I loved teaching abroad. It’s still one of the most rewarding and eye-opening adventures I’ve ever experienced. After college, I had no job and little in the way of prospects, so traveling had an allure that I couldn’t deny and beckoned me to drop everything and go. But like most things, this plan had its ups and downs.
I chose a country, did a little research and felt settled into this idea of teaching abroad. As many Internet searches as I did and forums I flooded with questions, I couldn’t prepare for some changes and culture shocks I encountered along the way. Here are a few things I wish I’d known (and some I did know) before teaching abroad.
Pick a Place You Want to Explore
The first mistake many potential teachers make is choosing a country based on how well they will be paid. There are certain countries where you’ll make more money than others (hello, South Korea) and others where you’ll make dirt (lookin’ at you, Thailand). Chances are you’re not going to become rich teaching abroad, so choose a country whose culture, people, customs, activities and sights entice you.
Enjoy Working with Kids
If you’re looking into teaching abroad just to be able to travel, you should reconsider your options in terms of work. Teaching children, teens or even adults can be a full-time job and should be treated as such. These students deserve a teacher as dedicated to their education as they are.
Find a Proven TEFL Program
Unsure of what to expect teaching abroad, I opted to take an in-person TEFL certification program, rather than one online. I found a program that also included cultural immersion and a language course. Our instructors were experienced expats with a wealth of knowledge on the industry as well as the country’s customs and practices. I’m still thankful to LanguageCorps Asia for taking an interest in each of their students as individuals and providing us with the tools necessary to thrive as both teachers and expats, while getting a sense for local culture. If you sign up, tell them I sent you!
Understand it’s a Job
Sure, your teaching gig will most likely be a little more laid back than a typical 9 to 5 corporate job, but it’s still a job—not an excuse to just travel. Traveling is definitely a perk of teaching abroad, but shouldn’t be the main goal.
Expect Culture Shocks
From third-world sanitation to a wild sex industry, I was unprepared for many of the culture shocks in Thailand when I first arrived. Your instinct may be to turn up your nose at many of these customs and practices, however that will only perpetuate the American stereotype we’re all seeking to shed. Instead, ask questions, delve deeper and see things from another’s point of view. You’re on someone else’s turf now, so leave your judgments at the door.
Enjoy Your Leisure Time
Chances are you will have more free time than you’re used to and probably a lot more obscure days off, depending on the country’s culture. Take advantage of this leisure time and enjoy it. Make the most out of every day you have in this new place. I had a 3-week and 6-week break during teaching, both of which were used to traipse across Southeast Asia both alone and with some great new friends.
Imagine 30 children shouting at you, grabbing at your appendages with booger-covered fingers and asking you a million questions before you’ve even had a chance to make it to your desk. Now imagine they don’t speak any English at all. Patience is the key to avoiding a nervous breakdown while teaching abroad. Sometimes, your students will go through your bag and put your lipgloss all over their arms, cover themselves head to toe in baby powder or refuse to stop crying. Other times they will be the best part of your day…hands down.
Don’t Do it for Money
As I said, don’t expect a teaching job abroad to make you rich. You might not even make the minimum wage you’re used to. It’s about the experience, not the money, but if money is important to you, there’s always the option of finding a side gig. You can make good money as a private tutor or could consider bartending nights.
Find the Locals
Some of my best experiences were with locals. It’s instinctive to want to gravitate towards the expat-filled restaurants and bars, but avoid these places and dive into local life. Sure, you’re going to want to have actual conversations with people who share your language and ideals, but it’s also important to cultivate friendships with others unlike yourself—that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
Expect Some Homesickness
I’m gallivanting through a new place, the wind at my face and the sun’s warmth stroking my cheeks, the ocean at my feet—how could I ever feel homesick? The truth is, between these grandiose moments of adventure come mundane—even boring—times of routine when the urge for the comforts of home comes flooding in. Things aren’t always easy in a place where you don’t speak the language or understand the customs–actually, things are hardly ever easy, which is what makes this experience so rewarding. Just keep that at the back of your mind during tough times…”this isn’t supposed to be easy.”
Now that you know what to expect, there’s just one thing left to do—GO!