Teaching overseas was one of the best experiences in my entire life.
It was also one of the most difficult.
Though I did some preparation before my thirty-six hour trip to East Asia, I could have done much more.
In fact, by asking myself a few questions before packing the heaviest carry-on suitcase known to man, I would have been a lot more prepared for what awaited me.
And though I cannot stop you from packing all of your books into your carry-on, I can suggest some questions to ask yourself before you embark on what may be the greatest adventure of your entire life. The answers, however, are up to you.
9 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Travel to Teach English
1. Are you up for adventure?
I don’t think anyone would argue that when you travel to another country to teach English, you’re in for an adventure. If you’re not ready for that, I can pretty confidently say you should probably keep your suitcase in the closet.
But if you’re up for exciting unknowns, here are some practical considerations.
If you don’t have one already, most of you’ll need a passport to travel to another country. For U.S. citizens, here’s how to apply for a U.S. passport.
Then, you’ll need to think about why you want to teach overseas. The next couple of questions will help you choose the right kind of program and destination for you.
2. What are you looking to get out of teaching overseas?
This is an important question to ask. When I traveled to teach, I didn’t really know what my goals were. And without knowing what my goals were, it was difficult to know whether I was achieving them. Of course, once I was in the classroom I wanted my students to learn, but I didn’t know anything beyond that.
Some of you may want to experience a different part of the world with a culture vastly different from your own. If that’s you, you might consider teaching in Vietnam. Others are looking to make good money, like many jobs in South Korea have to offer. Some do it for the teaching experience or to experience a paradise away from home. If this is you, you might consider teaching in Nicaragua.
It may be worth your while to explore Lonely Planet and grab both a travel guide and a phrasebook that’s relevant to the region where you’d like to live abroad. Try to learn a little bit about the language, culture, etiquette and way of life there. Does it sound right for you?
If you want to make a difference in the lives of people in an underprivileged area, consider Teach for America (U.S. citizens only) or World Teach. Know why you’re traveling to teach before you go, and you’ll have a good idea of whether you’re meeting your own goals.
Keep in mind the compensation you want from your position as well. Do you want housing as part of your package? Insurance? Do you need money to pay back student loans, or can you defer them while you teach?
Practical concerns such as these may not be as fun to consider as the view from your tropical island apartment, but they are important to think about before you go. So be sure to ask these questions of any potential employer.
3. Are you a language learner as well as a language teacher?
Teaching a language is great. But when you travel overseas to teach, you’ll benefit by being a language learner, too.
Though I took several years of French in high school and college, I moved to a Chinese-speaking area. It was a shock when I couldn’t even read the names of the stores I was shopping at. I didn’t know a lick of Chinese upon arrival. I studied the language while I was there and learned enough to function on a daily basis.
If you’re willing to learn a language during your travels, you’ll have many more teaching options. If you don’t want to be a student while you teach, however, consider going to a place where higher English levels are more common, or studying your host country’s language before you go.
4. What type of teaching experience are you looking for?
Before you begin searching for jobs, think about what type of teaching position you’re interested in. You can find contracts that are short-term and long-term. (Mine was two years, for example.)
Or you might just want to teach conversation or offer informal private classes with no contract at all.
Another option is to teach at an American school overseas like I did, or you might want to work for a foreign school or an independent/private school.
You can also find government sponsored positions in countries, for example:
- Japan (JET)
- Chile (English Opens Doors Program)
- France (Teaching Assistant Program in France)
- South Korea (EPIK, TALK)
- Spain (North American Language and Culture Assistants)
You have to know what you’re looking for before you know if you’ve found it.
5. How will you find an overseas teaching job?
You’ve done a lot of thinking at this point, but how exactly do you find a job teaching overseas? I found mine through a friend of a friend, quite unexpectedly I might add. For you it might not happen that way.
If you’re not applying directly to a government-sponsored program, you might want to check out some English teaching job boards, like the one on Dave’s ESL Café.
You can also post your resume online on an ESL teacher’s board such as this one.
Or, you could search for a specific type of job at TEFL.com.
Still another option is teaching ESL online and traveling the world at the same time. The most successful online teachers will tell you it’s both freeing and lucrative. Just look at Jack Askew of Teaching ESL Online. It’s the example many of us online teachers turn to. He’s had tons of success with his own online teaching business, and he has created the Teaching English Online Course to impart his knowledge to others. It’s pretty affordable, and may give you a good leg up with preparing to teach ESL online.
It’s not so important how you find your position, just that it’s the right position for you. Don’t be afraid to look around and take your time before accepting an offer to teach overseas.
6. Do you have an adequate support system in place?
Believe me when I tell you that traveling on your own to another country isn’t always easy. I encountered challenges every day, inside and outside the classroom. Since ninety percent of culture is what we cannot see, cultural struggles are very real—even for the most open-minded of people.
