Teaching English Abroad: What if I hate it?

what-if

When I first started teaching abroad, I clung onto my 9 week trial period as if it were a lifebelt. Leaving the UK for Russia at the beginning of October, I figured that in all likelihood I would be home by Christmas. I honestly think that if I’d been told that I’d still be there (happily!) teaching six months later – let alone four years later, I’d have laughed in your face. Looking back, I made my first few weeks as an EFL teacher (and the days leading up to them), far more stressful than they needed to be.

But what if I die?

Let’s start with the biggie – before going abroad, I wish I’d spent less time worrying about ifs and buts – I honestly didn’t need to! Although there are of course horror stories out there (EFL teachers dying in Korea seem to be a common theme), you can also find stories about people killed by tables or pencil sharpeners if you try hard enough. Going abroad to teach is not akin to signing your own death sentence. It’s extremely unlikely that you will be the first teacher ever to go abroad and teach at your school – you will be meeting people who have done exactly the same thing (and survived!) and your school is likely to be used to supporting new teachers and helping them find their feet. Make sure you pack some things from home that will make you feel better, make sure you have some credit on your home mobile phone (and ideally find out how to top up your credit from abroad), and make sure that you have some money with you (if possible in the currency of the country you are going to). A credit card is also a good idea. Know that if you absolutely, completely, 100% hate it, coming home is always an option (but try to make a bargain with yourself that you’ll stick it out for at least x amount of time. Even if the first few hours/days are horrible, it’s unlikely to stay that way).

What if I’m homesick?

Being homesick is completely normal – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’ve always found that one of the best ways to deal with homesickness is to create some elements of ‘home’ in your new country, whilst acknowledging and respecting the differences too.

Just because you’ve gone to a different country, it doesn’t make you a completely different person. Take photos of friends, family and pets with you. Take some treats from your home country (particularly if you’re unsure how easy they will be to buy in your new home). If you have an interest or a hobby that you love, try to find a way of pursuing it in your new country. Whether it’s finding yoga/dance classes in English (often surprisingly easy, particularly in cities where there are lots of expats) or using websites like Couchsurfing or Facebook to find people with similar interests, find your thing! I took ballroom dancing classes and joined an expat church in Russia, and found a Stitch and Bitch group in Prague.

Equally, try not to expect your new country to be exactly like home in every way. There may well be a different climate, different foods, or an altogether different lifestyle. Remember (and if necessary write it somewhere that you can see it every day), all different means is different. Not good, or bad, just different.

What if I miss people from home?

sad-girl

Unless you start your new job with a friend/partner in tow, one of the scariest things about moving abroad is the simple fact of going somewhere where you don’t know anyone. It’s a bit like starting school all over again, with the added worry-factor that the people you meet won’t necessarily speak English. In my first year abroad I spent a lot of time staying up far too late (3am-4am most nights) just to get to chat on Skype with friends back at home. Keeping in contact with people is no bad thing, you’re sure to go back to your home country at some point (even if you become a TEFL lifer!), and you certainly shouldn’t cut yourself from everyone just because you’re in a new country.

However, if you find (as I did) that you’re investing more time in energy in people back at home than you are where you are, you might want to redress that balance. Self-impose an internet curfew, set aside time (for example one weekend day) to be where you are (and go out/spend time with colleagues or new-found friends rather than staying in on your computer). Facebook groups/Couchsurfing/Meet up groups can also come into play here, as they can all help you to meet people and make new friends without staying completely in a TEFL teacher bubble. Just make sure that then you disconnect from the internet for a while and connect with where you actually are.

What if I get sick?

Unfortunately getting sick is a fairly inevitable part of teaching (especially if you’re working with kids, aka tiny germ factories). However, we’re talking little sick, not big sick. When it comes to getting big sick, put your mind at ease before you go by checking out what your school is willing to provide in terms of health insurance (and purchasing your own additional insurance if it’ll reassure you – I always did, although thankfully never needed to use it). Also make sure you get any vaccinations needed before you go if you’re headed anywhere exotic (UK travellers can find out what vaccinations are recommended here).rat

Getting little sick sucks. Stock up on multivitamins (whatever Google may say I’ve always found that they help, even as a placebo!). Look after yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat [relatively] healthily. Do some exercise. Keep an eye on your alcohol consumption (especially if you’re  working in a country where it’s cheap and easily available!)

