13 Things I Realized When Teaching Abroad

by Suzanne Bhagan

Teaching abroad may sound glamorous to those who haven’t done it before. However, when you find yourself in a foreign country staring at a bunch of wide-eyed students for the first time, you’ll quickly realize that it’s no picnic. When I introduced myself to my high school students on my first day teaching in Japan, I had no idea what to expect. Through trial and error, I had to figure out how to reach my new students (and connect with them), even though I couldn’t speak Japanese and they spoke very little English.

Volunteer teacher teaching a lesson to elementary students

Teaching abroad was a learning experience not only for my students, but for me as well. I walked away a profoundly different and more self-enlightened individual. Beyond the stark realization that there’s a great big world out there (and that my list of must-visit countries is a mile long), I also learned that...

1. Students must come first.

I really had to check my motivations prior to teaching abroad. Was it just an excuse to travel? Your students and co-teachers will appreciate your efforts if you show them that you are a committed professional who doesn’t jetset every weekend and come in bleary-eyed and unprepared the following Monday morning. After declining a few invites to epic weekends in far off places, I realized I was committed to my job, the field of education, and most importantly, my little rugrats.

Remember when you were in school? Did you like the teacher who didn’t seem to care? In the same way, if you commit to teaching abroad, even if it means volunteering for a few weeks or getting paid to teach for a year, you should always think about your students.

If your motivations to teach abroad rely more in the potential for adventure and travel rather than doing quality, meaningful work in the classroom, you may want to revisit square one.

2. I’m actually good at this.

Not only did I realize that I was committed to the profession, but I also realized I’m a pretty darn-good teacher. I enjoy the work, and the challenge, and all of the hairiness in-between. The joy derived from my job was tangible, and further contributed to me more intelligently refining and sharpening my teaching skills. All in all, I had passion.

3. My passion made me a better teacher.

I realized that education is something I believe deeply in, but it takes a unique passion to bring life to the subjects you are teaching. Being passionate about your subject area is also important when you teach. For instance, I realized that my students really enjoyed the lessons on my home country because I was passionate to share my language and culture with them.

Your students aren’t dummies; they pick up on body language and tone of voice while you are teaching. If you aren’t psyched about the lesson or pumped to be there, they’ll know. Enthusiasm must pervade your presentations if you aim to be an optimal educator.

Students studying together in class

4. You can’t get by on just English.

As much as I fought against it, I realized that simply knowing English is no cure-all to communication mishaps. Although several schools and organizations may not require you to speak the local language, I realized early on that I needed to memorize essential phrases; it ultimately makes daily life inside and outside the classroom much easier. Although it wasn’t mandatory for me to learn Japanese, it would have made my transition into teaching in Japan go more smoothly because I would have been able to relate to my students on their level.

For example, I had a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) who loved to make jokes in Japanese with our students. When I asked him to explain the joke in English, something was always lost in translation. When you don’t know the language and don’t understand the host culture, there will always be some degree of distance between you and the students.

The best teachers are the ones who embrace the host culture and understand the local language so they can bridge this cultural gap and really reach the students.

5. My TEFL certification was actually necessary.

#ThankDaLawd that I bit the bullet and signed up for a TEFL certification course prior to teaching English abroad. I realized on day one in the classroom the value and necessity of this training course; without it, we may have very well had a “deer in headlights” situation on our hands.

If you’re serious about making a career out of teaching abroad, it makes sense to get the right qualifications. Not only did my TEFL course teach me important skills, like lesson planning, but my TEFL courses will also helped me understand the crucial difference between teaching the language to native speakers and teaching it to non-native speakers.

6. Being a teacher is one part preparedness and two parts winging it.

You never really can tell what will happen in the classroom. Once, I had prepared a song for my lesson and the computer speakers in the classroom just wouldn’t work, of course I panicked! But I got through it, and even if the class didn’t go exactly how I anticipated, the lessons were still learned and the students were still engaged.

The next time I faced a technological glitch, I was prepared. It was like improv! I learned the importance of backup plans and rolling with the punches. Having a stock of language games to liven up a sleepy class or to deal with unexpected interruptions saved me many times.

I realized preparedness only takes you so far; the ability to think and act on the fly is a valid (and necessary) skill set to succeed as a teacher.

