Things no one will tell you about teaching abroad

Things no one will tell you about teaching abroad

I hear – or better said read – a lot of those overly positive stories about how wonderful and amazing teaching abroad is. You get paid to live, travel and work in another country. It definitely sounds like a dream! I have to admit, it is an enriching experience. But what if the work isn’t really what you expected, what if your colleagues are a pain in the ass, what if teaching abroad appears to be not your type of cookie and what if you eventually don’t get paid for your work? That’s why I want to tell you a few things about teaching abroad that almost made me quit the job.

 

teaching abroad - journal of nomads

 

It’s half past eight in the morning. I’m sitting outside on the patio enjoying my morning ritual – drinking a big cup of coffee while smoking a rollie. I’m still half asleep and I’m listening to the peaceful sounds that the early morning brings. Very soon the silence will be broken by the cheerful sounds of the students who will get ready for breakfast and a new day filled with English classes and activities. I’m currently volunteering for a few weeks as an English teacher on a summer camp in a small Turkish village. It’s fun but intense as I’m 24/7 surrounded by a group of energetic children.

 

The summer camp is nearly over. Although I’m looking forward to get some proper rest, I will miss the daily routine of teaching English and hanging out with the students. They are a cheerful bunch. Especially the last group who are mainly teenagers. It’s the first time that I’m teaching to students of this age and I was quite nervous about it. I recalled how teenagers can be like in a school situation – bored, rebellious, filled with hormones,… but here I have nothing to complain about. The students of my group are great. They are enthusiastic, cooperative, attentive (once they are fully awake) and are genuinely interested in my classes.

 

Teaching abroad - Teaching in Turkey - Journal of Nomads

 

 

It’s interesting to see how the learning process changes when you take it out of a school context. The atmosphere in the classes is pleasant and amiable. The kids are here by their own free will and are happy to learn. I don’t need to discipline them or make strict rules. The students know that they can be their own free and creative selves and feel comfortable to learn on their own tempo. My way of teaching also changes when I’m not part of a school system. I can make my own classes, chose my own subjects without having to follow a lesson plan made by someone else. I’m free to adjust and make changes according to the level of the students without having to explain myself. I don’t have to meet any expectations and follow rules created by a boss. It makes me feel free and relaxed which makes it so much more enjoyable to give classes! For years I haven’t felt such joy and enthusiasm while I was teaching.

 

teaching abroad - journal of nomads
Selfie with some of my students.

 

How I became a teacher and regretted that choice

For a very long time I doubted if I had made the right choice to become a teacher. I was eighteen years old when I enrolled in college for the teacher training in Bruges (Belgium). It’s actually kind of crazy that I had to choose a job at that young age. A job that I was expected to do for the rest of my life. Heck, I still had so many teenage hormones running through my body. How in the world could I know what I wanted to do for a living when I knew so little about life and myself? But I was expected to go to college or university so I had to make a choice. Secretly I wanted to become an adventurer like Indiana Jones but sadly enough there is no such degree. So instead I chose the path of a teacher. Why? Because I like bossing children around and telling people what to do – no, not really. The main reason was that it could open doors for a job abroad. I also considered becoming a nurse but with my weird phobia for vomit, it wouldn’t have been the best choice…

 

After graduating I entered the exciting world of being an employee, which meant I was teaching in many different schools as a substitute teacher while hoping that one day I could have a proper full-time teaching position. That ambition disappeared soon when I realized that I actually didn’t really like this job. There was something about working in a school that made me feel claustrophobic and tense. I often felt like a student who had to constantly perform well and stick to the rules. I also felt like a juggler; participating in many meetings, trying to be up to date with my administrative work and pleasing parents, colleagues, headmasters and school management. I also couldn’t forget to prepare my classes following the strict lesson plans. I often felt more like a parent, secretary and therapist than an actual teacher. When my latest contract as substitute teacher came to an end, I decided to throw in the towel. I had enough. I still remember the first day after I made that decision. I had no idea how I was going to pay my bills but I felt so relieved and free. Shortly after that I gave my life an even bigger twist. I left my home country behind and went to explore the big wide world.