When you face this type of situation every day, you need a support system. I traveled by myself to an area where I knew no one. I taught at an American school, so there were other English-speaking teachers. And while I became fast friends with some of them, it wasn’t the same as having my loved ones nearby.
Will you have anyone you know with you when you go overseas to teach? A friend? A spouse? If not, how will you communicate with them while you’re over there? Consider obtaining an unlocked smartphone before you go, and making sure you can get Wi-Fi wherever you’ll teach or live.
You may want to avoid buying international calling cards until you arrive at your destination, since they often have to be used in the country in which they were purchased. You can plan to text/call friends and family with apps like WhatsApp and Viber. You can use Google Hangouts from Gmail to call U.S. phone numbers (landline and cell) for free, as well as for video calls. And there are always Skype and FaceTime for video calls as well.
Plan on putting forth initial effort towards making friends wherever you go. You’ll find that many places have a large expat community, and friendships are quickly formed among the people there. You might look for an English-speaking church to meet expats in your area or head to an American restaurant or Irish bar where expats frequent. Your city might also have an expat forum where you can meet people. (Check Meetup and Internations for existing groups.)
Also think about how your decision to teach overseas will affect the ones you love. In some ways, my time in East Asia was harder for my mother than it was for me. Take some time to talk to your family and friends before you go. Talk about how you’ll communicate and keep in touch. Give them any information that will help allay their fears, and give them contact information for where you’ll be once you get to your new home.
7. Do you need to do anything to prepare professionally?
When I taught, I didn’t have as much classroom experience as I would have liked.
What kind of training do you have? Maybe you have a TESOL degree, or maybe you’ve never taught before!
Can you get some more experience before you go? There are many sites which offer online certification, such as:
- Teach English Abroad, where you can choose between different online, in-person and more specialized options. They even have a course that only lasts two days! There are many other resources on the site you’ll find helpful, including a blog, jobs board and paid internship opportunities.
- myTEFL, which offers a robust 120-hour online course and special internship opportunities for those who have completed the course in China, Thailand, Africa and Argentina.
- Premier TEFL, where you’ll find a variety of course options, including online and “blended” courses that are a combination of online training and live classroom teaching in a European country. They can also prepare you for specialized teaching subjects like the IELTS and TOEIC, and they offer internships in a variety of countries.
Or you could look for courses at a local college. You might also have an organization nearby that offers classes that will teach you how to teach.
If you have no classroom experience yet, look for volunteer opportunities. Many non-profit organizations offer free English classes to English learners, which are taught by volunteer tutors. You might also be able to shadow an ESL teacher in your school district if you get permission.
Another option is training that prepares you for future teaching assignments in the same environment. SEE TEFL offers training and paid internships in Thailand. Regular training is four weeks, while their twice-yearly paid internships get you the training you need in just two weeks and follow up with a 4-5 month teaching assignment.
8. What materials will you have available?
Once you have an idea where you’ll be teaching, find out what kind of resources will be available to you there. Talk to current teachers to see if they recommend bringing anything special from your home country (newspapers, magazines, menus, brochures, a map, candy, etc.). If you can get in touch with them, you could also ask former teachers who were at the same school. Finally, you could reach out to bloggers that are teaching in your host country to see what advice they have about what materials to bring.
During the time I was teaching overseas, there were no English materials available in my area (hence the 50-pound carry-on). Some easy things I packed in my luggage were English reward stickers, bookmarks and other small prizes with English writing on them.
What materials does your school use? Can you get a copy of the curriculum before you go and review it while you’re still at home? What English materials will you be able to purchase or borrow in your host country? If you can’t find it there, you’ll need to bring it with you or take a chance shipping it overseas. Either way, be prepared before you go.
You might also consider getting in touch with your home embassy in your host country. My editor tells me that while she was teaching in Spain, the American embassy there offered (and sent to her—for free) U.S. maps and a spiral-bound book about U.S. history (with quizzes), written especially for English learners.
9. Are you flexible?
I saved this question for last, but perhaps it should be the first one you ask yourself. Are you flexible? You have to be if you’re going to teach overseas. You’ll be dealing with culture shock, language barriers and a working culture you have not experienced before. Every day you’ll face challenges. Will you be able to meet them?
I love this proverb: Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape.
I’ll be honest. I’m a little on the type-A side, and I struggled with many situations I faced overseas. That doesn’t mean that I should have stayed home or that you should either. It just means that I had to be flexible. I had to let things go. I had to have a good sense of humor about myself.
You will, too.
Like I said before, teaching overseas was one of the greatest experiences of my life, even if it was one of my greatest challenges. It’s definitely something I would recommend.
The key to a successful and fulfilling overseas experience, however, is getting yourself ready before you step on that plane. So take some time to think about these questions. Then pack that carry-on and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime.
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