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How I Survived My First Year Teaching English Abroad (And How You Can Too!)

Posted By in Expat Life, Teach English, Thailand, Travel Tips, What I've Learned | 21 comments

How I Survived My First Year Teaching English Abroad (And How You Can Too!)

It’s safe to say that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I accepted a job teaching English in Thailand. I didn’t have a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certificate, and I had never really worked with children before.  The whole year felt a bit like learning to fly a plane while already in the air. However, I emerged from my first year teaching English abroad with a whole lot of knowledge, as well as with a new love and respect for all kids. Here are a few tips for other newbies approaching a year of teaching English abroad and feeling just as unprepared as I was.

Set Boundaries

first year teaching English abroad

I’ve said it before: I just don’t like punishing kids. Maybe I’m still a bit of an idealist, but I don’t believe that kids misbehave for no reason.  Are they bored? Maybe confused by the lesson? Whatever the cause, it’s probably more about my teaching style than it is about the actual kid.  Instead of dolling out threats and punishment, I should be trying to understand the underlying issue.

Most of my classes were lovely: Maybe they had a genuine desire to learn and I succeeded at keeping them engaged, or maybe they had been well-trained by strict homeroom teachers. Yet, some of my other classes taught me an unfortunate lesson in what happens when you don’t set clear expectations for your students.  There were a few classes that quickly recognized my lackadaisical approach to authority. It was a slow process, but in retrospect, I realize that they pushed the boundaries a little more every lesson. And every time they pushed, I let it happen. So they kept pushing.  And eventually I was stuck with some seriously out-of-control classes: They broke my supplies, yelled, ran around, and generally had no sense of appropriate classroom behaviour.

My leniency didn’t benefit anyone. I’m sure it was fun for the kids at first, but by the end of the year, certain classes were making me feel exhausted and frustrated. As a result, I wasn’t acting like the kind of teacher that any kid would want to have.

I feel pretty certain that if I had just demonstrated standards of behavior from the beginning, these particular lessons could have been more enjoyable for both me and the students. Setting clear boundaries doesn’t make me a harsh teacher – ultimately, it actually makes me more fun because everyone wins when the classes run smoothly.

Learn the Kids’ Names

first year teaching English abroad

The benefits of this are probably obvious, but when I first started teaching, I didn’t make learning names a priority. I was teaching upwards of 500 kids each week, and their Thai names were as difficult to pronounce as they were to remember. I didn’t make some conscious decision not to bother with their names, but since they all wore nametags, it just didn’t seem essential at a time when I was trying to get my head around the basics of teaching.  Later on in the year when I had found my teaching groove, I started to focus on smaller details like these, and I then began to realize the huge significance of names. The kids seemed to glow with a little more pride when I used their names to praise them instead of a vague “Good girl” or “Yes, you’re right!” The praise was more meaningful, and I think it made the students more eager to speak out when they knew the answers. On the opposite end, that old adage about disobedient kids really just wanting attention seemed to hold up. I think acknowledgement was all these kids wanted in most cases, and using their names gave them that.

Plus, as I came to know the students’ names, and consequently recognized each individual kid, I felt less like I was staring out into a sea of tiny faces when I stood up to teach. I was speaking to kids that I knew (and even liked!) It didn’t matter that there were 27 of us in the room – the teaching felt more personal.

Take the Simple Approach

first year teaching English abroad

Here was the premise of the most popular game in my class of 5-year-olds:  When I held the flashcard up high in the air, the students would yell the vocabulary as loud as they could; then when I held the card near the floor, they would whisper the word. It sent them into fits of laughter and joy every time.

Lessons don’t need to be complicated and kids aren’t hard to please.  It doesn’t mean you need to be boring, but once you figure out what the kids like, stick with it. Don’t overthink your lessons – whenever I do, the lesson usually ends up being confusing rather than interesting.  Teaching is kind of like traveling in that way:  Planning is helpful to a certain point, but it’s definitely possible to make life more difficult by doing too much.

