Teaching abroad is one of the most rewarding jobs out there. But, I only can say this now after having spent a year teaching in the Republic of Georgia -- before that, the idea of teaching abroad seemed scary. It was my first experience teaching and living for an extended time in a new country, and my fears ranged from being eaten by my students to not packing enough socks and underwear; from being unable to adapt to my new environment to becoming so bored that I end up losing my mind.
Fortunately, I successfully managed my way around a class without throwing a student out the window, only slightly went overboard with the socks, was eventually able to call a foreign country home, and ended up continuing my career as an ESL teacher -- this time in China. So, why was I so worried? Well, we all are. If you are considering teaching ESL abroad, take a minute to read what my six biggest fears before moving abroad were -- and know that you aren’t alone!
1. That I’d Pack All the Wrong Things
Packing is the art of balancing between need and want, as in wanting to bring every hair care product or that massive collection of DVDs, but figuring out what you actually need and will benefit you greatest while being abroad will help ease any fears about packing.
Fill your suitcase with items significant to who you are and where you are from to better show your new students about your life, culture, and interests in your home country.
One of the biggest concerns of anyone about to move abroad is what to pack, or that they won't be able to find certain things abroad, and so the over and under packing occurs. My advice? Forget the heavy shampoo and conditioner bottles or that feather lined parka, you’ll be able to find them at your new home, and instead fill your suitcase with items significant to who you are and where you are from to better show your new students about your life, culture, and interests in your home country. Pack that dress you love. Throw in a jar of peanut butter. The photographs of home or important objects are a simple way to connect with students and other teachers, exchange interests, and can be a great visual aid in lessons.
2. That I Wouldn’t Command Respect in the Classroom
If I look like an unprepared newbie, how will my students ever take me seriously...??
Once my suitcase was packed, the fears turned to teaching. I’d never taught before and, like many new ESL teachers, I feared not being respected by my students. However, even this fear was quickly debunked after I actually arrived and began teaching. Even though commanding respect from students may sound difficult, learning a few easy techniques made my role as teacher become second nature.
Commanding respect from a class is extremely important for classroom management and a huge hurdle new and seasoned ESL teachers face. Simple techniques liking faking confidence leads to an ease with moving through a lesson. Being conclusive shows students your control of the class. Being concise with instructions or lessons allows for less confusion.
Make sure to keep calm under stress as it allows for control over the situation and sets a standard for students to follow. Having a detailed lesson helps maintain control over the class. And lastly, listening to what students have to say is key to gaining respect. If you respect what your students have to say, they will ultimately respect what you have to say.
3. That I Wouldn’t be a Good Teacher
Okay, so my students like me - one point for me. But how am I actually supposed to do this whole teaching thing? How do I become a great teacher and make a real difference?
This question haunts any potential teacher’s dreams and causes fears about taking the plunge to teach. Teaching is more than explaining information in a simple way for students; it’s about being able to connect with students and bring the information to life.
Keep in mind that you're starting a new job, so treat it as such.
The key to being a good teacher doesn’t lie with a person’s educational background necessarily, but with the passion and enthusiasm someone has for the subject being taught and the utmost faith and confidence in their students. The biggest impact a teacher can make is to believe in student’s ability, show students they are capable of anything and pave a future filled with reachable aspirations. Sounds easy enough, right? Sometimes it’s as simple as showing your students that you care, because in that simple act you prove your sole purpose is for their success. And, if all else fails, bribe students with candy to do their homework, or even movie Fridays if they all ace a test.
In the end, keep in mind that you're starting a new job, so treat it as such. Don't be afraid to ask for help and know that there will be a high learning curve at the beginning. After a year of teaching, you may look back at your first lesson plans and think "oh my god, I can't believe I taught that" but hey, you just completed a year of teaching and now know the difference between an awesome and sucky lesson plan. Way to go!
4. That I’d Be Bored, Both In and Out of the Classroom
So teaching is going swell, but what if a class syllabus is dull and actually sucking all fun out of my classes? What if this fun sucker is trickling into my life outside the classroom? What am I supposed to do with all my free time?
The fear of a set in stone routine has many teachers counting down school breaks rather than keeping a general syllabus. Having a syllabus that is overloaded with intense details is a great way to keep a class organized by providing students with a day-to-day schedule and routine, but it leaves nothing to the imagination. Give yourself a little wiggle room to add excitement to a syllabus. Incorporate games or conversation topics that interest you as much as your students.
The dull routine inside the classroom may be mirroring your life outside the classroom as well. A routine can help make the once foreign country become familiar and help combat culture shock, but this daily shuffle can also fade the dazzles and shimmers of all that is exciting about your new home. Reviving a dull routine can be as easy as taking a new way home, stopping at the restaurant you promise yourself you’ll go to one day, or saying “yes” to a weekend adventure.
5. That I Wouldn’t Adapt or Transition Well
Living abroad brings about a whole new mess of adjustments that can cause any strong knee to quiver relentlessly, but adapting is key to making a smooth transition.
Change is a huge fear for many and living abroad splashes all those fears right in a person’s face. From learning a new language, to living in a new city, to eating unfamiliar foods and celebrating previously-unheard of holidays, change is ever present in the life of a teacher abroad.
The key is to embrace these changes and create a mixture of shared cultural experiences to better understand your new home and your old.
These changes may be similar to a shark tornado or even zombies - simply horrifying - but they are manageable if you can adapt. Easing into a new life abroad takes time, but prepare by learning basic phrases of the language or purchasing a phrase book, knowing popular holidays celebrated and researching the culture in order to reduce the shock of the newness of everything. The key is to embrace these changes and create a mixture of shared cultural experiences to better understand your new home and your old.
Suggested Programs for Teaching Abroad
The days leading up to my departure for Georgia last year were an emotional roller coaster. I was a ball of excitement imagining the magnificent things I could accomplish but also scared to start an entire new life in a country I barely knew anything about. However, I was far too intoxicated by the idea of traveling the world to resist boarding that flight with a heavy heart and saying goodbye to all I knew -- despite all my fears.
Now, I continue to teach and live abroad and although I have faced those initial fears, I still ride the roller coaster of emotion. Overall, I’m happy I decided to take the plunge. It has rewarded me with happiness for being able to experience such spectacular things, a passion for traveling and teaching, and a gratitude for students, colleagues, and myself for making such an impact. So, fears or no fears, take the ultimate dive by jumping fearlessly into the incredible opportunity of teaching abroad!