Teaching abroad for the first time can be a stressful prospect. While your introduction to teaching will undoubtedly be filled with trial and error, we want to give you some top tips and pointers to help you mentally prepare for the adventure ahead of you and avoid some common pitfalls that new teachers teaching English as a foreign language experience.
1. Do your research
Researching teaching abroad will not only help you make major decisions but will also make you feel more prepared and secure. One of the first topics to look into is where in the world you want to teach. Some questions you may want to consider while conducting your research include:
- Is making and saving a substantial amount of money a priority? If so, check out our article on countries with the highest teaching salaries.
- Are you planning to start out by volunteering? These top 7 countries are great for volunteer teaching.
- Do you have a degree? If not, there are several countries where you can teach without a college degree.
- Should you use a recruiter or search for jobs independently?
Other helpful topics to look into are:
- Cost of living
- Salary and benefits
- Types and number of jobs available
2. Define your personal and professional goals
Knowing what you want from the experience before you go will help you define your goals and plans for the future.
Some questions to ask yourself about your personal goals can include:
- How much do you want to save? If you have credit card debt or student loans to pay off or maybe you're saving for a down payment for a car or house, it's important to create a budget for yourself before you go to make sure you meet your financial goals. Depending on the country you teach in, you may be able to save or you may break even.
- Is travel a priority? You'll want to see how much time you get off and when as well as think about your destinations and the costs. A budget would be helpful here, too!
- Do you have language learning goals? You can start checking out local language schools or consider a private tutor. Language exchanges are usually free and can be a great way to make local friends.
- How do you envision your free time? Think about hobbies you may want to pursue that could be related to the country's culture or things universal to most places like sports or art. It's also important to find ways to meet friends (both local and other expats) to help combat homesickness and culture shock.
When considering your professional future, think about the following:
- Is teaching abroad a career change or a short-term plan? Of course, you don't have to decide this right away but it's helpful to have it in the back of your mind. This will help guide your plans for future education if that's part of your path.
- How long do you plan to stay? It's hard to make a 5-year plan but thinking about your next step early will help you avoid excess stress or anxiety in the future.
Even if you're not a natural planner, becoming more mindful about what you want out of the experience of teaching abroad will potentially make your time overseas much smoother.
3. Don’t take the first offer that comes along
When trying to land that first TEFL job abroad, it may be tempting to take the first offer you're presented with. While it might seem wise to secure something ASAP, the truth is that you don’t have to compromise. In fact, if you do, you may regret it.
Make sure your prospective position has the tools you need if this is non-negotiable for you, things like computers, projectors, and other technology. You'll also want to compare the work schedules, salaries, benefits, and leave/holidays offered to you. Some offers will be better than others so it's important to view each with a critical eye.
4. Set a realistic timeline and plan ahead
Getting a job and moving abroad to teach English is something that takes research (see tip #1!) and planning – it’s generally not something you decide to do last minute.
While hiring cycles and procedures vary worldwide, you should usually plan on taking 3-6 months from the point when you begin your TEFL certification and job search to actually getting on a plane and taking off to go abroad and begin your teaching job.
In some cases, like for government teaching programs like JET in Japan or the assistantship programs in Spain and France, the process of applying, interviewing, and making travel arrangements may take 6-9 months or even longer.
Don't forget the time it will take to gather the paperwork to secure a visa. Some countries' consulates can take several weeks to process applications so be sure to factor that into your overall timeline.
5. Come financially prepared
Teaching English abroad may be the most cost-effective way to live and travel overseas for an extended period, but like most major undertakings in life, it requires a degree of financial planning. Major start-up costs typically include:
- TEFL Certification: $500 - $2,500 for a fully accredited online or in-person class – trust me, it’s worth it.
- Transportation to your destination country: typically $300-$1000 for North Americans traveling to other continents.
- Support in your new country until you start getting paid: even if you have a job waiting for you when you arrive, you won't typically get paid on your first day of work. These expenses can range from $500, if your housing is provided and your job is pre-arranged, to $3000 if you need to support yourself in a major European city while you interview for a position and rent an apartment. Come with a comfortable cushion of savings just in case.
- Household items: accommodation provided by your employer will usually have major appliances and amenities but you may want additional items or decorations to make your housing feel more like home.
- Teaching materials: even if your school has all your books and materials ready for you, you might want to pick up some props or games to help bolster your lessons.
Remember that start-up costs for teaching English abroad in Asia are typically lower because in most cases you will line up your job in advance, so you don’t have to support yourself while interviewing locally as you would in many European and Latin American countries. Many schools, particularly in South Korea and China, cover airfare and housing costs.
6. Understand and get to know your students
Your students and their learning are your priority but it's not always as simple as waltzing into your classroom and making English-speaking magic happen. Every age group has different needs, interests, and levels of development. Familiarize yourself with your students, whether young children or adults, to understand how to best connect with them.
Some top tips for creating a bond with your students are:
- Learn names! in some schools or language centers, you may have hundreds of students you see each week. It's difficult but make an effort to learn their names and something about them. These icebreakers are great for the first week -- make learning names into a game!
- Appeal to all learners: students can be visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or a mix of two or more learning styles. Try to incorporate a combination of these styles into your lessons. You may also want to let children choose where they want to work in the room away from their desks as long as it's not disruptive.
