6 Things You Should Know Before Teaching English Abroad

Teaching English abroad is a popular way for recent college graduates (and students!) to go abroad—but is it right for you? Here are a few steps to help guide your decision.

1) Ask yourself why

Many people (myself included) decide to teach English abroad because they want to live overseas for a while, and teaching English seems like an accessible way to do that. Since so many people do it, it’s kind of the obvious choice. But are you really sure you want to teach, or are you just not sure what else you could do?

PEC Ronda Rutherford Teaching English
Enjoying s’mores and other American and Japanese snacks with members of the Practical English Club (PEC) at the high school where I taught in Japan. Photo credit Ronda Rutherford

Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching abroad and highly recommend it. I taught English to middle school students in China for two months through WorldTeach, to high school students in Japan through the JET Program, and to elementary school kids in France through TAPIF. For me, these were a few benefits:

  • Especially if you don’t speak the local language well, teaching English provides you with a means to connect with the people who live there and improve your understanding of their culture.
  • You will learn a lot about how your students view the rest of the world—especially your home country. Your students will also challenge you to learn a lot about yourself and where you come from. You will need to brush up on your knowledge of politics, pop culture, government, sports, history, and current events to create engaging lessons and satisfy your students’ curiosity about your home country and culture.
  • You will be able to learn a ton from your students. Personally, I learned a lot more about the local culture as a teacher than I did studying abroad, because I automatically had connections to so many young people who wanted to share their way of life with me.

Teaching English abroad was a good option for me because I enjoy teaching in general. These programs gave me the opportunity to engage in a cultural exchange, which was my main reason for going abroad.

2) Explore other options

But just because you can speak English doesn’t mean you should teach it. There are a lot of options out there that might be a better fit for you, depending on what you want to get out of your experience.

You could pursue an internship in your field of study instead, which could provide you with professional experience that is more obviously related to your desired career as well as networking opportunities within your field. Cultural Vistas administers many programs that might be relevant for you, and you can find many more opportunities online—GoAbroad.com is a wonderful resource!

Sydney Forrester Abroad
Sydney completed an internship in Buenos Aires through IAESTE, which places students in STEM internships in 80 partner countries worldwide.

3) Research your program (and research some more)

All programs are not created equal. The more time and money you will need to invest to do a program, the more effort you should put into researching it before you go. Read the program’s website and FAQ, but don’t stop there—especially if you are considering paying a high program fee or if you will be abroad for a significant amount of time.

Online program directories such as GoAbroad.com and Go Overseas can help you in your search not only by finding you a program but by providing a few initial program reviews written by past participants. If you dig a little deeper, you can find out more about past participants’ experiences in their own words. Try searching Google for articles and posts about the program. Pay special attention to testimonials, blogs, and anything else written by actual participants.

If you can’t find something about a program online, ask. Providers often have extra resources they can provide you on request, such as information on a specific aspect of the program, like housing, insurance, sample budgets, or available scholarships.

Also, once you have been placed at a school, find out if you can get in touch with the person who had the teaching position before you. They can also provide you with a lot of helpful information about the school and local community, which will make your transition much less stressful.

4) Connect with program alumni

Before you commit to a program, try to get in touch with program alumni or other teachers at your school to get a better idea of what your experience might actually be like. Alumni are an especially great source of information, since they can be really direct and open with you about all aspects of the program, both good and bad.

There are a variety of ways you can get a former participant’s perspective. If you already know someone who participated in the program you are considering, ask them about it. Most alumni are happy to talk about their experiences and will enjoy reminiscing with you. You can also contact the program directly to ask if they can put you in touch with a former participant who would be willing to discuss the program with you.

Alumni are helpful resources for researching a program, but at least in my case, they have been even more beneficial after the program by providing me with valuable professional networking opportunities, notifying me of interesting cultural events, and in general, connecting me with tons of really nice people who all share a common experience.

After the program, many program administrators invite their alumni to alumni groups they manage, either independently or on social media sites like LinkedIn. If you don’t hear about an alumni group, ask your program provider if there’s one established. You can also try to find alumni to connect with by searching for your program’s name plus alumni in Google.

A good alumni network is a wonderful thing. This is something I didn’t even think about when selecting my programs, but I completely lucked out and now am part of an amazing alumni network.

dragonboat kathy chu
Being active in alumni associations has connected me with a lot of interesting activities, events, and volunteer opportunities. I joined this dragonboat team with some other JET alumni because of an announcement in JETAANY’s monthly newsletter. Go Dragonflies! Photo credit Kathy Chu

 5) Consider your language needs

Some teaching programs also provide foreign language lessons or self-study materials. When I taught English in Japan, the JET Program provided me with exercises to complete and submit remotely. I had trouble motivating myself to keep up with the studies on my own, but I did find a free community Japanese class that met once a week, which was a better fit for me. I also highly recommend finding a tandem partner. Just keep in mind that, since you will need to speak English a lot at work, you will need to dedicate your free time to studying the language if you really want to improve.

Japanese Class Ronda Rutherford Teaching English
This is me with my teacher and classmates after the last session of my community Japanese class. Photo credit Ronda Rutherford

If one of your main reasons for teaching English abroad is to improve your proficiency in a foreign language, you also may want to look into options other than teaching. As a native English teacher, you will probably be expected to speak English with your students and many of your co-workers most of the time while you are at work, leaving you with little time to improve your skills in your target language.

On the other hand, if you complete an internship in your field, you will likely be expected to communicate with your colleagues in the target language. This also gives you an opportunity to familiarize yourself with specialized vocabulary in your field. Some internship programs even have built-in language components to give your language skills an additional boost, such as CBYX and Cultural Vistas’ Internship Programs in Chile, Argentina, and Germany.

6) Don’t self-select

Finally, when you do find a program that looks interesting to you, apply for it.

I was recently talking to one of my co-workers about this. We had a mutual friend who wanted to live in Germany and was considering teaching English there. My co-worker said, “Why don’t you apply for a Fulbright?” But he hesitated. “Isn’t that really selective and prestigious?”
“So? Are you not prestigious?”

That really resonated with me. Quite often people miss out on opportunities for great programs and funding simply because they never apply. Even if it’s selective and very competitive—if you don’t apply, you won’t have any chance at all of going. So go for it!

emgip marie siegel
As a fellow in the competitive Émigré Memorial German Internship Program (EMGIP), Marie completed an internship in Bremen at the office of the Senator for Welfare, Women, Youth, Integration, and Sport.

Learn more about opportunities for international educators to teach in the United States through Teach USA.

 

Ronda Rutherford

Ronda currently lives in New York City, where she enjoys watching plays, exploring the city on foot, and training with a dragonboat team in the summer. Although it’s been a few years since she has taught, Ronda remains an active language learner herself and is currently focusing on advancing her French skills.

Latest posts by Ronda Rutherford (see all)

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Ronda Rutherford

Ronda currently lives in New York City, where she enjoys watching plays, exploring the city on foot, and training with a dragonboat team in the summer. Although it’s been a few years since she has taught, Ronda remains an active language learner herself and is currently focusing on advancing her French skills.

View all posts by Ronda Rutherford

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