Teaching Abroad: Expecting the Unexpected

Going abroad to teach English as a Second Language is a dream for many graduates. The thought of paying off student loans while travelling the world seems like the perfect scenario for young people who are itching to get away or try something new. Though post-graduation may be the best time to broaden your horizons and even test out your teaching skills, it is important to realize that the life of a foreign language teacher can be just as challenging as it is rewarding.

Like any dream or goal, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of what the future may hold. Does the idea of experiencing a new culture, earning a high salary, and hitching a free ride to a foreign country seem too good to be true? Employment ads and recruiters may convince you that it is not. Some may even encourage you to sign a contract and pack your bags immediately in order to get that job of a lifetime.

Despite what many foreign employers claim, teaching English is rarely a quick solution to traveller's itch or student loan debt. English teachers in many parts of the world work long hours in less than perfect work environments. Many bring work home and have little money (or time) for travel and play. While there are some teachers who adjust to the highs and lows and even make a career out of teaching abroad, others are sadly disappointed and do all they can to dissuade others from making the same mistakes.

Here are a few common complaints from teachers whose experience abroad did not live up to their dreams. Keep in mind that complaints such as these are often from teachers who jumped at an opportunity or signed a contract before doing their homework. Each of the following can be turned into a question for your own research checklist.

Nobody told me that...

...my students would be so tired when they got to class.
In many countries, kids go to public school all day before they go to language class. Some are forced to take language class on their weekends. Tired students who are in class because their parents forced them there are not that much fun to teach.

...my salary wouldn't even cover living expenses.
Many teaching positions in places such as Mexico, China, and Vietnam offer salaries that are below the poverty level. Always have extra funds available if you are teaching abroad.

...I'd have to spend hours of my own time each day preparing for my classes.
If you have never taught before, you should know that prep. time takes a lot longer than you may think. Some schools do not have a set curriculum and others do not even have class text books. You may be required to find and copy your own materials.

...some ESL schools discriminate.
Do not assume that foreign employers will promote equal opportunity for teachers. In some countries you will face discrimination based on age, race, and gender.

...class sizes could be so large.
In some schools teachers are responsible for up to 50 students at a time, while others have smaller classes of ten to fifteen. The salary may not reflect the number of students you are responsible for teaching. Always ask about class size before you accept a job.

...private ESL schools open and close so often.
If you don't do your research you could end up in a school that closes before you even reach your destination. Always find out how long a school has been in establishment. Be aware that even large chain schools, such as NOVA have gone under.

...if I break my contract I'd have to pay my own return airfare.
If you end up extremely homesick, or if you can't stand teaching, you may end up spending all of your earnings on a flight home.

...I would be "team teaching" with my colleagues.
If you are an independent person and you can't imagine teaching with someone else in the room, make sure to ask about team teaching. Schools have various teaching styles and you'll want to find the right fit.

...lateness is the norm in some countries.
This can apply to paycheques, airport pick up, and even class attendance. Though you the teacher must always be punctual, in some countries your students administrators, and landlord may not be.

...I would be required to pay such high fees for medical insurance.
Fees for benefits are mandatory in some countries such as Japan and will be deducted from your paycheque. Find out what all of your costs will be and what benefits you will receive.

...promises and contracts are broken every day in this industry.
ESL administrators know how difficult it is for foreign teachers to fight for their legal rights. Verbal promises are never enough, and written promises sometimes aren't either.

...I wouldn't have time to settle into my new life before I started work.
When you negotiate your contract, try to work in a few days of adjustment time before you start teaching. Remember that you are most yourself when you are well rested.

...the students in my class would be from all different levels and age groups
Multi-level classes are the norm in many schools. These are challenging classes to teach and require extra work on the part of the teacher. Find out if your students will be multi-level (or even multi-cultural) and learn tips on how to manage these types of classrooms.

...culture shock takes a month or so to set in.
A honeymoon phase generally precedes emotions such as loneliness, confusion, and frustration. The awareness that culture shocks doesn't necessarily happen over night may be all you need to get yourself through it when it does kick in.

...split shifts are common in the ESL industry.
Thought you were through with split shifts when you quit your serving job at the restaurant? Maybe not. Even if you are promised 20 teaching hours a week your work hours may be spread out throughout a twelve hour day. Find out the school hours before you sign a contract!

...there would be extra curricular activities that all teachers had to take part in.
This is common in many schools. You may be required to participate in things such as graduation ceremonies and after school field trips that you are not compensated for. Find out everything that is required outside of teaching hours.

...my teacher certification wouldn't be good enough.
There are a variety of types of teacher certification. Even if you have your degree and a TEFL certificate, that may not be enough in some countries. Some schools require a TESOL or a CELTA and others require a minimum of teaching hours.

...the cost of travelling or even commuting to work would be so high.
Always look into the cost of transportation costs before you leave. What will it cost you to get to work, to take a day trip, to travel to your dream destination on your holiday week?

...I should have a contingency plan in place.
Many teachers assume they will like the school they teach at and will complete the contract. What if you have a family emergency at home or if you get sick? Can you afford to get yourself home if you need to? Always have a back up plan in mind in case of an emergency.

...English teachers are often associated with negative stereotypes.
While your students may think of you as a Hollywood star, the administrators may have different thoughts. Keep in mind that a teacher before you may have left a bad reputation of your country for you to clear.

...it would be so hard to be a picky eater.
If you are not an adventurous eater or if you have food allergies you may have difficulty living in a foreign country for a long period of time. Don't underestimate how important food is to your daily life. There may also be drinking water and other health concerns. The cost of food is another question you should ask.

...my workplace would be monitored.
Some schools have cameras in the halls and classrooms, which can make teaching very stressful. If there are no cameras, administrators may sit in on your classes without giving you advance warning.

...there would be no Internet access at my school.
Having fast Internet access at all times is the norm for many of us. However, this is not the case in many other countries. Some schools may only have one computer that all of the teachers are expected to share. There may also be a lack of audio visual equipment, which may make teaching a lot more work for you. Some schools may even suffer from regular energy shortages.

...I wouldn't have free access to a photocopier.
Many teachers complain that they have to pay for making copies out of their own salary. An efficient photocopier is an ESL teacher's best friend.

...my students would be used to learning out of a textbook.
In many countries, the communicative approach is not welcomed by introverted students. Be aware that you may spend a lot of energy encouraging students to participate.

...I would have so many housing complaints.
Housing scams are typically associated with teaching abroad. Be sure to find out all costs that you will be responsible for, including key money, deposits, and rent.

...my tourist visa wasn't good enough.
Some employers may try to convince you to get the wrong visa. They may even try to get you to work under the table when you arrive. Make sure that you have the correct visa, and do not take your employer's word. Contact your consulate and do your own research.

...the recruiting agency would take a portion of my salary.
Be sure to get testimonials from teachers before using a third party, such as a recruiting agency. Legitimate agents charge employers not teachers.

One reason so many ESL teachers return to their native soil jaded and poor is because they don't take the time to ask important questions before signing a contract and boarding a plane. Those who do their own homework and stick out their contracts are more likely to return home with positive stories about their rich experience abroad with memories that will last a lifetime.

So, is teaching English abroad really worth the hassle? Yes, as long as you are ready and able to expect and accept the unexpected.