Expect the unexpected. That’s the best advice for moving abroad. We prepare as best we can, especially when we're heading overseas to teach abroad. You may have already learned the local language and gotten TEFL certified, but there’s often more than meets the eye. Finding your feet in a foreign classroom is an adventure, as we’re caught off guard by the more nuanced challenges. Fear not! Let’s take a peek under the hood of some of the hurdles you might encounter while teaching abroad.
1. Cultural differences in the classroom
We expect culture shock when setting up in a new country. But adapting to the classroom can be a whole new story. That’s because you’re about to step into very specific role - a teacher. Every culture has its unspoken rules and little cues that determine normal interactions between students and teachers. You most definitely won’t pick up on these right away, but don’t worry. By staying aware and observant of your students and other teachers, you’ll begin to see “the bigger picture” of how things run. Here’s what to be aware of.
- Your own teaching style: Hailing from the U.S., I know how much we love very direct communication. But this “cut to the chase” approach can be perceived as too aggressive in some cultures. In Asian countries, for example, indirect communication is the norm, and “saving face” is their guiding principal. If you’re the new teacher who’s pointing out students’ mistakes in front of the entire class, you’re causing those students to “lose face”. A better approach might be correcting a student one-on-one.
- Students’ interactions with each other: Gender relations is one big piece of the student dynamics puzzle. If you’re teaching in a very male-dominated society, the women in your classroom might not be used to openly sharing their opinions or interacting closely with men who aren’t relatives. Even a handshake between opposite sexes may be inappropriate in some countries. If you’re teaching in a mixed-gender classroom, it’s important to make sure that all students have an equal opportunity to participate and learn, but you’ll want to de this in a way that doesn’t trample over social expectations.
Survival Tip: See if you can “observe” a class in action before you’re handed the reins. Some schools provide comprehensive orientation to their teachers, while other schools will expect you to jump right in - even before you even get over your jet lag! If you get a chance to observe a class, pay attention to how the teacher responds to disruptive students, how the students address the teacher, and whether group work is encourages.
2. Lack of discipline
Classroom management is the grand concern for new teachers. I remember observing my first class in Chile, and was completely amazed by the constant chatter. Getting through a lesson was worse than being in Los Angeles’ stop-and-go-traffic. The teacher would pause every few minutes, “Shhh!” the entire class, and then wait for noise level to drop. Stop, “Shhh!”, repeat. Since students were used to this cycle, it made us foreign teachers feel like we had even less clout to change anything. Feeling powerless, or not understanding what’s an acceptable discipline strategy in your new country, can be difficult.
Survival Tip: Try to adapt some local teachers’ strategies into your own classroom management techniques. Even if discipline is ridiculously lax, you’ll have to learn to flow with this culture’s style. Remember to ask about your school’s discipline policy, and how local teachers deal with cheating, bullying, or disruptive students. Also, it can help to create a “quiet signal” that tells students you need their attention. Try holding up a hand or clapping three times.
3. Disinterest from the local teachers
Sure, your students might think you’re an absolute rockstar with your foreign accent and stories from home, but your colleagues? You might notice that they’re a bit aloof, or don’t actively engage you in conversation. Before taking anything personally, it’s important to see things from their perspective. In many countries, workplace hierarchy is very distinct, and as a foreigner, you’re just that, and you won’t be of equal status as an outside teacher or teacher’s assistant.
Survival Tip: Always stay pleasant with all of your colleagues, but just don’t expect the red carpet thrown out for you. Even if you feel slightly like and outsider, you still may be expected to regularly participate in staff and school events. This is especially true in very community-focused societies, like Asia and Latin America.
4. A lack of support
Sometimes teachers move abroad, even through a recruitment company, and expect to have a network of folks at-the-ready to help them sort through the nitty gritty. The reality it is that oftentimes, on the ground staff are scarce and aiding a number of teachers at a time (making their time even more scarce). Culture shock is not something you experience days 1-7 then forget about for the rest of your term abroad. It can have very real and very challenging phases throughout the duration of your teach abroad stint.
Survival Tip: Choose a teach abroad program that has been vetted and legitimized. Read reviews from past program participants to get a good sense of what's happening on the other side of things, even if their US staff seems responsive and supportive. Pay particular attention to anecdotes relating to emergencies, uncommon needs being met, etc. Here's a list to help you get started in your research:
5. Few resources
On your first day of class you might be handed a textbook—and not much else else. It can be hard to put your creative ideas into action when your school doesn’t supply you with fun art supplies, worksheets, or even a free copy machine! If have to pay for things out of pocket, or feel like materials are scarce, it’s time to get really creative, so roll up your sleeves.
Survival Tip: Hit the internet! It’s abound with help, and you can easily download and print everything from vocabulary flashcards to worksheets online. It’s also smart to pack some things from home. Things like English menus, postcards, and magazines can add some real-life flavor to your lessons. Finally, try to get in contact with past teachers from your school before your plane touches down in your new city. Ask them about what kind of support is available at your new school, so you can prepare for a great school year!
6. Unconventional hours
Interested in working Saturdays? Some schools require it. What about evenings? Korea’s hagwons usually start classes around 3pm, ending at 9 or 10 in the evening. It all depends on the type of school, but if you’re looking for anything like a 9 to 5 schedule, then you’ll need to be more strategic with your job search. If you’re looking for this kind of schedule, then look for jobs at public schools, where classes tend stay inside the 8 am - 5 pm range.
Survival Tip: If you like to have your evenings free, or plan to be away most weekends, be especially aware of what types of schools you’re applying to. And just for good measure, always read your contract carefully and make sure it clearly explains your hours.
7. Schedule? What schedule?
This one throws off many new teachers, especially if you’re used to being in control. In South America, for example, if there’s a meeting planned for 6, don’t expect a soul to arrive before 6:35. Lateness by half an hour is completely acceptable, and it’s something you’ll learn to anticipate. The other hurdle is communication styles. In Chile, many of us foreign teachers would sometimes arrive at school to find out that classes were canceled for the day. Of course, we would rarely get these memos, but we learned to roll with it.
Survival Tip: Imagine being onstage in a play, and you’re the only actor who’s never seen the script. Teaching abroad sometimes feels exactly like this. These moments of disorientation are completely normal, but remember it’s not forever. In the beginning, it’s easy to throw up your hands in frustration, but stay patient and proactive. If you need more structure, ask your teacher for a list of school holidays or days when there won’t be class. If you’re irked at always waiting for meetings to start, get in the habit of carrying a book, or use this time to update your blog. We don’t always have control over the situation, but we do have control over how we respond.
8. No pay for private lessons
Teaching private English lessons can be a lucrative side job, but be aware that “no shows” - students who cancel last minute, or don’t show up at all - are common in some countries, meaning you don’t get paid.
Survival Tip: Try to get signed agreements from your students. Think up your cancellation policy and get something in writing. If you’re teaching individual lessons through a private company, you usually won’t be compensated if a student cancels last minute or doesn’t show up, but check out the company’s policy, regardless
After reading this post, the wheels of doubt may be turning in some peoples’ heads. But before assuming that teaching abroad will ruin your life, remember that the rewards greatly outweigh any challenges and small inconveniences. Sure, you’ll be balancing and adapting to lot more, but that’s exactly where the growth - and memorable stories - happen. And isn’t that why you’re moving abroad? Be patient with your transition, and remember that an open mind and flexible attitude will help you leap over these hurdles.