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What It’s Really Like to Teach English Abroad

Posted By in Teach English | 27 comments

What It’s Really Like to Teach English Abroad

When you start researching ways to work and travel, teaching English abroad is the first suggestion that pops up almost everywhere you look. It’s probably the quickest, easiest, cheapest way to start traveling right now. The demand for English teachers in Asia is so insatiable that you could virtually be on a plane tomorrow if you wanted to be. But how do know what you’re signing up for when you accept a job you’ve never done, in a country you’ve never been to? What is it really like to spend a year teaching English abroad?

The Kids are Not What You Expect

Many people have this image of Asian kids as quiet, studious and reserved. It’s a fair assumption considering that in most parts of Asia, students cope with the kind of brain-exploding school schedule that Western kids’ nightmares are made of. But all that pressure doesn’t stop them from being kids.

what's it like to teach English abroad

I can’t enter a kindergarten classroom without being mauled by dozens of tiny hands groping any part of my body they can reach. Even the older students run, yell, joke around, and behave pretty much anything but quietly. There are definitely some days – the days when I’ve had my boob grabbed one too many times or been hit in the face with a ball – when I daydream about what it would be like to instead teach a class full of the industrious robots-like children that I had been expecting.  Most of the time, however, they’re adorable little weirdos, and they make me laugh everyday. Particularly in Japan, it’s awesome to see them going wild in those free years they have before they’re expected to conform to this country’s relatively subdued social standards.

You Can Never Get Too Comfortable

Teaching in Japan, and Thailand before that, seemed completely overwhelming at first: Getting to know the students, coming up with discipline strategies, and figuring out how to create lessons that contain at least a hint of fun. Like any job, it gets easier with practice, and planning lessons eventually starts to take 5 minutes instead of 50. At the same time, however, the students are too unpredictable for teaching to ever really become routine. A game that the kids seemed to love one week will be met with heavy eye-rolling the next time I try to play it; a discipline strategy that works in one class will fail in another; a lesson that I thought the students would easily understand, instead ends up stumping them. The moment I think I can take it easy is the moment the whole thing falls apart.

teach English in Japan

Teaching English in English Works…..sometimes…

When I taught in Thailand, I always had a co-teacher in the classroom to translate the lessons into Thai. In Japan, however, it’s just me speaking English, a handful of students speaking Japanese, and somehow we all need to understand each other. I’ve been teaching English to students in English for almost a year now, but I still don’t know if I believe this system works. Hiring native English-speakers to teach English seems to be based around what I think are 2 pretty incorrect assumptions: 1) If the kids are exposed to native English-speakers enough they’ll pick up the language naturally (I totally believe immersion works, but an hour-long English lesson once a week does not immersion make), and 2) all native English-speakers are better English teachers than local teachers who are fluent in English (definitely not true!)

what's it like to teach English abroad

Teaching kindergarten in English is no problem. I hold up a picture of a cat, yell “cat” a few times, then we all dance around and say “cat” some more and the kids get it – it’s a cat. Moving into more complex English structures, however, basically requires students to synthesize English concepts in a way that most aren’t focused enough to do. For example, if they learn how to answer the question “how are you?” with “I’m fine, thank you”, the idea is that they’re going to realize that “you are” and “I am” also go together when forming other sentences with the verb “to be”. That’s some pretty outside-the-box thinking to expect from an 8-year old. Then these poor kids get shuffled along from year to year, even though they completely lost track of what was going on back at “it’s a cat”.

Teaching Adults Isn’t As Easy As It Sounds

If you’re like me, you think that teaching adults sounds like a dream because adult students actually want to come to class. They’re choosing to study English, rather than being forced to by their parents. It means you can just teach without worrying about discipline or motivation. But, instead, teaching English in English becomes an even greater challenge when it comes to adults. Adults ask me questions, like “why are some verbs followed by ‘to’ and some aren’t?” Or, “what’s the difference between fabulous and fantastic?” Imagine trying to explain these concepts at all, let alone using the absolute simplest language possible, and without being totally certain of the range of the person’s English vocabulary.

