Worse than Broken Chalk: My Biggest Challenges of Teaching English Abroad

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Nothing is more frustrating than working your hardest and looking over to see a colleague sitting on Facebook. And that stands whether you are working on a group project, in the office, or teaching ESL. Maybe especially teaching ESL. Every ESL teacher has some horror story about a fellow teacher (or themselves) who behaved badly.

classroom in cambodia
You're there to teach, sure, but be humble about it, ok?

I’ve taught ESL in four countries now, so I’m about to lay on the honesty for my fellow teachers out there. Notebooks open, pencils sharpened, people! Here’s some honest talk for my fellow teachers on the biggest challenges of teaching English abroad. While the different resources and support structures (and homesickness) can be tough to overcome, they pale in comparison to the challenges of working with other ESL teachers who do not take their job seriously.

Is teaching English abroad a good idea? YES! But only if you commit to doing a good job and not falling victim to the following behaviors. My biggest challenges of teaching English abroad occur...

1. When ESL teachers think of themselves as some type of savior.

The happy little volunteers that tell me they just LOVE country X so they are going back to teach and SAVE THE CHILDREN (their emphasis), but they don’t actually know much about the country or about teaching make me want to scream and then give them a dramatic reading from a book like Beyond Good Intentions. Those good intentions do not mean they will make a good ESL teacher.

Unfortunately, sometimes teaching English is seen as a do-gooder, volunteer type position (even if you are paid), and thus something you are doing to “save” people or “change the world.” The starry-eyed idealism that sometimes comes with teaching abroad is silly and arrogant and ignorant. As the famous New York writer Fran Lebowitz once said, “I’m simply not a fan of naïveté.” Their idealism is going to distract them from the realities on the ground and their responsibilities as a teacher.

So don’t be naive. You are not a foreign “savior.” You have a knowledge and skill that is valuable, but what you have to offer (just by virtue of being a foreigner/native English speaker) isn’t more important than what their culture has to offer (that would be a very neocolonialist attitude). You aren’t changing the world. Hopefully you’re changing some students by being a good teacher and that’s good. That’s enough.

[Pledge to do good by your students & find a job today]

2. When other ESL teachers don’t treat it as a real job.

Don't get in the bad habit of slacking off or "getting by."

The teachers who treat their ESL teaching job abroad as just an extended party or vacation make my blood boil. Especially when their partying is disrespectful to the host country, like the ESL teacher I knew who became really drunk and slept on the beach, ran from the cops, and then was bitten by a dog and had to get rabies shots. Sir, what? What are you doing?

Teaching ESL abroad is a great way to travel, but if you travel (and party and drink) to the detriment of your teaching then you’re doing it wrong. Show up on time. Don’t show up to class hung over. Don’t skip out early every day. Turn in all your paperwork. Put thought into your lesson plans. Do what’s right by your students.

Teaching abroad is a job, not an international vacation. Just like any other job, you need to be qualified and prepared and skilled. You need to be paid fairly. You need to fulfill your responsibilities. You need to work professionally and respectfully with your colleagues and students and yes, caring about their education would be helpful (please don’t go teach if you think education is dumb). Your students depend on you to keep them safe for a few hours and help inspire their minds. And also, someone is paying you, so be an adult and be responsible.

Do your job. You won’t be perfect, but you can be good.

3. When other English teachers hold themselves to a lower standard simply because they are abroad.

boy in hallway
Uphold your integrity, your care, and your desire to work just as you would in your classroom back home.

I’ve worked with ESL teachers who could not pass a basic English test, let alone correct someone else’s English. Professional educators are driven mad by the low standards that many international ESL positions have. Education IS a profession after all, meaning it has credentials, theoretical foundations, and training that is needed. And, specifically in the U.S, we expect that, right? We would never enroll in a class with a teacher who hadn’t been trained in what they were supposed to teach.

So why are we ok with ESL educators in developing countries being thrown into a classroom, sometimes with far too many little children, and no training in how to maintain control, safety and inspire little minds? That speaks of a pretty condescending attitude. If you have no teaching experience, get some training. Earn a TEFL certificate to get practical, hands on experience (you can even do it online). If you don’t like kids, teach adults. If you don’t like teaching at all and you are bad at it, DON’T DO IT.

[Need help finding English teaching jobs? We've got your back]

4. When ESL professionals treat their students like little pets.

buddhist boy studying book
Don't play favorites with students and don't treat them like toys. Make relationships!

When I was teaching in the Dominican Republic, American and European tourists would try to come into my classroom and take photos of the students. Can you believe that?! In the U.S., someone would have to get a background check and an ID badge and sign into the office before they would be allowed to wander in and take photos of random kids. Now, I’m not saying the DR needs to adopt an American system (I was in a small town in the DR, there weren’t as many worries about violence), but interrupting a class to take photos of kids you don’t know, without their parent’s permission, is just weird. And rude. And exploitative. Don’t do that.

Obviously, you might teach adorable kids. I did, and I took photos with them before I left, but I made sure I had permission from teachers or parents and I didn’t not blast them across the internet. Just try to be respectful.

[Use MyGoAbroad to bookmark your fave jobs]

5. When ESL teachers give up quickly.

broken pencil on paper
Don't cry over spoiled pencils.

Have you ever known a teacher who ran away in five minutes? I have heard of so many people who showed up to a teaching job and lasted less than a week because of the culture shock, not liking their apartment, or thinking the situation was generally “shady.” In the school at the Dominican Republic where I worked, no teacher had lasted more than a month. Not so good for the kids.

Now, there are plenty of English teaching positions that are genuinely shady and should be avoided, but I think a lot of the time there are just cultural misunderstandings, and the ESL teachers won’t take the time to work through them. Instead, they just leave as soon as they don’t get exactly what they want. Obviously if you feel in danger, please leave, but if you are just a little confused and put off by the situation give it a couple of weeks, see if things start to make more sense.

Work culture can be different in other countries, and that might be what you are facing. Not something nefarious.

6. When ESL teachers don't model the value of making mistakes.

girls reading at picnic table
Some of the challenges of teaching abroad extend beyond the classroom.

I once saw a teacher get so fed up and frustrated she just started napping in class. The kids ran amuck, and there she was with her head on her desk. Look, no one said teaching ESL abroad is easy. You’re dealing with a new culture and different work standards and it might be your first time teaching and maybe you weren’t well trained (see number 3). But, you wouldn’t have made it here if you weren’t a somewhat smart, driven, adventurous individual, so go be awesome. Or at least try.

Don’t have training? Look up resources online, ask for advice, read everything you can. There are so many resources out there for ESL teachers. Talk to teachers you know. Take a risk on a new game or assignment. Fail at it, learn from it, and try again. Teaching is hard, and you might get burnt out. Don’t work yourself to death, but do try. Try hard. Your students deserve it.

How to teach English abroad

Now that you know how to kick butt in the classroom, we want to share the steps to make it even easier for you to teach abroad. I even share a few more tips in this video about ways to REALLY succeed in the ESL classroom.

What are YOUR biggest challenges of teaching English abroad?

So there it is - my Highly Selective Club of ESL Teachers Who Don’t Take Their Jobs Seriously and Drive Me Crazy.

Don’t want to join that club? Then read up, do your research, prepare yourself well, and be the best teacher you can possibly be. None of us are perfect, and I’ve certainly embarrassed myself in the classroom, but I go home, shake it off, and try again tomorrow. 

Despite the challenges of teaching English abroad, it is a great opportunity, and with a little hard work, we can totally do this whole teaching thing. This is how to teach abroad in a way that feels good for you, your students, and your coworkers.

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