Let Go of Logic

first year teaching English abroad

To be honest, most of the time it wasn’t the kids that presented a problem, it was the management. Jobs teaching English abroad tend to come with frustrating cultural differences.  By cultural differences, I don’t mean bowing to colleagues or not touching things with your feet. I mean basing the recipient of an English award on which student is “cuter”; not being able to provide extra support for developmentally delayed students; or not being able to assign any student a grade lower than a “C”.  I resented decisions that benefited the company over the students, heavy-handed hierarchical management structures, and constantly being forced to act as a propaganda tool.

The bottom line is that you will probably be asked to say and do things that seem (and objectively probably are) ridiculous. In general (at least in Asia), the status quo is king, so decisions don’t have to make sense, and there doesn’t have to be a reason. It’s humbling, but teaching life gets a lot easier when you stop seeking logic and explanation. Embrace the chaos, accept everything as it comes, and enjoy the ride.

Thinking about teaching English abroad? Check out my post on essential questions to ask before accepting a job!

TEFL teachers! What are your best tips for first-timers?



  1. Vanessa February 25, 2013

    Excellent post! Whenever a new teacher comes to our school in Korea, I try to hint that instead of studying all the material they will be teaching for the whole year, spend some time thinking about classroom discipline. The first week is so important!
    I walked into my first day of teaching ESL knowing exactly what material I was going to teach, how to make it fun, etc, but I didn't set any ground rules like "What is/isn't acceptable in Vanessa's class" "What will happen if you finish your homework perfectly/participate in class or if you don't" etc. Since then I've created a few colorful, flashy PowerPoint slides that I now show to each of my new classes letting the students know what I expect from them (without being a dictator about it—I hate just using "teacher power" to make kids do things) and what they can expect from my class . I can't even begin to describe what a difference that has made!
    p.s. Last year I had to give a girl a "C" in my class… even though she hadn't brought her book/homework once in 3 months and never participated. Even though those instances are pretty annoying, I think they do serve as an interesting reflection on the culture's ideas towards education/parenting/children/business.
    My recent post Four Student Drawings to Make You Laugh (or Scream)

    • waysofwanderers February 25, 2013

      Thanks, Vanessa! I like the PowerPoint idea! I know I'll definitely be taking a different approach, and setting some standards with the kids early on next year.

  2. Ashley February 27, 2013

    I've always wanted to go teach abroad and I find this post to be incredibly helpful!! My boyfriend and i have been discussing TEFL and have opted a wait and see approach for now! Its just so pricey! What an awesome oppertunity to spend a year in Thailand teaching!
    My recent post Bus-ing It: The Good, Bad and Ugly

    • waysofwanderers February 27, 2013

      I'm glad you liked it, Ashley! We've managed to find jobs in Thailand and Japan without getting TEFL certificates (because yeah, they can be a big expense and time commitment). Check out Dave's ESL Cafe – there are jobs for every level of experience!

      • SeaB October 19, 2015

        Hi! I am super interested in teaching abroad, I could probably afford a tefl, but it would be preferable to get my first job without one. The main problem I'm having is the requirement of a four year university degree, which I don't have. Any hints on countries or websites that don't require that? Or are there any? Thanks for any help, and an interesting read!

  3. TammyOnTheMove March 1, 2013

    Ezcellent post Jess! I was thinking about teaching before as well, but l have never taught before and would probably find it all a bit overwhelming. I am sure you get the hang of it after a while, but I really have a lot of respect for people like you who teach. It is such an important job, especially in developing countries. So well done for sticking with it and finding your own ways of teaching effectively.
    My recent post Koh Kong in pictures

    • waysofwanderers March 1, 2013

      Thanks, Tammy! It was definitely a big learning curve, but it turned out to be a wonderful experience. I would recommend it for anyone.

