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8 Myths About Teaching English Abroad Debunked

Teacher in taiwan

Application done? Check. Whiteboard markers purchased? Check. Google search history full of “TEFL best practices” and “lesson plans”? Check and check. You’re all ready to teach abroad, right?

Slow down there a second, non-gender-specific cowwrangler. Plenty of people have an idea of what it’s like to teach abroad, but unless you’ve done it before (in which case, how crazy awesome are you that you’re signing up to do it again?), some of those ideas might not quite align with what teaching abroad is actually like.

Double-check these common misconceptions and make sure you're not falling victim to any false impressions.

Whether you expect that your students will instantly adore you, think that teaching English is self-explanatory, or are terrified of being placed six hours away from the closest yoga studio, you might be in need of a small reality check before you show up for the first day of class.

Double-check some of these common misconceptions about teaching abroad to make sure you’re not falling victim to any false impressions.

1. You Need to Speak the Local Language

While it certainly helps to know what your students are whispering about you, it can actually be a huge asset to your teaching if you don’t speak the local language. Once students realize that they truly can’t get you to just translate words for them, and that they can’t fall back on their native language if they get confused or stuck, it will force them to find ways to communicate with you in English.

Not knowing the local language will help you to create a true immersion environment, which has been proven to be one of the best ways for students to learn a language. Learning by translation, on the other hand, is one of the worst ways to learn a language.

Of course, if you make it all the way to the end of the school year and haven’t picked up at least a little local slang, that might be a problem, too -- don’t forget teaching abroad is a great learning opportunity for you as well.

2. Teaching is Super Easy -- It’s Just English!

Suggest this to anyone that has taught abroad, and this is the reaction you’re likely to get:

Say what?

If you’ve spent time in a classroom ever in your life (which, assuming you’re qualified to be teaching other humans, is very probable) you already know that teaching is one of the hardest jobs out there.

Add to this already challenging environment the fact that the majority of your students will not understand the words coming out of your mouth at least 60 percent of the time, and it’s anything but a cakewalk.

Yes, you do already speak English, which at least puts you ahead of your students (we would hope!), but just because you know the language doesn’t mean you know the rules or how to explain why we say what we say.

Unless you’re an even bigger grammar nerd than the writer of this article, you probably aren’t yet intimately familiar with adjective order or the structure of second conditional. Your intuition can be very helpful in making you a good teacher, but your ability to speak a language certainly doesn’t make you an automatic expert, no matter what your school thinks.

3. You Need a Degree in Teaching or a TEFL Certification

This will depend a lot on the type of school or program you’re planning on doing, but don’t fret, chemistry majors, there’s a job out there for you! Requirements for teaching English abroad vary widely and, so long as you're flexible, you'll be able to find a job you qualify for.

While many formal school positions do want teachers with degrees, plenty of volunteer programs are open to people with all kinds of backgrounds, as long as they prove they can string some coherent sentences together.

There are open positions for English teachers in New Zealand, Australia, England, the U.S., South Africa and yes, even the wild tundra of Canada.

The same goes for TEFL certification -- some programs want it, some don’t, and some will even help you get it. Having training in English teaching (or any kind of teaching) can absolutely come in handy, especially if you’re a new teacher, but don’t rule yourself out of the running for certain jobs before even finding out if certification is mandatory.

4. You’ll Have Total Control over Your Own Classroom

Volunteer teacher and students in Thailand

HAHAHAHAH. Good luck with this one -- even teachers who have been in the business for decades don’t have total control over their own classroom. Heck, most of us would be happy just to have 50 percent control over maybe a third of our students.

Sarcasm aside, many teaching programs -- especially those that accept candidates with less professional teaching experience or training -- often help ease the transition by setting you up as a co-teacher.

This means that, rather than having a classroom (and dozens of rambunctious kids) to yourself, you’ll be sharing the space and responsibilities with a local teacher.

There are both drawbacks and benefits to this structure, especially depending on how well you work with the other teacher, but it can go a long way toward facilitating classroom management when you have one person in the front of the room teaching and another that can focus on keeping students engaged.

