9 Unprofessional Moves You Didn’t Know You Were Making While ESL Teaching Abroad

by Mary Ellen Dingley

You’ve landed a great gig teaching abroad, and you want to be a successful teacher! You know that your new teaching position is a job, a professional job, and you plan to treat it like one. So after the initial excitement of flying to your host country, exploring your new city, making some friends, and gorging yourself on local foods, you buckle down to work hard. But, all the hard work in the world can’t help us when we have blind spots (which we all do!).

Organization of teaching supplies in word map.

Organizing your lesson plans (and teaching styles) is important.

Ask yourself, WWMFD? – What would Ms. Frizzle do? (though we recommend you avoid shrinking your entire class and being swallowed by another student to teach about digestive processes).

Read on to be sure you aren’t guilty of these teach abroad oh-no-no’s, correct them if you are, and go forth and be the best (and most professional) teacher you can be!

1. Not jumping into the culture.

What is professional in one context, is not in another. Maybe you think you’re being friendly and social with your colleagues, but they find you too informal for a work context. Maybe you’re assigning group work, but the classroom culture in that country centers around quiet, individual work, so your students are thrown off and confused. Maybe you try to shake hands with your fellow teacher but they bow and then it’s just one of those super awkward moments where you both pause and try to correct and everyone cringes...greetings are awkward, right? Right? Just me?

Really take the time to dig into what is professional teaching work in your specific country. Read blogs from other teachers, ask your colleagues and supervisors, and don’t be offended if you need to amend what is your “normal.” It’s important that you engage professionally in your new culture, whatever that looks like.

Pig arts and crafts from elementary class.

Craft projects are great for the blog, but not always for the classroom.

2. Pushing your ideas to the forefront.

They probably hired you because they wanted some new, fresh ideas in the classroom, so you shouldn’t be afraid to use your unique take on teaching. But, be sure not run all over the local teachers standards and schedules, especially your first couple of weeks. Maybe the local teachers already tried your brilliant idea of teaching language via ball games and have a couple broken classroom windows to prove it. Ask their thoughts before trying to shake things up, Kemosabe!

Are you truly considering the feedback other teachers are giving you? Are you seeking out advice and mentorship? While you might ultimately decided your own ideas do work best in your classroom, make sure you aren’t running roughshod over the way the local teachers do things. They have valuable insight and experience in their classrooms.

Don’t automatically assume your approaches to teaching are “right” or “better” or “need immediate implementation”. Take a more relaxed approach that doesn’t offend your colleagues (or deem yourself unintentionally unprofessional).

3. Choosing classroom projects just because they’ll look good on your blog.

A lot of international English teachers blog, sometimes for their program, sometimes to get into travel writing, and sometimes just to keep their mom informed (hey Mom!). Just make sure running a fun and entertaining blog doesn’t get in the way of teaching well. The arts and craft project you want to do on food would look sooooo good photographed for you blog, perhaps you are thinking, but your students are a bit more advanced and really need help with those pesky “-ing” verbs. Don’t choose the craft just because it’s prettier, make sure you are tailoring the classroom for your students’ needs! Students come first, always. Conjugations might not be as photogenic, but they are super important.

If your sole motivation becomes hyper-self-centered, take a good long look in the mirror, remember your reasons for coming (professional development included), then recalibrate, refocus, and get to work. The right way.

Man on phone with backpack.

Don’t stay glued to your phone, and don’t treat students as photography accessories!

4. Being glued to your phone.

You think you’re being sly, Ms-Under-The-Table-Texting, but we can see you. We all see you. Your students, your colleagues, your superiors. Keep that phone tucked away. I know you want to stay connected with friends and family back home and document your time abroad, but while in the classroom, you need to be fully present. Phone use is different in many cultures, and I’ve seen local teachers take calls during class, but just because they feel comfortable doing that doesn’t mean you should do it. If it’s not an emergency, don’t touch that phone! #InstagramCanWait #StudentsBeforeSnapStories.

