By Richelle Gamlam
After five years of living and working abroad, I’ve learned a few lessons the hard way.
Whether it’s volunteer teaching in Costa Rica, working at a public school in South Korea, or leading classes at an international academy in Dubai, moving to an entirely new country to live and work can be a big challenge for anyone. However, with the right help and advice, you can go into your position prepared. Here’s some of the things I wish I knew when I first took my job teaching abroad.
1. Teaching & Lesson Planning isn’t as Scary as you Might Think
Most people who decide to teach abroad have little to no classroom teaching experience. I was incredibly nervous about creating lesson plans and teaching, especially when I found out I’d be teaching big classes of 50 high-schoolers, as a 22-year-old first-time teacher.
While teaching is definitely not the easiest job on the planet, managing a class and creating lesson plans isn’t as hard as you might think. There are plenty of resources online, including here on Go Overseas, to get you started:
From my experience, using visuals has proven to be helpful. For example, if you have a large class or a group of kids who don’t speak English very well, PowerPoint can be your best friend. It’s much easier to teach students what a “lion” is when you can attach a picture of a lion for them to look at.
It’s also important to make lessons fun and cater to the size and age group of the students. With my young students, I found games, songs, and activities that they loved. With older students, I’d crack jokes, make funny Powerpoint presentations, and break things up with group activities.
Getting your TEFL certification is also a really great way to prepare yourself for teaching abroad. TEFL courses teach you how to teach English, and will give you the skills you need to manage a classroom. Even if a TEFL isn’t required for a visa in the country you choose, I still recommend getting one, even if you just find an affordable certification online.
2. Have Patience
One of the qualities you’ll need most as a teacher is patience, and it’s important no matter which age group you’re teaching. Whether you’re teaching rowdy students, or dealing with confusing administration policies, remaining calm and patient is key.
Younger students typically demand the most patience, especially if you’re teaching them classes after school, when they just came from a full day of classes, and the last thing they want to do is sit down at another desk.
My advice? Try to help them out by playing fun games and videos, singing songs, and letting them get up out of their seats.
Patience is also very important when it comes to living in another country, especially if the country you choose has vast cultural differences compared to your hometown.
While teaching in China, I experienced frequent schedule changes and had to adapt to unfamiliar rules. Though confusing at times, I learned that living overseas, you’ll really need to learn how to go with the flow.
3. Kids Around the World Share many Similarities
Cultural differences are a big factor when it comes to how students are used to learning, however, we often expect the differences to be bigger than they actually are.
While teaching in China, I expected the school system to be strict, and the students to be strict as well. While the education system does have a big impact on how students are accustomed to learning, the kids themselves are the same in every country.
My students in particular loved Justin Bieber, hated studying for tests, wanted to play basketball during lunch, and gossiped about their secret boyfriends. I had some students who were more than happy to volunteer in class and chat with me in the hallway during breaks, and I also had students that did neither of these things.
I developed a sense of cultural awareness while teaching, but also learned that kids around the world actually share many similarities. Children love games and songs. Teens love jokes and movies. People are people, no matter what country they’re from, and despite cultural differences.
4. Culture Shock is Real
“Culture shock” is one of those terms that make a lot of us squirm. It sounds needlessly scientific, but in my opinion, it’s real.
We all go through the process of culture shock somewhat differently. When I moved to China to teach abroad, I assumed I was immune to culture shock: I had studied abroad in China for 7 months, was semi-fluent in Mandarin, had traveled all over the country, lived alone in Beijing for a month, and even had some experience teaching English part-time.
But when a car dropped me off at an unfamiliar city, where I was the only foreigner for miles, the culture shock hit big time. I absolutely freaked out. Out of shock, all I wanted to do was lay in my bed and cry.
While this is a pretty extreme example, and I eventually snapped out of it, I just want you to know that culture shock is completely real, so don’t be surprised if it hits you at some point in your teaching abroad journey.
You might pull away and avoid talking to people in-person or even at home. No one wants to tell their friends and family that their big teaching abroad adventure isn’t 100% perfect. You might retreat into your room, your computer, or even into a big glass of wine (been there, done that).