Importantly: don’t be afraid to take a day off work/go to the doctor if you need it. In Russia, my school was happy to arrange doctor’s appointments for us and accompany us to act as interpreters, in Prague my school registered all their teachers as patients with an English-speaking doctor.

What if I really can’t cope?

I really can’t say this enough, but before you throw in the towel and book your flights home, please talk to someone. If you’re finding teaching tough, if you’re homesick or if there’s some other problem that you’re finding simply unbearable, please find someone to talk to – and ideally find someone on the ground (a work colleague, a mentor if you have one, your senior teacher/DOS) to talk to as well as people back home. I can guarantee that they want to help you, but if you’re suffering in silence no one has the power to do so!

What if I quit and come home?

sea-view
Whilst I can’t promise views as nice as this, things will get brighter. Promise.

Firstly, know that quitting and coming home does not make you a failure. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not cut out for teaching, or even that you’re not cut out for teaching abroad.

If you managed to get through CELTA, it’s unlikely that you’re the world’s worst teacher, and equally it’s unlikely that you haven’t figured out if you hate teaching. A different context (teaching adults as opposed to kids, for example, or teaching 1-1) could be what you need, a different country (perhaps one closer to home) or a more supportive school could be the answer to your woes (try one of the big franchises such as International House which offer lots of support and training for new teachers).

You, and you alone can decide if teaching abroad is right for you or not, and there should be no shame involved either way.

Are you just starting out on your TEFL adventure? I’d love to hear about your experiences, hopes and worries. Comment on here or drop me an email at thebestticher@gmail.com.

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The essentials every teacher needs…

building

In my post on what to/what not to pack for your first TEFL job abroad, I mentioned my collection of ‘stuff’, aka my ‘teacher toolkit’. When I first started teaching, the idea of having ‘tools’, much less a ‘toolkit’ was pretty much a mystery to me. It’s something I’ve built up over time, slowly adding and removing things as I find them more or less useful for my teaching context. After five years of teaching, it’s become an invaluable resource (or should that be set of resources). If you’re soon to head abroad for a TEFL job, or an established teacher simply trying to decide what’s worth keeping and what’s worth throwing away, these are ten of the things I’ve found most useful – and having them available to use has got me out of many a mid-lesson challenge.

1. Cuddly toy

This seems like a no-brainer if you’re teaching kids classes, but I’ve found having a cuddly toy to hand can be pretty useful when teaching teens or adults too. A cuddly toy can be thrown around the room (without risking damage to either property or students!) and as such can be used to nominate students, or be used in a variety of different games. The human (but not always professional) side of me also advises aiming them at students who appear to be nodding off to sleep/otherwise not paying attention. It’s true, you could use a ball – but a cuddly toy has the advantage of also being able to be used as an extra ‘person’ in grammar presentations/practice. Bonus points if it’s an interesting/unusual animal or character.

2. Post-it notes

I love post-it notes. Great for leaving yourself little reminders, great for writing to-do lists, great for leaving notes for flatmates, and great for teaching. I often use them to play the ‘Sticky Foreheads’ game (also known as the Rizla game), but also have a nice warmer I picked up at IH Moscow in which students write questions on post-it notes stuck on each other’s backs, then ask each other the questions. They’re also great for labelling classroom objects with beginners, or for adding vocabulary to flashcards which can then easily be removed.

3. Paperclips

I rarely use these for attaching papers together (although I suppose they could always be used for this purpose!) Rather, I often use paperclips as some kind of token or counter, as in my ‘I have never’ game, or at a push for boardgame counters. More on that later, though!

4. Blu-tack

I foolishly left this off my list when writing my post about packing, and have had it pointed out to me by several friends and colleagues. No prizes for guessing what I always forget when I’m doing my actual packing. Great for sticking up students’ work, great for attaching flashcards/other objects to the board, could probably be used in lieu of plasticine for some kind of ‘Taboo’ type modelling game – if you’re prepared to part with it, that is. I have yet to find an equivalent that is actually as good as the proper ‘brand name’ stuff, so if in doubt, take it with you. Also potentially useful as a bartering tool in some kind of desperate EFL teacher black market.

