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?
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).
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.