7 Truths You Won’t Hear About Teaching ESL Abroad

The idea of living and working in distant, ancient lands is an alluring one; leading many to the world of teaching abroad. Surf any travel oriented website and you’re bound to quickly come across articles rejoicing in the opportunities teaching abroad offers. Just as easily, you will find forums exploding with complaints and nightmare stories of their time.

However, what research, and recruiters often shy away from bringing up, are the intangibles that can make or break an experience abroad. Recently, at a gathering of twenty ESL teachers, with ranging experiences in Korea, I was compelled to ask the questions, “What the difference is, between what you were told teaching abroad would be and the reality of it? What truths do you wish you had known before making your decision?”

Everyone agreed the experience is incredible… and, at times, incredibly difficult. With valuable information from those in the trenches, I’ve found seven common threads to be aware of regarding the world of teaching English abroad.

1 – For Better or Worse, You’re a Foreigner

wickandteachersSimply put, ‘you are different.’ Despite the obvious nature of this, it has real life implications. Not only were incidences outside the classroom discussed, but those in the work environment, as well. It’s a ‘two sides of a coin’ scenario.

Heads

Many teachers talked about being treated by the majority of their coworkers as “overly wonderful.” Co-teachers, or the native teachers paired with foreign teachers for assistance, can take pride in the role. Many shower their foreign teacher with an abundance of food, drink, or presents, in apparent hope they are the sole reason you enjoy their country, and choose to return for another contract.

Tails

For every ‘heads’ offered up, an equal number of the contrary rings true. Tales of isolation, tenuous interactions with fellow teachers, cold exchanges, or even avoidance of English class altogether and their required share of teaching responsibilities (as in many situations was required). The unanimous conclusion was an apathetic feeling toward ESL as an unnecessary burden in schools, and ‘babysitting’ an ignorant Native English teacher not worthy of their ever dwindling time.

2 – Student Relations can be Challenging

wickandstudentsTeaching is a profession that touches not only on the intellect, but also the emotional side of people. Although communication can be achieved in the majority of situations, unfortunately, conversations dig little further than the superficial.

Regardless of political or cultural boundaries, people of all ages, go through difficulties in their life. As a teacher and role model, you want to be there for your students, but often this simply can’t happen, and no one is at fault.

One teacher summarized this wonderfully saying, “I wish I had known how hard it is being unable to comfort and talk on a real level with my students. It doesn’t matter who you’re working with, my students are teenagers. They go through so much, and I want to help…but I can’t. It’s hard; heart wrenching at times.”

3 – The Undefined Role of the ESL Teacher

The feelings of newfound direction and purpose from your new job can sometimes vanish rather quickly once you are placed in front of forty children little to no training. Schools assumed much of the teachers we talked with, from knowing where teaching materials are, to discipline, school customs, and even believing the foreign teacher is already a competent teacher. On the other hand, schools, themselves, have gone through a rigorous process to fill their position, so getting you into the classroom quickly, is a long anticipated goal now fulfilled.

“There is nothing about me that says ‘teacher.’ We get put in front of these kids and are told to teach,” one teacher said. “Even, something as little as observing what a lesson should look like would help tremendously.”

The provincial English programs operating in Korea are still relatively young, and many improvements are on their way, but this couldn’t come fast enough. There is what was described as, a “gross lack of communication that covered job expectations.” This ambiguous role leads many teachers to describe themselves as something between a “performer, teacher, and simply a foreign person.”

4 – Your Motivation Becomes Money and Travel

travelmotivationReasons attracting many to the field of education are often found beyond monetary compensation; a smile from a student, a raised hand from the silent child in the back row, or simply having engaged and interested classes. The motivation you tap everyday is quite fluid, but of all the reasons our teachers offered, two distinct words seemed to always surface: money, and travel.

It is hard to put a finger on the reasons, but at some point, the teaching ideals people begin with, seem to give way to those of money and the resulting travel opportunities. The incredible opportunity to travel while saving money is well known, but is a concept unrealized.

Seeing parts of the world only previously seen through television ads, and magazine articles, is an irreplaceable and invaluable experience. Teaching abroad can easily give you the means to do this. Besides, who wouldn’t be refreshed after a long day of unruly students, with the prospects of planning your next foray into, let’s say, the jungles of northern Vietnam.

5 – Contract Inconsistencies

Let’s face it, we all know each job has its own set of rules to play by, but here, inconsistency may be the only one true constant.

All the teachers on hand were under the same contract, yet every experience was uniquely individual. The interpretation of the contract falls on the school officials. A language barrier, a rigid hierarchical society, different interpretations, and expectations, and you have yourself a recipe for frustration. The number of days, working hours, school and living situations, teaching requirements, all of which are spelled out in the contract, varied greatly. “I have all of the responsibilities of a teacher at my school, and none of the benefits,” one teacher said, “I often feel I am a voiceless pawn to the illogical whims of the administration.”

Adequately summarized as, “there are pros and cons to the inconsistency and the spectrum is indeed broad, but before coming here I am not sure if I understood just how circumstantial nearly everything could be.”

6 – Hardships Bring Teachers Together

Although each experience is defined by its uniqueness, it is that uniqueness which becomes the source of camaraderie among those in the field, even described as a “saving grace.”

No matter what problem or issue one is having, there are other people with similar problems or experiences. This lends itself to a support group-like gathering. “We are all going through this radical challenge to our cultural, job, and emotional senses at the same time. Invariably this leads to group gathering, in search of some semblance of continuity with our previous lives.”

