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What I Learned from Life as an English Teacher Overseas

Posted on May 12, 2016

John Dewey famously said: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”. While school’s a great place for questions to get answered and for answers to get questioned, it’s not the only place where people learn. Anyone can learn anywhere, so anyone can teach anywhere.

It was with this attitude that I left home nearly a decade ago, starting my career as an English teacher abroad. I’ve taught students in Japan, and it’s been a truly instructive experience. Teaching abroad isn’t a one-way educational street. In fact, I think I learned more lessons than I actually taught during my time as an English teacher.


About Being a Teacher

Being a Native English Speaker Does not a Teacher Make

At first, I thought that being an English teacher would take zero effort. I’ve been writing, reading, and speaking English my whole life. How hard could it be? Not as easy as I thought. To be an English teacher abroad, you’d typically need some sort of certification, like an IELTS or TEFL certificate, which involves taking an exam. Thankfully, I found a program that didn't require me to possess one, since I played more of an Assistant instructor role. But for most Teaching Abroad opportunities, having a certificate (or not) is just one piece of the puzzle; as a language teacher, you also need other skills, like being able to empathize with students, being sensitive to their needs, and being able to maintain discipline in the classroom.

There’s No One “Right” Teaching Style

From my experience, I’ve learned that the main purpose of English schools differs from place to place. In Africa, English is taught mainly as charity work, giving students education that they mostly don’t have access to. In Korea and Japan, English schools are a supplement to “normal” school: parents pay good money to send their children to English schools (“hagwon” in Korea, “eikaiwa” in Japan) so they have an advantage in school and later in life. So when you teach English abroad, you’ve got to adjust based on students’ needs. Students who need just a basic education require a sympathetic teaching style, while those looking for a competitive edge need a stricter, but still supportive, approach.

Even Fluent Students Can Be Very Difficult to Teach

Students in hagwons and eikaiwas can demand a lot of your attention. It’s understandable since they’re honors-class students who want to do better all the time. For instance, if you don’t tell them how to improve their English essay (because sometimes, you literally can’t find anything wrong with it), their parents will insist that you have to teach them something. So you have to go over the assignment again, nitpicking for anything the student can improve on, even if it requires referring to the most obscure grammar rules. I only had one or two cases like this, but it was definitely one of the most challenging situations I had to deal with as a teacher.

About Being a Foreigner

People are All Different, and That’s Okay


It was always strange to move to another country. I looked different from everyone else, so people tended to either stare or obviously avoid looking at me. Being an English teacher abroad means that you’re an outsider. I saw that as a limitation at first, but in time, I learned that it could be very liberating. I had license to ask locals questions about the most mundane things. I was free to watch people randomly for no reason at all. From my experience, I learned that it doesn’t matter if you’re different from others, or vice versa. No matter what culture you’re from, people are people, and they tend to treat you as well as you treat them.

You Can Learn from Students, Too

Teaching abroad is fulfilling for me because it offers a chance for students and teachers to educate one another. In a normal school setting, students are typically the recipients of knowledge about a specific subject, and teachers are the suppliers. As an English teacher in a foreign school, though, I have more conversational leeway with my students. I can ask them to recommend good places to eat, or ask them what their lives are like. I can talk with them about practically anything, and it gives me a chance to learn from them. And in my experience, students are more comfortable with teachers when they can have natural conversations.

Home is What You Make It

The first year after I left home to teach English abroad was tough. I missed my family, I missed my friends, and I just felt generally homesick. But after a while, I got over it. Part of it was being able to keep in touch via social media and other messaging platforms, but most of it was just realizing that I could be at home wherever I wanted. I could make new friends, and I could build new connections. I could have fun experiences with students and co-teachers, and I could find aspects of my host country’s culture that I could enjoy (I was living high on karaoke and ramen at one point). I still missed home, but missing it shouldn’t let you miss out on the joys of traveling.

About Growing Up

Adaptation Takes Awareness

As a foreigner teaching abroad, experience has taught me that you can’t rely on a formula to get through life. I didn’t realize how much I depended on habits and routine until I went to a different country for the first time. Everything was unfamiliar, and I had to really pay attention to reorient myself. I had to figure out what the fair price for food and lodging was, how long it takes to go to work and what time I had to leave home to get there, and so on. Each time I moved, I had to recalibrate my life habits to adjust to my new environment, so I had to really observe my surroundings. It was a difficult process, but it gave me a new kind of perceptiveness and situational awareness that I could not have gotten through any other experience.

Independence Takes a Lot of Discipline


If someone asked me, “what is the value of teaching abroad?”, one of the first things I’d tell him is that it teaches you what independence is really about. Growing up, I thought that being independent meant that you got to do what you want, period. During my time teaching overseas, I learned that it actually means you have to be a lot more responsible. You have to keep track of your finances, you have to manage your time well, you have to be on top of any requirements you may need to submit as a foreigner teaching abroad, and on and on. Life as an international teacher can get really frustrating, sure, but it lets me travel the world and meet lots of awesome people.

Solitude Can Be Healthy

My life over the past decade has been pretty solitary. I make friends and keep in touch, sure, but I don’t have very close friends the way I did in high school or college. To other people, that may sound sad. But it’s actually very fulfilling. I can travel and explore as much as I want (or at least, as much as I can afford to). I can try loads of new things without worrying about whether other people would approve. I’m a writer, so being alone also gives me time to meditate and be creative. So I don’t see myself in a state of solitary confinement; it feels more like solitary liberty to me.

About Being a Professional

Venting Sessions Can Be a Crutch

Working abroad is very tough, and you just need to be able to vent your frustrations with the job sometimes. Having a rant session with a group of co-teachers at the end of a tiring week is a great way to de-stress and socialize at the same time. The thing is, if you get too bogged down in negative talk, it can color your perception and your attitude. So I’ve learned to draw the line between ranting to decompress and just wallowing in negativity. If I feel like the group is starting to cross the line, I try to steer the conversation to a more positive direction.

You Need to Be Committed

A lot of people who choose to teach English abroad are not very passionate about the job. They just want to use it as a chance to travel or see the world, then quit. Because of that, the turnover for English teaching jobs abroad can be pretty high, which translates into a lot of demand for new teachers. That can seem like a good thing for those of us who want the job, but when unmotivated teachers are hired, students get half-baked education. They get advanced to higher levels even though they’re not ready, and you’ve got to be prepared to help those kids catch up. Thankfully, I didn’t see this happen often, but it happens more often than it should. It just goes to show: whatever job you do, be prepared to commit to it 100% because your performance affects others.

Going Offshore Opens Doors

Professionals in Conference Room

I didn’t realize this when I started, but teaching abroad programs are actually a good thing to add to your resume. When you apply for any job, you’re competing against other applicants who probably have a college degree, just like you do. You need to have an edge, something to put you head and shoulders above the rest. I’ve learned many hard lessons teaching abroad. It’s definitely not for everyone. But I think everyone who goes through it becomes better for the experience. It’s a life-changing, character-building journey, and many employers will recognize that for sure. I’m not ready to stop teaching yet, but it feels nice knowing I’ve got that going for me when I move on.

Author: Trixie Cordova

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