- “Teach to the reach”: use students’ interest in music, TV, tech, pop culture, etc. to your advantage by incorporating these topics into lessons and projects.
- Provide extra support to children with learning difficulties or disabilities: some countries may not have established support for children with special learning needs. It may take some extra time and effort but it's worth it to adapt lessons to include these students and make sure they have equal opportunities for success.
Read more: How to Build Rapport With Your ESL Students
7. Always be overprepared
Nothing is more terrifying for a new teacher than to realize you’ve breezed through your lesson and have ten minutes left of class with nothing to do. Have an arsenal of easy games or worksheets like word finds to fill in gaps of time if even your backup activities flop or finish early.
It won't take too long to figure out which games are big hits and you may be surprised by what students love the most. My third graders in Spain never got tired of the hand game "one potato, two potato" (though I changed this to "potatoes" to be grammatically correct!) and were all pros at the chant by the end of the year.
Read more: How to Create the Perfect ESL Lesson Plan
8. Manage your cultural expectations
The biggest mistake I made during my first year teaching English in Spain was expecting things to be similar to the way they were in the US. Things that are considered rude in my country were not considered rude in Spain. I let these things bother me to the point that I told myself I didn't want to come back when I left. But after some careful reflection, I realized I was the problem. My expectations were not realistic and it was my job to adjust to their culture and not the other way around.
Now going into my fifth year living in Spain, these differences still bother me from time to time but I recognize that learned cultural norms run deep and I'm unlikely to ever get over things like staring or the lack of personal space. Instead of getting upset though, I try to smile and tell myself no pasa nada.
Wherever you end up teaching, you're likely to encounter situations that you find upsetting, annoying, or confusing. Researching the culture beforehand can help ease you into your new life abroad. Just remember to keep an open mind!
Read more: How to Deal with Culture Shock While Abroad
9. Prepare yourself for classroom management
Depending on where you teach, classroom management can be really challenging. Whether you find yourself in large classroom with 40-50 students in China or one with 15-20 chatterboxes in Spain, knowing how to maintain order is paramount to the success of your lesson and your overall year.
For first-time teachers, the idea of classroom management can be really daunting. Should you come in with an iron fist and then ease up once you gain their respect? Do you try to be the cool teacher right off the bat and make friends with your students?
While the right classroom management strategy should be tailored to each classroom, there are some basic universal tips to follow.
➡️ Be confident! Even if you're nervous, stand tall and speak loudly and clearly.
➡️ Be prepared. Students will notice if you're scrambling to find activities. Lesson planning is key!
➡️ Establish classroom rules based on mutual fairness and respect the first day. Have the students help you write them.
➡️ Make sure students know what is expected of them in terms of conduct, quality of work, and participation.
➡️ Create and maintain a routine – for all ages! Write the daily schedule on the board to eliminate confusion. Use pictures for younger age groups.
You don't want to go in too soft or too hard the first week. Get to know your students and let them get to know you. Students who like you will be more likely to want to please you by working hard and producing good work.
10. Utilize existing tried and true resources
Another rookie mistake: don’t reinvent the wheel! In my first year, I spent hours every night creating all of my materials from scratch. Because I worked with multiple grade levels, this translated to A LOT of extra work.
Perfectionist that I am, I convinced myself that if I didn't do it myself, it wouldn't be done right. I invented my own games and created entire PowerPoint presentations on topics that had certainly been presented before by other teachers. As time passed though, I began to look for resources that allowed me to work smarter and not harder.
Some of my favorite sites of teaching resources include:
- iSLCollective: worksheets and video lessons
- SlideShare: slideshow presentations on tons of topics -- great for holidays or cultural points like American Football
- Britsh Council for kids: games, listening activities, and songs
- Britsh Council for teens: lesson plans on advanced topics that include listening and writing activities
- Dave's ESL Cafe: full free lesson plans for all levels
If working with more than one age group, learn to differentiate a single lesson for varying abilities and levels. This will seriously cut down on lesson planning time!
11. Know what tools to use in the classroom
As a beginner English teacher abroad, you'll need to have a variety of tools at your disposal to keep your classes fun and engaging. Relying solely on the classroom books will only get you so far. Students will remember materials more through things like:
- Realia like menus, maps, and other physical objects
To learn about all the ways incorporate the above ideas into your classroom, check out our article on the 10 essential ESL teaching tools.
12. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Whether it be seeking support at your school or from teacher groups online, seasoned teachers are usually very happy to help you troubleshoot behavioral issues, finetune lesson plans, and offer ideas for how to teach complicated grammar. As a newbie teacher abroad, there will always be those veterans who have had years of trial and error in the classroom. They are great resources for new teachers -- and they know it -- so don't be afraid to reach out!
Prepare for adventure
Teaching English abroad for the first time is a leap into the unknown. You'll likely make mistakes but you're not alone. Every new English teacher has to learn what works best for them and their students and that often involves some bumps in the road.
Hopefully, though, the above tips will help you better prepare yourself mentally for how to teach English in another country and the types of things you could expect. The main thing to remember is, teaching English as a foreign language is an unforgettable experience, and your students and guaranteed to make a lasting impact on your life. Sit back and enjoy the ride!
Read more to prepare for your first TEFL adventure abroad