5. There Aren't Opportunities in English-Speaking Countries

If you’re teaching abroad, it has to be in some tiny country that nobody in your hometown can find on a map, right? Not at all -- in fact, it doesn’t even have to be a country that speaks a different language!

There are open positions for English teachers in New Zealand, Australia, England, the U.S., South Africa and yes, even the wild tundra of Canada. Think about it, new-comers to those countries, study abroad students, and travelers who want to learn a language abroad are all potential ESL students in anglophone countries.

Plus, with the diversity of your students origins and native language, you'll all be forced into speaking English and English only among one another (how's that for controlling your classroom!). Oh, and did you know they speak English in Belize, too?

6. You’ll Be Out in the Middle of Nowhere

For my year teaching abroad, I was assigned to Bogotá, which, with a population of almost 10 million people, is hardly the boonies. While people at home are sometimes shocked to learn we have running water here (shhh, don’t tell them about the free wi-fi!), the truth is that signing up to teach abroad doesn’t mean you’ll be taking bucket baths and sleeping on the ground.

Teaching abroad doesn't have to mean resigning yourself to a year of trying to get hyper 7-year-olds to sit down.

There’s just as much demand -- if not more -- for English teachers in large urban centers, especially in developing countries that are trying to promote English skills among white-collar workers and people in the tourism industry. English teachers can serve a vital role in rural towns, but there’s also important work to be done in places like Beijing, São Paulo, Istanbul, and Mumbai, so don’t rule them out.

Many programs allow you to state a preference for the type of placement you’d like, at least choosing between urban and rural. You won’t always get exactly what you want, but rest assured that there are opportunities out there, whether you’re a city or a country mouse.

7. You Have to Teach Kids

ESL Classroom

While schools are obviously one of the main markets for English teachers -- especially in countries where English instruction is a mandatory part of the curriculum -- teaching abroad doesn’t have to mean resigning yourself to a year of trying to get hyper 7-year-olds to sit down.

There are plenty of universities, adult education centers, and businesses that desperately want English teachers, and where your teaching probably won’t involve any discussion of boogers or dealing with teenage angst. No matter what your preferences are, you can find a level that's right for you.

Side note: if you have experience or a degree in business, you'll be in high demand for business English teaching positions. For the most part, these students tend to be more motivated and advanced, which can be a nice break from bored high schoolers forced into the subject.

8. You Have to Volunteer

Volunteering is one of the most popular ways to snag a teaching abroad gig, especially for those without experience or TEFL certification.

There are a few reasons for this: for one thing, there are lots of programs happy to set you up as a volunteer teacher, and most of these programs are open to people with less formal teaching experience.

However, there are also numerous international and bilingual schools that are always on the hunt for more native English speakers -- and are often willing to pay very well to entice those teachers to make the move.

There's no way to be prepared for everything that teaching abroad will throw at you.

Because these are often high-paying jobs (relative to the average salary in many of these countries), however, they have stricter requirements. Contracts are often for a minimum of two years, and most international schools want their teachers to at least have a degree, if not a masters, in education -- they’re not going to accept you with a few months of working at a summer camp as your qualifying experience.

If you do have prior teaching experience and/or a degree in education, though, you are probably a very strong candidate to snag one of these top jobs.

For those who fall somewhere in between -- you've perhaps tutored before and have a TEFL certificate -- there are plenty of paying short- and long-term teaching jobs abroad.

You'll Never Know Everything Before You Go

There’s no way to be prepared for everything that teaching abroad will throw at you (hopefully figurative throwing and not literal), but you can at least make sure that you’re not starting off with the wrong ideas about what you may or may not be expected to do.

Now you just have to hope that your host school doesn’t have any big misconceptions about what you’re capable of doing (what do you mean, you can’t teach advanced physics?). Good luck out there!

Photo Credits: Audra Edmonson, Sarah Perlmutter, and Derek Craker.
Photo of 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 daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.