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Risks of being an ESL Teacher abroad

By David Buckley
David Buckley outlines some of the points that ESL teachers should be aware of when working in other countries. Some of the risks and situations they may encounter.

Packing your bags and jetting off to another country to teach English can be an exciting prospect. Everyone should try to experience this in their life as the rewards and memories will live with you forever.

However, that is not to say that life as an ESL expat is free of any downsides or even danger. It is worth thinking about the risks you are likely to encounter – forewarned is forearmed after all.

Below is a list of possible things you might encounter or experience while teaching abroad. Take note, and make sure that your time in another country is free of unhappy experiences and filled instead with happy ones. 

Culture shock

This is the one thing that you will experience. And there is little you can do to avoid it.

The entire process of culture shock can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year. Depending on where you are and how different the culture is from your own country.

There are four main stages:

  • Honeymoon
  • Frustration
  • Adjustment
  • Acceptance

Unfortunately, it is what it is. And you will either adapt or not. Most people are generally pretty flexible though.

Different education system

Do not try to change it. Just accept it for what it is.

For example, in many Asian countries, it is not unheard of for students to spend eight or nine hours in school, go home and do three or four hours of homework. This is the way they have done things for many years. It is not your business to introduce a better way of doing things – that is how they do it.

No, the students don’t like it. Sympathize by all means but say nothing else.


This is a common grievance for any expat. You may find there are times when you feel incredibly lonely, far from home and very different from all the other people in your school and neighbourhood. 

At times like this, you need to keep in close contact with your family and friends back home and stay close to any new expat friends in the new town where you are now living. 

Which brings us neatly to…

Making new friends (then losing them)

It can be a little difficult to make new friends in a new country. If it is a big city, there may be masses of people but you don’t know how to talk to them or get to know them. Then when you do meet other expats you find you get to know them very well. They become one of your best friends only for them to tell you they are leaving in two weeks.

This can be very difficult to adjust to and it can cause a great deal of stress for some ESL expats.

You have to come to terms with the fact that people move on or return to their own country.

Bar-based social life (night after night)

Hemingway wrote about expat life consisting of drinking too much. And he should know.

Unfortunately, it is a truism. Many expats do spend too much time drinking and every evening in the local dive bar.

There is nothing wrong with going for a few drinks on a Friday night after a hard week of teaching. But if it becomes a crutch you need, then you must take stock of this.

These bars are often filled with people that constantly complain about the country they are in but never leaving. Do not become one of them. There are many other interesting and useful things you can do with your time.

Different crime

Crime exists in every city and country of the world. It is just different.

You may come from a city that has a very low crime rate. It is best to exercise caution when you are out and about. No need to be completely paranoid. But keep all your valuables in front pockets or secure inside bags. 

Pickpocketing is a skilled craft that exists in many countries outside the west so take care in public places. 

Also, be aware of anyone approaching you in public, smiling and speaking English. Chances are they are trying to scam you.

Check what scams exist in the country or city you are travelling to. There are plenty of warnings online to help you. 

Generally, it is best to be on your guard when walking around in public. 

Local laws that need respecting

As an ESL teacher abroad you are not immune from the local laws. You are liable if caught, so just note what the laws are.

Many teachers seem to believe that if they break the law in another country, they can claim it was all just an accident. They then expect their consulate to get them out of trouble. This could not be further from the truth. Many countries now take a dim view of people abusing their laws and hand out prison sentences. This could incur much greater expense for your family — if they can even help you.

It is far better to keep out of trouble and be on your best behaviour at all times. Remember, you are an ambassador for your country. The least you can do is treat your host country with some respect. 


These are just a few examples of stressful situations ESL teachers can find themselves in while working abroad. Chances are you will have a safe and pleasant time while teaching in another country. But it is always best to exercise a little due care and diligence when abroad.

Treat your colleagues, neighbours and local authorities with respect and courtesy – it goes a long way.

Yes, there may be times when you feel that working in a foreign country can be a little too much at times. But smile, take a breath and know that all stressful situations pass. Tomorrow is just another day.

And you should come back to your own country after a year or two, your mind filled with great memories and a thousand stories to tell.

Written by David Buckley for Tefl.NET July 2019
David Buckley is the owner of manwrites.com. He writes about learning English and teaching English. Feel free to visit his site and take a look around.
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