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Teaching Abroad: Top 10 Tips for Preventing Nightmare Experiences

Most of the people I know who have taught abroad report honorable and engaging colleagues, eager students, and plentiful opportunities for meaningful cultural exchange. But I have also heard a few stories of nightmare experiences.

Following are some of the worst scenarios I have encountered.  I have changed some of the names and identifying details but the stories are true.

Learn from these stories: When teaching abroad, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. At the end of the article you will find my top strategies for preventing these problems.

Some Worst Case Scenarios for International Teachers

  1. You are hired for a job and then find out that your contact is bogus.
  2. You are hired for a school that has no students.
  3. You are expected to beat your students.
  4. You experience workplace sexual harassment or assault.
  5. You witness immoral or illegal behavior by your fellow teachers.
  6. You are completely unprepared for the teaching you are assigned.
  7. You fall in love (or is it lust?).

1) You are hired for a job and then fund out that your contact is bogus. Ken was hired to teach at a hagwan (private English language school) in Korea. When he arrived, he discovered he had been lied to about living conditions—his apartment was barely livable, overrun by cockroaches. Later, his promised vacation time was redacted. Many teachers have reported salaries that were significantly lower than what was promised in the contract—or wages that were never paid.

Survival strategy: Be flexible… up to a point! A few giant cockroaches will provide an entertaining story for your friends back home. But if your situation is truly unlivable, leave. Make sure you have enough money to support a move, and if you don’t, contact your embassy for help. In some countries, such as Korea, you can easily find a headhunter to help you identify a new assignment. In other countries you’ll have to do your own networking—start with Transitions Abroad teaching abroad links for the country you are in.

2) You were hired for a school that has no students. James was hired in Lima to teach English in a small school in the Andes. He packed up his life in the capitol and took a bus to the village. He got there and found out there was no school, or rather, there was an empty building but no students. He was expected to recruit all the students.

Survival strategy: Adapt or change schools. For a month or two, James actually served as recruiter for the language institute—he plastered the town with flyers that he designed and he taught a handful of small classes. But eventually he realized that he wanted to be just a teacher, not a marketer. He found another more reputable school to work with, even though it meant uprooting his life and moving once again. Another option is to find private students who want to learn English; that’s what Katalyn did when she found herself jobless in Madrid—she ended up tutoring students ranging from an elementary school girl to a wealthy businessman.

3) You are expected to beat your students. Unfortunately, in some public K-12 schools in Africa (and Asia) corporal punishment is still standard—quite possibly a hand-me-down cultural relic from sadistic British, French and Portuguese colonial teachers. The true and tragicomic book, Dear Exile (Vintage, 1999) exposes this crisis in terrifying detail. Kate Montgomery, a Peace Corps volunteer, was assigned to teach at a public school in Kenya where educators regularly beat their students, and she was expected to join the abuse.

Survival strategy: Of course, I assume you will not go along with expectations and beat your students. But when you refuse, you might get resistance from the staff, fellow teachers, or even students. I suggest that beginning on your first day, you maintain tight rules in your classes and clear consequences that do not involve physical harm to students—demonstrating that physical harm to students is not needed to maintain a serious learning environment. You’ll have to arm yourself in advance with a toolkit of classroom management techniques (This is one of many reasons I recommend a TEFL/TESOL certificate for all those interested in teaching overseas.)

Don’t fight abuse alone. Try to find allies in the local community who oppose corporal punishment and can help you explore culturally appropriate ways of expressing dissent. Report the problem to your supervisor if appropriate. Most countries with corporal punishment now have organizations dedicated to its eradication; some internet research and outreach may connect you with others who can offer locally relevant strategies. has a section with links to country campaigns.

If you find a pervasive and intransigent culture of violence, perhaps it is time to find another assignment. Kate Montgomery, mentioned above, ended her Peace Corps service early rather than continuing to be a passive witness to abusive.

4) You experience workplace sexual harassment or assault. Lisa signed up for a teaching assignment in South Korea, only to find that the principal of the school made unwanted sexual advances. I have heard of fellow educators harassing international teachers.

Survival strategy: For verbal harassment such as jokes or suggestive comments, respond with a loud and clear statement that you will not tolerate such behavior. Often, harassers test people and then escalate based on the response they get. State “never talk to me that way” and leave the room. Don’t be afraid to react strongly.

After any form of harassment, avoid one-on-one contact with the harasser. Make sure another teacher or administrator is with you in any meetings with the perpetrator.

Get support from others. Sexual harassers are like mushrooms; they thrive where there is little light. Tell your supervisor or placement agency. Find allies as soon as possible and let them know what happened.

If the harassment was serious, such as a sexual assault, you may wish to inform local law enforcement, although in some countries police do not take such allegations seriously. You may find more support with a faith based organization. Serious abuse should be reported to your embassy. RAINN - Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network has wonderful prevention resources and can provide support if you are a victim of harassment.

