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The Ups and Downs of Teaching English Abroad

Posted By in Expat Life, Teach English, What I've Learned | 17 comments

The Ups and Downs of Teaching English Abroad

When Brent and I first decided to teach English abroad, I made the mistake that many first-time overseas teachers make: I thought about what my life in Thailand would be like, instead of considering the actual job to which I was committing myself. That all changed the day I walked into my first classroom, and saw 25 expectant students waiting for me. Then I realized that I was actually responsible for a bunch of children.  So for those of you who might be considering teaching ESL abroad, here’s my break-down of the highs and lows of teaching English abroad.

The Ups

Kids are Kind of Fascinating

I was most certainly not someone who would have been described as a “kid person” when I first started teaching.  I had never spent any significant time with kids,  and I didn’t really feel comfortable interacting with them.  Taking on full-time teaching was like diving into the deep end in terms of learning how to relate to children.  It was terrifying at first, but over the past 7 months, I’ve come to realize that kids are actually kind of amazing. They can be disarmingly quick-witted, hysterically funny (both on purpose and completely unintentionally), as well as filled with an unrestrained joy that most adults can only dream about possessing.

teach English in Thailand

I still don’t always feel like I know the right thing to say to my students, and the language barrier only adds to the challenge; but this never seems to matter because they also happen to unconditionally adore the Western teachers. Every morning when I arrive at school, I am greeting by literally 100s of kids running towards me, smiling, shouting my name excitedly, and hi-fiving me. Who wouldn’t warm to that kind of reception?


Helping kids learn to speak English feels like a 10 on the benevolent-occupations’ scale. When it comes to my job,  I figure that Thai isn’t really spoken anywhere outside of Thailand, so if these kids grow up only speaking Thai, then their options in the future are limited to one small country.  English language skills are therefore a stepping stone towards living and traveling anywhere in the world. No one ever regrets learning a second language. Personally, I’m so grateful that in Canada we were required to study French from a young age in school.  It’s a little cheesified, but I feel good going to work everyday and knowing that I’m helping to create so many possibilities for my students, and teaching them a skill that will last a lifetime.

Paradise Proximal

Living and working in Thailand provides me with an opportunity to experience this country in a way that would never have been possible if I had just vacationed here as a tourist.  I’ve been able to see the big attractions, plus I also have time to visit off-the-beaten-track places that most tourists can’t fit into their itinerary. I’ve had some of my most memorable travel experiences here because I’m never in a rush. It feels like I have all the time in the world to explore Thailand. Living in a small town means that I’m immersed in the local culture all day, every day.  Plus, if I ever have a rough week at work, it helps to know that this is where I get to spend my weekend:

teach English in Thailand

The Downs


Teaching young kids is a flat-out exhausting job. Kids have a lot of energy, and if I don’t match that level with my teaching,  I inevitably loose their attention.  It may seem obvious, but teaching English isn’t the kind of job where you can just show up, zone out, and go through the motions of your work day. If my lessons are going to have any lasting impact, I have to be engaged in what I’m doing at every moment. Having an off-day is a huge disservice to the students. Sometimes I think there’s this perception that teaching English abroad is kind of a cop-out-of-life-slacker job,  yet, for me,  it’s actually one of the more challenging jobs I’ve ever had. It can be fun, but you have to be prepared to bring your A-game.

Don’t Do That

Remember when I said that kids are kind of amazing? It’s true….most of the time. I’m not a natural disciplinarian, and I don’t think that learning can be forced down a kid’s throat. I feel like it’s my responsibility to motivate my students to learn. If they’re distracted and misbehaving, then it’s my fault, not theirs.  But, sometimes I try my hardest to make the lesson interesting, and they still act like brats. It’s 25 vs. 1: there are a lot more of them than there are of me. There have been classes in which I literally stand at the front of the room, feeling completely defeated, while the students run around and yell wildly. As you might guess, that doesn’t feel so great.


Shut Up and Teach

Once we were planning some lessons on Western countries, and I was told to teach my students that penguins live in Canada. Sometimes I have to teach grammatical structures that I don’t agree with, or topics that I think are just plain ridiculous.

In Thailand, the management style tends to be paternal: Just do what I say and don’t question any of it. From what I understand, this is common across the board in Asia. Problems are shoved aside and concerns smothered for the sake of keeping up appearances.  That said,  I do believe that if you’re selective about where you teach, you can find a school that shares your teaching philosophy.


Ultimately, for me, the ups generally outnumber the downs. Teaching English is far from perfect, but it’s still a fantastic way to throw yourself out into the world and have a new experience. It offers a chance to travel slowly, and really sink your teeth into the nuances of a particular culture – plus it’s a rewarding job to boot.

Still interesting in teaching English abroad? Check out my post on How to Choose the Right Job Teaching English Abroad for essential questions to ask any potential employer.

Have you ever taught English abroad?



  1. Vanessa December 6, 2012

    I totally agree that walking into a classroom is a daunting feeling–all those kids are at the mercy of your lesson plan… so it better be a good one! I like your attitude of taking the students misbehavior as a lack of planning on the part of the teacher (except for those few bag eggs). Most of the time my coworkers spend too much time blaming the students for acting out… but I just want to tell them, "On a scale of 1-10, how fun/engaging do you think your lesson was today?… yeah, that's probably why they acted out."

