Teach Abroad

10 Things to Know Before Teaching Abroad

Photo of Richelle Gamlam
Richelle Gamlam
Topic Expert

Richelle has been living, working, and teaching in China for the last four years, from high school English teacher to college admissions consultant.

10 Things to Know Before Teaching Abroad
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Let's be honest, there were a lot of things I wish I knew before I decided to take the leap and teach abroad. Teaching abroad for a year or more is a huge undertaking, no matter where you decide to go.

Whether it's volunteer teaching in India, working at a public school in South Korea, or leading classes at an international academy in Dubai, moving to an entirely new country to live and work is a big challenge for anyone. However, with the right help and advice, you can go into your position prepared.

After five years of living and working abroad, I've learned a few lessons the hard way. So today I'm going to fill you in on some of the things I wish I knew when I first took my job teaching abroad.

1. Teaching & Lesson Planning is Easier Than You Think

Most people who decide to teach abroad have little to no teaching experience. I was so incredibly nervous about creating lesson plans and teaching, especially when I learned I'd be teaching giant classes of 50 high-schoolers at the tender age of 22.

While teaching is definitely not the easiest job on the planet, managing a class and creating lesson plans isn't as hard as you might think. There are plenty of resources online, including here on Go Overseas, to get you started:

If you have a large class or a group of kids who don't speak English very well, PowerPoint can be your best friend. It's so much easier to teach people what a "lion" is when you have a picture of a lion for them to look at.

My biggest advice is to make lessons fun and cater to the size and age group of the students. With my young students, I found games, songs, and activities that they loved. With older students, I'd crack jokes, make funny Powerpoint presentations, and break things up with group activities.

Getting your TEFL certification is also a really great way to prepare yourself for teaching abroad. TEFL courses teach you how to teach English, and will give you the skills you need to manage a classroom. Even if a TEFL isn't required for a visa in the country you choose, I still recommend getting one, even if you just find an affordable certification online.

2. Patience is Key

10 Things to Know Before Teaching Abroad: Patience
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Whether it's teaching rowdy students, or dealing with confusing administration policies, patience is key. One of the qualities you'll need most as a teacher is patience, and it's important no matter which age group you're teaching.

Younger students typically demand the most patience, especially if you're teaching them classes after school. Be sure to remember that they just came from a full day of classes, and the last thing they want to do is sit down at another desk. Try to help them out by playing fun games and videos, singing songs, and let them get up out of their seats.

Teaching high schoolers are also a big test of patience. They're at just the right age where they know when they're doing something bad, which can be very frustrating for a teacher. Just don't lose your cool, and you'll be fine.

Patience is also very important when it comes to living in another country, especially if the country you choose is developing or has vast cultural differences compared to your hometown. Living in China, I experienced frequent schedule changes (that no one ever seemed to remember to tell me about), random "events" (they made me sing in front of the whole school with only a few days notice), and a ton of rules that just didn't make any sense to me.

Living overseas, you'll really need to learn how to go with the flow. Whether it's an impromptu lesson with no planning time, or a random unexplained internet outage that no one can fix.

3. Kids are the Same All Over the World

Cultural differences are a big factor when it comes to how students are used to learning, however, we often expect the differences to be bigger than they actually are.

People love to emphasize how Chinese students are great at math and science, spectacular at memorizing, and are hesitant to speak when called on. While all of these facts are mostly true, it only took me a few weeks of teaching to realize that Chinese students are just like American students.

My kids loved Justin Bieber, hated studying for tests, wanted to play basketball during lunch, and gossiped about their secret boyfriends. Sure, they were a bit better at memorization than the average American student, but I also had students who were excellent at English and not so great in Math and Science. I had some students who were more than happy to volunteer in class and chat with me in the hallway during breaks; I had students that did neither of these things.

While the education system does have a big impact on how students are accustomed to learning, kids are the same in every country. They're worried about getting good grades and impressing their parents. They want to get into a good college and have a good job. They have crushes, gossip, and pass notes in class.

Children love games and songs. Teens love jokes and movies. People are people, no matter what country they're from.

