How to Have a Great Teach Abroad Experience

Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a...

Teaching Myanmar KidsPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

So you’re ready to teach abroad – all bright-eyed and ambitious about changing the world, one phrasal verb at a time. That’s awesome!

Teaching abroad can be one of the most rewarding, challenging, eye-opening experiences in the world, and you’re sure to return home with a lifetime of stories. But teaching abroad, like teaching anywhere, isn’t always sunshine and rhyming songs. We've all heard the unfortunate stories of teachers being scammed, not receiving their paychecks, living in a dump or being unleashed to a class of 50+ students with absolutely no direction. Teaching abroad is not as simple as signing up and buying a plane ticket – there are plenty of ways that your experience can be closer to a scary movie than an uplifting happy ending. To make sure your teach abroad time doesn’t send you screaming back home, follow these five important tips.

1. Pick a reputable program or organization

Lots of people will tell you that they can help you find a teaching position abroad, but not all of them will actually follow through on it. It is hard to move to another place that you don’t know well, and people will usually want to help you, but you can’t always assume everyone is completely honest. Don’t sign up for something without knowing what you’re getting into, especially if that something is a very expensive plane ride away. Do some research, read reviews of programs and organizations, or, best of all, talk to someone who has actually worked with the one that interests you. Granted, everyone has a different experience, but firsthand advice will be much more valuable than anything you read on a program website.

If you’re going independently, you need to be even more conscientious about giving your potential site a background check – find out if the location is safe, how well they pay teachers, what your expected responsibilities will be, and if there are any extra benefits provided for you. You don’t want to arrive to find out that your school is a concrete, windowless room with only two students and no curriculum, so make sure you know everything there is to know about your site before you even step on the plane.

2. Communicate with your co-workers and supervisors in any way you can.

This tip really applies to any job, anywhere, but it’s especially important in a school environment. You will be working with a large group of other people whose actions have repercussions for you. Your time teaching will be much easier (and probably more fun) if you’re friends with the people you work with. If you’re somewhere you don’t know the language well, this can also be a great way to learn.

Teaching in VietnamPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

Beyond the personal benefits, it’s crucial to talk to your colleagues so that they know what you’re doing and you can gain a better understanding of how the school functions. Most schools, especially ones in developing countries, are likely to be very different from the schools you attended. Everything from the grading system to interactions with students may be the opposite of what you know, and it will only cause problems for you if you try to impose all of your own educational experience on another system. Become familiar with the school system and you’ll have a much easier time planning your curriculum and teaching methods.

If you aren’t allowed to take students outside for class, don’t plan on a week of “Duck, Duck, Goose” to teach animal vocabulary. Remember that your students and colleagues will remain in the system long after you leave, so it’s important to give them the skills that they need to thrive in that setting, not convince them that another way is better.

3. Make sure you have a contract – and that you read it!

Just because you’re working in another country doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice professionalism or personal safety. Yes, you’re there to work, but you have to make sure that you’re going to be able to do that work in the way you intend. You wouldn’t take a job at home without signing a contract or agreement, so why should abroad be any different? Contracts can be somewhat fuzzy in certain countries, or may not follow the same terms that you’re used to. While it’s important to be sensitive to cultural differences, it’s also vitally important to make sure that you have some kind of written record of exactly what your responsibilities, expectations, evaluation and compensation will be. Make sure you’re comfortable with and capable of doing all of your expected tasks, and speak up if you’re not.

Contracts are especially important when it comes to payment. This won’t be a concern if you’re working as a volunteer, but if you’re receiving any sort of compensation you absolutely need to have the contract in writing. Direct deposit may not happen quickly, or at all, and it’s so easy for people to “forget” payment for a few days or even weeks. You deserve to be treated fairly, so make sure you advocate for yourself. You can even try negotiating if you feel brave!

4. Be prepared to be flexible and extremely patient.

Remember that, regardless of how well you know the system, things are not always going to work out the way you want. Meetings get canceled, projects get moved around, classes get cut short, students get sick – all kinds of things can disrupt your teaching, but if you let every single thing bother you, you won’t make it through your first month. You may hate the school’s grading system, but you must recognize that it isn’t your job to change the school’s system. Even if you loathe it, you have to learn to adapt to work within it, not against it. The same is true for any other inconvenience or unpleasant surprise. If the class you spent hours preparing for gets pushed back in favor of an all-school assembly, just shrug, take a deep breath, smile, and tell yourself that this means you don’t have to plan tomorrow’s class. Patience and understanding will help you solve problems and get past any misconceptions that you arrived with.

Teaching in IndiaPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

5. Limit your expectations

Notice I said “limit,” not “lower.” Just because you’re working in a school that has fewer resources than you’d like doesn’t mean that you and your students can’t have a valuable, rewarding experience. Once you’ve thrown your preconceptions out the window, you can start figuring out what your real, honest expectations should look like.

This also applies to your own experience and achievements as a teacher. There will be days when you feel like you haven’t accomplished anything or that all your students hate you. You will have moments when you wonder if your students have learned anything at all. Of course, all teachers experience this at some point, but it doesn’t make these feelings any easier to deal with. The trick is to start with expectations that are as realistic as possible. If your high school class begins the year with a 4th-grade reading level, they are not suddenly going to bound ahead and be able to read above their age group. Life doesn’t work like that. Instead, focus on small victories – a student finally reading out loud after four months of silence, an improved grade on a test, or a hug from a happy student.

Most of us base our goals on what we’d like to accomplish in a perfect world, but you’re not living or teaching in a perfect world. You’re teaching in the real world – in your students’ world. Hold them (and yourself) to high expectations, but make sure that those expectations reside in the real world where your classroom is located. Your students likely do not come from the same background as you, or even each other, and this is really important to keep in mind while you’re teaching them. Once you separate the reality of an accomplishment from what you think it’s supposed to look like, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. And it’ll only make you a better teacher.

Remember that your students and colleagues will remain in the system long after you leave, so it’s important to give them the skills that they need to thrive in that setting, not convince them that another way is better.

Following these tips won’t guarantee the perfect teaching abroad experience. You can’t solve every possible problem at once, but these tips will help ensure that you stay safe, comfortable and focused on the most important thing: your students.

So you survived teaching abroad, horror-free? Why not turn it into a career?