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Teaching English Abroad: What to Expect, How to Prepare

Realistic expectations, a good educational background, involvement in professional organizations, and a genuine desire to help pave the way to the rich rewards that can come from teaching English abroad.

Teaching English abroad in China The author giving a lecture on cultural diversity to Chinese English Teachers in Nanjing, China.

Myths and Realities

"Hey, you don’t even need a degree to get a good job. Schools will accept anyone who speaks English."

I’ve heard this statement many times before, but before you launch into a career in the field of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) you should ask yourself some important questions:

1. What are you looking for in a career in TESOL?

First you have to determine your options and what interests you most. Talk to people in the field: your teachers, former graduates, and colleagues you might meet online. One place to explore options is an online jobs forum like Dave's ESL Cafe Job Discussion Forums. Teachers and students from around the world post messages about potential job opportunities based on their experiences.

Next find out whether there is a market for the skills you want to acquire in the part of the world where you want to live. You have to be prepared to go where the jobs are.

Keep in mind that any job could lead you to other rewarding experiences that you hadn’t planned for. Over the past decade, I have been fortunate to have traveled (because of my work in Web-based language learning and technology) to Canada, China, Europe, Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and throughout the US. In these travels, I have met many wonderful people and have been able to share many things with them. Few professions give you opportunities to be a part of other cultures to the degree that TESOL does.
Teaching English abroad in China The author teaching children.

2. Are you mentally prepared for teaching overseas?

Too often, teachers who go to another country soon return home disenchanted because things did not turn out the way they expected. While the employer bears some of the responsibility for preparing the new recruit, this does not exempt the employee from gathering as much information as possible about the host country and the place where they will work. Study up and consider the following:

Anyone can teach English abroad. Until recently, this was true. Many foreign schools and companies, seeking to take advantage of the boom in students interested in learning English, tended to hire anyone who could speak English or had any post-secondary education. However, since the profession has come into its own and more qualified teachers are available finding a good job with no qualification is no longer a sure thing.

Go with a purpose in mind. Teachers who have clear professional goals and can sustain themselves by nurturing their professionalism through outside activities and (and don’t blame the foreign culture for personal misfortunes) have the best chance of a successful teaching experience.

Learn to expect the unexpected. I have found that no matter how well I planned things out, there were always a few surprises. For example, I have sometimes been asked to carry out additional teaching or administrative duties beyond the stipulations of my contract (this could happen anywhere). Under some situations, teachers who are willing to contribute beyond these contractual boundaries will be well rewarded by the company for which they are working.

Speaking of flexibility, teachers may become perplexed because their attempts to initiate positive change are sometimes misinterpreted or shunned. Remember that resistance to change is often the result of underlying cultural factors that we are not aware of. Therefore teachers have to approach a new teaching situation with their eyes and ears open and be patient for their ideas to take root.

Study the language and culture of the host country. Although many training programs focus on the linguistic elements of the profession, an equally compelling reason should lead us to focus attention on diversity training to help teachers in the acculturation process they will need to undergo in a foreign land. Teachers themselves should make an earnest attempt to learn something about cultural adjustment and training that will lead to successful experiences abroad. Learning the language is a key step to adjustment, so you are able to become an active participant in everyday life. Tapping into what is "hot" and "what's not" with our students shows them we are not removed spectators.

Contribute to the local culture through volunteer, social, and educational activities: So much could be said about a teacher’s involvement in the lives of the people beyond the day-to-day teaching responsibilities at work. When we lived in Japan, our family enjoyed serving in a local Japanese church even though we didn’t speak the language in the beginning. We also enrolled our children in local Japanese public schools so they could develop friendships with children in the area and understand the culture in which they lived.

3. How can I better prepare myself to teach overseas?

You can start planning for the future even during the first year of your program. Here is a brief list of possibilities, with references for each:

Read up on the profession. Understand what kinds of opportunities are available. Make sure you know the qualifications for specific jobs. Here are some of the best places to begin your homework:

Starting Your Career in TESOL and many other resources.

Dave's ESL Cafe Job Discussion Forums

Become an active member of TESOL and your local affiliate. Volunteer. Attend a conference. Give a presentation on any teaching idea you have. Getting your face out there is important as you prepare for your job search, and you can do this by becoming involved in a local TESOL society or organization. Because many conference attendees are looking for practical ideas for the classroom, you (or perhaps a group of TESL colleagues) could present some teaching ideas on any of the skills areas (e.g., how to use comic strips to teach listening and speaking skills). In addition to seeing your name on the conference program, you can add this presentation to your résumé.

Find out what jobs are available where you want to go. Talk to people. Ask questions. Consider all possibilities. A number of websites carry information about jobs overseas, but try to talk personally with people who have spent time in the field. Remember that each person’s experience will be colored by their own expectations, perceptions of the world, and their working situations.

Editor's note: You can find job search resources on our section of theĀ best websites for TESL.

Publish an article in a newsletter, magazine, or journal. If you have been a student of TESL or other related study, what are you going to do with all those papers you wrote for your university classes? Why not put them to work for you? Often, students don’t see the potential usefulness of their ideas — a teaching tip or article that educators are looking for to spice up their classes.

A good place to begin is to write a book review. Many TESL-related journals and magazines encourage and welcome submissions from students as well.

Besides sharing your ideas with others, you can add this effort to your résumé. Few recently-graduated students or other prospective teachers will have done this, so publishing can set you apart from the crowd.

Work toward advancing your degree if TESOL is your goal. Having a bachelor’s degree in TESL or in any other field is usually the minimum requirement for teaching jobs in most countries and a master’s in TESL or a related field is needed for some jobs, particularly in higher education. There are a variety of options for securing an MA. Distance learning is becoming a realistic choice for many who are working overseas, far away from schools that offer such degrees. Consult TESOL Graduate Schools for more information.

Prepare yourself for your job search. Despite the best preparation, a poor interview can jeopardize your chances of landing your ideal job. Editor's note: please see The TEFL Job Interview: The Ten Most Important Questions to Ask for more.

A career in a TESL-related field can be extremely satisfying. You can have a meaningful impact on so many lives. Understanding the profession and preparing yourself adequately for an overseas position will go a long way to ensuring positive experiences for you and your students. Good luck.

A section of the text above came from an earlier article published by Randall Davis in the TESOL EFL-Interest Newsletter.

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