Thinking about teaching English abroad? Congratulations! You’re truly in for a life-changing experience that will be full of growth, travel, and amazing new relationships. But rather than go on about how great and transformative teaching abroad is, we also want to prepare you for the more unexpected (for better or worse) parts of teaching abroad in a foreign country.
I’ve taught abroad for 6 years, and here are some things that I wish I had been told before moving abroad to teach English:
Things No One Tells You About Moving Abroad to Teach English
1. Lesson planning is hard work
Depending on the school you’re working at and what kind of resources they provide to their English teachers, you may end up doing a lot of lesson planning on your own time. Oftentimes, I’d use my Sunday evenings to write up my lesson plans for the week. Some teachers were able to get these lesson plans completed during the school week. It’s going to be up to you and how you are able to delegate your time.
But one thing is for sure, lesson planning gets easier, especially when you use resources online or ask fellow teachers to collaborate. Don’t be afraid to reach out to seasoned teachers to get ideas on activities.
If you’re an American like me, you’re likely used to hopping in your car, getting a parking spot near the front row of your employer, and sitting, hunched over, in your office chair for 8-9 hours a day.
What you’ll learn when you move abroad is how much more common it is to walk or take public transportation wherever you need to go. And teaching? You’ll either be standing or walking around your classroom for your entire classroom teaching hours (not including office hours). Get a new pair of comfortable, orthopedic shoes and prepare yourself for getting in those steps every day!
Ok, maybe you won’t be asked to juggle in front of the school like I was, but you may be asked to participate in school performances or help out with English programs or extracurriculars. You may not have a lot of experience in the areas being requested, but this is your time to shine, baby.
I’ve hosted English book clubs, taught line dancing, choreographed a dance to the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations,” judged debates, MC’d performances in a shopping mall.. You get the idea.
Don’t be afraid to say no, but also, what if you said yes?
This is sort of the elephant in the room when it comes to teaching English abroad. You may discover you don’t particularly like teaching and don’t see it as a long-term career option for you. And that’s ok! Many people who take on teaching abroad jobs use this as a launching off point to other jobs or careers abroad.
I have known teachers who finished their first year teaching and went back to grad school, some who went into business, and some (like me) who got inspiration to start their own education business.
That said, there are plenty of people who move abroad to teach English, thinking it’s something to do outside of the 9-to-5 jobs in America, and discover that they absolutely love teaching and have gone on to build amazing teaching careers at international schools around the world!
In my years of teaching abroad, I was stared at, yelled at, pointed at, and even honked at during my day to day. None of this was done angrily or with any bad intentions, but it was distracting until I got used to it.
The important thing to remember is that depending on where you’re teaching and living, there may be people there who have never seen a foreigner before. Even in maga cities like Shanghai where foreigners are common, older Chinese people regularly pointed me out to their friends.
As you learn to speak the local language you may even hear people talking about you in shops or as you walk past!
If you’re coming from the west, it’s easy to forget that air condition is a luxury in the most of the world and you should be prepared to deal with some hot classrooms. Even if you’re lucky enough to get a classroom with an AC unit, it’s not uncommon for the staff not to use it, or only turn it on when you ask (and when it’s too late to cool the room).
My friends in Thailand teach in athletic gear for this reason, and they still walk away from lessons a bit sweaty.
If you hate hot weather make sure to research the yearly weather trends of each location you’re considering!
There is a seemingly innate bond between expats – everyone recognizes that they are away from home, often trying something new, and usually without the day to day support of friends and family. While this might sound overwhelming, the fact that everyone is in the same boat makes it incredibly easy to make friends when teaching abroad.
No matter if it’s via your school, TEFL course, or club you join once you arrive, there are tons of almost unavoidable chances to find friendly people to spend your time with outside of work. Pro tip: join the local expats Facebook group for your city before you arrive!
The reality is that everyone has been in your situation and remembers what it’s like making friends in a new place – this means most people are more than happy to show you their favorite restaurant, happy hour, or gym once they find out you’re new!
I distinctly remember losing my voice shortly after starting my first teaching job in Seoul, South Korea. Having come directly from college, I was not used to speaking all day and certainly not used to having to talk over children!
This was a regular occurrence during my teaching career whenever we came back from vacation, started a new term, or even if I had to sub for a new class – my voice always paid the price.
There’s no quick fix here – your voice is like a muscle and it will take some time to get used to the strains of classroom teaching. However, hot tea coupled with lots of sleep did help!
It’s easy to think about your first job teaching abroad as a gap year, but the reality is that I’ve known more than 1 person who has fallen in love with the profession and make a career out of it after “testing the waters.”
In most countries you will make enough to live a comparable life to the one you had had back home – in addition, there are always external opportunities to pad your income – I’ve been an English tutor, done editing for a company launching an English website, and even acted in a commercial!
Even better is that the more familiar you get with a location, the easier it is to seek out better paying jobs or jobs that afford you more free time. Similar to friends who have turned their first year as an ESL teacher into a career, I’ve know dozens of people stick around for a few years because they keep getting better jobs.
It’s easy to get lost in the sea of English teaching jobs that you’ll see as a potential teacher. If you’re overwhelmed or just getting started, I do have some advice on what to look for:
- If you’re looking to save money then consider a job in Asia – Chinese salaries are quite high and demand for teachers in up-and-coming countries like Vietnam is exploding.
- If you’re looking to travel as much as possible, make sure to look for a job in a city with an airport! Travel isn’t as exciting if you’re somewhere rural without access to any good transportation.
- If you’re looking for free time, make sure to get your teaching hours included in your contract. Too many new teachers jump at the first job offer (myself included) and don’t consider the things that are important to them.
- If you’re completely lost then consider a program – there are plenty of companies out there that handle everything from certification to job placement on your behalf!
Written by TEFL Hero, an online TEFL course provider led by teachers with experience working in China, South Korea, and Online.