 

teaching abroad - journal of nomads
Feeling free as a bird in the big wide world

 

During the first months of my travels I was having the best time ever. I had no worries and was fully enjoying Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia. Unfortunately my bank account wasn’t as endless as the number pi so at some stage I had to find a way of earning money to keep maintaining my super-low-budget lifestyle. I did all sorts of jobs, as you can read in How to earn money while traveling but it never crossed my mind to teach. I had done some teaching in Africa when I was still in college and it wasn’t as wonderful as it might sound. And it wasn’t because I accidentally became the first wife of a Senegalese man while I was there…

 

My Senegalese adventure

When my college offered me the chance to do an internship in Senegal, I was twenty years old and in my last year of the teacher training . Needless to say I grabbed this opportunity with both hands. I left on a two month adventure, together with a co-student. I was still very naïve and made the mistake of having high expectations. I saw it as a romantic expedition where I would be doing some amazing ‘charity’ work and would make a big difference in the lives of the children and teachers.

 

The school was privately owned by a rich couple who invested the money that I had collected for the education of the kids in building a new extension to their house. The school itself was very big, with a minimum of 50 students in each class. Every week I had to change classroom where I would first observe the students and then teach in French. The kids barely had any books and were writing on little chalkboards. The teachers were very authoritative and some of them were even hitting the students with a stick or a rubber hose when they were not paying attention. I was shocked and it hurt me to see how scared the kids were of their teachers.

* Side-note: before you get a bad impression of the school, I want to mention that not all the teachers were like this. Most of them were really good people and genuinely cared for their students.

 

Whenever my colleague and I wanted to show those few ‘bad’ teachers a more gentle way to discipline the children, they didn’t have ears for it. They saw us as these young foreign trainees invading their space. Who were we to tell them how they should teach. I have to admit, they had a point there but I was hoping that they would just stop using the ‘beat-the-child-when-he’s-bad’ method. Anyway, our attempts were fruitless. As were the classes we were trying to give. Our ‘mentors’ couldn’t care less with what we had prepared and interfered a lot while we were teaching. They wanted us to follow their rules and methods. But no way I would touch that hose, although I sometimes felt like hitting that particular teacher with it!

 

The only thing that I really enjoyed was the after school tutoring. My classmate and I had suggested to give extra classes to students who had learning problems. This was the only idea that got accepted with some enthusiasm. Every teacher selected five students to whom we gave remedial classes three times a week. During those hours I had the complete freedom of teaching what I wanted in the way I wanted. I can modestly say that my students were having a great time and yep, so did I!

 

teaching English abroad - journal of nomads
Me and my students twelve years ago (before the digital camera existed)

 

Eventually my experience was not that bad but it definitely broke my illusion that teaching abroad was romantic. I got a good reality check!

 

From shepherding to teaching

I didn’t consider to work as a teacher abroad anymore until it was almost literally fell into my lap.
I was working on a sheep farm in New Zealand. I had a temporary contract to help out during lambing season. I loved this job and until today it is one of the most fun -and smelly- jobs I’ve ever done! The season was almost over when the farmer’s wife proposed to me another job. She was in the council of the local school and they were looking for a special needs teacher. She thought I would be perfect for the job. She must have noticed my patience and resilience during the delivery and nursing of more than five hundred lambs, not to mention being attacked by some crazy sheep…

 

shepherding - journal of nomads

 

The village school was a beautiful little building with lots of big windows that looked out on majestic mountains. It had about eighty students and most of the kids were living on nearby farms. It was a cosy little school with a pleasant atmosphere. My job was to give one-on-one remedial classes to students with learning problems and once a week I had to care for a severely autistic ten-year old boy with the mental capacity of a three-year old. This was a new situation for me but it was very enriching. The less pleasant part was to change his diaper but after my work on the sheep farm, where part of my job was picking up dead lambs and sheep which had been rotting in the fields for a few weeks, my stomach had become a lot stronger!

 

What was harder to deal with, were the other teachers. I don’t know if it had to do with being part of a small community or if it’s just something that teachers do, but nearly in every break they were complaining or gossiping. They were also not very open-minded nor did they like to cooperate with me. With the exception of three teachers who were genuinely happy with my assistance and with whom I came along well, the others didn’t really care about what I did with their special needs students nor were they open to any suggestions. I didn’t really feel part of the team. Even though I really enjoyed teaching in that school, I was happy when my interim contract finished. So it’s not only important that you like what you do, having a positive relationship with your co-workers definitely contributes to a feeling of well-being in the work place!

 

So it it’s not hard to figure out why I doubted my choice of becoming a school teacher. No matter which school I entered, there was always something that took away my enthusiasm for the job. So I gave up teaching until a couple of months ago…

 

An unexpected opportunity in Turkey

We were about to leave Turkey when on our very last day we met a lovely woman called Sevil. Watch this video to see the full story. We were going to spend the night in her house before leaving for Georgia. When we joined her that night on the terrace for a glass of vodka, she told us that she was organizing an English summer camp for the local children and that she was looking for teachers. When Niko and I told her that we both had experience in teaching, it almost seemed like it was meant to be. We liked her project and that night we decided that we would stay for the summer and volunteer as teachers on her camp.