5) You witness immoral or illegal behavior by your fellow teachers—sexual manipulation or economic exploitation of students.  I am sorry to report that teachers pressuring students for sex in return for good grades is common in Africa. (Of course, sex between students and teachers happens everywhere, even at the “good school” I attended in Newton, Massachusetts; Africa has no monopoly on exploitative educators.)

In other cases, due to the awful combination of low teacher salaries and various school fees, some teachers demand extra payments from students in order to pass them.

Survival solution. Again, I urge you not to attempt to address this problem alone. Clancy Brown, teaching in Mozambique, discussed the issue with a local counterpart and planned to work with a group of female students to develop skits that would prepare them to respond if they were pressured for sex. Don’t assume that the leadership of the school will automatically take the side of the student. You may find support from nonprofits in the country where you are working, or from local faith based organizations.

6) You are completely unprepared for the teaching you are assigned. I think all of us who teach have had a few moments in the classroom where we look out at the enthusiastic (or threatening) faces of our students and feel less than fully competent. But some teachers are promised training, then are dumped in the classroom with absolutely no preparation. Others prepare to teach adults and find themselves in a room full of 5-year-olds.

Survival strategy: Find a mentor, and quick. Not all your fellow teachers will want to share the tricks of the trade, but you should be able to find one or two to help you out. I find that observing other teachers has been the best way for me to sharpen my own teaching skills; see if another teacher will let you sit in the corner and watch her teach. Dave’s ESL caf´┐Ż has some wonderful, creative ideas for novice teachers. You might also consider signing up for an online teaching certificate program that you can learn at the same time as you are teaching.

7) You fall in love (or is it lust?). Why is falling in love a worst case scenario? Because the fairy tale love story, in the context of international volunteering, usually has a bad ending. Here are a few:

Tanya was teaching in Botswana with a volunteer organization. She fell deeply in love with a local man, Charles, and entered a sexual relationship. A few months later she came down with a raging fever, blistering rash, and a full body infection that would not respond to antibiotics. Tanya was evacuated from the country. Botswana has one of the highest HIV rates in the world. Turns out she “just” had herpes. She never saw Charles again; their love was not strong enough to survive the distrust, trauma, and distance.

Rachel, 22, worked as a dance teacher in West Africa, where she met Zakar, a charming, intelligent, handsome drumming instructor. They married and got a visa for Zakar to come to the US. But the cultural trauma of living in the U.S., far from family and without English skills, drove him into a depression. He was unable to find work. Rachel realized that her affection for him was situational, and ended up divorcing him – against his wishes.

Survival strategy: Falling in love (or lust) with someone does not mean you have to take any action on your feelings. In most cases, I urge you to suffer in silence. Write in your journal. Take a cold shower. Avoid your crush.

If the person in question is single, not your student, of legal age, culturally appropriate, educationally, linguistically, and spiritually compatible with you, does not have addiction problems, and understands that a relationship with you will probably leave her with a damaged reputation, perhaps you could date. But I would estimate that fewer than 1% of these relationships end well, and the rest leave a trail of illness, broken hearts, ruined reputations, and disease. Same sex relationships can have all the same complications with the added challenge of rabid and even violent homophobia.

I do know a handful of people (1%) who ended up in the happy; they all started things off gradually. If you do enter a relationship, take things VERY slowly; aim for friendships first. Of course in some countries, friendships between men and women are rare and difficult; take the time to get to know local norms before you make any moves.

Be aware of the power dynamics within your relationship and the already tainted view people may have of international visitors who enter relationships with locals. Aim to minimize harm to your partner if things do not work out.

Top 10 Tips to Avoid the Worst Case Scenarios Teaching Overseas

Please don’t let these worst case scenarios scare you from teaching overseas. An ounce of prevention can help you avoid the nightmares and have a powerful, memorable, positive experience as an international teacher.

  1. Read all the articles you can about teaching at Transitions Abroad and search the discussion boards at Dave’s ESL café.
  2. Talk to current international teachers at the school. Do not sign a contract at a school unless you have spoken with a current (or recent) international teacher there. If the school will not share contact info for a current teacher, you should assume there is something they are trying to hide.
  3. Always have a Plan B. Plan your options in advance—transfer to a different school, travel instead of working, return home.
  4. Get training and placement assistance from a legitimate TEFL/TOSEL certificate program; it will be worth the investment! In person training is best, but at least get online training.
  5. Consider working with a headhunter or going with a placement program such as World Teach, Cross Cultural Solutions, or Peace Corps—these organizations will provide training and support if things go sour.
  6. Get a written contract in English.
  7. Make a list of contact information for your embassy, expats, and locals you trust in case of emergency.
  8. If you have a track record of unhealthy relationships, get into therapy or a 12-step program and get some recovery under your belt before you go overseas. Please do not impose your dysfunctional personality on students in another country; you may cause more damage that you know.
  9. Check out Susan Griffith’s wonderful book, Teaching English Abroad.
  10. Be prepared. Read as much as you can about the country where you plan to teach, and communicate with expats—you can find international teachers in most countries through their blogs.

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