4. Culture Shock is Real

10 Things to Know Before Teaching Abroad: Culture Shock is Real
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"Culture shock" is one of those terms that make a lot of us squirm. It sounds needlessly scientific and feels like something "other people" will experience.

But I'm the first to tell you: Culture Shock is real.

We all go through the process of culture shock somewhat differently. When I moved to China to teach abroad, I assumed I was immune to culture shock: I had studied abroad in China for 7 months, was semi-fluent in Mandarin, had traveled all over the country, lived alone in Beijing for a month, and even had some experience teaching English part-time.

But when a car dropped me off at a giant high school on a factory-lined street in the middle of nowhere where I was the only foreigner for miles, the culture shock hit big time. I absolutely freaked out. All I wanted to do was lay in my bed and cry and I didn't want to make any connections with any of my Chinese coworkers.

While this is a pretty extreme example, and I eventually snapped out of it, I just want you to know that culture shock is completely real, so don't be surprised if it hits you at some point in your teach abroad journey.

You might pull away and avoid talking to people in-person or even at home. No one wants to tell their friends and family that their big teach abroad adventure isn't 100% perfect. You might retreat into your room, your computer, or even into a big glass of wine (been there, done that).

Just know that it's completely normal for you to feel this way at some point or another. The main challenge is getting yourself back out there, and pulling yourself out of an unhealthy situation as soon as you can. If you need them, here are some additional tips for coping with culture shock (bookmark it -- you'll thank me later!

5. Things Won't Always Make Sense

When we choose to teach abroad, we know we're entering into a completely different country with a vastly different culture. However, sometimes we forget that these cultural differences affect our jobs and the way that schools are run.

It's really important to remember that when you teach abroad, things won't always make sense when it comes to your job, what's expected of you, or the way the school is managed.

For me, I could never wrap my head around why the school schedule changed SO OFTEN. Seriously, we couldn't go a month without a schedule change, and no one ever seemed to tell me so I was always walking into the wrong classrooms at the wrong times. This also meant I often missed classes because I didn't know I was supposed to be teaching them until they were halfway over. Thankfully my students were trained to study quietly if I wasn't there...

I also could never understand why my school couldn't decide about the dates of school holidays in advance. I didn't know when the Chinese New Year Holiday would end until AFTER the holiday had already started. This was especially frustrating since I wanted to travel during the holiday, so I just had to make an educated guess about when I had to be back at school.

Each country (and school!) has their own quirks, so don't be surprised if things don't make sense. Like I said before, patience is key.

6. You Might Get Sick

No one likes getting sick, especially if you're far away from your family and dealing with a medical system in another language. Food poisoning is the most common ailment for those of us who choose to live in a developing country. Our stomachs just aren't used to all of the bacteria found in different countries from where we grew up

However, even if you're in countries where you wouldn't expect food poisoning to strike like Japan, South Korea, or the UAE, you might get really sick. Whether it's the flu, a stomach bug, a broken bone, or good old-fashioned food poisoning, it's best to be prepared.

Be sure you have a contact person at your school that you can call if you need to see a doctor or go to the hospital. Most of my friends abroad have been to the hospital at one point or another. I've seen two broken arms, countless food poisoning incidents, an appendicitis scare, and a few allergic reactions.

Sometimes bad things happen, and when you're living overseas it can be really scary. This is especially true if you don't speak the language. Just be sure you have a local who can take care of you, and know that it happens to literally everyone.

Oh... and bring Imodium. Lots of Imodium.

7. Your Friends & Family Might Not Understand

10 Things to Know Before Teaching Abroad: Friends and Family
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The longer I stay away, the more I feel like all of my friends and family just don't "get" me. While my parents always knew I was a bit strange (I used to spend hours "reading" a children's travel encyclopedia when I was four), I don't think anyone expected me to teach abroad for quite so long, especially in a country like China.

Many people won't understand why you dropped everything to go teach abroad, especially if you don't plan on making teaching your long-term career. If you call home to talk about your casual everyday problems in Japan, most of your friends won't be able to relate. If you left a good job back home, people really won't understand.

Expect people to ask you when you're going to come home and get a "real job." (Newsflash: teaching is a real job!!!) However, not everyone back home will believe that your job is real, and may assume you just spend all of your time traveling and enjoying your chosen country. This is especially true if you post a lot of photos on Facebook and Instagram (guilty).

