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What Teaching Abroad Actually Taught Me

Teacher and students

When I stood in front of a Korean classroom for the first time, it was abundantly clear that I was actually the student, not the 27 kids scrutinizing me from their desks. Even though I was the one fielding the questions - How old are you? How much do you weigh? Are you married? Do you have children? Do you like kimchi? - I was learning just as much as I was teaching.

I came into my overseas teaching job seven years after graduating from college. I’d been around the world. I’d worked upwards of 30 jobs, and one of them had even been as a teacher. As with any new job, I expected a learning curve, but I didn’t anticipate getting totally schooled by Korea. In a good way, of course. What else did I learn while teaching abroad in Korea? Read on:

Lesson #1: Teaching Abroad is Legit

I’ll start with the most embarrassing lesson I learned: teaching English overseas is a real job. My elementary school was in a rural town of 20,000 inhabitants, but that didn’t mean dirt floors, chalkboards, and overhead projectors.

Bring your professionalism, and be prepared to use it.

The English classroom was a flashy testament to technology, with a flat screen TV and a pile of educational DVDs that we never once utilized. My co-teacher ran the show, but I had to keep up and make her look good. Even though foreign teachers like us are usually in a temporary position, our co-workers are in their careers. Bring your professionalism, and be prepared to use it.

Lesson #2: I Am Not Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers

Quick synopsis for those who haven’t seen it: Swank singlehandedly manages to inspire her class of rough-and-tumble high schoolers to overcome challenges both in and out of the classroom. I had delusions of grandeur in which I would deliver engaging lessons that resulted in fluency and a life-long love for English among my students.

That didn’t happen. What was it Abraham Lincoln said? “You can never please all of the people all of the time.” The same is true for students. Some will love you, some will not, but you can only do your best and learn from your mistakes as a teacher. And when all else fails, play a game or give them candy.

Lesson #3: Always Be Ready to Laugh At Yourself

Building in Korea

Laughing at yourself is a life skill that many of us have learned by the time we enter adulthood. Teaching abroad in South Korea took my ability to laugh at my mistakes to a whole new level.

For example, I taught a Mad Libs lesson where I tried to explain the difference between a noun and a verb. When I attempted to say ‘verb’ in Korean, I unwittingly used a very similar-sounding word that means ‘exploding diarrhea.’

The class absolutely lost it and I had no choice but to laugh along with them. After all, it was pretty funny, right?

Lesson #4: Have a Backup Plan at All Times

A teacher’s worst nightmare is running through the lesson plan before class time is up. It’s amazing the havoc kids can wreak in a handful of unoccupied minutes. Always, always, have a backup activity or game or two. By the end of my contract, I had an arsenal of go-to games that I could whip out when we had excess time.

The best ones are simple and don’t require materials. Be sure to mix up your emergency activities or you’ll suggest ‘Hangman’ one time too many and wind up with a mutiny on your hands.

Lesson #5: Simplify And Slow Down

The English language is nonsensical and refuses to be rushed. One of my biggest teaching fails was trying to explain the past perfect progressive to a group of fifth and sixth-graders. When I realized that I could barely explain it to another English speaker, I knew I had no business overwhelming my students with it. Go slow. Teach the same topic until your kids know it backwards and forwards before you even think about moving on. Learning a language takes time and it’s no good rushing it.

Lesson #6: Don’t Resist, Adapt

There were many things I didn’t understand about Korea, both in and out of the classroom. Why couldn’t my co-teachers tell me about a teacher dinner more than five minutes before it happened? Why did the staff get corn dogs when someone bought a new car? Why didn’t anyone turn on the heating when it was below freezing in the classroom? Why, when it did get turned on, was it set to 80 degrees with the windows open?

Adapting made teaching abroad a heck of a lot more fun.

Eventually I got it: it wasn’t my job to understand or question the way things were. I simply had to adapt. I wore a coat in the classroom. I accepted my corn dogs graciously. I learned to ask every week whether there were any upcoming events. Adapting made teaching abroad a heck of a lot more fun.

Lesson #7: Fake it ‘til you make it.

Girl

Here’s a little secret about teaching abroad: a large number of foreign teachers have no idea what they’re doing. Teaching overseas is full of firsts for many -- first time in front of a classroom, first time trying to speak in a new language, first time trying to discipline a rowdy student -- and not knowing what to do is part of the game.

Just have a go at whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish, and it’ll get easier. The only way out, after all, is through. One day you’ll look back and wonder what was so challenging about the beginning.

Lesson #8: People Are Generous

In many ways, travel in general teaches you this lesson, but being a teacher shows you in depth just how giving people can be. My co-teacher surprised me with roast turkey on American Thanksgiving; she’d ordered it in advance and cooked it in a portable barbecue in the office.

I was so touched I had to hold back tears. The students, too, consistently astounded me with their generosity, always willing to share food or bringing gifts for no apparent reason. It made me want to be more generous in return.

Lesson #9: You’ll Adequately Articulate the Experience.

You have two main options for answering the question “How was teaching abroad?” The first choice is to fill in the blank with an adjective, i.e. “It was amazing/interesting/awesome.” The second is to start talking and never stop. “It was incredible. Did you know that in Korea…” The idea here is to tell them everything in an effort to convey the enormous impact that teaching abroad has on your life. Option one is the easy way out; yes, it’s inadequate, but less intense for your conversation partner.

You'll have to be particularly well practiced with this when it comes to talking about your time abroad in a job interview. Naturally, Go Overseas has a few words of sage wisdom for you on that one as well.

Sometimes I think that teaching abroad was the best job I’ve ever had. When you weigh up the obvious benefits (cultural experience, travel opportunities, bonuses, apartment, salary), it’s a hard job to beat. But when you incorporate the intangible payoffs of what teaching abroad can teach you, the rewards become priceless.

Photo Credits: Author and One Laptop per Child.
Photo of Lauren Fitzpatrick

Writer, expat, and former working holiday addict setting up shop in Australia. Embracing surfing, reversed seasons, and cricket, but not Vegemite.