One of the hardest things I have done in my life was travel to east Asia to teach English as a second language.
As it turns out, that difficult experience was also one of the most rewarding. What started as a struggle on so many fronts turned out to be an experience that changed me as a person and changed my perspective on just about everything, and for the better. I only wish I had been a little better prepared so that the advantages overcame the struggles more quickly. If this is your first time going overseas to teach, as it was mine, there are a lot of things to think about. Not only will you have all the responsibilities of a classroom teacher, you will also have to handle personal cultural issues, and you won’t be able to drive across town to see the people who are important to you. Plus, depending on where you are moving to teach, you may not have the resources you take for granted at home. Here are some of my tips for making your overseas teaching experience the best that it can be.
Think about Your Classroom
There is a big range in how many of your choice classroom materials will be available overseas. Where I taught, I could get nothing in English. I had to bring all of my own books, classroom decorations, and subject material with me. My Internet access was limited and unpredictable, so I really had to think ahead about what I needed to bring. For some who teach overseas, just about everything they need can be found online, so there is not as much preparation necessary. To make sure you have all the materials you need, ask your school staff what will be available for you in your classroom. Find out if there are adequate classroom decorations at your school and that you will have access to them. Know whether or not you will have access to an English library or other English classroom materials. If you will not have access to the things you will need while you are teaching overseas, make an effort to bring those things with you.
Rewards and Gifts
No matter what resources you will have available, consider bringing a few things for your classroom and your students. Stickers are good items to pack, especially reward stickers in English. They are small and lightweight and can easily be tucked in a corner of your suitcase. Also think about bringing small gifts and rewards for your students that they may not be able to get where you are going. In some cultures you will be expected to give gifts when first meeting your students and coworkers. Bring items that have a feeling of your home country. That is, bring items that are clearly American, Canadian, British, or Australian or that come from your home country and that are not available where you are going to teach.
Think about Your Relationships
Keep in Touch
With today’s technology, keeping in touch with friends and family isn’t nearly as difficult as it used to be. Whereas in the past travelers had to rely on written letters and slow international mail, today we have many options for keeping in touch with the people we love. Of course, traditional mail is still around, and nothing says we miss you quite like a care package from home. Make sure your friends and family have your address overseas and know how to address their letters or packages. If you are travelling someplace where they do not use the same alphabet you do at home, consider writing out your address in the target language and making several copies for your friends and family. Printing out a sheet of labels is also a great way to make sure your loved ones keep in touch. That way they don’t have to write a strange alphabet and words they cannot read to send a letter or package that may or may not reach you. Instead, they simply peel a sticker from a page and slap in on an envelope or a package knowing there are no mistakes with it.
An even easier means of keeping in touch these days is with video chatting. Whether you prefer FaceTime, Skype, or some other program, get your ducks in a row before you go. Make sure you have an account set up and that the people you plan on talking to have their accounts set up as well. For some friends and family members, you will have to walk them through the process of calling and/or receiving a call. Also, if you plan to use a program where you both have to be online before the call can go through (like Skype), plan ahead a day and time that you will talk to each other. Another thing to think about if you plan on video chatting is whether you will have online access at your destination. Will you be able to call from home or only from the school building? Ask these questions of your overseas contact before you go so keeping in touch with the ones you love is easy.
Think about Your Culture
The first few weeks and months of being overseas is often called a honeymoon period. Everything around you is new and interesting, and the culture you see is nothing if not fascinating. When everything around you is new and exciting, you will think that teaching overseas was the best decision you could have ever made. You are probably right in that feeling, but even so the honeymoon period will come to an end. If you are planning on teaching long term overseas (more than a few months), expect your honeymoon period to last around six months (shorter if you are teaching for a shorter period of time). When that happens, your rollercoaster ride will take a dip. You may feel discouraged, misunderstood, or frustrated. Remember that these feelings are normal, and they will pass. Before you know it, things will even out and you will become used to living and teaching in a new culture. You may not be as excited about every little thing around you like you were in the honeymoon period, but you won’t feel as discouraged as you do during the dip that follows it. You will have achieved a new “normal.” Being aware that these changing feelings will come is half the battle in dealing with them in a healthy way when they do. Above all, remember that our emotions can be deceiving, and even if you feel like everything around you is bleak, it probably isn’t.
If you are a busy teacher teaching overseas, you probably have some great tips of your own for new teachers.
Feel free to share them in the comments section below.