Exotic lands, friendly students and the chance to immerse oneself in a foreign culture is something of a dream job for many young people, freshly out of education and looking for an adventure before settling down. Teaching English as a foreign language does, indeed, offer all these things. But there are some factors that must be taken into account before you excitedly sign up to be an English teacher in sunny climes!
This one may seem obvious, but you will be the foreigner. This means that you should make every effort to behave according to the customs and expectations of the country you are working in. This can be harder than you realise, as, for example, in Thailand it is disrespectful to wear shorts or even short skirts to a temple, and the monks will not directly speak to a woman. Heads are considered sacred and feet the opposite, so touching someone with your foot – or even pointing at something with a foot – is considered to be as much an insult as vulgar hand gestures in the Western world. Likewise, it is highly offensive to touch someone’s head, so affectionately ruffling the head of a pupil could land you, unwittingly, in a lot of trouble! Each country is likely to have similar customs and traditions, and it is best to apprise yourself of these before you go.
Learn the Language!
Being an English speaker in a foreign country can be quite isolating and limiting too. It is hard to be part of a conversation when jokes have to be translated or told very slowly so that you can keep up, and your colleagues may begin to occasionally exclude you: not from dislike but for convenience. Do not expect to pick up the language quickly: your classes will be conducted almost entirely in English and your contacts will probably have a reasonably good grasp of English. If you want to learn the language you will have to actively work at it, investing in a dictionary and finding people willing to sit and talk to you slowly and carefully at first. However, once you have the first five hundred words, you will be able to make yourself understood fairly well, and your vocabulary should grow exponentially from there.
Often English-speakers in a country can form an insulated bubble, sticking together and not venturing out of the comfort zone provided by the society of ‘our people’. While this may be a comfort, and tempting to spend all your time with people who understand every word you say, you will most likely regret it when you return home after your contract is up. Force yourself to go out and explore as much of the country as you can, taking in the tourist sights first, and then venturing deeper into the real life of the country that you are visiting. For example, again using Thailand as an example: there are many festivals in Thailand. Do a little research and find out how to participate and then join in with gusto. The experience is free, but will make memories that you will treasure for the rest of your life. However, a cautionary note here, do make sure to take out comprehensive travel insurance for the full duration of your stay: a relatively minor accident can turn into a major expense if you are not covered for every eventuality! Often locals are proud of their country and its heritage and seeing your interest will encourage them to show you the hidden treasures that few foreigners get to experience.
When you travel to teach English as a foreign language, take these thoughts with you: learn at least as much as you teach, have fun, and make memories that will last a lifetime.