Just know that it’s completely normal for you to feel this way at some point or another. The main challenge is getting yourself back out there, and pulling yourself out, if it reaches an unhealthy point. If you need them, here are some additional tips for coping with culture shock. (bookmark it — you’ll thank me later!)
5. Learn to Adapt
When we choose to teach abroad, we know we’re entering into a completely different country with a vastly different culture. However, sometimes we forget that these cultural differences can affect our jobs and the way that schools are run.
However, it’s important to remember that we are a guest to their country, and should respect and adapt to their cultural norms. Developing a sense of cultural awareness, going with the flow, and learning to adapt quickly will be key to your success overseas.
6. You Might Get Sick
No one likes getting sick, especially if you’re far away from your family, or navigating a tricky medical system in another language.
Whether you’re experiencing the flu, a stomach bug, a broken bone, or good old-fashioned food poisoning, it’s best to be prepared.
My biggest advice is to have a contact person at your school that you can call if you need to see a doctor or go to the hospital.
Sometimes unexpected things happen, and when you’re living overseas it can be really scary. Most of my friends abroad have been to the hospital at one point or another. I’ve seen two broken arms, countless food poisoning incidents, an appendicitis scare, and a few allergic reactions.
Having some type of support system, whether it’s from a friendly local or a helpful co-worker, who can lend a helping hand when you’re feeling sick can make a huge difference. Having travel insurance is also important here.
Oh… and bring Imodium. Lots of Imodium.
7. Your Friends and Family May Not Understand
The hard truth is, your friends and family may not understand why you dropped everything to go teach abroad, especially if you don’t plan on making teaching your long-term career. If you call home to talk about the casual, everyday problems you’re experiencing in Japan, most of your friends probably won’t be able to relate. If you left behind a good job back home, people may find your decision to go overseas questionable.
Remembering why you’ve decided to drop everything to help others overseas and how you’re growing as a person can be helpful when experiencing feelings of isolation or self-doubt. When seeking emotional support, I typically reach out to my other expat friends, because they know where I’m coming from.
However, don’t forget to stay in touch with your friends and family back home, and let them know about the not-so-glamorous parts of your life too, so that they feel included and understand your experience a bit better when you do decide to go home.
8. Read & Understand your Contract
Teaching abroad is just like any other job on the planet: contracts matter and you need to fully understand your contract before you accept a position. This is especially important when it comes to teaching abroad, because the rules tend to be a bit different than your typical contract back home.
Be sure to read, re-read, and re-re-read your contract. Scrape through that baby with a fine-toothed comb and write down any questions you might have.
Life can be unpredictable. Knowing whether or not you can leave your contract early is important. Even if you decide to teach abroad with a program and know you’d never end it early, stuff can happen that may require you to change your plans. Check to make sure your contract covers all the keypoints.
Ask the tough questions. If they’re flying you over, will they pay for your flight upfront or will you be reimbursed later? How long will it take them to reimburse you? Seriously, one of my schools took 6-months to pay me back.
What about housing? Do they provide an on-campus apartment? What’s included? Do you have to pay utilities? If you have a housing stipend, does your job find the apartment for you or are you supposed to find it yourself? Will the stipend be added to your salary or is it separate? Do you have to pay your own apartment deposit?
It may seem nit-picky, but you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. Be sure to look out for schools that make you pay them if you want to break your contract. Forfeiting a few weeks of salary is fine, but owing your school $8,000 if you decide to break your contract is not okay. You might think it’s crazy, but my first school actually had that in their contract.
9. You may Stay Longer than you Planned for
You might plan to teach abroad for just a year, but it’s common for people to decide to stay for an extra year or longer. Most schools will offer you a decent raise if you decide to sign on for a second year. Other teachers decide to move to a more prestigious school, or even another country!
I really thought I would just be heading to China to teach for a year or two, and I ended up staying for five years. Why? Awesome opportunities just kept falling into my lap. The longer you stay in a country, the more incredible jobs you’ll find.
