15 Things to Know Before Teaching Abroad

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What do you do when you’re itching to travel, improve your interpersonal skills, and share some knowledge? Teach abroad! By working in a foreign country, you’ll get to know the culture beyond all that basic touristy stuff. And you’ll develop skills like subject teaching, maturity, and gain boat loads of independence.

Girl holding globe

Where will teaching overseas programs take YOU?

How do I know this? Because I’ve had my own teaching English abroad experiences—I left the Big Apple for a year of teaching abroad in Namibia! And the experience changed my entire life for the better. From the friendships with my awesomesauce Namibian students to the rich cultural experiences I had front seats to, it was an incredible opportunity

So, how can you have a blast doing teach abroad jobs too? Wondering how to teach internationally successfully? Here’s my sage advice on the most crucial things to know before teaching abroad, based on my very own teaching English abroad experiences.

[Check out all of the first-time teach abroad tips you'll need]

15 crucial things to know before teaching abroad

1. Understand the local educational system of where you want to teach 

When teaching abroad, your school may give you free reign with crafting your syllabus. While others, especially public schools, could have a syllabus to follow. You’ll want to read through thoroughly because it has important info like the required amount of assignments. If you find the curriculum to be confusing, ask another teacher to break it down for you. Also, get your hands on a school calendar to know when exams are held.

Insider’s tip:

Sometimes you can find syllabi and old examination papers right on the interwebs. I would also recommend browsing the internet for articles about the local school system. For example, many students in Namibia struggle with English and news about this is all over the web. With this info, I was prepared for my students to have challenges with literacy and could plan accordingly. So, if you’re worried about how to teach abroad effectively, a little research goes a long way.

Kids playing games while learning english

Making activities interactive can help you succeed as an English teacher abroad.

2. But… it’s okay to put your spin on the local curriculum

Now, I don’t mean overhauling an entire school curriculum. However, you can totally give it your own flavor. Let’s say other teachers spend English class writing notes on the board. As you teach ESL abroad, spice things up and organize a class debate around the same topic. Or, what if the books in the school library aren't the greatest? Swap them for interesting short stories from the web, print them, and use them instead. At one school in Namibia, I gained a rep for having exciting classes. All I’d really done was grab unique activities right off the internet!

3. Beef up your teaching skills

Many teach abroad programs have teacher training and international teaching certification built right in. However, some don’t. And what if you just don’t have much teaching experience? Then take the initiative and get teacher training before departure. From classroom management to lesson plan ideas, it will make a huge difference in the quality of your teaching. If you’re planning to teach English, sign up for an online TEFL program—you can get your certification in a little as a few weeks or months! Another way to get training? Volunteer at a community center to prep for teaching kids art abroad. Once you’ve figured out how to get a teaching abroad job and you get accepted into your favorite program, practice, practice, practice! 

[Browse TEFL Courses to Get You Started]

4. You’ve got teach abroad options for days

One of the best things about deciding to teach abroad is the sheer amount of choices you have. There are thousands of different teach abroad programs all over the world—plus different ways to teach abroad. You can pick a program based on:

  • How long you’d like to teach abroad for.
  • The subject and age level you want to teach.
  • If the program offers TEFL certification.
  • The types of extracurricular projects integrated into your program (like language training). 
  • Whether you’ll get paid or not. Keep in mind that certain countries and regions pay foreign teachers higher salaries than others. While some don’t pay stipends at all.
  • Your hobbies and personal interests: if you’re passionate about conservatism, teach abroad in a country with plenty of environmental volunteering projects to enrich your experience.
  • And much more!

Some of the most popular teach abroad programs are GoEco, ELI Abroad, Teach Away, and ITTT which allows you to get your TEFL certification while teaching abroad. There’s a teach abroad program for just about every skill level, personality type, and personal interest.

[Browse ALL Teaching Abroad Programs]

Girl writing on a chalkboard in english class

Seize any opportunities to teach abroad—you won’t regret it.

5. Watch your mouth!

I don’t mean curse words (although you probably don’t want to use those either, hehe!). It’s just that as a teacher abroad, your accent may be difficult to grasp. For example, while teaching in Namibia, my students and colleagues spoke English. However, my “American English” and pronunciation was difficult for them to understand. How could I tell? I’d ask someone a “yes” or “no” question and get a blank stare in response. Or, they would reply saying something that had nothing to do with what I asked. 

I learned to slow down my speech, use shorter sentences, and use different ways to explain assignments (like writing instructions on the board). I even developed a local accent! If you teach ESL abroad, don’t be surprised if your English lessons go beyond the classroom.

6. Understand your students’ lifestyle

Understanding your students’ personal backgrounds gives insight into any challenges in the classroom. For example, many of my Namibian students had to walk long distances to and from school each day. Then, at home, they would have chores like cultivating in the fields. No wonder some would snooze in class! With this knowledge, instead of chastising them, I had more empathy, a huge plus for teaching overseas programs.

