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5 Things I Learned While Teaching Abroad

This post is contributed by Christy Campbell, a SPS Featured Blogger.

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I’ve spent the last decade finding myself abroad.

And yes, I mean that in the figurative and literal sense of the word.

While I have yet to join a circus, I’ve come close to holding as many titles as one can in the last decade: from study abroad student to international fellow to foreign intern to global business owner. I certainly don’t have any of these positions mastered, but I figured I could share a few things I’ve learned along the way.

So pull up a chair and join me over the next six months as I share my story and insights with you. Oh, and totally feel free to take notes.


I remember coming home from my study abroad semester in China already mentally planning my return. I still had a year and a half before I graduated, but there was little doubt in my mind that I’d be back on a plane and heading East the minute I had my diploma in hand.

As an Asian Studies and Political Science student I hadn’t quite figured where my degree would take me but I was pretty sure it didn’t include teaching verb conjugations and instructing on poetic meters. In other words, moving overseas to teach English was not on my to-do list.

But when graduation came around, I had been awarded a fellowship to return to China and, you guessed it, teach English.

In all honesty, it seemed like a pretty cushy setup: my airfare and housing were covered, I’d receive a modest stipend and I had little to do other than pack my bags and show up. Which is exactly what I did. Thankfully, it was everything I expected: carefree, adventurous, easy.

And then class started…

teaching English

In the years since, I’ve sworn to everyone, “I am not a teacher”, referencing my disastrous year in front of a college classroom. But what I’ve slowly come to realize over the years is that I actually do love to teach. Who would have thought?

So then what made that experience so awkward and… unfulfilling? After mulling it over a bit, here are the conclusions I’ve come to and hopefully they’ll be helpful to you as well if you plan to teach English (or anything) in a foreign culture.

 1) Be Prepared

Just because you speak English and have been a student at some point in your life does not actually qualify you to teach. (Seriously, I wish someone would have thrown their hands in the air and shouted this at me before I took that fellowship.)

That being said, I truly believe that you have the ability to help someone get from where they are to where you are in a particular area. But like I said, just because you know how to do something, does not mean you can teach it well.

So roll up your sleeves and do the work to become a teacher: read up on teaching methods, get TESOL certified, mentor under an ESL teacher at your local literacy center. Do your best to prepare because you never know how much (or how little) training you’ll receive upon arrival.

2) Speak, Listen, Rinse and Repeat

As a native English teacher, you bring something to the table that your students’ local teachers cannot: your native language skills. While teaching grammar and spelling is important, your students can learn this from a text book, computer program or non-native teacher.

You have the opportunity to chat with your students, to engage them in conversation and to gently work out the kinks as you go. Even if you’ve been given a curriculum to follow, do your best to speak and listen, speak and listen, speak and listen, as much as you can with your students. I believe this is one of the best things you can offer.

3) Understand the Academic Culture

This was my biggest strike when it came to teaching. I marched into my classroom, armed with my Western understanding of education and had zero idea that my students might learn in an entirely different way.

In case you didn’t know, Chinese education has about as much similarity to the engaged, question-everything environment I was brought up in as a cactus has to an ostrich. Coaxing participation out of my students was a little bit like pulling teeth and challenging them to even care about the assignments I was dolling out was akin to pulling out my own teeth. It was a torturous year for all of us.

4) Make Allies

I believe this is true for any situation you find yourself in, but get to know the other faculty and find allies: both other foreign teachers who know the ropes as well as local teachers who will let you observe their own classes. I had a sad and truly lonely first semester because I was too shy to approach other teachers and failed to appreciate the importance of gaining allies at work.

My best advice: Make friends fast. That should be a bumper sticker.

5) Have Fun

By the middle of my second semester, I had slowly begun to realize that if I was slogging through teaching, my students would slog through learning. While you should absolutely do your best, not only for the sake of whoever hired you but also for the sake of your students, don’t forget to have fun. Fun teachers are good teachers in my book.

I was so busy trying to be serious and be taken seriously that I forgot that we all, no matter the culture, learn best through play. So lighten up and have some fun already! You and your students will have a better year because of it, trust me.

We had the best few last weeks when laughter came back to our classroom. It was so good, I almost considered staying on a second year…almost.

Have you taught English abroad? I’d love to hear how it went for you and what wisdom you could share!