Everything You Need to Know Before Teaching English Abroad

I’m sure many of us have thought of doing this at some point. Especially when we’re broke and desperate to travel fresh out of our undergrad with little to no experience in teaching whatsoever.  If you end up finding the right opportunity, take these tips with you.

You are not a real English teacher so recognize your privilege

*Excluding people who actually are certified ESL teachers.

As native English speakers and first world citizens, we often forget our privilege of using the most wanted language on the planet so effortlessly. Organizations want native speakers not because we’re professionals, but because they want to familiarize their students with global accents. With this said, the onus is on us to work hard and treat it like a real job, not like we’re doing someone a favor.

Don’t let them take advantage of you, learn to say “no”

Unlike Canada’s hourly wage, the majority of the world uses the monthly salary system. So no matter how much work you do, you get paid the same. There have been many times where I’ve taken more classes than I was originally assigned but there has been no talk of being paid more. If you’re willing to work more, make sure you’re also getting compensated accordingly.

Insist on a contract

Fact: A work visa is harder to get than a tourist one. So, chances are, you’re going to be paid cash under the table for the work you do. This makes things a little more difficult. Make sure you’re not relying on word of mouth and that there is a real contract being signed between you and your employer.

You’ll need a good lesson plan and better improvisation

If it’s not a government school, you probably won’t be given a lesson plan. Lesson plans are hard if you’ve never made one before. Sometimes the class will vary in language levels. It’s awkward teaching level 1 40-year-olds about shapes and colors or level 7 10-year-olds about politics. You need to be able to deal with frustrating and somewhat crazy situations calmly and quickly. Ask students what they want most help with: listening, speaking, writing, or reading. Most likely, the answer will be speaking so developing good conversation topics can make or break.

Don’t give all your students your number/social

If you’re in a small town, for many of your students, it will be the first time they’ve ever met or spoken to a foreigner. It’s not unlikely for your students to ask for your WhatsApp or Facebook on the first meeting. Don’t feel like you need to do this exchange. If you do not feel comfortable, politely refuse. If anything, tell them it’s against the organization’s policies.

Practice slow speech now

We use toooo many slang terms and shortcuts, it’s cray. Our “want to”’s are “wanna”s and expressions like “so cheesy” are said without a second thought. Most people abroad have a vast English vocabulary but they might not be familiar with the cultural connotations. It’s important to speak slowly and simply. It might be difficult in the beginning but after a week of seeing question marks on people’s faces, it will get easier.

Brush up on your grammar

I’m going to admit it: I have no idea what a “past participle” is. I learned English at a really young age without any rules. I knew it through listening and speaking, not through reading and writing. So before you start a class, Google some common grammar rules. For ESL students, rules are everything. If you’ve ever learned a second language in school (ahem French), you’ll know what I’m talking about.

In case you also didn’t know:


Speaking English does not make you a better person

I’ve talked about this before, so here is just a brief summary: Speaking English does not mean you’re better or smarter than anyone who doesn’t though people might treat as though. You can be a doctor and save lives in Arabic or English. Please read further about this here.

Don’t date your students

Don’t do it… just don’t.

Respect the local culture

I’ve had classes where couples have held hands and kissed each other for getting the right answer and I’ve had classes where men and women have sat on different ends of the room. Know the culture and don’t pair opposite genders for conversation if the norm does not permit it.

You’ll learn more than you’ll teach

It’s hard to make friends when you don’t know anyone in the city or have a language barrier. If you need a local opinion or suggestions, ask your students about prices, places, directions, and restaurants. As locals, they’re a lot more likely to know better than Google. Better yet, many are happy to take you with them. I hadn’t eaten vegetables in a month because I didn’t know where to get them from. I asked a student and she insisted to take me there and bargain. She later invited me to her wedding for letting her help me. Yeah, people are just so great.

I also ended up teaching a Level 1 adult class and in order to understand anything, I had to learn some vocabulary in the local language. I’d sit and translate a lot of instructional words so help in class. You keep doing this for a couple of weeks, and before you know it, you’re speaking basic Arabic with your supermarket butcher.

Thinking about teaching abroad and have a thousand questions? Plop them down in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help (:

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