Those who can’t do, teach.
I LOATHE this saying. It implies that teachers are failures; that teaching is a last resort option for those with nothing better to do. And teaching abroad? Apparently that’s just one long holiday. Notice I used the word apparently. Lets talk about what teaching abroad really entails. No sugar-coating, no lectures, just my real experiences, ready to be shared with you so you can ask yourself– Do I have what it takes?
First- here are some facts about me:
Years of teaching experience: 5.5
Years teaching abroad: 3
Years teaching in my home country: 2.5
Countries I’ve taught in: South Korea, South Africa, Kuwait
Country I am currently teaching in: The United Arab Emirates
Grade levels I’ve taught: Kindergarten all the way up to grade 12. Yes, ALL.
Subjects I’ve taught: English, P.E., Social Studies and Health Education.
In my not-so-long career I’ve dealt with: Hair pulling, chair throwing, bathroom mishaps, vomit, student isolation, teenage pregnancies, bullying, apathy, teachers’ races on Sports Day, sex education, drug searches, hugs from kids who came up to my knee, tears from a group of 7 years olds, broken homes, dance competitions, HIV counselling, Christmas productions, miscommunication via a language barrier and so much more!
Based on my experiences, I can’t understand why teaching is considered a cushy job? I’m not trying to discourage you from teaching. Oh no! I want you use your passion for teaching, combine it with your love for the unknown, and see the world while doing what you love! But, I also want you to know what it is really like so you can make an informed decision because teaching in a foreign country isn’t for everyone. So ask yourself the following questions:
Are you flexible? REALLY flexible?
No I am not talking about what yoga positions you can contort yourself into. I mean, can you handle what is thrown at you, without losing your cool and adapt to situations even when they make no sense? When you move abroad, you will be adjusting to a new culture. One that, at first, will seem thrilling. But, later on, you may realise that some aspects of this culture make little sense. For example, in South Korea, everything was done at the absolute last minute:
Colleague: We need you to prepare a program for the English concert.
Me: Ok great. When is it?
Colleague: This Thursday?
Me: Wait what? It’s Monday. When was this decided?!
Colleague: Oh a few months back. Let me have your plan by tomorrow morning.
There is no time to lament about incompetence and a lack of logic. Furthermore, there is no point in doing so. When you teach abroad, you’re at the bottom of the school hierarchy, the language barrier prevents you from asking what you want to ask, the culture confuses the hell out of you, and you are expected to work twice as hard as everyone else. I remember when I arrived in Kuwait ready to teach middle school English and I was politely informed that I would be teaching kindergarten. Wait, what?
So if you think you’re flexible, multiply that feeling by 1000. That’s how adaptable you need to be for teaching abroad.
Can you be by yourself? REALLY be by yourself for long periods of time?
I know your friends’ pictures on social media look fabulous. There she is, on yet ANOTHER school holiday, swanning around Thailand with a colourful cocktail and a trendy bikini. But social media shows us the highlight reel of people’s lives. What you don’t see are the hours spent alone, feeling lonely and isolated. When you live abroad, you will spend copious time alone. In South Korea I was one of 4 teachers in an entire school that spoke English. In fact, I was always the only non-Korean at school. This meant I couldn’t just go over to my colleagues and discuss last night’s episode of Downton Abbey. If they even watched it. All day long I was in teacher mode, using simple sentences and basic vocabulary with Korean students until I was able to find a English speaking adult to vomit out my unspoken words to.
When you live in a small town, you may be the only person who is a foreigner. You have to be prepared to enjoy your own company, do things by yourself, learn the local language and take initiative. It is scary as hell. For example: doing any paperwork in Kuwait- the people at the ministries only speak Arabic and they can be rude and unwelcoming. But, I conquered my fears and went by myself to sort out what I needed to do for my visa. Ultimately, teaching abroad requires a sense of self-confidence that even if you don’t possess it, you have to fake it until you make it!
How open are you really to cultural differences? Or will you be one of those who keep making comparisons to their home country?
Traveling abroad allows you a glimpse into the culture of the country you are visiting. When you are tired of the spitting on the street, yelling in restaurants, veiled women, and afternoon siestas, you pack your bags and go home.
But teaching abroad, means not only will you be exposed to a new culture via the children you teach, you will be a part of it as you open your new bank account, seek medical attention, and generally go about your daily life living in a new country. Going home means going back to your apartment in this foreign land, not packing your bags, and not going back to where you flew in from. Teaching abroad does require some integration and acceptance of a new culture. Maybe you will have to censor your lesson on the Holocaust in your classroom, maybe you can’t discuss gay rights in your staff room. These are all realities of international teachers. For example, in the Middle East, polygamy is a widely accepted marital practice. Maybe your religious beliefs don’t support this view but if you live here, you have to accept that it is a part of the culture.
Of course, no one is asking your husband to rush out and find 4 wives but that’s the beauty of accepting something without appropriating, fighting against, or complaining about it. Can you hold yourself back from doing that? If you keep saying, “Well, back where I am from it is so much better!” You will never really adjust and find happiness in your host society.
At the end of the day, people who want to make the move to teach abroad, and possess all the right qualities, often don’t. Purely, because they are scared. Scared of the unknown and scared of failure. But what is the worst that can happen? You arrive, you hate it, you collect your first pay check and fly back home. At least you tried and hey, trying something is admirable. Whereas sitting in front of your laptop, passing nasty judgements on your ex-colleague who moved to Thailand to teach English is, as a certain admin of this site would say, BASIC.
Oh, lots of people make the excuse that they can’t teach abroad because their passport isn’t from the U.S., U.K., Australia or New Zealand. That again is BASIC. I am from South Africa and my teaching bestie is from the Czech Republic. If a European and an African can make it in the world of international teachers, I don’t see why you can’t.
People also use relationships as an excuse not to move abroad. The truth is that nobody really cares if your boyfriend “won’t allow you to go anywhere without him.” People do long distance, or they take their partners, or they move together as a teaching couple or even as a family with kids. When you have a goal and a partner who supports your goal, anything is possible. And guess what? I got married 3 years ago and am still happily married while I teach abroad!
Now, you have heard all of the negatives and you are still reading this thinking, “this is something I can do!” Then great! If you are open minded, flexible, independent and ready to teach abroad, then prepare to FALL IN LOVE.
You will fall in love with the idea of the world being a tiny place as you realize that in the space of 48 hours you can be living across the world.
You will fall in love with new cultures, new friendships, new journeys, new classrooms, new experiences, new cuisines, new lovers, and new ways of living.
You will fall in love with your hometown or previous places you have lived, because being away allows you to look back and miss positive elements of a former lifestyle.
You will fall in love with the notion that people are not so different after all as you discuss House of Cards with your German colleague and enjoy karaoke with your Japanese students. In fact, you will find strength in your differences and also appreciate the similarities.
You will fall in love with sunny skies, bitter winds, icy snow, blooming flowers, blazing heat and all of the traditions that accompany a new season in your host country.
You will fall in love with the places you can travel to because of your new geographical location and even worse, the places you wistfully long to visit as you add them to your long list.
You will fall in love with the knowledge that despite language, cultural, and class barriers, your classroom is a space where you and your new students can connect through the curriculum and meaningful discussion as you share information.
You will fall in love with your new identity as you teach a Kuwaiti child to read, listen to a Korean student sing, hold the hand of a South African pregnant teen, and realize that your passion for imparting knowledge only grows as you broaden your own horizons around the world.
You will no longer just be a teacher; you are a powerful global classroom leader, inspiring children of all ages using whatever you can, wherever you go!
For more tips/FAQ/experiences about teaching abroad please follow Expat Panda on her: