Teaching English abroad is a great way to learn more about who you are when you’re outside of your comfort zone. That said, expanding your boundaries in a foreign culture can inevitably lead to blunders that could’ve been prevented if you’d had proper warning.
If you want to spend more time learning and appreciating your chosen destination—and less time regretting and apologizing make sure you avoid these eight common mistakes.
1. Thinking you can wear whatever you want
This may seem obvious, but what you wear not only shows how you present yourself in the classroom, but it also shows your regard for their special holidays, cultural events and traditions. Don’t be afraid to ask people what’s appropriate for certain occasions and venues.
Trust me, no one wants to be yelled at by a priest in Jerusalem for showing their forearms on a blazing hot day (yes, I’m speaking from experience). Weather is another important factor, so choose wisely when picking out formal attire, considering different fabrics, styles and colors that your hosts will see as respectable. After all, you’re their guest.
2. Ignoring cultural norms
Every culture has norms people adhere to—like shaking hands or bowing to one another. Showing eye contact in Western cultures demonstrates listening and connectedness, while avoiding eye contact is often seen as a sign of respect in other cultures. These are all important aspects of daily life that must be learned quickly and respected.
You might not understand it at first, but if you keep an open mind, local people’s reasoning may become clear. Then you’ll be able to see where they’re coming from, how this way of life has evolved and the impact it’s had. As a result, you’re able to better connect with both your students and their parents.
3. Glossing over their history
Taking an interest in students’ backgrounds shows you care and helps build trust. Similarly, knowing the history of the country where you’re teaching abroad shows a sincere investment on your part. You’re there to teach and to learn. If you ask students, colleagues, and neighbors questions, they are often eager to teach you and proud of their roots.
Reading a couple of pages in a guidebook or doing a quick search online doesn’t expose the complexities of a society. It’s best to approach their history with curiosity so you avoid moments where you might say the wrong thing, pass judgment, or misrepresent yourself or your country.
4. Forgetting your privileged position
Although we don’t choose where we’re born or the family we’re born into, we can choose to recognize when we have certain privileges that others lack. When living abroad, try to keep your privilege in check by not assuming everyone has the same things.
For example, while teaching in Honduras I showed a few curious students a photo of my family standing in front of my childhood home. The children were shocked to see that my former home was not walled in, nor did it have barbed wire or bars on the windows. They had never seen a nice home in such a secure location, and it was a type of privilege I became acutely aware of.
5. Assuming head nods or silence means they get it
In some cultures, it’s considered rude or disrespectful to ask the teacher questions. So, a student who doesn’t understand a concept or a lesson might act like everything is crystal clear when it’s not. Be sure to really check for understanding by asking students to paraphrase what you or a classmate said, or ask to summarize a passage in a textbook.
Provide a question box and invite students to submit anonymous questions in writing to be read at a designated time each day. Give struggling students sentence starters or sentence frames so they can easily ask questions using the words and phrases they know.
6. Teaching your way without explaining why
If your teaching style or methods differ from those of your colleagues, explain to them and to your students why you are using those approaches. In return, it’s great to try to learn something from them about what they’ve found effective or helpful to create a collaborative dialogue.
This can also empower students to share what works for them and it might help them be more receptive to your teaching style. They might start out feeling uneasy, but once a consistent routine is established and your methods are explained, they will know what to expect and they will see how much you care.
7. Getting through the material without really connecting
Teaching abroad provides a wealth of opportunities to learn from our students and our new surroundings, and to create cross-cultural connections that enrich everyone’s perspectives. Ask students about local festivals. Have them teach you how to make one of their favorite typical foods.
For instance, I introduced an Italian student to pumpkin pie while she and her family introduced me to prosciutto on cantaloupe. If you teach older students, find out what societal issues can be incorporated into your curriculum so you can draw on their background knowledge. Then you can discuss meaningful issues like inequality or discrimination, possibly even making a poem, novel or play more relatable for them.
They’re more likely to engage if they feel they have something valuable to contribute, and in turn, you can see this foreign country through a different lens.
8. Sticking to the basics
It can be easy to fall into the trap of sticking to the materials you’re given, but it’s so much more rewarding when you find ways to creatively engage students to make it fun to learn English through interesting visuals, games that incorporate physical activity, performing arts projects and/or problem-solving activities.
Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and an MEd from University of California-Santa Barbara. She has worked with adolescents for a decade as a middle school and high school English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, and a curriculum designer for high school and college courses. She works with 13- to 19-year-old students as a project manager of a nonprofit organization.