    I love teaching in Korea, but the business aspect does stink sometimes. It's really just a reflection on the parents though… they want to "keep face" that their child is doing well, so when a teacher says that their child is struggling or causing problems, the parents don't accept it (maybe leave the school with their money) . Those moments aside, it does feel good to try to give the kids 50 minutes of fun learning in the midst of the Korean study-study-study-stress culture.
    My recent post Portraits of Daniel and Vanessa Teacher

    • waysofwanderers December 7, 2012

      I find the "keeping face" thing is particularly frustrating when it comes to children who are clearly mentally disabled. They just get lumped in with all the other kids their age instead of getting the extra attention they deserve and need.

      I totally agree that it feels good to give the kids some fun in their day. In the other classes, the students are sitting at desks having information drilled into them, whereas the English lessons are more interactive. At least they're enjoying themselves, and I definitely think it helps the language to stick better too.

  2. @JoysAbroad December 7, 2012

    Yes I totally agree. I was soooo overwhelmed when I first started teaching. I can't believe it's 2 years later and I just accepted another teaching job. I think my favorite part is that kids ARE fascinating. Especially when they're learning another language. Great post!
    My recent post I am now the proud owner of . . . . . . NOTHING!

    • waysofwanderers December 7, 2012

      Thank, Joy. I agree – I love observing how the kids learn, and make the first steps towards actually using English. It definitely keeps things interesting. But, time does fly when you're teaching! We're already finishing our first year, and figuring out where to move on to next – having some experience now really opens up our options, which is exciting!

  3. Sonja December 10, 2012

    Very interesting….I have often wondered about teaching ESL abroad. I have a degree in elementary education, so a lot of your issues wouldn't bother me. Plus, I know have two teen-agers, so I am very well versed in discipline! 🙂 But I was considering this as a type of "retirement" job in my 50's. Do you see many older teachers? What do you think of that idea?
    My recent post Wild West Road Trip: Mammoth Hot Springs (Yellowstone)

    • Sonja December 10, 2012

      Seriously, it is so embarrassing to say you have a degree in education and then see a spelling error! I NOW have two teen-agers….is what I meant to say. 🙂
      My recent post Louie: Not so Crazy anymore

      • waysofwanderers December 11, 2012

        Haha, Sonja, I'm completely appalled by myself when I make grammatical/spelling errors too! It's definitely possible to find an ESL job when you're over 50, and I think it's a fantastic idea. At any age, it's a great way to travel and experience a new culture. Some schools are age-biased towards recent university grads, but there are also plenty of others out there that are willing to look at your qualifications instead of your age.
        My recent post Sunday Snapshot: Inside Palma Cathedral

  4. Craig January 11, 2013

    I've always dreamed of teaching English abroad. I came this close to applying for the JET program to teach english in Japan, but I chickened out. Look forward to hearing more about your teaching adventures
    My recent post Hidden Romantic Boston: The Best Spots for Romance

    • waysofwanderers January 11, 2013

      Thanks, Craig! And for what's it's worth, I think you should totally go for it teaching English abroad. It's such a life-changing experience.

  5. Nici@Travelingandtha January 30, 2013

    We too teach in Thailand and have had so many moments where banging our heads against walls would have been preferable to all of the outside of the classroom crap, as you mentioned the 'Face' issue. The way we've managed to cope is by thinking about the small handful of kids who really do benefit from your lessons. Even if they're unable to learn a whole lot because of over crowding and lack of facilities, if you have made their day a little more interesting and shown them just a little love and attention, it can be a lot more than they get at home in between being ferried from one after school class to another.

    • waysofwanderers January 30, 2013

      I think that's the best way to approach it, Nici. It's a little cheeseified, but I know I make a difference to at least a few kids, and that kind of makes that other crap worth it.

  6. Janie February 4, 2013

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on teaching English abroad Jess. It really takes a lot of effort on your end especially when teaching kids, although nothing beats the feeling of fulfillment when you know that they are learning a lot from you.

    I said that because I compare this with my experience in teaching college students, (not English) and I can really tell the difference in terms of motivation to learn. There are more college students that are going to school for the wrong reasons, but will begin to study more when you show them that you care as a teacher.

    • waysofwanderers February 4, 2013

      Thanks Janie! I'm completely amazed at the impact my own engagement as a teacher has on the students. If I didn't feel like being there on a particular day, the kids definitely show me that they don't want to be there either!

  7. Hata trbonja February 23, 2014

    I teach EFL in France. Was a professional teacher back in the US. I love being with my students. They brighten my day and help me get through some tough ones. Not speaking the language is difficult and also the business aspect is hard to swallow sometimes. But, my students teach me as much as I teach them.
    PS Sesame Street has great videos for younger learners and Google Translate works wonders when trying to manage classroom behavior.

  8. Hannah July 5, 2014

    Hi Jessica!
    I was just wondering what made you decide to teach English in Thailand as opposed to another country?

    • waysofwanderers July 5, 2014

      I was just more curious about Thailand than a lot of the countries where jobs were offered – there were a lot of postings in South Korea, for example, which didn't particularly appeal to Brent and I. Plus, the particular company we worked for didn't require TEFL certificates (which we don't have), which ruled out a fair number of other jobs/countries for us.

      • Kayla December 28, 2014

        Hi Jessica!
        I am currently planning a year and a half trip around the world beginning in May which includes a semester teaching ESL in Thailand. There are so many teaching abroad programs out there – how do you decide which one to go with or could you recommend any programs? I have my B.A. in Literature and I have experience as a volunteer ESL teacher, but I am not certified; do you think the TEFL certification is worth it or can one get by without it?
        Thank you!

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