Jumping the pond to begin a journey as an ESL teacher abroad is an exciting time. Rookie teachers will surely see stars, envisioning a new and exotic chapter of their lives. While this is an awesomely optimistic attitude to have and definitely a great foot to start the experience on, there are certain realities that need to be recognized, accepted, and prepared for. Here are just a few of the challenges that you will inevitably face teaching abroad.
1) Coping with very different management styles
For many, becoming an ESL teacher involves a fairly dramatic career change. Whether you have just graduated from college or are making a mid-life change, this will definitely be an eye-opening lesson in variables in the workplace. This is particularly true in Asian settings.
Cultural differences foster work environments that will be immediately noticed as different from the ones you’re used to. For example, it’s uncommon for a boss in South Korea to directly confront you about an issue, no matter how major or meaningless. This shouldn’t be conceived as passive-aggressive; rather, look at it as a dedication to non-confrontation. Prepare yourself for awkward encounters by accepting that things just are the way they are.
Another common example involves resources and materials. When I walked into my first week of teaching, I was given a lackluster and dare I say outrageously boring textbook and nothing else- no ideas of lesson plans, no props or classroom gear, nothing. Not even a set of pens. The best way to combat an often chaotic, unorganized, and unprepared workplace is to teach yourself to be super creative in your lesson plans. This will also keep your boss happy. Completing an accredited TESOL certification will certainly make your job much easier!
2) Being the outsider
There are so many ESL hotspots that have a huge expatriate community. However, this is not always the case. In many places, you will physically stand out because of your appearance, which paves the way for gawking, staring, and untranslatable comments, among other awkward experiences.
For many people, you will be the first non-local/foreigner they’ve ever seen, so try not to get too caught up in this. One particularly challenging element of being an outsider is the fact that many of the people you encounter may have had little to no exposure to other races, and this can pave the way for unpleasant feelings on your end.
Most of the time, any inferred racism will be somewhat of a misunderstanding and is better explained by curiosity and intrigue. At the very least, a lot of people will suspect that you are an out-of-place tourist until you eventually start walking the streets like a local.
It may seem strange to locals if you do not understand or already practice some of their traditions- for example, eating with chopsticks- but this is all part of the living abroad experience. The take-home message here is to lead by example, educating your students about decorum and how to interact and engage in a multicultural society appropriately.
3) Feeling lonely
Alright, you’re not technically on your own, but it will absolutely feel that way sometimes. Most (but not all) ESL teachers who move abroad make the decision on their own, so it’s to be expected that you will sometimes feel the downside of that choice to leave your friends and family.
Moving to an entirely different time zone will often mean that phone calls are scheduled, something very different from picking up the phone and having your best friend dart over when you’re feeling down. Sure, there will usually be plenty of opportunities for making new friends, but the interim between arriving and that point can feel quite lonely.
Don’t expect a life coach or motivational speech, and don’t expect your new boss to understand how stressful it may be for you to encounter the plethora of new challenges that you will face when moving to a new country. This isn’t to say that people are cold, but they are also not your mother.
In addition to emotional support, you may also struggle to get support in the workplace, particularly with unruly children. More often than not, you are expected to deal with issues on your own. “I’m sending you to the principal’s office” doesn’t always have as much pull abroad.
Many of your colleagues will be fairly aloof toward you, seeing as they’ve probably watched dozens of ESL teachers come through their doors throughout the years. My advice is simple: be friendly, be confident, and don’t be overly needy.
4) Cultural differences in the classroom
From a work standpoint, this will perhaps be your biggest hurdle. Being a new teacher is hard enough as it is, especially if you haven’t studied it in your secondary education. Top this with the fact that almost everything you remember from your own days of school will be irrelevant, and it seems like you have a recipe for a panic attack at the front of the room. Don’t worry. These differences will take getting used to, but you will get the hang of it eventually.
One major difference between your school and your working environment abroad is the prevalence of CCTV cameras (in Asia). All your lessons will be filmed via a security camera, with the boss potentially watching your every move. I’ve never really understood this, so I won’t feign an explanation.
Students in your classroom may see English class as the perfect time to go wild since they have no reason to respect this foreigner speaking a language that they hardly understand. Combating this relates back to using creative lessons and getting even more creative with your classroom management style.
Observe a lesson or two from other teachers and notice the type of communication and discipline they use with their students.
5) Culture shock
This is the most obvious of all challenges that ESL teachers should expect. The reason that most people choose to teach English abroad, in some way, involves the experience of a new culture, so embrace this as much as possible. Unless you are going to a country that is very similar to your own, there are many things that should be expected.
You will be surrounded by people who probably can’t communicate with you very well. This makes getting directions, reading signs, catching transportation, and dining out tricky. Newfound practices that might seem inappropriate, unethical, or downright strange to you based on your home culture will be the norm in your new environment, with your norms and practices being the odd men out.
Figuring out which facial expressions, gestures, and even body postures are appropriate will be an even more confusing, but culturally enriching, part of the ride. It’s all part of the greatness and memorability of the experience, so don’t resist it. Embrace it whole-heartedly, and you may even find yourself deeming reverse culture shock more confusing when you return to your home country.
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