 

For a little while I was doubting. Did I make the right call or would this be another bummer? I also doubted my own abilities. I wasn’t sure anymore if I was a good teacher. That am-I-really-good-enough question was lurking in my mind. But I would only find out if I tried. And I’m glad I did!

 

 

Teaching abroad - teaching in Turkey - Journal of Nomads

 

While I’m finishing my coffee and hear the cheerful shouts of the students who are joining the breakfast table, I am very happy to be here. This summer camp has helped me overcome my doubts and resistance to being a teacher. We worked with a small team but we were aligned and helped each other out. The camp also gave me back the confidence that I needed. Sevil gave us the freedom to make our own lesson plan so I was my own boss. Seeing how the kids were interested in my classes, made a lot of progress and had fun while learning was the most rewarding part! I saw some photos of me passing by on their Instagram and Snapchat account with the caption ‘best teacher ever’ or ‘I love my teacher’. That gave me such a big boost! Another thing I won’t forget is the hug and gratitude I received from one of the parents who was so happy with the progress her daughter made. She saw how happy and enthusiastic her daughter was while learning English. Those are moments that really touch my soul and will stay with me.

 

teaching abroad - journal of nomads
A beautiful note from one of my students

 

I am aware now of what makes or breaks the joy for a job. I don’t regret the choices I’ve made, nor do I regret having my ‘bad’ experiences. They all taught me something and helped me making better choices and moving towards a path that I really enjoy walking on. Maybe one day I’ll start my own school, a little building in the outdoors with big windows and classes that are aimed at giving the children confidence, joy and creative freedom in the learning process. Ah, isn’t this an idyllic dream? But hey, who knows what the future might bring.

 

For now I’ve found an online teaching job which I just love love love! Check out The Ultimate Guide for Online Teaching if you would be interested too!

 

Check out this video to see all the fun activities we did with the kids during the summer camp in Turkey.

 

 

 

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Writer, photographer and co-founder at Journal of Nomads

I've got Belgian roots but the world is my country. I'm an artist at heart and often get lost in my thoughts. I like to create some-thing out of no-thing and once I'm feeling inspired, I'm unstoppable (except for when you offer me a glass of wine). I have a hard time getting out of my sleeping bag without a cup of coffee, I absolutely love chocolate (I'm from Belgium, what did you expect) and I have an extreme dislike for routine and vomit.

  • I”m glad you found type of teaching environment that makes you happy at the summer camp. I definitely agree that teaching abroad can be difficult and is not always so romantic. I spent a year teaching in Namibia and found myself frustrated with many of the same things that you faced in Senegal (corporal punishment was especially difficult to swallow). However, my experience in Namibia did give me complete freedom to design my own lesson plans and classroom activities which, while difficult at times, made my lessons much more effective!

    • Journal of Nomads

      I agree that making your own lesson plans and classroom activities can be difficult sometimes but so much more rewarding and effective! I could do the same during the summer camp and this freedom made me enjoy teaching the lessons so much more! Although it’s not really nice to say but I’m happy to hear I wasn’t the only one who had to witness kids getting hit. You know what I mean 🙂 Teaching in Africa is very different and although it is challenging, I found it very enriching too. I’m happy to hear you’ve had a good experience there! It changes you as person, doesn’t it?

  • Christine Krzyszton

    Life is certainly a trade off and many times we have to “try things on” to see if they work for us. Good for you for just going for it and making the best of your decisions. Enjoyed reading your story and hearing about your teaching experiences, good and bad.

    • Journal of Nomads

      Thank you Christine. Yes, life is all about experiencing what works or doesn’t work for ourselves. It’s the only way that we can find out what we really enjoy and finding the right path to walk on, with a few detours along the way 🙂

  • Sumti Bhadani

    It is not easy today to do what you like. Glad that you are teaching in the way you like. All the best 🙂

    • Journal of Nomads

      Thank you Sumti. It is indeed not always easy to do what you like but I believe that even those moments help us with finding a way to eventually enjoy what we do 🙂

  • Vyjay Rao

    All the different experiences has only strengthened your resolve and I am sure it has had a positive effect on your personality as well. Many times the experiences we go through prepare us for greater challenges ahead.

