Five Important Lessons I Learned from Working Overseas as an English Teacher

Travel and Its Lessons – Photo by Yousef Alfuhigi for Unsplash

“I read, I travel, I become.”
– Derek Walcott

Some Famous Leaders and Writers Who’ve Taught in Foreign Countries

In many ways, Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott’s statement above is a perfect way to sum up his life and career. Born in the Caribbean and steeped in the rich literary traditions of the West, Walcott’s restlessness prompted him to a lifelong journey of self-discovery through exile and travel. Walcott’s idea of coming into an understanding of self through reading and extensive travelling is one that anyone who has taught English as a Foreign Language abroad can identify with. It’s certainly one that well-known figures like J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and Edward Norton could attest to. All of them taught English in foreign countries at early stages in their lives. There’s no doubt that the experience of teaching English internationally can help to expand a person’s horizons. But the extent to which international EFL jobs can often contribute to people’s future success usually goes unnoticed.

My Personal Experiences Working in Various Foreign Countries as an English Teacher

Back in the late 1990s, I was working in the CBC Radio Newsroom, but in the evenings and on my weekends, I studied to get a TEFL diploma. I was eager to get out of Canada and see the world outside of the West. I got a teaching job at a college in upcountry Thailand. For the next ten years or so, I’d go on to teach at universities in Thailand and the Middle East. I also took the opportunity to travel to as many countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe as I could.

Those were years of self-discovery and challenges. I helped build English programs, created courses in literature and integrated humanities, and ran English language courses at hospitals, weekend camps, and army bases. On many occasions, I felt frustrated with the long teaching days, overcrowded classrooms, frequent lack of adequate teaching resources, and the culture shock. But through it all, I learned to come up with solutions and keep my students engaged.

It was also a time of great professional growth. I’d attend many TEFL conferences and workshops, where I’d share ideas with colleagues, learn about new teaching approaches, swap travel stories, and make new friends. These were international colleagues from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Malaysia, and other parts of Southeast Asia, as well fellow expats from the UK, Canada, Australia, the US, and other Western countries.

Throughout my time as an EFL teacher, I can honestly say I’ve learned many more lessons from my experiences living in different countries and adapting to different cultures than I’ve taught.

The Five Main Lessons I’ve Learned from Being an EFL Teacher Abroad
If I were to list the lessons I learned during my time as an EFL teacher abroad which have had the biggest impact on my later life, it would be the five which follow.

1.You Never Really Lose the Feeling of Being an Imposter
Years before getting my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate, a friend who’d taught abroad assured me that I wouldn’t need any qualifications. The mere fact that I’d been writing, reading, and speaking English my whole life was all the certification I needed. How wrong she was. For most college and university TEFL positions, having a certificate from a recognised TEFL institution is mandatory.

Moreover, the certificate is just one part of the equation: an EFL teacher is expected not merely to keep discipline in the classroom but to also empathise with the students, to be “sanuk” (fun), and a repository of energetic, interactive, student-centred classroom activities. On top of these teaching expectations, an EFL teacher had better have some familiarity with the nuts and bolts of English grammar because during office hours your local teaching colleagues would come to you with their questions on intricate points of English grammar.

And even in spite of mastering all these responsibilities, you never quite shake the sense of being an imposter in the world of international English language teaching.

2.There’s No Single “Right” Teaching Style

One of the first lessons I learned while teaching EFL abroad is that people in different places have very different reasons for learning English. At the first college where I taught in upcountry Thailand, for example, many of the young undergraduates needed to learn English for work in the tourist industry, others hoped to leverage it for a chance of lucrative employment at a Thai-based multi-national company, while others hoped to use it in their family businesses, which catered to an international clientele. For students at the more prestigious Bangkok universities where I taught, English was a mere stepping stone to international scholarships to Western universities and possible careers in medicine, finance, or the diplomatic corps. Yet to the business professionals taking continuing education classes at the same universities in the evenings, English was the ticket to career advancement in the companies.

Meanwhile, at the expensive university where I taught in status-conscious UAE, English cemented one’s place in the higher managerial or business-owner classes. And so, with all this in mind, when you teach English abroad, you need to learn how to adjust your teaching methods and expectations to your students’ needs. Students for whom English can bring real material improvements to their lives, appreciate an empathetic, supportive, yet rigorous approach. While those whose social position is more secure expect a slightly more lenient approach.