  4. The Hairy Chef March 10, 2013

    Interesting reflections! My first classon Thailand started out with 55 students, and 45 minutes later I had 10 in the classroom because they had been sneaking out 1 by 1 every time I turned to write on the board. I've now been teaching for 5 years. MY advice to anyone looking into EFL would be keep it simple, and praise positive behaviour. It's so easy to remember how important praise and recognition is in the language classrom!
    My recent post How I blog: Things I wish I’d known about blogging

    • waysofwanderers March 10, 2013

      55 students! Wow – I thought 25-30 was a handful. And I totally agree with your advice – I definitely undervalued praise at first, but it really does make an enormous difference.

  5. Renee June 5, 2013

    This was incredibly reassuring and helpful. I've taken the plunge and have moved from Australia to the Philippines (I'm the daughter of an Australian father and Filipina mother), and am staying here a few months to learn about my family, heritage, travel and to teach English. I haven't gotten a job yet as I've only been here two weeks (and my millions of cousins have kept my well-occupied until now) and am terrified of starting work. I've never taught a class before, although I have completed TESOL Cert 4. ]I'm certain I will love teaching, and I love kids, but I was so scared to take the next step until I found this post. Thank you.
    My recent post Ways of Life

    • waysofwanderers June 5, 2013

      Thanks, Renee! And congrats on going for it! Teaching can definitely be intimidating at first, but like anything else, it gets easier with practice. Feel free to drop me an email if you have any questions.

  6. Adrian June 18, 2013

    Wow. You sound like a lovely teacher. I related and agreed with pretty much everything you wrote here. I adore teaching in Thailand, but feel a bit sad at times knowing it doesn't fulfil me, no matter how much I love the kids.
    My recent post A Sunday Drive to Doi Saket

    • waysofwanderers June 18, 2013

      Thanks, Adrian! I wouldn't say teaching is my passion in life, but I try to do the best I can with it. I like the kids, and I think it's a great way to work and travel. It definitely feels really good when you can finish a day of teaching and know that the kids learned something.

  7. Jessica Wray July 24, 2013

    Fabulous post, I can't believe I missed it before this! These are great tips that I need to take into account when I begin my next job. One of which I need to do this time, which I didn't the last was memorize the names. Korean names were so hard to me…and none of the other teachers knew them either. I felt so bad though! In Spain, I'll be sure to make it happen. 🙂
    My recent post More 20-Something Turmoil: The Problem and Solution Lies in Travel

    • waysofwanderers July 25, 2013

      Thanks, Jessica! I'm sure Spanish names will probably be easier to remember! I'm lucky this year – last year I had about 25 students per class, and 25 different classes per week – learning all those names was seriously challenging! But this year, I have roughly the same number of classes, but only about 4 students per class – waaaay easier!

  8. usaabroad July 31, 2013

    Some really great tips Jess! I'll be heading off to asia next year to begin teaching english for the first time (teaching anything for the first time, nevermind teaching english!). I am pretty nervous about it but really excited and reading your posts have gotten me even more excited/confident about it! Thanks for the tips and I look forward to reading more!

    • waysofwanderers July 31, 2013

      Thank you! Feel free to send me an email if you have any questions. Where are you going to be teaching?

      • usaabroad August 1, 2013

        Still trying to decide, but I think I've narrowed it down to Vietnam or South Korea. Still lots of research to do!
        My recent post Grey Skies

  9. Donald September 9, 2015

    Awesome post! I originally found your website through the interview you had on the nomadic matt website. I've been doing a lot of research myself in hopes of traveling abroad and teaching English, and hopefully with my girlfriend as well! I was curious as to know whether or not you had any recommended programs for a tesol certificate, if I did want to go that route? Or if any other viewers on this site that has had experience teaching abroad have any advice/recommendations for which program to choose? Thanks so much and keep living that awesome life!!!

    • waysofwanderers September 10, 2015

      Hi Donald! I wrote a post over at Twenty-Something Travel that you might find helpful in terms of tesol – http://twenty-somethingtravel.com/2015/02/teachin

      I've always gotten the impression that Cambridge CELTA is kind of the gold standard for tesol programs, but I've never taken it myself, so I can't personally recommend it. As I mention in the article I linked to, at the very least I would go for an in-class course rather than an online one.

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