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Top 10 Teach Abroad Fails

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Be sure to read part two: 8 MORE Teach Abroad Fails

After endless research, you’ve pinned a country, submitted endless copies of obscure documents for your visa, and finally landed your first teaching job abroad.

As you prepare for your upcoming year, there will be a lot of advice to digest: Everything from the best TEFL-training courses to how to plan your first day’s lesson. You will figure those out. But there are also some less-obvious words of wisdom that we sometimes forget. Here are some of the most common pitfalls for new (and experienced!) teachers who head abroad to teach English and make a difference in a kid's life.

1. Not getting TEFL-certified.

It's very easy to teach abroad without TEFL training. If you already have a bachelor’s degree and speak English, there are many schools that will hire you. You may wonder why you should invest the time and money into training. The fact is, more and more schools are requiring TEFL-certification. Not only does having this training open up doors to higher salaries, but it can help you secure positions at more stable and quality schools. Finally, TEFL training will help your students. You’ll learn how to teach effectively, and this will create a more smooth and enriching classroom for everyone.

2. Constantly thinking: "I'm not good at languages."

It’s true, some of us can barely introduce ourselves in a foreign language, let alone have a full-on conversation. But don't let this fear of speaking be your refuge for not trying. Speaking the language horribly is better than not speaking at all. Attempting to communicate shows that you care enough about the local culture enough to try to connect. And this speaks volumes. Make sure to learn some basic phrases before your plane touches down, such as how to introduce yourself as an English teacher, where you come from, and the standard polite expressions.

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3. Not reviewing your contract.

It can be a bummer to find out (while at the airport) that your trip to Thailand during the school’s holiday isn’t paid vacation time. When you receive your teaching contract, make sure to remember the 4 H’s: housing, health insurance, hours, and holidays. Here are some questions to log away when reviewing your contract: Does the school provide housing or help new teachers find it? Does the school pay for all (or some) or your health insurance? What are your expected teaching hours and days? Is your salary negotiable? And finally, what is the school’s policy with holidays and vacation time?

4. Not brainstorming backup classroom activities.

There is no feeling in the world like the one when your lesson wraps up, you glance at the clock, and a slow sinking feeling spreads in your chest when you realize that only 15 minutes have passed. How is that possible? Oh it is, and now you’re in the weeds. The best teachers don’t just have plans A and B for times like this. They have the entire alphabet up their sleeves. Before class, always have activities, extra worksheets, and materials at the ready for when time lags. A bowl full paper scraps with numbers 1-6 is a life savor when you need to break students into groups at a moment’s notice.

5. Speaking too fast in the classroom.

If you're an exuberant extrovert in front of crowds, excellent! Or maybe you’re nervous and tend to speak quickly in front of large groups. The bottom line is that you should always be conscious of your speaking pace with your students. If you’re getting blank stares, it’s time to make some changes. Speak slower, cut out any slang or unnecessary words, and add gestures and mime your ideas. Over seventy percent of communication is non-verbal, so try to make use of body language to help students grasp communication in their new language.

6. Not connecting with your students.

As Rita Pierson says in her excellent TedTalk on teaching, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Spot on, Rita. She goes on to quote James Comer: “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

Many soon-to-be teachers fret over how to explain an auxiliary verb, or the best ways to manage a classroom. But empathy is one of the biggest traits that marks a great teacher. Strive to make your classroom a comfortable and safe place for your students. Learn their names and notice when they are tired or hungry. Get to know their fears and strengths. For example, which student is extremely shy and hates to speak aloud? How can you accommodate this student? When your students feel safe and comfortable in your classroom, it will be easier to establish a bond of trust. This will make easier for them to learn and easier for you to manage the classroom.

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7. Losing your sense of humor.

It happens to all of us abroad. One day, all of the little inconveniences amass into a mountain of annoyances. Culture shock may have your mind spinning, your 8th grade class is out of control, and you’re frustrated at the inefficient post office in your town. It's ok to be frustrated, but don't get stuck in this bog of impatience for too long. This is especially important in the classroom. The first five minutes of class will set the tone for your entire lesson. Students have this uncanny ability to know exactly how you’re feeling and thinking. So smile. Even if you don’t feel like it. It sounds cheesy and simple, but remember, those first five minutes of class set the tone. Bring out your sense of humor again and relax.

8. Not bonding with the local community.

In many big international cities, English-speakers and expats flourish, which means you won’t have much trouble finding a comfortable new community. Karaoke with co-workers and travels to new cities on the weekends will leave you with great memories. As you bond with the other foreign teachers, remember to connect with the locals. Yes, it can be hard to integrate into a new culture and pick up a new language, and forming relationships with the locals won’t happen overnight, but remember to make daily connections. From conversations with the local cafe owner, to joining a local sports club or team, the relationships you make with the local people will be some of your greatest memories.

9. Not treating your job professionally.

Foreign TEFL teachers seem to fall into two categories: Those who teach abroad for a short time, maybe with fewer qualifications, and those who are professional TEFL teachers. If you’re in the former, it’s important to remember that you must treat your teaching job abroad as just that: A job. Understanding the dress code is the first step to making the right impression at your new school. Unless you’re teaching in a rural area, opt for business casual clothing. (If you’re unsure, ask your school what’s expected.) Finally, as the foreigner, remember that there will always be eyes on you, and that news travels fast in small towns. Even when you leave school grounds, you are still a teacher in the eyes of the community. Act professionally and represent your school (and country) with this in mind.

10. Not documenting everyday life.

There is no doubt you’ll probably be taking photos like crazy, and perhaps even starting a blog. Throughout the photo-snapping of nights out and classroom activities, remember to capture the ordinary, everyday life. I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked back only to wish I had taken a snapshot of that corner café I loved or one of my favorite co-teachers. Take photos of everyday life: The park you walk through after class, the school’s teacher’s lounge, and the friends who live in your building. These photos will be your greatest treasures in decades to come.

Many soon-to-be teachers fret over how to explain an auxiliary verb, or the best ways to manage a classroom. But empathy is one of the biggest traits that marks a great teacher. Strive to make your classroom a comfortable and safe place for your students.

The last teach abroad fail, and perhaps biggest of them all, is fear. If you’ve gotten this far in the article, I’m pretty sure you’re on board for teaching abroad. So go forth with confidence. There will always be time to restart your life at home after teaching overseas. (You might even discover teaching English is your newfound career path.) The most important thing to remember is that there is no “perfect” time to go abroad. The best you can do is prepare yourself now, take the leap, and get ready for one of the most amazing experiences of your life.

Photo Credits: Yellow, FrontierOfficial, and IES Abroad.
Andrea Moran

After studying abroad in France, the Netherlands, and Denmark, Andrea decided to combine her love of education and other cultures by teaching English in Chile. She has previously coached diverse Bay Area students in English writing, and is recently TEFL-certified. Keep up with her on Twitter @andream_m and Google+.