In other cases, my adult students hold back from asking questions. Sometimes, I think it’s out of politeness or embarrassment that they don’t understand. More often, I think they don’t quite know how to express their question in English, so they don’t ask all, and thus continue not to understand. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for them.

what's it like to teach English abroad

There Are Good Days and Bad Days

This is pretty much the case with any job, but I think teaching comes with an even more extreme set of highs and lows. There are days when I just can’t get the lesson to work, the kids go crazy and I give up half-way through the lesson. The kids learn nothing, leaving me feeling defeated and ashamed that their parents paid for such a useless class. Other days, everything just magically clicks. They get it. They use words that I know I taught them, and even put them together to form sentences. Then, I feel like the master of all education. The key is learning to bask in the victories when they come, and to let go of those inevitable failure days – sometimes I manage to do this, and sometimes it’s not so easy.

After 2 years of teaching English in Asia, I’ll be teaching (hopefully) some of my last classes ever over the next few weeks. The only way I can sum it all up is to say that it’s been both the best and worst job I’ve ever had.


Does this make you want to teach English abroad? Teachers, do you have any additional insights? Share them in the comments!

Want to teach English abroad? Check out the teaching page for more tips on how to do it. 



  1. Steph (@20YH) February 5, 2014

    Awesome post, Jess, and an important one to write, I think. Although Tony & I have both dallied with the idea of teaching English so that we can extend our time in Asia, but the truth is, neither of us is certified to do that kind of job and I think it's unfair to assume that just because we know how to speak English that we would be effective teachers. I'm sure it's something we could learn how to do if we were really passionate about it, but I'd be so worried that I'd be screwing up the kids with my ineptitude! I haven't completely ruled this out as a possibility, but I think it's good for those of us considering this route to fully understand what we are getting into!
    My recent post A Traveler’s Prerogative

    • waysofwanderers February 5, 2014

      Thanks! Brent and I definitely weren't prepared to teach, but I like to think that we (and most other teachers in our situation) try to step up and make it work. At the same time, the whole thing is built on a pretty flawed system. I do think native English-speakers can be quite effective in supplementing English lessons from bilingual teachers – like if a teacher who speaks the local language focuses on grammar foundations, then native English-speakers can help with conversation practice and pronunciation. But just throwing English-speakers into a room with 10 year-olds that have no background in English, isn't really doing anyone any favours.

  2. cvail February 5, 2014

    You've done a great job describing life in a classroom. I've taught English to little tiny children and adults…both challenging, but I have to say it's really fun. I love meeting the people, getting to know their stories, and making friends. I know this doesn't always happen with school age students, but it does seem to open doors that as a traveler passing through…you may not get to do. I think it's well worth a try!
    My recent post Driving in (Eastern) Malaysia

    • waysofwanderers February 5, 2014

      Very true! Teaching definitely gives you an insight into a country that you wouldn't get a just a traveler. It's a totally different perspective.

  3. Catherine February 5, 2014

    I've been thinking about teaching English in Asia for a while, and it's great to get a real insight into what it entails. Most articles I've seen only tell you about how amazing and fun it is, and don't talk about the more difficult aspects of the job. Overall, I still want to do it though, hopefully all the bad times will be worth the good. I was going to ask if you had a chance to go back would you do it again, but I guess if you've already done it twice in two different countries then the answer is yes!

    • waysofwanderers February 5, 2014

      It's true – I'd probably do the 2 years over again too (perhaps not with the same company in Thailand, though!) I'm excited that we're moving on to a new phase in our lives, but teaching was definitely the right choice 2 years ago – I'm glad we did it.

        • waysofwanderers February 7, 2014

          Fun Language. Avoid. I\’ve talked to a few teachers with the JET program in Japan, and they seem pretty happy.

  4. eemusings February 5, 2014

    Thanks for this! A TON of my friends have taught English in Asia (very common for Kiwis to do abroad) but aside from a one week stint at a conversational English immersion course in Germany (with adults who already have a decent grasp of English) we never did this while travelling and I have no desire to. English is my jam, was always my best subject and I write for a living, but I feel I would be a TERRIBLE teacher.

    • waysofwanderers February 5, 2014

      Good point – speaking English well definitely does not make you a good teacher. Simply understanding the grammar doesn't necessarily make you good at explaining it.

