If you are considering teaching English abroad, there are a number of questions to be answered before embarking on an expensive teacher training program or committing to a teaching contract that can be one or two years long.
I’ve volunteered abroad as an English teacher in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Myanmar. I now instruct English to non-native English speakers at a college in Canada. During my many years of teaching, I’ve worked with some creative, hard-working teachers and students. With every success, there have been an equal number of mistakes and lessons learned along the way.
Teaching abroad can be rewarding if you are prepared for both the good and the bad. Ask yourself these questions before you make the life-changing decision to teach abroad.
1) Is seeing the world your main motivation for teaching abroad?
Think about the reasons why you want to teach English in another country. If your main motivation is to tick off a checklist of countries you have visited, this may not be the best way to do so.
Teaching English abroad may seem like a great way to see the sights of a different country, but these job opportunities may require more hours than a regular job back home, including extra hours outside the classroom for lesson planning, marking, tutoring students, and so on.
There may be little time to see the sights or travel within a country. In addition, jobs may be in remote areas far from the popular sights of a country.
The great thing about job opportunities in smaller communities is you can learn a great deal about how people live their day-to-day lives. You may be invited to weddings and cultural events.
When I taught in Myanmar, I attended a fire-dancing show and a ceremony where people dress as bulls. Both only take place once a year in the small town I worked in. It was a real insight into what was valued by the people in my community.
You may not get to travel far, but every community has celebrations and special sights. If you want to really get to know a community, teaching abroad can be a great way to do it!
2) Do you have the time and patience to find a TEFL job?
You may be thinking, “But once I finish the training, I can teach anywhere I want, right?” In theory, this is true, but practically, there are only so many TEFL jobs available and they tend to be in certain parts of the world.
If you are dreaming of being paid to teach English abroad in Europe, North America, Africa, or Australasia, you are probably out of luck, unless you have additional qualifications and experience. Most English teaching jobs available to inexperienced TESL or TEFL instructors are in China and Southeast Asia. Even in these regions, there is a lot of competition for jobs, and it may take time to find one.
When I first started checking teaching job boards such as Dave’s ESL Cafe it seemed like there were dozens of new jobs every week. Upon closer inspection, some of these were actually teaching English abroad programs that promise job placements (often unpaid) at the end.
Even when the teaching abroad job opportunities advertised are real, they are not necessarily vetted by job sites and may not be truthful about what they offer.
Be wary of any TEFL job opportunity that seems too good to be true. You should always research any company you are considering signing a contract with. You can find reviews of companies from people who worked there at Glassdoor.
Talk to people in your area who have experience teaching abroad to get the specifics on which companies are reputable and which to avoid. Lots of people find jobs by networking with people in their field. Find and attend TESL or TEFL events and conferences in your area. You never know when you will meet someone who can help you get your foot in the door!
3) Can you adapt to constant change?
Teaching abroad takes the ability to adapt. There will be lots of new experiences, but take a deep breath because if you can go with the flow, it will be a great learning experience!
The cultural norms may be completely different from what you are used to. The accommodation and facilities may be less comfortable than at home. Clean toilets, running water, or electricity may not be readily available in the region you are teaching in.
My first teaching abroad opportunity was in Cambodia. The most difficult thing for me was adjusting from a dry, cold, sunny climate to a 40-degree climate with 90% humidity and monsoons. I still remember walking off that plane on the first day, feeling smothered by the weather, and almost unable to breathe.
After time, I adapted to my environment by immersing myself in the culture as much as possible. I developed new skills like bartering, cycling in a chaotic traffic system, and navigating a culture where saving face (not disappointing or embarrassing people) was integral. I developed a community of people I could trust and have fun with.
Wherever you land, you need to adapt to your environment and make the best of it. Learn as much as you can. If you are able to pick up some of the local languages, that will go a long way to feeling a part of a community.
4) Are you prepared for mixed emotions coming home?
I was in Cambodia for almost two years. Upon coming home, I experienced reverse culture shock. I had adapted to the noise, weather, and slower pace of Cambodian culture.
The quietness back in Canada was disconcerting, but not as much as the fast pace of life and the extreme wastefulness. Cambodians do not waste anything. They turn garbage into useful items or art.
I felt that I had changed because of my experience teaching abroad. But everyone back home wanted the “old me” back. This was the most difficult part of coming home for me.
I wanted to share my experiences, and continue to work to fight against poverty and other social injustices. My friends and family indulged me for a couple of weeks, but pretty quickly their eyes would glaze over if I mentioned my time in Cambodia.
Worst of all, everyone kept saying how happy I must be to be back home. In reality, it didn’t feel like home anymore, and I had a lot of mixed feelings about the change.
The only people who really understood what I was going through were others who had volunteered abroad, or those involved in social justice work in Canada.
When you return home, find people who you can share your experiences with. This is integral for your emotional health. Volunteering in your home town is a great way to make new friends while making use of your new skills and experiences.
You may be able to bring your new perspective to your job, by working with vulnerable people, or the way you live, by becoming more environmentally conscious. I still try to save water by putting a bucket in my shower and using the collected water for plants.
Teaching English abroad can be a great adventure and a tremendous learning experience. Before jumping into this challenging but rewarding career, make sure it is the right fit for you.
Read more about the teaching abroad experience, and internships with GVI.