Chilean author. Looking back, I regret not becoming more familiar with Chile’s authors, poets and musicians. Not only would it have given more insight into the culture, but it would’ve been another way to connect with my students.
23. Thought more about my plans after teaching abroad
Time flies overseas. Just when I started to feel settled after five months, my contract was ending. It would have been nice if I’d started researching opportunities and making connections for teaching jobs in other cities months before my position ended. Even a little research every day is good, as there are a lot of options to look at for after teaching abroad.
24. Made more effort to continue learning the language after returning home
By the end of my teach abroad experience, I was able to have a comfortable conversation with locals and read the newspaper. I felt like I’d made a lot of progress. It was a great feeling. Flash forward one year later, and it takes a lot more effort to communicate in Spanish. Life got busy when I returned home, but I should have continued to keep Spanish a daily part of my life.
25. Stayed longer
This is my biggest regret. Chile is an amazing country, and I wish I could have stayed beyond one semester. Luckily, most teach abroad contracts are nine months to a year, so if possible, always plan to stay longer. It takes time to adapt to a new country, so give yourself a chance. Once you do, you’ll probably be glad you’re still around.
There will always be a collection of “shoulda, coulda, wouldas” for every post-trip reflection, but hopefully, these these 25 will help you prepare you to make the most of your teach abroad time. At the end of the day, the best advice is to go with an open mind, and understand that you’ll definitely be learning more than you’ll be teaching! It’s an amazing experience.
What do you wish you would have done differently when teaching abroad?Photo Credits: Greenheart Travel and author.