7. Shadowing other teachers = super helpful insight

This is something I didn’t do in Namibia, but wish I had! During my first few weeks teaching, I really didn't know what to expect with my in class. How did they typically behave and how was misbehaving handled? What types of assignments were they given? I was clueless! Shadowing other teachers would have answered all these questions. So feel free to ask about sitting in on classes or to pick the instructor’s brain afterwards.

Stack of esl teacher abroad books

One of the most important things to know before teaching abroad is that you have to be comfortable with wingin’ it sometimes.

8. Reach out to former teachers abroad for advice

One of your best sources of info as you’re preparing for your teaching English abroad experiences will be former teachers abroad. They will give you the lowdown on everything from teachers to pal up with to common classroom issues. They’re also godsends for packing list advice. Teach abroad programs usually put newbies in touch with alumni. But you can also connect with them through social media groups too!

[How to Compare & Evaluate ESL Teaching Job Options]

9. Work friendships can take time

As a foreigner, colleagues in teaching overseas programs can be super friendly. Or, they may come off as kinda distant. Don’t go writing them off as having bad attitudes though! How they interact with you, especially in the beginning, can be impacted by their culture. 

Initially, my Namibian colleagues were very reserved toward me. Turns out, their tribe’s culture was not as forward and direct as Americans. However, after a few weeks, they really opened up to me. So, don’t stress about how to teach abroad and make friends right away. Give things some time and whatever you do, don’t jump to conclusions. 

10. Go beyond school life

Class time is important but it’s only one aspect of your experience as a teacher abroad. You’ll get invited to social and cultural events, and you should lean toward accepting them. These are once in a lifetime teach abroad opportunities! Diving into the local culture will also help you in the classroom. You could tailor lessons to things you now know are familiar to your students.

11. Stay local sometimes

You’ll probably be tempted to jet off to other countries on your weekends and school breaks. However, why not spend off-time in your school’s community? By sticking around, you’ll meet even more people and get a better feel for the local community. While when you’re constantly in and out of town, those deeper connections are harder to make. 

[How to Integrate in Your Community While Teaching Abroad]

Girl reading english books on her kindle

What works for some students might not work all students—an international teaching certification can help you better discern the difference.

12. Get to know other foreigners 

Cultural integration is incredibly important. But let’s be honest. There’s nothing like speaking with someone else in your shoes or who’s from your home country. In Namibia, I formed a tight bond with a group of Peace Corps volunteers. Hanging with them was like opening up a care package straight from the States. So mingle with other expats too—they can be an excellent social and emotional support

13. Prepare for sensitive situations

Thinking high school teach abroad jobs end with the day’s school bell? Think again. You’re also stepping into a mentorship role. Students might approach you for advice or confide in you about a touchy topic. There were many afternoons I’d leave class only to find students on my doorstep waiting for a private chat. You may not have a degree in psychology. However, there are useful resources online about how to sensitively address personal situations with students. It’s also a good idea to find out school protocol as well.

[9 Characteristics of Great International Teachers]

14. Make an effort to “live like the locals”

One of the best ways to get “in” with your colleagues as a teacher abroad is by showing a genuine interest in their culture. That’s why trying to learn the local language is one of the best things you can do. This approach during teach abroad opportunities makes your fellow teachers respect you more. They will really appreciate your effort. This is all the stuff beautiful friendships abroad are made of and that’s how to get a job teaching abroad and nail it!

15. Pack a lotta flexibility 

I can’t stress this enough! You are going to be teaching in a school system that’s likely very different from your own. You probably won’t like the way certain things are done. But frankly, there’s not much you can do to change it all. You can introduce different methods that may or may not be accepted. And you can also drive yourself crazy with resistance to the unpredictability and nuance of your new job. 

My advice? As long as they’re safe, roll with things. Be flexible and open to your new environment. This is all part of cultural adjustment + a lesson in how everything in life won’t always go your way

[The One Quality All Successful ESL Teachers Have in Common]

Embrace growth and ride the wave

Boy looking at an esl book abroad

Some kids will struggle to understand your accent—slow down and speak clearly, and they’ll get the hang of it asap!

You might have noticed undertones of adaptation, learning, self-reflection, and trial and error in this article on becoming a teacher abroad. Yep—those are gonna be central themes of your teaching abroad experience. But don’t feel discouraged. The truth about teaching abroad is that it’s often as much of a learning experience for you as your students. You should also understand that there are endless things to know before teaching abroad. 

And while you won’t be able to perfectly prepare for every single one, know that you will walk away with some amazing memories, lifelong friends, and a more well rounded culturally adaptable personality. Live by these things to know before teaching abroad and the blessings of opportunities to teach abroad will follow you wherever you go. 

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Topic:  Before You Go