How to Have a Successful Teach Abroad Experience

by Erica Brown

Your flight is booked, suitcase is packed, accommodations secured – you’re ready to begin your first teaching job overseas. Everything is in order; the only problem is you’ve never taught in a classroom. Before panicked thoughts start rushing through your mind (or maybe they already have), take a deep breath and relax – it will be okay. With some simple preparations and a good attitude you’ll be a pro in no time.

Saying Goodbye After A Successful Teaching Experience.
Saying Goodbye After A Successful Teaching Experience. Photo by Erica Brown

1. Plan your lessons ahead of time.

The worst thing you can do is walk into a classroom unprepared and hope you can “just wing it” while the minute hand ticks away on the clock, counting down the minutes to the end of class. This rarely ever works out. No matter how well versed you may think you are in particular subject, you must keep in mind that your lessons are directed towards an audience of students, not yourself. Your lesson may appear clear to you, but your students won’t share the same background knowledge. 

Even if you have a lesson book provided by the school, if you’re reading it for the first time your class will be able to tell. Without a plan in place, it is very easy to skip over important learning points or digress after an unexpected question from your student. The lesson plan does not need to be incredibly detailed. Just a rough outline of the topics you plan to cover and focal points for each. This might require some background research as well. Consult with both the lesson book (if the classroom provides one) as well as online resources.

2. Make the most of the resources at hand.

Textbooks. If you’re working at a school in a third world country or rural community or inner-city, you may find yourself with a lack of resources at hand. It is not uncommon for there to be a limited number of textbooks, and sometimes the only book could be the teacher’s copy. The copies that are provided could also be very outdated. Therefore, ask the students to describe to you what they have learned, do they have any previous assignments available? Even if the textbook is outdated, the information is still very valuable and has been what the students have been using. 

Online. Take what you find useful and couple it with outside resources. is a great website that offers free teaching resources in a variety of subjects. If you’re willing to spend a little of your own money, seek out a copy shop and print your own activity sheets in lieu of student textbooks. There are hundreds of online resources filled with worksheets, lesson plans, and educational activities.

Colleagues. Regardless of which level of education you are teaching, consult with your fellow teachers and the administrators. They have worked with these students before and some of their advice could prove to be a very useful resource. What works and what does not work. What teaching methods have the students responded to best? Is there a disciplinary protocol in place? These are all questions that you might want to address. As always, the more prepared you are the better.

A volunteer Teacher

Photo credit to VFV (Volunteer for the Visayans)

3. Think outside the “book.”

Use what is available and add to it. If there is a lesson book, use that as a general guideline but make the presentation of information your own. If the school you are working for is flexible with the class curriculum (more likely in smaller, rural schools), then use that to your advantage. You will no doubt feel more passionately about teaching the lessons if they are of your own design. 

4. Don’t make teaching a one-sided conversation.

Find ways to get your students involved in the lesson plan. The students will absorb much more information if they are actively participating rather than passively listening. Try breaking up what you plan to teach for that day into sections. Have your students learn the topic in all different ways, through various approaches and activities.

Include students by letting them be the teacher for once. You’re new to the country and are not fluent in the native language. Ask the children to teach you some words or phrases. They will love the opportunity to turn the tables and teach you something and you’ll have the benefit of learning something yourself. You must admit, it’s pretty impressive that your students know two languages, so why shouldn’t you?

5. Incorporate games into learning.

We’ve all been there; school can be boring sometimes. Liven up your classroom by incorporating games that focus on the lesson plan. Let the kids express their competitiveness, let out some energy, and bond through learning.

6. There comes a time to be stern.

Be the teacher. Foreigners can sometimes fall victim to the desire of wanting to be well liked and develop a friendship-type relationship with your students. You don’t have to emulate that scary teacher from junior high, but assert yourself as being charge. Establish your rules up front with your students and stick to them. The most important rule to follow in a classroom is respect.  Don’t speak when someone else is talking, keep a positive attitude, listen when asked to do something – these are all instrumental values under the umbrella of respect that you must establish with your students. 

If a child is acting out, reprimand them and then address the issue privately. By separating a child from their classmates, you remove the ability for the child to “show-off”’ or “act out” in front of an audience. Do not yell at the disobedient student, but instead ask them why they are acting this way. Invite a conversation in which you are the adult asking the questions, and they in turn are the student answering them. If the behavior persists, it may be necessary to involve your superiors.

A volunteer and a local teacher teaching English to the class

Photo credit to VFV (Volunteer for the Visayans)

7. Research the culture of the country you teach.

You should consider the culture of the country and area that you are teaching. There is an evident dichotomy between western culture and eastern culture. You may find that it is much different from the classroom environment you are accustomed to in your home country. Certain activities that you see as inexcusable may be more lax and serve as good reason for absence. (For example, in the Philippines festival celebrations are very important to respective villages. If a student is participating in a festival event, practices are often held during school hours and the children will be in and out of the classroom to attend that practice). Also, there may be a limited number of teachers, so if a teacher cannot attend class because of another obligation, that class may be cancelled for the day. Cancellations could be frequent or unplanned depending on the structure of the school and expectations of the culture, try your best to go with the flow.

8. Have fun!

So what if it’s not quite what you expected, make the most of it. You have earned a very special opportunity, and that is to become an educator. You are making a difference in the lives of others and providing children with a valuable experience of learning from a foreign teacher. Don’t forget the reason you wanted to teach abroad in the first place.

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