Black and white view of a teacher presenting to his class

7. Not all learners are created equal.

If only a blanket tactic could be used on my students (if only!!!). I realized just how-freakin’-hard teachers must work to do their jobs well. Teachers must know their students on individual levels; it’s crucial to be aware of students’ ages, interests, and learning abilities. This realization ultimately made me a better teacher, and helped me tailor lesson plans that challenged, engaged, and interested them.

For example, my English Club students were very shy and hated playing drama games like charades. On the other hand, they loved playing other word games like shiritori and pictionary. As a teacher, you don’t want to make your students unduly uncomfortable, but you may want to challenge them to get out of their comfort zones at times.

8. The world is a really big place.

I know I alluded to this earlier, but it goes without saying: the world really is a big, beautiful, confusing, wonderful, upsetting, magnetizing, pulsating place. Living in Japan really challenged me to think openly about how different lives and lifestyles look around the planet; that realization is overwhelming and exciting in the best ways possible.

9. Cultural awareness is key.

What may be okay in a Western classroom may not fly in a classroom in a non-Western country. I learned this the hard way. In Japan and many other Asian countries, students are not accustomed to putting their hands up to ask or answer questions. These countries tend to emphasize group culture and students hate to be singled out because they don’t want to seem more or less intelligent than their peers. Instead, I learned to break the ice in the classroom by using pair work, which made my students more comfortable and more likely to share their answers with everyone else.

Realization: combining your intelligence + adapting to the cultural learning needs of students = winning!

10. Clearly communicated expectations are your friend.

It makes no sense to try to teach when you don’t know what’s expected of you. Before I started teaching any classes, I spent a few minutes with each of my co-teachers and supervisors to ensure that they understood why I was hired. Some of them wanted me to pronounce the words like a native speaker. Others wanted me to help them create speaking tests. Many wanted me to correct the students’ essays. I always asked to ensure that I was doing what the other teachers needed me to do.

11. You should keep a teaching journal. 

I found this very helpful when I taught in Japan. At the end of each teaching day, I would write what went wrong, what went right and what could have been improved. This was a great resource to consult when I was planning learning activities for the subsequent lesson so I would know whether I had to reteach any material.

Also, by the end of the school year, I realized how much I had progressed as a teacher. It provided a concrete window into how I had advanced in my teaching pedagogies, different foci, different tactics, different approaches. Fascinating!

This also helped me better chart my adaptation to the local culture. In Japan, I had to adapt to the system of superiority in the work environment. For example, although I was hired to team-teach with a JTE, I learned that I still had to respect my team teacher as my sempai or superior. For example, if a JTE mispronounced a word in front of the class, I tried not to correct them in front of the class. Instead, I would pull them aside and speak to them privately.

Students learning English in the Philippines

12. Laughing (at yourself) is the best medicine.

You will make mistakes in the classroom. In the beginning, I was nervous about slipping up in front of my Japanese students, and my horrors were realized! Many times, I inadvertently tripped on the stage or struggled to turn on the projector. I realized that when I laughed at my mistakes, my students would also laugh and ultimately feel more comfortable in the classroom. When they made mistakes, I also tried not to over-correct them; instead, I made a conscious effort to consistently praise them for making the effort to speak or write in a foreign language.

13. Not all your students will care about learning English, and that’s ok.

Teaching English abroad doesn’t mean you’ll always have perfect, obedient students. I had my fair share of rude and sleepy Japanese students when I was teaching English in Japan. At first, I would get really angry that they didn’t seem interested in the lesson I spent hours preparing. However, at the end of the day, no one can force a student to learn.

As a teacher, I always tried to prepare relevant and interesting activities and not take it personally if some students didn’t seem to care. Sometimes, it’s not about the teacher. Students may be tired from club activities, too much homework or may be suffering from problems at home or with their peers. Always think, when you were in school, did you really enjoy every single class with every single teacher? Adjust your expectations accordingly.

If you’re considering teaching abroad, remember to make it meaningful for yourself, your students, and your colleagues. Teaching abroad can be immensely rewarding if you take it seriously, adapt to the local culture, and meet the needs of your students, so get out there and really make a difference!