Top 10 Things for an ESL Teacher to Pack

By Dan Hinkley

TEFL checklistThe decision to drop everything, to spend one thousand pounds sterling and have five weeks of your life completely taken over training as an EFL teacher before moving to another country whose traditions, customs, language and beliefs are completely foreign to yours, is not one that can be taken lightly. However, should you be willing to embark on a complete lifestyle change, willing to risk spending the thousand pounds (a venture which is certainly a gamble) and willing also to dedicate yourself to learning the various (often completely illogical) structures, labels and rules which govern the language you have naturally mastered to a level that you are able to teach them to others, then the rewards can be incredible.

The initial feelings I had when spending my first week in Thailand were of wide-eyed amazement coupled with constant and necessary reality checks. Even now, a year down the road I still find myself questioning the surreal nature in which everyday life takes place. I don’t mean things you might automatically associate with EFL teaching such as travel opportunities, late night drinking or ex-pat society in a foreign land, what I mean is the everyday routine things that usually become so tedious. Things like laundry, grabbing a quick lunch, the ride to work in the morning, all of which are completely different to what I have grown accustomed to while to living in the Western World. Variety is the spice of life, and the life as an EFL teacher is diversity personified.

It is impossible to adapt to this sweeping change in lifestyle immediately however, and everyone who I have spoken to needed a little time to get used to their new surroundings. Most people agree that in order to make the transaction a smooth one (and one which doesn’t result in you getting on the first plane back home) it is a good idea to choose what you bring with you carefully. You can’t bring everything, as I found out (see Beyond Bangkok), so efficient choice-making and packing are important. How do you know what you need before you go though? Below I have made a list of the top ten things I think you should remember to pack when you fly out for your first (or even if it isn’t your first) teaching position in a foreign country. So, here we go, in no particular order:

  1. An open mind
    Some people read reams of information on their destination of choice, some aren’t sure if it’s in Africa or Asia! Either way, you are certain to see things which you weren’t expecting; this continues to occur regardless of how long you have lived there, pre-fabricated opinions don’t make for useful travelling companions. A willingness to adapt and be accepting of a new culture isn’t always easy but it is always necessary.
  2. Branston pickle, Heinz beans, Tetleys tea etc
    Everyone has their little eating idiosyncrasies, some people even like to eat processed cheese. Your immune system takes a while to adapt to the different flavours in food from other countries whether it’s the extra garlic, oil, un-treated water, chillies or some other local ‘delicacy’. A small amount of food that you’re used to eating may prove essential to fall back on in times of need! You should check with the country’s “International customs” internet page first to find out what you’re allowed to take with you. Getting fined for carrying illegal goods across international borders isn’t the best way to start your new career!
  3. Copies of important documents and passport photos
    It is best to have your working VISA sorted out by the school or language centre you are working for. They will know the correct procedure and can speak the language, always a bonus! You may need to give them your passport, qualification certificates etc for long periods of time, so it is essential that you make copies of these documents. I also needed to provide what felt like several hundred passport photos and sign a few thousand pieces of paper.
  4. A decent guidebook
    As an EFL teacher you may be above the traveller mindset where the Lonely Planet is your bible, but having a guidebook with a bit of background information on the country, local customs, festivals/bank holiday dates etc is a valuable asset to refer to. Make sure you get one which includes up-to-date, detailed maps of the area you’re planning to live in.
  5. A variety of clothes
    When I flew out to Thailand I had with me a thousand t-shirts and a few hundred pairs of shorts. I soon found out that the air-conditioning is absolutely freezing within most places in Bangkok and that the rainy season means waterproofs are essential. Find out what your place of work requires you to wear during teaching hours and ask them to inform you of the local prices of things. There’s no point spending lots of money buying shirts and ties back home when they’re half price where you’re going.
  6. Communication skills
    It is quite difficult to stay in touch while living and working abroad. Your friends and family are living in a different time-zone and getting in touch can be expensive. It’s a good idea to set up how you’re going to communicate before you go, if you have internet access you can set up instant messenger accounts such as MSN messenger and get yourself an e-mail address. Find out if you can use your mobile. I didn’t bring my mobile only to find out that I could have got it chipped and got a Thai SIM for five pounds! Usually you can find international calling cards which you can use from you mobile or a public phone which enables you to make long distance calls at a cheap rate.
  7. Teaching materials
    Find out what materials your school/language centre uses and decide which books you won’t be able to live without. Swann’s “Practical English Usage” or Murphy’s “Essential Grammar in Use” are both excellent wide-ranging grammar books. To save on weight you could visit a library and copy pages relevant to the country you are going to or your perceived weaknesses in English teaching areas.
  8. Medical insurance
    Yes, it’s expensive but in my experience it’s necessary. Although I haven’t needed a hospital visit myself, I know a couple of friends who have spent a small fortune in medical bills not having had the appropriate medical insurance.
  9. A phrase book
    Depending on where you’re going, finding an English speaker to translate and explain things may prove to be a difficult task. It is worth learning some high frequency words or phrases just so you can recognise them when you hear them. In your first couple of weeks it is also worth taking the time to learn how to say the address of your apartment for those late night taxi rides home!
  10. Reminders of home
    Whether it’s to remind yourself of that wonderful place called home, or a reminder of why you left, a few photographs or small bits and pieces with sentimental value will do wonders to help you settle in to a new apartment and make your time spent there a little bit more comfortable.

Of course what to take with you is completely subjective and depends on where you’re going — the above should make for a decent starting point. Looking on EFL forums will often enable you to get in touch with EFL teachers already living in the country you want to go to, they will provide the best sort of advice regarding what else you might need.

Written by Dan Hinkley for April 2017

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