  5. ferretingoutthefun February 5, 2014

    I'm actually thinking about getting certified to teach English abroad because I think it could enrich my expat experience and introduce me to more people outside my husband's work community. I know several other people who've taught in Japan and generally had favorable things to say about their experiences, though I'm sure a lot depends on the school and students you happen to get.
    My recent post Snapshot: Central Park in Winter

    • waysofwanderers February 5, 2014

      You should try it! It's definitely all about the school and the students. As I said in one of the above comments, I think programs that use native English-speakers to help with conversation practice are totally effective. If I were to do it again, I'd look for programs where I could assist and work along with local teachers, rather than being the person to provide the students' only grammatical foundations.

  6. @creative_nomad_ February 6, 2014

    Im a graphic designer by trade but am considering teaching english overseas, I guess for the same reason as most being its a good way to travel and work. Though reading articles like this make me realise its probably not as easy as I thought. I certainly doubt I have the personality to teach, however im looking forward to giving it a shot for the experience right??? great article! really insightful, thanks for writing it!

    • waysofwanderers February 6, 2014

      It definitely depends on the program – some require really outgoing personalities because you have to be kind of a clown for the kids, while others let you stay more in the background. I haven't always been successful at finding a program that fits with my style.

  7. Natalie Tamara February 9, 2014

    Couldn't agree more with all of this. I taught in South Korea for three years and never quite believed in the teaching only in English past a certain level. On the other hand, I worked in a couple of schools where the Korean teachers had very low fluency in English – they could explain the grammar to the students using Korean but weren't really able to use it themselves. I rarely heard an English word being spoken in their classes so there definitely needs to be a balance.

    Overall it was an amazing experience though – and you're right it is such a good way to start travelling right away! I'm not sure so much about in Japan or Thailand, but in Korea it was always a great way to save up to do more travelling afterwards as well 🙂

  8. waysofwanderers February 9, 2014

    Totally – I think under-qualified local teachers can do just as much damage as inexperienced foreign teachers. It's kind of a broken system, which is sad for the kids.

  9. Abby February 11, 2014

    I taught English in Korea for one year (as I see a few other did as well) and I am considering going back after I finish grad school — and I agree immensely with your statement that teaching creates extreme highs and lows. It does! I've taught for five years and the good days are AMAZING while the bad days always end in tears and a bottle of wine — there is no in between.
    xx Abby | a geek tragedy

    • waysofwanderers February 11, 2014

      So true! And even if you're only doing it for a year, I think most people can't help but want to do a good job and that's definitely challenging sometimes.

  10. Charlie February 15, 2014

    You are so right that you can never get too comfortable! Kids always throw curve balls even if you've been teaching them for months. Did you prefer teaching in Thailand or Japan? I taught in Taiwan for a year, loved it, but the work was hard at times.
    My recent post Picture This: Love & Apples in a Hertfordshire Village

    • waysofwanderers February 15, 2014

      There were pros and cons to both. In Thailand, we had co-teachers and very structured curriculum which I liked. In Japan, we have smaller classes, less strangling supervision and better hours. I'd really like to visit Taiwan. People seem to universally love it the same way they do Japan :).

  11. cslb February 18, 2014

    Great post, sums up a lot about how I am feeling one year into teaching in Thailand. Particularly resonant are you comments on the highs and lows – good days are amazing, and bad days are horrific! Though, it sounds like your experience in Thailand was very different to the one I'm having – we have little in the way of a curriculum and supervision is anything but strangling. Pros and cons in themselves!

    • waysofwanderers February 18, 2014

      Definitely! Whenever people ask me to compare teaching in Thailand and Japan it's tough because I think it depends so much on the company you work for. I would have had totally different experiences in each country if we had worked for different schools.

  12. TammyOnTheMove February 19, 2014

    I really salute you for teaching. I don’t think I could do it. Children scare the hell out of me. 😉

  13. Chetali March 19, 2014

    Thanks a lot for sharing this amazing knowledge with us.That was good point for learning English.
    Really fantastic post.I always find great knowledge from it.
    My recent post An unforgettable journey to Udaipur

  14. David April 20, 2014

    Hi, interesting to read a perspective from a different part of the world. I teach mostly adults in Europe, and have found a similar experience.

    In some cases here, if you're working at a school, the company will pay for their staff to have lessons, which makes it more difficult – it's now you, your students, the company and the school all involved in deciding what the course should look like. On top of that, if they only have one hour a week and then go on business trips, etc, it's not really motivating.

    I've found that I enjoy teaching the most when I'm on my own with a class 🙂
    My recent post What Do You Need To Unlearn?

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