Teaching English abroad can be really rewarding, which I can attest to, but it can also be really challenging. You’ve probably considered some of those challenges, but there might be others you haven’t thought of yet. Here are some questions to ask yourself before committing to this type of adventure.
1. Have you taught English learners before?
It’s great to have a teaching credential and some teaching experience under your belt before teaching abroad. But if you haven’t taught English learners before, I strongly suggest doing so first—or at least tutoring English learners. Earning a TEFL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is also helpful. Indeed, many schools in other countries require it, or something similar.
Some people think that being a native English speaker means they’ll have no trouble teaching it to students in a foreign country, but there’s so much more to it than that. If you can’t go out and get a job teaching English to English learners here in the U.S., then going to another country to fill this position might be a disservice to those students.
Students in every country deserve knowledgeable teachers who use effective teaching methods. Many countries desperately need teachers who have a range of strategies for engaging, motivating, challenging and assessing English learners at all levels so that every students’ needs are met.
Although I had experience working with English learners before teaching abroad in Honduras, I encountered different challenges. In Honduras, I taught 6th-12th grade, and in each grade there were students who could only speak, read and write at a basic conversational level, while others were advanced and needed to be challenged.
There were also no support services for students with learning differences, so I had to address their linguistic needs while also finding different ways to teach and assess them.
2. Do you enjoy teaching?
This may seem like a basic question, but it’s really important to answer honestly if you’re going to dedicate an academic year of your life teaching students in another country. If your only focus is exploring a new country and coming home with amazing travel stories, then you might want to find a different occupation or volunteer abroad instead.
If you enjoy teaching but want to work in a different type of education system, find out more about that country’s educational policies and practices, and the school’s methodology and culture. There will still be challenging moments like a co-worker getting on your nerves, a struggling student you can’t reach and trying to balance your job with your personal life. So, it’s important to choose the country and school that’s the best fit for the type of teacher you are.
3. Are you OK with a language barrier?
If you’re thinking about teaching in a country where you don’t speak the language or know only the basics, think about how the language barrier will impact your daily life and your work. Living abroad is a great way to learn a language because you’re fully immersed in it (except when you’re teaching in English). But learning the conversational basics first can go a long way. Once you’re there, try to:
- Push yourself to use what you know as soon as you arrive.
- Ask a colleague to teach you all the slang, especially the slang that kids use.
- Ask your students for help.
I asked a couple sixth-graders to teach me the Honduran national anthem. They loved being my teacher, giggling when I mispronounced words and shyly correcting me when I insisted that they do so. But when it came time for parent-teacher conferences, I was a nervous wreck.
I had to push past my own insecurities of sounding like a child with my elementary Spanish and try my best to speak professionally with parents. They were understanding and appreciative of my efforts, but it took time for me to accept that feeling uncomfortable was an inevitable part of my journey.
4. Can you learn to go with the flow?
Think about how you handle stress, unknowns, sudden changes, and mishaps. Then consider experiencing those moments in another country, where people’s priorities and cultural norms may differ from your own. If you’re open to learning from the locals, then you’ll be able to adapt, but it can be challenging at times when you’re used to your way of doing things.
5. How independent are you?
In many schools abroad, there isn’t a lot of hand-holding. You’ll often hit the ground running with basic information and the rest is up to you to figure out. If you’d prefer a more guided approach to ease you in, make your expectations clear from the beginning.
Ask lots of questions so that nothing is assumed. Some schools give you a tour, an orientation and help you find a place to live or provide you with accommodations. Others leave that for you to figure out on your own.
You might be very independent in that regard, but the idea of venturing off to explore new places by yourself might make you uneasy. Of course, you’ll make friends along the way, but time alone is often part of the deal, which you may or may not enjoy. If you’re planning to teach abroad with a friend or partner, discuss what each of your expectations are around time together vs. time apart so you both have the time you need to do what you’d like.
6. Have you done your research?
It’s easy to get excited by beautiful photos and enticing travel articles. But I strongly suggest researching:
- the city and country you’re thinking about living in
- cultural values
- customs and holidays
- important historical events
- local politics
- gender roles
- daily life
- socioeconomic issues
- general view of education/teachers
This will help you make a more informed decision. There will still be unknowns and surprises along the way, but they’re more manageable when you already know the basics. It’s also really helpful to talk to a current or former staff member and/or someone who has taught abroad there. Ask what a good day and a bad day looks like for them to really get a sense of their day-to-day lives.
If, after thinking about it from different angles, you are still excited about teaching English abroad and feel prepared, then go for it! There’s nothing quite like it and you’re bound to learn a lot personally and professionally. I know I’ll always look back on my time teaching in Honduras as one of the highlights of my career.
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.