I headed abroad to start my first teaching job five years ago, but in many ways it seems like it was only yesterday. Everything was rather a last-minute decision, which resulted in applying for and receiving my visa, purchasing my plane tickets and boarding my first ever flight all in the space of a week. I spent much of that week frantically searching the internet for packing lists, looking to both procrastinate and bolster my own ignorance with someone else’s know-how. After all, how do you pack everything you will need for 9 months of your life into a grand total of two suitcases?
Many language schools will have a dress code for teachers, and it’s wise to check this out before you leave. If it isn’t included in your contract or any teachers’ handbook materials you may have been sent, email and ask. First thing’s first, when it comes to packing clothes, think variety. Some more formal things, some more casual things, clothes for a variety of different weathers. Always take one outfit of smart clothing – most language schools will have some in-company classes, where you will go to a business and teach the students while they are at work. For these classes, standard office wear applies, including for the teacher!
Layers are also the way to go. Certainly in Russia and the Czech Republic buildings tend to be hugely overheated (at least by UK standards) and it’s not uncommon to be teaching in short sleeves, even when the outside temperature is in the minuses. If you only take thick warm clothes, you will boil.
Lastly, if you are travelling somewhere with a very different climate to your home country (particularly if you are unfamiliar with it), err on the side of caution. The same applies to different cultures. During my first year in Russia I ended up with an almost completely new wardrobe – and not just because I like shopping! A combination of the different climate and culture meant that most of my British clothes were either inappropriate or simply just stood out like a sore thumb.
One of the most valuable things I have in my teaching toolkit is my actual physical toolkit – the collection of ‘stuff’ that I’ve built up over the last few years. Some of the things I use most frequently are: a cuddly toy, several dice (take extra as they will go missing), story cubes (see here to find out what they are and for some ideas on how to use them in class), and a small collection of realia – things like leaflets, takeaway menus, or postcards from your home country.
Before teaching abroad I was well and truly in the ‘books are superior’ camp. However, I caved and bought a kindle in the week before starting my TEFL adventure, and I can honestly say it’s been some of the best money I’ve ever spent. How easy it is to get English-language books varies greatly from country to country, and city to city. It’s also something that’s relatively tricky to find out before you go, as one person’s idea of ‘a good selection of English language books’ might be very different to yours! Whatever your sentiments about kindles and the like, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend one to TEFL teachers, as they mean you have a guaranteed way of purchasing English language books wherever you are in the world. An e-reader also takes up minimal space in your luggage, meaning that you are neither weighed down by books, nor are going to have to face waving goodbye to a carefully amassed collection at the end of your contract should you choose to head to another country or even back home. They’re also far cheaper than they used to be, which gives you no excuse!
I have to admit that I tend to forget this one. However, as soon as you sit down to start lesson planning in preparation for your first day’s teaching, it can be a bit of a problem if you realise that you don’t have a pen, pencil, or any paper! Most language schools will provide their teachers with board markers, so don’t worry about those, but I’d recommend taking at least a couple of pens, a small notebook, and maybe a pack of felt-tips if you’re likely to be teaching young learners. (If you’re unsure if you will be teaching young learners or not, assume you will be and take them anyway). Language schools often don’t pay until mid-way through the second month of the academic year, so if you don’t have to spend your precious money on stationery in September, your bank balance will thank you.
EDIT: I have had several people remind me that blutack is a must – for whatever reason it seems to be hard/impossible to come by abroad. Leaving it off this list was a grave oversight: the same grave oversight I make every time I pack my bags!
Credit on your phone
Some schools are fantastic and will ensure you have an internet connection up and running in your flat for when you arrive (shout-out to AKCENT IH Prague). Others might be a bit less helpful! You’ll almost certainly acquire a sim card within the first couple of days of being abroad – but chances are that you will be using your home mobile number to tide you over until then. Having credit (and knowing how to top it up from abroad) will save you a lot of hassle.
Adaptors, adaptors, adaptors. I can’t stress enough how vital these are. I honestly can’t imagine anything worse than arriving to start a new job, only to realise that you have no way of plugging in or charging any electronic devices! In the UK it’s pretty easy to find an adaptor to allow you to plug any kind of plug into a UK socket – in other countries, at least in my experience, it’s pretty tough! My personal prefered option is to take a couple of adaptors, but also to take a surge protector power strip. It’ll mean that you only need one adaptor and access to one socket, but that you can then plug in multiple devices at the same time – and you won’t need to worry about putting adaptors onto every charger you own.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s standard practice to start teaching at the beginning of September – but to not receive your first paycheck until mid-October. That means that money tends to be pretty tight for that first month, especially if you need to buy a new mobile or sim card, set up an internet connection etc. In my experience, during that first month there are always unexpected costs. If at all possible, budget a little more than you think you are likely to need – but it can also make life that little more pleasant if you take a few home comforts with you (and then you won’t be tempted to buy them!) They’ll be different for everyone, but personally I always take a big bar of Galaxy chocolate, some cute socks, and some Twinings herbal teabags.
…and what not to take…
Unless you know that you will be teaching in a remote school in the middle of a jungle, the chances are that your school will have resources. They will have a copy of ‘Practical English Usage’ by Michael Swan, ‘How to Teach English’ by Jeremy Harmer, and ‘English Grammar in Use’ by Raymond Murphy (aka the three CELTA/Trinity Bibles). Speaking as someone who carefully took Murphy 1,500 miles only to never use her own copy – books are heavy, bulky, and take up space in your suitcase. You do not need to take coursebooks/grammar reference books with you.
I know that this is likely to be extremely unpopular with many of my female readers, and I freely admit that I am perhaps atypical in my disdain for shoes and shoe shopping. However, shoes are bulky. They are heavy. Wear your heaviest/bulkiest pair on the plane, and seriously consider how many pairs you need to take with you. There will be shoe shops in your new country.
Excessively bulky anything
Winter coats, shoes, big winter jumpers – they all take up valuable space and you’re likely to have received a couple of paychecks before you even need them. Likewise, tennis rackets, guitars, yoga mats… take them if they are an integral part of your identity and you will genuinely feel their absence if you don’t have them for a month or so. If it’s just a fleeting interest and you are tempted to pack it ‘just in case’, don’t. If you want something badly enough, the chances are that you will be able to buy it there – probably from a sheepish English teacher who packed it, paid the excess baggage allowance, and then either never used it or didn’t want to pay to take it home again.
Are you just about to head abroad to start a new TEFL adventure? I’d love to hear from you, and am happy to help in any way that I can.