3. You Will Always Be an Outsider or Foreigner – Embrace It

Moving to another country is a strange experience. When I first moved to upcountry Thailand, the first thing I had to get used to was people openly staring at me. I looked different from everyone else, so people’s curiosity was partly understandable. But after a while, the incessant and blatant staring became annoying. I’d step out of my apartment on my way to work, and it would feel as if I was walking out on stage. All eyes were on me, watching my every action. That feeling of always being on display was less intense when I lived in the Middle East, but even there, I never lost the sense of being an outsider.

Being an EFL teacher abroad means that you’re always an outsider, and you simply have to get used to it. But being a perpetual outsider has its benefits. For one thing, once you lose your self-consciousness, you realise that as a foreigner you have permission to be curious and to express your curiosity. You can use this opportunity to ask local people about everyday things that they take for granted. You’re free to explore (avoiding places of military or religious sensitivity, of course), get lost, and to ask random questions. People won’t get offended. Most often, they’ll be flattered by your interest. In spite of my difference, I’ve learned that in most of the places where I’ve travelled, the universal rule of civility still applies: if you treat people respectfully, they tend to respond in kind.

4. You Can Adapt

During my first year abroad, although I didn’t feel much homesickness, I did get very lonely. Initially, it was tough to make friends, especially since I was living in a town where there were few other foreigners let alone English speakers. After I started learning Thai, and I got to know some other expatriates, I started to make friends – both Thais and non-Thais. I was also befriended by some of my students – some of whom I’m still in contact with even today. The sense of isolation was a little less intense when I moved to the United Arab Emirates. But by then, I was much more used to my own company and more capable of handling being lonely. The key realisation you have in terms of your adaptation is that you yourself are responsible for your well-being.

But at the same time, you know you should keep yourself receptive to friendly overtures from those around you. Wonderful and interesting people often enter your life when you least expect it. I learned to pay attention to the social cues of a different culture and got used to the art of reorienting myself. Each time I moved, I was able to readjust my life habits to my new environment and the people in it. It was a difficult and sometimes painful process. But through frequent exposure to situations like these, you develop a new kind of situational and self-awareness. And you do adapt.

5. Don’t Vent or Give in to Negativity
The experience of working abroad in an unfamiliar culture can often be stressful. As well as needing to pay careful attention to sometimes enigmatic social cues, you must sometimes deal with cultural misunderstandings. You may inadvertently misread a situation and cause offence, or someone may do something that strikes you as rude or inconsiderate. I’ve already mentioned how I had to get used to people’s non-stop staring at me. There were times when meeting up with a fellow expat truly felt like a respite from the relentless bombardment of confusing data from the foreign culture. You feel you need to vent your pent-up frustrations with your job and the surrounding culture to a fellow expat.

And sometimes doing that can truly give you a sense of relief. However, the danger comes when these venting sessions just become an excuse to indulge in whining or preoccupation with the negative. This sort of talk can very soon devolve into a kind of emotional crutch, which can in turn begin to colour the way you perceive your experiences living within the foreign culture. If you find yourself in this sort of negative headspace, remember that you only want to relieve your pent-up stress and then move on. You don’t want to dwell on the negative experiences of life. You want to reorient your attitude and frame of mind to a positive direction that will help you successfully adapt to the foreign culture.

Working Abroad Opens Doors – in Life and within the Mind

Although I had no hesitation about adding my EFL teaching experiences to my resume, the fact is that the real benefits of teaching EFL abroad didn’t become apparent to me until years after returning home. My years abroad don’t appear to have given me an obvious edge when competing in the job market as some might claim. However, they have definitely allowed me to develop solid professional skills such as the abilities to communicate effectively, to collaborate on complex projects with diverse ranges of people, to plan projects, to manage large groups of people, and to write and create content that engages a wide audience.

But apart from these hard professional skills, the most impactful benefits I’ve gained from teaching English in international settings are ones that are less easy to measure: adaptability, self-regulation, resilience, and cultural awareness. Each of these subtler skills, I believe will play an increasingly more important role in the future work market.

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