Are you thinking about teaching abroad? Moving to another country to teach is an amazing, life-changing experience.
Before you sign up for a teaching program or start selling all your belongings, make sure you know these 10 dark secrets about teaching abroad.
For the past decade, I’ve taught English in France, Spain, Costa Rica, and Australia. I’ve made lots of mistakes, so now you don’t have to!
#1 You’ll spend more time at your school than the hours on your contract
I worked in Madrid, Spain for three years as a language assistant in two different schools. I was part of the Auxiliares de Conversación program and the UCETAM program.
Although my contract was for 16 or 25 hours per week, I realistically spent the entire day at school.
You are only paid for contact hours with students. Your schedule will most likely include several unpaid gaps. You are often teaching the first and last classes of the day with long gaps in between. Depending on the country, you might also have a 1 or 2-hour lunch break in the middle of the day, which is of course unpaid.
Likewise, while working at a language school in Australia, I was paid for 20 hours of work per week. Again, I was only paid for the time I was physically in class with my students which was between 4 and 5 hours a day. However, I spent many, many hours at school planning my lessons, correcting essays, and creating PowerPoints.
#2 Teaching supplies are often expensive or unavailable abroad
I taught at an American school in Spain for two years and it really made me miss teaching supply stores and the Target dollar spot aisle. While some supplies like stickers and whiteboards are easy to find, other essential items are impossible to locate. Books in English are either impossible to find or triple/quadruple what they cost in English-speaking countries.
What to bring from your country
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Books in English (can be VERY expensive abroad)
Small prizes (check the $1 aisle at Target)
Seasonal items for celebrating holidays like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc.
#3 Knowing the language of the country is actually quite important when teaching abroad
While many people have successfully moved and taught abroad without knowing a foreign language, I HIGHLY recommend at least having a conversational level. It will save you time, money, and stress.
For example, if you move to another country but don’t speak the language, it’s very easy for landlords, utility companies, and even taxi drivers to rip you off. I’ve witnessed teachers being forced to sign unlawful contracts because they didn’t understand.
Daily tasks like visiting the bank, planning a trip, or finding a specific item at a grocery store become monumental tasks when you can’t understand the language.
Additionally, you’ll also fit in better with new co-workers and friends if you can communicate with them. (See tip 5)
#4 It’s important to save EVERYTHING – documents, tickets, etc.
If you aren’t an organized person, you need to be by the time you board your flight. It’s really important to keep track of your documents, passport, and tickets at all times.
You never know when you’ll need your bus ticket to prove you crossed a border, your immunization history when you’re bitten by a monkey, or ANOTHER passport-sized photo for some document you have to turn in to your school.
I use a small file folder to keep my papers organized as well as a Google Drive folder with my medical history, foreign addresses, important phone numbers, and copies of my identification.
#5 Meeting locals can be really, really hard when teaching abroad
Depending on the place you are moving to, it may be difficult to meet locals. You might be teaching in a geographically isolated area, find yourself in a more closed culture, or have difficulties with the language barrier.
While it’s not a deal-breaker, loneliness and isolation do make being abroad harder. When I lived in Egypt, I was never lonely because the culture is extremely welcoming. However, when I lived with a host family in Costa Rica the only other people I really met were other family members or people at my school.
Sometimes you will be able to choose where you teach and can prepare better. In other cases, you will receive an assigned school and must adapt quickly.
#6 Your only chances to explore will be holidays and long weekends
If you are teaching English as part of a program, be aware that many have strict attendance policies. You must fulfill your contract or your stipend or salary will be cut.
Some people want to teach abroad in order to explore new places. While this is a fantastic opportunity, it’s not always the reality.
#7 You need to have an emergency evacuation plan when teaching abroad
Living and working abroad means that things could change drastically at any moment. In 2011, I evacuated Egypt in the middle of my Rotary Ambassadorial scholarship year and had to leave my friends, belongings, and job behind in less than 48 hours. I still haven’t been back.
Luckily, I had given my parents my landline phone number because the entire cellphone network and the Internet connection were cut. Give your family and friends as many ways to contact you as possible and plan ahead for an evacuation. Better safe than stuck!
#8 Taxes can get very messy when teaching abroad
Disclaimer: I am not a tax advisor so I can only speak from my experience. Please contact a registered tax accountant for help with international taxes.
If you are an American hoping to teach English abroad, know that you are going to be taxed … twice! I’m not a financial advisor, but I’ve paid taxes in two (sometimes three) different countries per year for the past decade.
International taxes are very confusing, especially if you have assets in multiple countries, so prepare yourself. Of course, hiring a qualified tax agent is a great idea.
#9 You will lose friends
I admit that I’ve lost friends and the only reason is that I moved abroad. I’ve missed their weddings, their baby showers and birthdays. Despite trying my best to reach out and keep in touch, they just stopped responding over the years and I don’t blame them.
If you are only gone a year or two, it’s not such a big problem. However, if you plan on constantly moving and exploring the world, expect to lose some people along the way.
#10 Coming home is harder than moving abroad
Reverse culture shock is tough. Suddenly, you don’t feel like you belong in your home country and culture. Your opinions, mannerisms, and priorities shift when you live abroad. It is equally difficult to adapt to teaching abroad.
For example, in Spain when I worked at a primary school we were encouraged to hug and kiss the children. Parents wanted us to be affectionate with their beloved children. If you do these things in another country, you can end up in jail.
Culture shock is difficult when you move abroad, but I guarantee it’s even harder when you go back home.
Teaching English abroad is full of ups and downs. For me, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.
Teach abroad in Australia on a Work Holiday visa.
Find out how to get CELTA qualified before moving abroad.
Do you want to teach in Spain? Check out 4 programs to teach English in Spain.
Or maybe you prefer teaching English in a French summer camp.
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