The longer you stay, the harder it is for you to leave, too. When you move somewhere, you make your own community. You’ll have friends, a favorite restaurant, a local bar, your go-to cafe, fun coworkers, a cute apartment… it’s hard to give that stuff up.
You might also get a taste for travel or develop a love of teaching. I have friends who travel the world, teaching in a different country every year. You might hear great things about Taiwan, or Singapore. You may have a friend who found an awesome job in Tokyo and can get you an interview.
Once the travel bug bites, it’s hard to come home.
10. You Won’t Come Home the Same Person
Whether you’re moving home for good, or just visiting for the holidays, it’s rare that you’ll come home as the same person.
If you let it, teaching abroad can be a life-changing experience. I became more patient, understanding, and more calm and relaxed… kind of. I used to get stressed about every little thing, and I liked to always have a plan. But living abroad taught me that sometimes you just need to go with the flow. Both my parents and blood pressure thank me for learning that lesson.
Teaching abroad can also help you become more open-minded about other countries, cultures, and their way of doing things. I’ve learned that the US is definitely not the “best country in the world,” as much as we might like to believe it. I’m more critical of government policies, and more open-minded when it comes to looking at how other countries solve certain issues.
Teaching abroad has also taught me to be more independent and self-reliant. Living abroad, if I had a problem, I needed to learn to solve it myself. Whether it was accidentally getting on the wrong bus or showing up for a 2am train at 2pm (whoops), I had to learn how to take care of things on my own.
Some of your friends might not understand or even like the new you when you do come home. But you know what? People change, and all of your good friends should be able to understand and accept the new you. Things might feel a bit weird or “off” when you arrive home and this is totally normal. It’s called reverse culture shock, and like it’s friend, regular culture shock, it’s also very real.
But if you’re open to change and willing to learn new things, you really will come home a more patient, open-minded person, and that’s only a good thing.
Just remember, you’re about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Yes, you want to be prepared, but don’t overthink it. The best experiences come from having an open mind, and the desire to learn just as much as you teach.
Don’t Worry, a Little Fear is Normal
Even with the prospect of this exciting experience, you may find yourself a bit afraid as you embark on your teaching career. After all, moving to a different country to pursue a new career is a very daunting prospect! The following fears are common but we’re here to help ease your mind.
Fear #1: You’ll Pack All the Wrong Things
Let’s face it — it can be difficult to pack for a weekend getaway to the beach. Packing to move to a new country for several months to several years to teach abroad seems like an incredible challenge. Take some time to research the climate and customs in your new home country so that you can pack clothing items that will be most appropriate for the weather and culture in the region. Follow the rule of thumb that less is more and pack no more than you’ll be able to navigate through the airport on your own.
Fear #2: You’ll Be Terrible at Classroom Management
While it’s only natural to feel nervous about being in front of your new students for the first time, a little preparation can go a long way. Having a detailed lesson plan will help to maintain control over the class. Simple techniques liking faking confidence and being concise with instructions or lessons allow for less confusion and establish you as an authority. Make sure to keep calm under stress as it allows for control over the situation and sets a standard for students to follow. And lastly, listening to what students have to say is key to gaining respect and building rapport.
Fear #3. You’ll Fail to Adapt
Moving to a new city, let alone a new country, requires you to adapt to a whole new way of life. Change is a huge fear for many and living abroad splashes all those fears right in a person’s face. The key to overcoming this fear is to embrace these changes and create a mixture of shared cultural experiences to better understand your new home and your old. In challenging times, lean on friends and family from home or even your fellow teachers overseas. Realizing you aren’t alone will help you feel more confident in tackling the challenge of adaption.
No matter what fears are running through you as you prepare to teach abroad, it’s important to remember that you have the strength inside you to overcome them. You’ll settle into your new life and before you know it you’ll be an old pro!
Don’t Overthink It!
You’re about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Yes, you want to be prepared, but don’t overthink it. The best experiences come from having an open mind, and the desire to learn just as much as you teach.