What it’s Actually Like to Teach English Abroad

Guest post by Matthew Cardoza

So you’ve finally graduated college and you want to see the world. Maybe you want to make a difference or maybe you just want to get out of that boring town you live in and see what else is out there.

With your fancy degree in-hand and a native English speaking ability, you’ve learned that teaching English abroad is a fascinating option. It sounds exciting, different, and challenging (it is), but what is teaching English in a foreign country actually like?

The Job Market

You can teach English in almost any foreign country, but there are three regions that are in need of teachers more than others. The three regions of the world most in need of teachers are Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia, (East and Southeast Asia). If you are a newly certified teacher, then scratch the Middle East off your list. The schools provide excellent pay and benefits, but they usually require two year contracts and multiple years of prior teaching experience.

For the new teacher Latin America and Asia provide the most potential. Latin America is a region brimming with a multitude of ethnic groups, unique cultures, and adventure, but the pay is low. It’s a region that I would highly recommend visiting, but for the aspiring teacher Asia is the best place to be.

In Asia, the demand for teachers is unbelievable. There are so many schools and cities to choose from, where to begin? For a brief guide to the individual countries, refer to this guide. I changed my mind many times before finally deciding on Vietnam.

Getting the Job

To teach English, first you must have all your required documents. The minimum will include a notarized copy of your college degree, an English teaching certification (TEFL, TESOL, CELTA), a visa, and possibly a background check. Gathering the documents can take time, but it is all just part of the process.

The second point of consideration is whether to secure the job beforehand or to start looking for work upon arrival. For working in Asia, there are so many jobs that it is routine to fly to the destination city and search for jobs after landing.

I think this is the ideal option because it allows for more flexibility. Being able to walk the neighborhoods you may be living in, see the school for yourself, and figure out transportation routes is really valuable. This is something difficult to accomplish when you’re sitting at a desk thousands of miles away.

In Vietnam, I applied for jobs in two ways: responding via email to online job postings and hitting the streets with resume in hand.

Similar to what you would do in your home country except without really knowing where you are, how to communicate with foreign taxi drivers, or where to go (Adventurous!). With persistence, you will find work. I was a new teacher with only limited experience from when I did my practicum hours in the U.S. and I was eventually hired.

The First Day of Class

Expect to be unprepared. No matter how much you prepare, expect something to go astray. On my first day my supervisor was late. She hastily gathered all the materials I needed eight minutes before class and sent me on my way to go meet a class of excitable Vietnamese twelve year-olds. I was stressing out big time. When you walk in the door, be ready for all eyes on you.

All the students will say hi to you and wonder about who you are. It might be hard to start the lesson, but it is important to display confidence and get your students talking and interacting. Games are imperative for teaching kids; they are your most likely students in Asia.

Life on the Job

Expect to develop a routine interspersed with a few days of total confusion. You will have a schedule that will become fairly predictable, but there will always be surprises. There were a few times I arrived at work only to be greeted by intermittent power outages and lack of AC. Sometimes class was suspended, other times I had to deal with agitated students and switching classrooms.

I had three different teacher assistants (T.A.) begin and quit during my time at the school. I’d come to class and be faced with a new assistant and with whom I would have to develop a new chemistry with and introduce to the class. This sometimes caused disruptions because some T.A.’s were more interactive than I needed them to be taking away the attention from me, the teacher.

There were also a lot of bizarre holidays that I was given no notice of. For example there were Children’s Day and International Women’s Day. I’d arrive at the school to find all sorts of decorations, planned celebrations, and distracted students all of which greatly affected my carefully planned lessons. It was fun and always surprising, but it was a constant challenge too.

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Student-Teacher Interactions

Most of my time was spent working with children, but I also taught teenagers and college students. With children, you will quickly learn how to interact with them even if you think you suck at it now. Whether it is making jokes, funny noises, dancing, or playing games, you will learn how to interact with children for effective learning.

For children the biggest thing is getting them to avoid speaking in their native language while in class. If you don’t always stay weary of that (along with help from your T.A.), then suddenly half the class will be laughing about some ridiculous joke made in Vietnamese.

Some students will draw pictures for you, give you stickers, and ask you ridiculous questions (Teacher, are you 40 years old?). Other students will mostly ignore you unless you create a competition. Suddenly every little star, point, and sticker matters. Students will surprise you with their knowledge of English not learned from the textbook. Often times I heard f-bombs, certain body parts, and slang phrases going around the room that I was sure the students didn’t even know the meaning of.

Older students will really come to like you if you can show your human side and not just your teacher side. Engaging in conversation about sports, music, and even dating will result in a lot of smiles, laughs, and maybe even invitations to hang out outside of school (I was invited to play basketball for example). The students will really come to respect you and they will open up to you once you drop the professorial tone and encourage friendly conversation.

Your Place in Society

In Asia teachers are highly respected in society. In Vietnam there is even a holiday deemed, “Teacher Appreciation Day.” In countries where governments are desperately working to educate their citizens in English, you teacher, are someone to be respected. Even locals who only knew a few words, once they found out I was a teacher, a big smile emerged on their face usually followed by a request to teach their son, daughter, nephew, husband, etc.

The locals will make some other assumptions about you too. You are assumed to be rich by many. You are exotic to the women and a potential conversation partner for all aspiring university students. Sitting in a park in Saigon, I was approached by many students on multiple occasions who thought I would be their man for practicing English that day.

The local teachers, natives who now teach English themselves may have slightly different views. Foreign teachers are paid exponentially more than local teachers and there can be some visible resentment at some language schools.

It is unfair- especially once you find out what they are actually paid, but it’s no reason not to take advantage of your native language and the opportunities it has brought you. I was fortunate that at my school both the foreign and local teachers got along pretty well. If you just get to know and socialize with them outside of work, then any harboring resentment will fall away.

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Conclusions: Should you do it?

Teaching English in a foreign country will be unlike any experience you’ve ever had. If you are willing to accept unpredictability, challenge, and a learn-on-the-job environment, then I encourage you to dive in. Every experience will be different, but these factors will be constant. Life as a foreigner in a strange land is a strange one, especially in the respectable position of a teacher. It is worth it though and you will gain a unique perspective from the experience

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