5. Felt tips

I always think I will never need felt tips. I always end up caving and buying them within the first week of the academic year. If you’re teaching littlies you’ll want them for colouring flashcards, with older students you might want to risk letting them use them themselves for project work, and if nothing else they’re helpful for highlighting information on handouts or photocopies (and come in a far wider range of colours than actual highlighters). And let’s face it, sometimes they’re just more fun to write with than a normal ballpoint pen or pencil.

6. Games

I’m keeping this one pretty general, simply so I can include more than one item. I’m a huge fan of Rory’s story cubes (at some point I’ll doubtless write a post on how I’ve used them in class, but at present ELT planning has a great post here. I also like to have at least one deck of cards to hand – not only can you use them to wind down with colleagues, but they’re pretty useful in the classroom too. This post has some nice ideas for games which will practice your students’ English as well as simply being fun, but I’ve also had some nice lessons (ostensibly to practice must/mustn’t/have to/don’t have to) where my students have taught me (1-1) or each other (in a group class) how to play a card game from their country.

7. Dice

Small, portable and versatile, dice can be used for a wide variety of different activities in the EFL/ESOL classroom. Although I have to admit that I don’t agree with his opinion about ‘classic’ TEFL boardgames (for me, part of the appeal is that weaker students still stand an equal chance of winning!), Alex Case has a nice list of EFL games at a variety of different levels that can be played with dice.

If I may suggest adding a skill to your toolkit as well as just ‘stuff’, it would be this: how to make an origami cube. This will give you access to an endless supply of dice – all you need is 6 sheets of paper and a pen to draw the spots on. You can also make dice in a variety of different sizes, and the best thing is that it’s not the end of the world if they get lost!

8. Kinder Egg Toys

This might be a Euro-centric one (I seem to recall reading that they are banned in the States?) but I have a box containing quite a collection of Kinder Egg toys. Stemming back to when my lovely flatmate and I would buy each other Kinder Eggs during my first year of teaching in Moscow (there’s nothing like chocolate to make a rough day seem less bad), I love using them as boardgame counters (they make life just a little bit more interesting and classroom games a little bit more fun!). I’ve also used them as rather unorthodox cuisinaire rods, and, as with the cuddly toy, an extra ‘person’ during grammar presentations (particularly when teaching very small groups or 1-1 students. I’ve had quite a few fellow teachers say it’s a great idea (and have loaned them out to colleagues before!) and they never fail to raise a smile from even the most serious of students. I’d say they’re a success all round.

9. Leaflets

Least you think this list solely consists of children’s toys and stationery, there are also a couple of ‘paper-based’ things I’d recommend collecting. If you’re in a native English-speaking country, going to a supermarket or tourist information centre (or even a hotel if you’re staying in one!) and picking up some leaflets is one of the easiest things you can do to enhance and supplement the material used in your lessons. Many coursebooks have some kind of leaflet-based project work at some point, and it’s great to be able to show your students some genuine English language leaflets rather than simply the coursebook example. You can also use the content to provide students with extra material – a reading lesson based on some of the texts, a discussion task where students must plan a weekend or holiday for themselves (or someone else!), or a restaurant roleplay activity using a genuine takeaway menu.

10. Resources

This is one to be built up and added to as you’re teaching, rather than something to be prepared in advance. Start a physical folder, start a bookmark folder on your internet browser. If you have an activity that works really well (be it one you’ve created yourself or one you found in a resource book, save it, or if necessary make an extra copy. Be selective – think about activities that you could easily adapt to use with students of different ages or different levels, otherwise you’ll end up swamped with mountains of paper. Even better, save PDF activites/worksheets found online as bookmarks on your computer, or create a dedicated folder in your email account and then email the links to yourself. Resources saved in this way take up no physical space, can be accessed from anywhere, and mean that you can delve into that selection of things that you know really work, no matter who you’re teaching and wherever you are.

Do you have a ‘teacher toolkit’? What else would you put in yours?

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

what to pack

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?

Clothes

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.

Stuff

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.

E-reader

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!

Stationery

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.

Plug Adaptors

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.

Home Comforts

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…

Coursebooks

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.

Shoes

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.