Regardless of the varied demographics of this community, many common themes exist. Foremost, the choice each person made to leave their native land to live and work on the other side of the globe. The concept of ‘community,’ is a union of people that have taken this opportunity to learn, grow, and meet people one otherwise would never have.

7 – The Resulting Self Discovery

leavingWith all of the inevitable undercurrents flowing through the world of teaching English abroad, one thing remains true; you will learn more about yourself than any other time in your life.

Perhaps, it stems from overcoming several layers placed on your shoulders; unfamiliar responsibilities and expectations, cross cultural relationships, fighting for yourself, and even surviving in a foreign land. As one teacher said, “you have to go to bat for yourself at school, and even running simple errands around town can turn into a nightmare. It’s exhausting at times, but if you look at us, we’ve all survived.”
It is a bumpy road all ESL teachers travel, one in which they emerge a more understanding, networked, educated, and experienced person. It takes a special individual to seek and accept a position that places you in, “the most vulnerable position of your life.”

“It’s hard to explain to some people why I chose to do this. It’s difficult, it’s lonely at times, and I get frustrated, but, at the same time, I am the one that has taken it upon myself to do this. I made the decision and it’s up to me if I am successful or not.”

It is the personal growth that happens as a result of the humbling, the first hand experience, the uncomfortable job and life, when you start to realize living and working in a different country may have just been the best decision of your life.

Photos by Jon Wick

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Leave a Comment

  • Teach the World - Online TEFL Courses said at 2014-06-13T22:15:46+0000: Really nice piece. Traveling and teaching abroad has got to be one of the most eventful things anyone can do. Thanks for this!
  • Tim Fox said at 2013-04-23T07:51:14+0000: Get an MA and get married to a local and better jobs open up as does a community of people who look at you more as a "long-termer." Co-workers begin to treat you as the air they breath, and you already have the training to deal with a classroom of 40 kids. You'll still get the inane questions over and over again from strangers, but you'll fit in more as the "settled foreigner." You'll soon find you'll make friends with people who don't give a squat about learning English. - 3 years in counting living and working in Kirishima, Japan.
  • Teri Coley Adams said at 2013-04-05T19:04:49+0000: the "tails" part of being a teacher in a foreign land is what I experienced... I was different, the other teachers saw no value in the students learning English, and they treated me with total indifference. it was lonely. If it hadn't been for the one other high school American English teacher I would have been totally isolated.
  • Marty Baptiste said at 2012-12-30T14:53:11+0000: thanks for the tips iv just begun organising my course with tefl and its good to hear both sides of the argument, I have just recently come back home from three years of backpacking working in english speeking countrys and traveling through asia, the point about contract inconsitancy was very handy! being stuck with no work and not being able to speek the language well enough to get by could be a bit of a propblem! thanks again very helpfull!

Older comments on 7 Truths You Won’t Hear About Teaching ESL Abroad

GoBackpacking
20 August 2009

Great article. I learned earlier this year in Colombia when I gave it a try for the first time that teaching English is not something that motivates me to work hard, unlike blogging and trying to build an income online.

Hideo
20 August 2009

It should be noted though that many ESL teaching jobs are not in High Schools or Junior High Schools and therefore are not putting untrained teachers in front of 40 teenagers. I worked in Japan in one of the numerous English conversation schools, and my classes ranged between 1 and 4 people – rather less daunting I’m sure you’ll agree. Another advantage of that is that several of your colleagues are also English speaking natives, many of whom have plenty of experience which can help you out, and also lots of experience of the place you live in which is equally valuable. I’m definitely pleased that I worked in a languages school rather than a High School.

GetOut
21 August 2009

I appreciate the comments. The article is one that highlights some of the things that could easily get overlooked in the ESL job search. Hideo, it sounds like you have a really good situation. Japan, I’ve heard is a much more established program, perhaps the most established around. I’m glad you found the piece interesting.

LivvySchwartz
22 August 2009

This article was great! Rarely are you able to find someone willing (and able) to expound on the pro’s and con’s of such a huge (and seemingly wonderful) life changing experience. Kudos to you Jon and your fellow “partners in crime” for taking the time to examine your experiences and find an outlet to show them to the world! Most people who have traveled abroad to teach English usually only have glowing things to say and terabytes of pictures of all their travels. It seems many of them may be censoring themselves by not sharing the tribulations that come with such an amazing experience. Way to go!

Emily Liedel
02 September 2009

The experience of teaching English abroad can vary widely depending on where you are teaching, as well. For example, teaching in Spain, as I did, is most likely very different. For example, you are much less obviously foreign, and so it is possible to feel much more comfortable then would perhaps be possible in some Asian countries. Just as elsewhere, the contracts (when there is even a contract) can change or just be canceled, but you essentially have to view the experience as being self employed. In fact, most established English teachers in Madrid eventually would stop working for academies and contract with their students directly. If you are thinking about teaching English somewhere, the best advice I would have is to find someone to talk to who has taught in the same city or at least country.

GetOut
02 September 2009

Emily, Thanks for the perspective. I’ved always been personally interested in teaching in Europe but it seems the center of the ESL universe is in Asia. It sounds that there are still some common threads regarding constitency, contractural things. Good advice, no matter where you end up, do your homework, have an open mind, and enjoy your little corner of the world as best you can.
– Jon Wick (author)