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9 Lies People Tell Themselves Before Teaching Abroad

Student Work
by Amy Scheiner Nov 3, 2014
1. Teaching will be a breeze.

You’re thinking, “I already speak English so this’ll be a piece of cake!”(Good idiom to use in class by the way). In reality, speaking English is in a whole different universe to teaching English. Most native English speakers never learned grammar rules the way ESL students do. Can you explain the difference between “which” versus “that” or when to use “I will” versus “I’m going to?” You’ll find yourself learning a lot more of your own language than you ever did when you were in school.

Also, for Americans out there, most schools around the world learn British English, so you’ll need to speak in a posh accent, use “lift’ instead of “elevator,” and learn to tweak your spelling. (Just kidding about the accent).

2. You’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Don’t get me wrong; schools are very appreciative that you’re there. Native English speakers are in high demand and both teachers and students are glad you can help them learn this universal language.

However, don’t expect that everyone will fawn over your “exotic” foreignness (surely there are some people who think Americans and Brits are exotic?). The teachers are extremely busy and the students are more concerned with trading Pokémon cards or playing soccer.

Sometimes the teachers may not even be comfortable speaking English to you, and they’ll be hesitant to approach you. You might need to make the first move.

3. You’ll better your foreign language skills.

You’re hired to speak English so that’s what you’ll do. Don’t expect to practice your Spanish, Korean, or Greek during your working hours. The schools want their students to fully engage with a native English speaker…so if you’re looking to better your skills, try a language exchange or taking classes. If you’re working with younger students, you’ll probably be expected to act like you can’t understand anything they say in their native language (even if you do).

4. The teacher is always right.

If your job is to work alongside an English teacher who isn’t a native speaker, you might be surprised to learn that the teacher’s English isn’t perfect. It’s not uncommon to see the teacher use incorrect grammar or mispronounce words in front of the class.

When I was working with a second grade Spanish teacher, I was surprised when I heard her explain that “this” and “these” were pronounced the same way. Most teachers welcome corrections, and after all, that’s why you’re there. This second grade teacher was really grateful that I fixed her mistake. However, I would suggest pulling him or her aside to explain away from an audience.

5. You’re always right.

It’s easy to forget that cultural differences extend to the classroom. Discipline especially varies all over the world. Some schools are overly strict and regimented and may scorn kids for speaking in their native language, whereas others are more relaxed and children are on a first name basis with their teachers. It can be difficult to follow the customs and rules of schools abroad, but it’s important to remember that you’re on their terrain, and even if you don’t always agree you need to respect that things work differently.

6. You’ll have everything you need.

Depending on the country and its economy, you may be dealing with a lack of supplies that you’re commonly accustomed to having in the English-speaking world. Some schools may have outdated textbooks or one piece of chalk for the blackboard. Some might not even have a blackboard.

This will force you to get creative with how you approach a lesson, and make you more appreciative of those Lisa Frank notebooks you had in primary school. It’s also useful to bring teaching materials from your home country. Kids may only recognize Halloween and Thanksgiving from the movies, so be sure to pack a trick-or-treat bag and a pilgrim hat if you hail from the US.

7. You can come to work after a night out.

Living abroad means experiencing all aspects of the culture, including the nightlife. But don’t think that means you can come to school hungover and smelling like alcohol. Teaching is a job, and like any job in any country, it’s meant to be taken seriously.

8. You’ll be rolling in dough.

False. Sure, there are stories of ESL teachers in South Korea and Qatar saving up to $20,000 a year, but teachers around the world are generally underpaid and undervalued. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to make enough to live comfortably, but a lot of teachers take various private lessons outside of school or side jobs to make rent, save money, or to travel.

9. It’s just a job.

I chose to teach English in Madrid as a means to travel and deter the inevitability of “growing up.” I didn’t expect to become invested in my job, but then I also didn’t expect my sixth graders to be a constant source of laughter. I learned from them as much as they learned from me, and the relationships I now have with my students and other teachers are one of the best parts of living abroad.

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