5. Posting photos of your students online without permission.

This one is tricky. We all want to share photos of our students as they learn and have fun, but remember they are minors, and their parents might not want pictures of their kids on your social media for all to see. Students might ask you to take pictures both of and with them, but that doesn’t mean those photos should be floating around the internet. Ask their parents and other teachers about what is best to do here. There is nothing wrong with wanting to share your time teaching abroad and taking photos of new friends, colleagues, and students, but if you do want to post them, make sure everyone involved is comfortable with that.

And please, please don’t do the “white savior” trope of taking tons of photos of you holding foreign children like they are some kind of accessory.

Spending too much time focusing on getting juuuuust the right angle to take a picture of your student’s smile and not teaching that kid how to spell “s-m-i-l-e” is unprofessional and should be avoided.

Woman in suit working on computer.

Act responsibly and dress professionally!

6. Saying “well, in MY home country…” all the time.

Avoid [insert home-country here]-splaining at all costs. You might bring a wealth of teaching experience from your home country, but don’t let that make you an obnoxious know-it-all. Constantly comparing everything to your past experience at home doesn’t keep you open to learning something new, and may make your new colleagues feel judged. Did your home country have Wifi in every classroom and smartboards with surround sound? Maybe keep that to yourself when you’re asking for more chalk because all of yours is broken.

Allow your experience to inform you, but not to block your growth and success! Let yourself be taught by all the new people you are meeting, veteran TEFL instructors, fellow travelers, local colleagues, and of course, your students.

7. Not going with their time flow.

Standards of time and scheduling vary by culture, so what is “late” will also vary. However, just because your new workplace might be a bit more relaxed doesn’t mean you should roll in 20 minutes late because you were out buying churros from the cart on the corner. Find out what time everyone gathers for meetings and aim to be a few minutes earlier than them, just in case. This doesn’t mean you should put pressure on your colleagues to change how they do scheduling, but as the new person this will help you demonstrate that you are dedicated and excited to be there. And if you are in a culture where on time means five minutes early, definitely don’t be late! At all. Ever.

8. Ignoring local fashion norms.

Dress codes also vary by culture and workplace. In some countries, what you wear is seen as a sign of respect for your colleagues and students. This might be a grand adventure for you, but that doesn’t mean you show up to work wearing cargo pants and a safari vest! What is considered modest and appropriate may be different from what you’re used to. In some cultures women wearing pants is not formal, and in others a knee length skirt might not be long enough. Visible tattoos are something to be especially careful with, as you don’t want to be accidentally sending out the signal that you were involved in shady activities!

Do some research before you go to see what sort of clothing you’ll need. When you’re there make sure you have somewhere to do laundry and know about the bathing situation so you can be clean and well-groomed at work. In some places, arriving with dirty shoes is seen as gross and impolite, so bring along a shoe cleaning rag if you’ll be walking in some not-so-clean streets. 

Woman teaching in front of classroom.

Have a variety of lesson plans and engage every student.

9. Choosing “Vagabond Traveler” over “Dedicated Teacher.”

Yes, English teaching abroad is a great way to travel! However, don’t let that get in the way of serving your students well. If traveling is really all you want to be doing then you shouldn’t accept a teaching job. If you really do want to teach then make sure your travel fun won’t affect your work. Don’t take days off every week to go hike. Don’t leave early each day to catch a bus to the city. Definitely don’t roll into class a half hour late smelling like hostels and street food from your weekend away. Would you do that to your boss back in your home country? Nope. If you want more flexible work then take on a part time teaching job or perhaps tutoring. Ask a lot of questions about time off before taking a job. Once you accept a job offer and sign that contract, you need to be reliable and present.

No teacher is perfect, well, Mr. Coulson from Never Been Kissed might be perfect...But, the point is we all make mistakes, especially when in a new cultural context, but with a little thoughtful consideration you can avoid these unprofessional moves and be proud of your work as a teacher! Make your time teaching abroad full of fun and adventure, but also success in the classroom. Your students, colleagues, and your future self with thank you.