I typically rely on my other expat friends as emotional support because they know where I'm coming from. However, don't forget to let your friends and family back home know about the not-so-glamorous parts of your life so that they feel included and understand your experience a bit better when you do decide to go home.

8. You Need to Read & Understand Your Contract

Teaching abroad is just like any other job on the planet: contracts matter and you need to fully understand your contract before you accept a position. This especially important when it comes to teaching abroad because the rules tend to be a bit different than your typical contract back home.

Be sure to read, re-read, and re-re-read your contract. Scrape through that baby with a fine-toothed comb and write down any questions you might have. Even if you decide to teach abroad with a program, or you know you'll never want to leave your contract early... Newsflash: sometimes stuff happens that require you to change your plans. Make sure your contract covers that.

If they're flying you over, will they pay for your flight upfront or will you be reimbursed later? How long will it take them to reimburse you? Seriously, one of my schools took 6-months to pay me back.

What about housing? Do they provide an on-campus apartment? What's included? Do you have to pay utilities? If you have a housing stipend, does your job find the apartment for you or are you supposed to find it yourself? Will the stipend be added to your salary or is it separate? Do you have to pay your own apartment deposit?

It may seem nit-picky, but you need to know what you're getting yourself into. Be sure to look out for schools that make you pay them if you want to break your contract. Forfeiting a few weeks of salary is fine, but owing your school $8,000 if you decide to break your contract is not okay. You might think it's crazy, but my first school actually had that in their contract.

9. Many People Stay for More Than a Year

You might think you're just teaching abroad for a year, but just know that many people actually decide to stay for an extra year or longer. Most schools will offer you a decent raise if you decide to sign on for a second year. Other teachers decide to move to a more prestigious school, or even another country!

I really thought I would just be heading to China to teach for a year or two, and I ended up staying for five years. Why? Awesome opportunities just kept falling into my lap. The longer you stay in a country, the more incredible jobs you'll find.

The longer you stay, the harder it is for you to leave, too. When you move somewhere, you make your own community. You'll have friends, a favorite restaurant, a local bar, your go-to cafe, fun coworkers, a cute apartment... it's hard to give that stuff up.

You might also get a taste for travel or develop a love of teaching. I have friends who travel the world, teaching in a different country every year. You might hear great things about Taiwan, or Singapore. You may have a friend who found an awesome job in Tokyo and can get you an interview.

Once the travel bug bites, it's hard to come home.

10. You Won't Come Home the Same Person

10 Things to Know Before Teaching Abroad: Home
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Whether you're moving home for good, or just visiting for the holidays, it's rare that you'll come home the same person.

If you let it, teaching abroad can be a life-changing experience. I became more patient, understanding, and more calm and relaxed... kind of. I used to get stressed about every little thing, and I liked to always have a plan. But living abroad taught me that sometimes you just need to go with the flow. Both my parents and blood pressure thank me for learning that lesson.

Teaching abroad can also help you become more open-minded about other countries, cultures, and ways of doing things. I've learned that the US is definitely not the "best country in the world," as much as we might like to believe it. I'm more critical of government policies, and more open-minded when it comes to looking at how other countries solve certain issues.

Teaching abroad has also taught me to be more independent and self-reliant. Living abroad, if I had a problem, I needed to learn to solve it myself. Whether it was accidentally getting on the wrong bus or showing up for a 2am train at 2pm (whoops), I had to learn how to take care of things on my own.

Some of your friends might not understand or even like the new you when you do come home. But you know what? People change, and all of your good friends should be able to understand and accept the new you. Things might feel a bit weird or "off" when you arrive home and this is totally normal. It's called reverse culture shock, and like it's friend, regular culture shock, it's also very real.

But if you're open to change, and you're okay being a student once and a while, you really will come home a more patient, open-minded person, and that's only a good thing.

Just remember, you're about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Yes, you want to be prepared, but don't overthink it. The best experiences come from having an open mind, and the desire to learn just as much as you teach.

This post was originally published in November 2013, and was updated in April 2018.