The Cons of Teaching ESL Overseas – Turning Them Into Pros

Going to teach overseas for the first time can feel like a mix of intense emotions. Excitement, nerves, curiosity...all of this is completely normal. One thing you should be sure of is that you've done your research. Whilst reading about something can never truly replace the experience, it can certainly at least prepare you for any obstacles and help you get around them confidently.

Here we will look at some of the common negatives new TEFL teachers can experience when they first settle into their new homes. Most of these can be lessened with forward planning, or simply taken as part and parcel of the overseas teaching experience.

Read our tips for teaching English abroad, based on the real life experiences of those who’ve travelled across the globe.

Fleeting friends and feelings of isolation

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The TEFL sector is transitory by its very nature, as many new teachers choosing the path do so as a means to travel to new places and experience the world before they settle down elsewhere they connect with, or even return home.

Due to this, you may find yourself making new friends in the expat community, only to wave them goodbye after their 12 month contract is up. In a new country, making friends you can connect with is extremely important when it comes to helping you settle into your new surroundings.

Whilst building relationships with those who are in a similar position to you is beneficial, you will hugely benefit from making friends in the local community also. This will really help give some stability to your social circle.

Not only will making local friends expand your experiences, it can help alleviate any sense of isolation by enabling you to integrate more easily into the local culture. In many countries where there is a large expat community, a “bubble” can tend to form around it. By stepping outside of this, you can build stronger connections which could stand you in good stead if you wish to remain in that area for a long time.

Even if the friends you see come and go aren’t around for as long as you’d have liked, on the plus side, there will always be a constant flow of new people sharing their unique stories and building memories with you.

Career stagnation and dealing with monotony

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Dependant on your reasons for becoming an ESL teacher, you may feel that after a while you hit a wall with your work satisfaction. After the excitement of your new home wains to a settled familiarity, you will probably realise that the TEFL industry can be pretty static when it comes to progression opportunities.

That is, if you let it be.

Just because nothing much seems to change in the sector itself, this doesn’t mean you can’t have a plan from the start and take steps to get something more meaningful out of your experiences. You may be happy to spend a few years simply enjoying the your time overseas, but then decide you’d like to boost your qualifications and move into a higher position.

Be aware that to achieve this, you may have to do some moving around to find the opportunities if they don’t exist where you currently are. As many ESL teachers are only there for a short-spell, promotion paths are often scarce. One option is to get your qualified teacher status (QTS), which can open doors to better teaching positions in International Schools which often pay better salaries and opens doors to advancement.

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If you feel like things are getting stale but you’re not overly interested in progression or studying more, it may be that a change of scene is all that’s needed. If you’ve been teaching kids, maybe switching to adult classes might be a new challenge, or vice versa.

Remember that your TEFL experience will be different in each country, or even type of area you teach in, so maybe it’s time to make a move if you’ve got itchy feet! Teaching in a large language school in a city will be worlds apart from a small class in a rural area.

Culture shock and being unable to settle

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The majority of new teachers who relocate to a country where the culture is very different to their own often experience some level of culture shock. It’s not unusual and it’s completely understandable. You’re landing feet-first in not only a new culture, but a new town or city and job, surrounded by new people and probably even a new language.

That’s a lot for anyone!

The immersive nature of the experience can feel overwhelming, even if it’s delayed and comes after the initial honeymoon period has subsided. In the majority of cases, it passes as you get more accustomed to your new adopted home. But not for everyone, however.

No matter how much research you do on your chosen destination, there is no real substitute to first-hand experience. It’s very much a case of “try it and see”, but if you give it enough of a chance and still don’t feel as if it’s a good fit, don’t be despondent. Simply mark it up as experience and think about trying somewhere else.

You may be able to pinpoint what it was you didn’t click with there; was it too rural and quiet? Was it too busy and you want something more out in the sticks? Or maybe you had large classes and were hoping for something a little less stressful. Whatever the reason, this could help you make a more informed decision about your next step.

It may be that you can’t really define why you’ve not taken to your current position. Sometimes it’s much more incorporeal and you can only put it down to a “feeling”, which is just as valid.

Never feel like you have to stay somewhere if you’re not happy however, and make sure you’re prepared for a move if you need to, financially as well as with the paperwork. The only way to truly find out if something is right for you is to do it; experience really is the best teacher!

Avoiding the scams and getting caught in a trap

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We’ve previously written at length about the common employment scams which are rife in the TEFL industry in some countries. However, although things are being brought into line, there are still those who slip through the net.

In the last week alone I’ve had a new qualified teacher ask my advice about teaching in China on a visit visa, rather than the required Z-Visa (work permit). They had been offered a new position with a “promise” to convert their visa at some point after they arrive. This is a trap and can land the new teacher in seriously hot water with the Chinese authorities.

It’s not the only location which has it’s fair share of shady operations. When it comes to understanding the hiring process in a foreign land, things can be difficult. We certainly feel the need to be more trusting in those who have a deeper understanding of local processes. This can however make expats an easier target to mislead.

This is where good research can come into its own. Find reputable and independent sources for official visa information. Most importantly: if you know something isn’t right, stick to your guns. Any legitimate employer will be more than happy to ease any worries you have and provide all necessarily paperwork you need.

If something doesn’t feel right, never be scared to say no! And never hand over your personal paperwork before you’ve got a solid job offer.

It’s always best to wait for the right job rather than take the first decent offer than comes along. The worst thing is landing in a new country, only to find that nothing is as it should be. Getting out of a situation like this can be extremely stressful and costly in the long run.

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Knowing where to start on your TEFL adventure

Teaching English overseas certainly is an adventure. Each one unique to the individual and you have complete control over how you’d like to progress and how far you want to take it. Just like any big change in life, there will be pros as well as cons, but if you’re aware of the possibilities and wary of the negatives, it can be a life-changing experience.

Remember you’ll need to employ trial and error before you find your feet. Prepare yourself as well as you can, where you can, for all eventualities and speak to as many people about their experiences as possible!

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Melanie Clarke
Melanie is a Digital Marketer and TEFL Specialist at Vital Consular. Before taking up a Marketing role, she spent 3 years building up a rich knowledge of global legalisation processes on the operations team. When she's not working, Melanie enjoys attending music events and pursuing many creative interests including screen printing and merchandise design.
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