How to Integrate in Your Community While Teaching Abroad

by Charleen Johnson Stoever

It’s tough being the new kid in town, especially when you’re teaching abroad. You no longer have your best friends on speed dial to join your Game of Thrones binge watching sessions, so you have to start from scratch. If only there was friendship speed dating in every corner of the world. For now, you’ve got to go forth, where plenty of teachers have gone before, and integrate into your community.

Woman riding a bike
Try biking to work; you could start a bike “carpool?” and ride with other teachers.

Follow our advice for expertly integrating while teaching abroad and you’ll benefit from having lasting relationships within your community.

Each teach abroad experience is different. If you’re teaching English abroad in big cities like London or Montevideo, it’s generally easier to make friends your age than it would be to meet amigos in rural Thailand. Being in a large city requires you to take initiative too, especially if there are so many transient foreigners that the locals keep to themselves. In a small town, you might be the first person from outside of the country that people have seen in six months, so curious locals will make you feel like the talk of the town.

No matter how big or how small your locale, integrating purposefully will help you get to know your community members while they to get to know you.

Follow these tips and you’ll be able to integrate in your community while teaching abroad, without having to spend seven years in Tibet!

Don’t just teach.

While your job description expects you to teach your students the basics of English, you’ll really miss out if you lock yourself in your room with your laptop and bottle of wine after class (though sometimes you just need to do this). Don’t miss out on the relationships you could be making.

Whether you’re teaching abroad for one month or two years, being visible and spending time with the locals is crucial to building community. Walk instead of taking a taxi to school, and bike down the street where other teachers live so that you can run into them. Integrating can be as simple as dancing with your co-teacher’s five-year-old daughter at a wedding or getting schooled at chess by old French men in the park. Next time they see you, you’ll be known as more than just that foreign teacher that’s just here to drink cheap wine and beer.

Let it happen.

Make the effort to stop and chat with the people at your favorite stores, with your neighbors, with fellow teachers, and other school staff, like janitors, secretaries, and the principal. Get to know your neighbors, not only because it’s embarrassing to not know their names when you’re locked out in the rain, but because they could be warm, caring people to pass your lazy Sundays sitting with to beat the heat.

Have at least one excuse to leave your house every day. You don’t need to be a missionary and go door-to-door introducing yourself to everyone, but it doesn’t hurt to compliment the corner store owner on her new haircut; it’ll show you notice her (and then she might sneak a candy into your next bag of groceries). If you and that store owner don’t hit it off, then go to another one and talk about the weather or your family with the owners. Small talk isn’t a waste of time. It’s a way to gain someone’s trust and to form solid relationships.

Woman shopping for produce at a market
Make an effort to chat with vendors at your local market.

It’s okay if you have ZERO friends your age.

Teaching abroad gives new meaning to the saying “Age ain’t nothing but a number.” In some countries, you might easily be able to meet other people your age, but this isn’t the case everywhere. Maybe you’re in a town where you’re the only person in their twenties or thirties without three kids. Your best friends might be your 60-year-old neighbor or your bright-eyed 14-year-old ESL student, and that’s okay.

Start an after school program.

Share your hobbies in a productive way with your students while getting to know them. You’re not just an English teacher, and they’re not just students. Whether you could never part with your unicycle or you have the best no-bake cookie recipe on earth, your students will never know these things until you tell them. But why tell them when you can show them how to ride a unicycle or that you can make baked goods without an oven?

Introduce a part of yourself and your culture to others, or cross linguistic and cultural boundaries by finding a hobby you have in common with your students. Having your students “guest teach” an after school program, like teaching others how to play cricket, will develop their leadership skills in a sustainable way. They might continue meeting after school to get their fitness on long after you leave, and which will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Find what projects are beneficial for your students, not just those that look good on your blog, too.

Find a side job.

Having more free time while teaching English abroad than you would at home is a gift and a curse. It’s nice to not abhor your alarm clock (if you even need it abroad) as much as before, but it can be hard to adjust to the amount of holidays, days off, and fewer working hours you’ll have. Use the teachers at your school to your advantage. Ask them if they know of any work opportunities, and they might just help you snag that bartending job on weekends. You’ll pocket some extra cash and you’ll have to interact with more locals in your new gig.

Kids playing cricket in Dharwad, India.
Start an after school program, or learn a new sport, or both!

Learn local lingo.

In France, if you say “ouais” instead of “oui,” then people will instantly know you’ve practiced your French outside of your middle school class. In Ecuador, if you say “que chevere” instead of “que bueno,” then you’ll benefit from sounding more like a local. People will pick up on how easily you use the intricacies of their language. Languages vary not just by country, but by the region of a country as well. Learning the everyday colloquialisms, idioms, sayings, and other slang will help you win the hearts of more people than you’ll think.

Don’t skip school events.

Chances are good that your school will organize celebrations. Even schools with dilapidated desks and no running water will find a way to borrow speakers for a day of student dances, poetry readings, and songs. These are also great opportunities to find your ESL students’ elusive parents and tell them how wonderful their student is (or ask them why you haven’t seen their kiddo in a week).

Once the parents and students see you attending these events, you’ll prove that you care about your students inside and outside of classroom (and that it is possible to bust a move in your seat).

Get the inside scoop at teacher meetings.

As mundane as it may seem, go to teacher meetings. Once business is attended to, school staff will usually stick around to share food, teaching tips, or gossip about students’ home lives. Learn as much as you can about where your students are coming from. You may walk away understanding why little Billy is always falling asleep; maybe he has to wake up insanely early to help his mom at the market. Then you can chat with Billy about how best to support him.

Taking the initiative to meet people may seem uncomfortable at first, but you’ll benefit from the effort it takes to integrate.
Two glasses of red wine
Instead of drinking wine alone and grading, try grabbing a glass with your fellow teachers after a meeting!

Everyone meets people in different ways, so follow the advice that works best for you. These tips will help locals see you not as just a foreign English teacher, but as a part of their community. Becoming visible and respected will take as much patience as teaching requires, but it will be profoundly rewarding.