    • Journal of Nomads

      I totally agree with you Vyjay! Every challenge that comes on our path is an invitation to learn and grow. My teaching experiences helped me growing as a person, learning how to see something positive in every situation and it helped me to find the path I enjoy walking on. Life is one big journey full with interesting lessons!

  • I really enjoyed reading this story. It took me on the journey of your experiences as a teacher abroad. I never realized that there were places that were more restrictive but I’m glad you found a place that let you make more decisions that benefited the students (I’ve learned so much reading this)! Best of luck in teaching and your travels!

    • Journal of Nomads

      Thank you Anshula, I really appreciate that! Yes, it has definitely been quite an (inner) journey for me. It was very interesting to see how the educational system doesn’t differ that much around the world. I had to discover that I work the best outside of a system, where I can be fully myself, without pressure. When I’m at my best, my students are too 🙂

  • Good to see you found a place you enjoy! It’s always a bit of a leap of faith taking on a job abroad like that. I’ve had some really bad and some really great experiences myself. But the great ones definitely make it all worth it and you get to experience so much!

    • Journal of Nomads

      I can’t agree with you more! The great experiences are definitely worth it and the not so great ones are the biggest lessons. I’ve learned now that every situation is an invitation to grow and that the most challenging ones are the biggest lessons to learn!

  • Natasha

    I really enjoyed your story. Actually, i learn a lot of it, since i personally don’t have any similar experiences. Once i wanted to give it a try, but i thing my destiny doesn’t:) I believe all that you survived helped you find what you really love and enjoy. Good luck on your next teaching and traveling adventures!

    • Journal of Nomads

      Thank you Natasha. The road to find what you enjoy and love isn’t always easy but it gives us more clarity about what we really want and how we want to do it. Every challenge has been a lesson to me and I wouldn’t have wanted it different. I feel much more wiser now and especially more free!

  • aCajuninCali blog

    I’m so glad you got your teaching groove back. Teaching is a lot like what I do. You have to have a calling for it. You have to want to do it, otherwise it’s not good for you or the students. When you feel confident about your abilities the students notice. They respect you and learn from you more than ever before. Great post!

    • Journal of Nomads

      You’re totally right! Teaching is a calling and you have to love it if you want your students to enjoy your classes and respect you as a teacher. I think this counts for every job or hobby. if you do it with love and joy, the environment will definitely benefit from it!!

  • Danni Lawson

    Love the serendipity of your adventures and your willingness to try new things, even if it wasn’t all a bed of roses. The lesson here seems to be about embracing opportunities!

    • Journal of Nomads

      I believe that every opportunity is an invitation to learn and to grow. It’s all about perspective 🙂 I think it’s important to try new things, only this way I learn what I like and dislike, as a teacher and as a person 🙂

  • This is a great post and a wonderful story. My current career is a City of Toronto, Special Needs Resource Educator. So I work with daycare teachers to make sure children with extra support needs are included in the program. I find the hardest part of my job is rearly the children and more the adults. (Parents, colleagues other professionals etc) I thought about teaching overseas when I retire. Great post.

    • Journal of Nomads

      Haha, yep, I hear you! The most challenging people aren’t the kids at all but the adults 😀 Waw, you’re job sounds very interesting! Do you teach yourself or do you more guide the teachers?

  • bc21578

    I sense a similarity to my own story here, lol. Travel is what I really wanted, but not having a degree scared me to death, so I got a business degree from the state university. Teaching in Turkey sounds interesting, since most people I know teach in the real “east”.

    • Journal of Nomads

      There is so much pressure about having a degree. And I will be honest with you, the past years I’ve learned more by studying the subjects that interest me on my own than the things I’ve learned in college! People attach such an importance to that piece of paper! Do you currently do something with your degree?

  • Kevin Wagar

    Your passion for sharing knowledge is so evident in your post. It’s incredible the difference in patience and performance when you can follow your own instincts vs. having to follow strict regimens and programs.

    • Journal of Nomads

      Thank you Kevin, you really understood the heart of this article. That makes me very happy 🙂 And yes, I wish we could all follow our own instincts and tempo. It would make such a difference in our studies and work! That’s why I chose a lifestyle ‘outside the system’. I feel more happy, productive and centered when I can follow my own feeling and rhythm! I noticed that my students also benefited from that!

  • elizabeth

    Sounds like you had a great summer. I am sure the kids in Turkey learned a lot!

    • Journal of Nomads

      Yes, it was a very fun camp! Not only the kids learned a lot though, I did too! 🙂