12 Things to Know Before Teaching English Abroad

by Sojourner
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It’s an alluring feeling – the idea of traveling and teaching English abroad. The excitement of putting on your teacher hat by day and your traveling backpack on the weekends. You can make money, travel, and build a life for yourself in a country you have longed to enjoy. But is teaching English abroad all that it’s cracked up to be? 

That depends on who you ask, where you work if you enjoy teaching English overseas, and many other factors. Sure you can travel, but what about the job? What skills are needed? What assumptions should you avoid making before you go? And is teaching English abroad without a degree possible? To help you make the right decision, here are 12 things to know before teaching English abroad.

What you should know about teaching English overseas

A TEFL certification would be ideal

TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. You will see many programs with this abbreviation, so it is one you must know. These TEFL programs provide you with training on teaching English, and most connect you with job opportunities once your training is complete. If you have no teaching or education experience, TEFL  programs are among the best places to start. And applicants who are teaching English abroad without a degree go this route too.

Teaching English abroad requirements vary

Teaching English abroad without a degree can be a little tricky, depending on the program. The more lucrative jobs require at least a Bachelor’s degree. Therefore this point is a controversial one as many people in education believe you should have a degree. You will find that some teach-abroad programs do not require a degree but provide training programs. Those TEFL certifications mentioned above are the ideal way to get the experience you need!

Think about why you want to teach

Traveling should not be the why behind you wanting to teach English overseas.Most of your week is about teaching English, not traveling. You have to be somewhat passionate about youth development work, languages, or education. I promise you the idea of traveling will not get you through the experience if you end up disliking teaching English abroad. If that is your reasoning, save yourself the disappointment and go another route.

Speaking and teaching English are not the same

Are you an expert on phrasal verbs? Can you explain the difference between “I live in the United States” and “I went to a live concert last night?” Or why “Arkansas” and “Kansas” do not have the same pronunciation? These are slight exaggerations; however, it is necessary to think about teaching English as a native English speaker. Remember, just because you can speak does not mean that you can teach it. If you are not familiar, read up and learn about grammar and vocabulary before you go.

Schools and work culture vary

One of the significant parts of traveling and working abroad is experiencing a new culture and community. But we know culture shock is real and affects many foreigners. School culture is no different. Observe, ask questions, and learn about the discipline culture, homework requirements, etc. In Spain, most things are easy-going. One day we had wine and snacks during a work party in the school that would never fly in the U.S. But, Spain has a very social culture, which was their standard. 

Work culture can also vary with the level of support you receive. Some programs or jobs require you to teach the class on your own. Others make you a co-teacher, which means another teacher is present. But that may not always happen, and you teach solo anyway. It is hard to tell upfront how supportive a school is, so use LinkedIn, Facebook, Reddit to research more information. A prior teacher may have already written about their experience at the school where you will work.

Factor in relocation costs when you teach English overseas

Any transition has financial obligations. Moving abroad to teach English is similar. Costs you usually think about are your flight, visa, doctor’s appointments, and possible fees associated with the program or certification you chose. However, consider other costs such as housing. Where will you stay upon arrival? Foreigners who move to teach English to stay in Airbnbs, hostels, hotels, or even use Couchsurfing until they can find a place. Some programs cover these costs; others do not. Ask your program or job about what they cover because these costs can add up depending on the destination you teach.

Save up if you can

Speaking of relocation costs, save up in general. It is always nice to have a safety net to fall back on if it takes you a long time to find an apartment. You can use this money for food when you arrive, transportation around your new home, and buying at-home products like pillows and blankets to get comfortable. Most future English teachers save up $1,000 (USD) to have upfront. But again, this varies based on where you decide to move. 

Get some teaching experience before you go

I hinted at this above with teaching English abroad requirements. However, I want to emphasize that having some classroom experience is beneficial. Teaching English overseas is a job, and the worst thing about working is showing up unprepared. Classroom management, lesson planning, and imaginative thinking are vital regardless of the teacher. But when you have cultural differences on top, it can be more overwhelming than you think as you adjust to your new environment. So while it may not always be necessary for everyone, teaching experience is helpful. 

All teaching abroad programs are not equal

Teaching English abroad jobs vary based on the program, requirements, benefits, and more. For example, the benefits of programs such as Fulbright may different from other non-government teach abroad programs. Do not limit yourself and make a pros and cons list as you decide where to go! Just as you would apply to other jobs, research other opportunities or fellowships abroad too. Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready. 

Think about your long-term goals too

This statement does not mean you should know what you want to do with the rest of your life.  However, you need to know that most teaching English abroad programs contract teachers every year. If you wish to continue, go for it! But if you do not plan on staying, start to think about your next move mid-year. Network if you must. You do not want to end up unemployed and low on funds in another country. That is no fun!

English teachers do not speak the host language at school

Yep, you read that correctly! Though surprising to some, English teachers do not speak the host language while in school. The English-only requirement is a rule because once students know you speak their language, they want to talk to you in that language instead. In return, the students are not learning as much English as they could. Therefore, most English teachers act as if they do not know the host language even if they do. 

It is a form of neocolonialism

Teaching English abroad is ethically complicated. On the one hand, it is a great experience. On the other, the prevalence of teaching English abroad programs is a cause for concern.  The global expansion of teaching English abroad programs is a form of linguistic imperialism. Its dominance around the world often means other languages lose value in our globalized world. Check out this piece on Medium about one former English teacher’s reflection of language privilege and linguistic imperialism.

Pick your destination wisely

Countries around the world have teaching English abroad programs. Popular destinations include Spain, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Mexico, and many other countries. Yet, know that not every country treats their English teachers the same.  The school cultures are different. The pay varies based on the societal importance of teachers. Some include housing for their teachers, and others do not. And of course, the climate is a factor based on what you want. Reflect on what you want, make a list, and go from there.

Is teaching English abroad worth it?

The answer to this question depends on who you ask. I learned that teaching full-time was not for me. It is a practice of neocolonialism, and that makes me uncomfortable. While I did appreciate the experience and could have continued to be content, it was not my passion. For this reason, I encourage people to go after opportunities that interest them because you never know what you will like or dislike. It can teach you a lot about yourself that you may not have discovered otherwise.

However, as someone who taught English abroad for one year, I can say that year was impactful. After doing many summer teaching assistantship experiences, teaching English abroad was my first full-time job abroad. I loved getting to know the students, teach them, and learn from them too. And being a Black American woman, I infused my Black history and human rights lessons into the English classes. I have learned that these truths of not enjoying teaching English and its impact on who I am today can be true at once. For that, I am grateful even to have such an opportunity. 

Want to know where to find teaching English programs abroad? Check out this post here.

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