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Teaching abroad versus teaching at home

May 20, 2008

Hello again,

For many English language teachers the allure of foreign travel is more important than the desire to teach. For decades young graduates have tacked a TEFL certificate on to their degree and set out in search of experience and adventure. Does teaching abroad require any special qualities...

...that would not be needed for teaching at home? And if you teach EL at home, do you lack a perspective if you don’t gain experience abroad?

Before deciding take the plunge to travel and teach, it is worth reflecting on how you will cope with the new situation. You will first need to be receptive to the host culture. This will mean that when you face new ideas, new ways of working, new people, different values, you can accept these as different but valid. If you go with the belief that your own way of doing things is the only way, if you are suspicious of the new people you meet, and if you cannot respect the values of the host culture, you will find it hard to settle and will not be able to build relationships with the people you meet.

You will also have to be sufficiently adaptable to blend into the local style of doing things. Take working hours. Mediterranean cultures, for example, often have early starts, long lunch breaks and late finishes. It’s a timetable that takes some getting used to because that lunchtime break really does need to be a time when you wind down and rest, otherwise the working day and its related stresses will occupy every waking minute.

It is also essential to be able to take an objective view of the host culture and not to judge new colleagues. For example, a teacher who moves to a culture in which the normal working environment is very hierarchical should not be surprised if individual colleagues lack initiative. What may seem a negative quality from a western perspective could well be strength in the local context.

You will need to be sensitive to the customs, motives and values of the host country, your employers and your students. You will have establish rapport by showing an interest in the host culture. As the outsider it is important not to offend by flouting local dress code, being over familiar—or too distant, as the case may be—or showing impatience with aspects of behavior that are in keeping with local tradition.

Resilience and emotional robustness are also important. The period of settling in will involve what is known as culture shock. This involves some key stages, the second of which puts a big strain on both physical and emotional strength. To begin with you will go through a honeymoon period in which all the new experiences are exciting and stimulating. But this is followed by a period of disorientation during which homesickness, loneliness, frustration and disillusionment with the host culture will cause a great deal of stress. To be able to pass through this to the stage of acceptance requires considerable inner strength.

Of course underpinning all these competencies is knowledge. Firstly you need to understand the theory of culture difference. Culture goes very deep and the unfamiliar behavior patterns are the external signs of underlying values. It will help you to understand the nature of different cultural values. Then you should have country specific knowledge that prepares you for what you will find.

The teacher who gives due consideration to these points before departing will be better prepared for the exciting new challenge.

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Comments

  1. Bob Maier Says:

    The travel catalogs and country/school websites show a completely different picture of the people and surrounding areas from what a teacher who will remain in one location actually encounters. After the honeymoon period these differences begin to come out in the stark reality of realizing what is actually in front of you. In one South American country I recently visited for three months teaching, I was confronted with the populace frequently urinating and even defecating in whatever nook and corner struck their fancy, terrible food, frequent serious sickness among the entire non-native staff, unsafe water (though we were told it was safe) and on and on. Many of the teachers could take all this in stride and avoided uncomfortable encounters whenever possible but unless a person is very resilient, the entire experience becomes negative. I failed to accept the cultural differences when my health rapidly deteriorated and was treated as everyone's personal ATM machine.

  1. St. George Says:

    Hello Brenda

    You didn't publish my comments, which were posted before Bob Maier's. Is this an oversight or was there something in my comment you didn't like?

    Regards

    St. G

  1. Lena Says:

    We all say that teaching is teaching and, essentially, all students are the same.
    This is often true if we're talking universals - we ALL want to have food, money, love, respect, etc - but reactions will be very different in topical situations (i.e. what should i do when students pay for my lunch?)

    what i have discovered though (i am in Vietnam now, my third country)is that although students may, to some extent, be the same, I am not...
    Wherever you go, you WILL change. If you have been in a country for say a year or two, you've probably picked up some unusual habits; they may feel like second nature to you, but your friends back home will surely notice the chopsticks you carry in your bag "just in case":)

    To make things easier at the beginning, it is important to go to a culture that you feel comfortable with, because once u get there, you're bound to encounter things that'll make you uncomfortable. It's all there - food, language, religion, dress code, climate, constant staring, (lack of)hygiene, red tape, insane traffic.

    I believe in love, love for the culture and love for yourself in that culture. If you've been in a country for a while (6-8 months) and all you have to say about it starts with "i really hate it when they...", then maybe it's time to move on. some marriages just won't work.

    hope this helps,
    Lena

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