In my previous article I penned down the route to execute one’s journey to teach abroad [Read it here – How to get teaching jobs abroad from India]. Change is the essence of life and every change comes with its own baggage of challenges and rewards. All that glitters is not gold.
In this article I would like to analyse the positives and challenges of teaching abroad, what to expect and some general tips to not only survive the weathering forces but also to flourish and make the best out of the experience.
The analysis is not country specific but applies in general to most of the countries based on my experience abroad as well as my research and discussion with other colleagues working in different parts of the world.
The upsides and rewards of teaching abroad
Opportunity to learn and immerse with the local culture and traditions
Working abroad gives us the leverage to interact with local citizens, make friends with them and understand the country’s culture from their perspective.
It is a beautiful experience to witness and soak oneself in the local festive celebrations and learn its history and cultural importance.
For example not only did I experience the feisty National day celebration of U.A.E but also understood the importance of unification of the seven emirates which boosted the economy of the country and Gulf at large.
Gastronomy: exploring the flavors of the world –
According to me cooking is not only an art but also a therapy. The cuisine of a country not only reflects the taste buds of the local population but also its culture and impact in the global world.
It was only after tasting locally prepared hummus, an Arabic dish which acts as a dip for their bread, I could understand why it was adopted by Israelis as one of their national treasures and obsession.
Spending a good amount of time in a new location is like putting a fresh palate in front of you. The grocery stores shelves will be like exploring a museum of new products.
In Dubai products were packaged in cartons, where ingredients and other information where written in more than one language which were Arabic, French and one or two more European languages like German or Russian. Reading them not only honed my French vocabulary but also helped me to acquire some German words.
Understanding your expertise through a new lens
Working in a native country for years can make us experts in our respective field but working in a new country with unfamiliar surrounding can seem a whole new career. The heaviness of being successful will be outweighed by the lightness of being a beginner.
It is an opportunity for rejuvenating oneself and looking at oneself with a new perspective. Teaching in a new culture will stimulate new ideas where one can relate to students in a whole new way and dimension.
Meeting people from all walks of life can be an eye opener and help you to figure out who you are and who you are not which will inculcate new perspectives, priorities and goals.
For a fresh graduate who is not sure about what to do for the rest of life, this experience can act as a time for reflection and one can recalibrate before plunging onto a set career path. After all a life of semi–nomadism can act as an antidote for midlife crisis.
The best part both travelling in the country as well as different neighboring countries depending on the political situation also. Whether you enjoy travelling in a group or like to do your soul searching as a backpack solo traveler, teaching abroad can act as a platform to match your tastes.
Sign up for sites like Couchsurfing or Airbnb to receive notifications of special and cheap fares.
Significant savings to invest back home or to pay off debts. Tax–free salary in Gulf can be one of the attractive reasons to work there.
For fresh graduates teaching ESL abroad can help them pay of the huge student loans and save further.
Professional development and career growth
Overseas teaching provides a strong learning curve and an excellent opportunity to work with industry experts in different domains of teaching.
Companies owning a cluster of schools while offering professional development programme draws its expertise from staff within schools, corporate office and international consultants and advisors.
Trainers and participants track their progress and learning impact through action planning and portfolio development. Also working with a dedicated and talented group of colleagues can not only act as a morale booster but can also be intellectually fulfilling.
Working in a culturally diverse environment
International schools abroad can provide a fascinating and diverse multicultural environments to work, ranging from host country schools to schools catering mainly for expatriates—and everything in between.
Not only students but even teachers and staff members hail from different countries giving it a truly cosmopolitan structure. An international network of contacts can prove to be a boon in many ways. Maybe someday you would like to undergo a career transition, start a blog, intern in a company, or help a friend move overseas.
Imagine how your international contacts can be a great asset to help you on your way. For example in my case my present school principal happened to be my first boss when I was working in Dubai.
International exposure and work experience
International teaching experience can be the cynosure on one’s résumé. It’s unique, and grabs an employer’s attention by showing them you are independent, risk taker, flexible and can adjust well.
Not only is it valued by international employees but also highly valued by our Indian schools in case if someone wants to return back.
One can multiply their impact by teaching and making a difference in the lives of children from different countries and ethnicities and working with a variety of different parent communities.
Also volunteering during one’s free time or tying up with one’s school community outreach programme can dramatically bolster the impact.
After your stint abroad you are better prepared for any profession, whether you want to continue teaching or choose a career switch. Making a teaching job abroad a reality requires initiative.
Working in countries, where residents use languages they don’t speak, eat food they don’t recognize and follow a different lifestyle and belief system requires one to be self motivated, take charge of the reigns and be a problem solver.
All these will churn out a leader who is comfortable to take charge as well as mentor and support other colleagues.
Apart from this you can wax eloquent stories about your negotiation skills and tenacity to your future employees or university admission committees in case you want to pursue further studies.
Not only this you become a better person and more compassionate as research has shown that travelers are resourceful people, better problem solvers, more intelligent, and can make better friends.
The downsides and challenges of Teaching abroad
Once you have touched ground in your new abode, be prepared that things won’t turn up as planned. Cultural norms and language barrier will be overwhelmingly apparent especially in South East Asian countries where language issue is more pronounced. To add up to it thriving in a new environment with unknown people.
This transition can seem daunting in the first place but after a short period of time the dust will settle down and things will fall into place once you have got yourself a bit more acquainted.
Prior research and planning your trip in a meticulous way can avoid a lot of end moment surprises. Do figure out what kind of electric plug sockets are used, for example U.A.E uses the flat pin ones whereas in India we use the round pin ones.
It would be prudent to learn elementary numbers from 1 – 50 if your emigrating to a country which does not use English numerals on their signboards, currency etc. Learning a few basic words and sentences can be a real icebreaker while seeking help from the natives.
Even if you just say one sentence that you don’t know the language in their language, the natives will be more than eager to help you in every possible way.
Apart from this don’t expect a bouquet or a very warm welcome at your workplace. Many people are lucky, but expect the unexpected.
For example, the first day when I arrived at my organisation just two days after I landed in U.A.E, I was asked and later forced by my management team to teach Kindergarten classes, something which was not mentioned in my contract letter nor was it discussed during my recruitment interview.
Leaving my job back in India and coming all the way to a new country and witnessing brickbats on the very first day of my work was not a very reassuring situation for me. It was only after two restless days that I decided that I have to put my foot down even if it meant I had to quit and return back to India.
Though I had verbally discussed with my seniors that I was not happy by this decision but it was not so productive. Hence this time I resorted to written email communication clearly quoting the clauses of my contract letter.
That was enough for the ball to start rolling and the very next day I was allotted my department as mentioned in my contract letter.
Moral of the story, read your contract letter and understand the legal implications very well and above all have the courage to say no to exploitation even if it means starting your career with some friction.
Over the passage of time when I used to see my other colleagues who faced the same situation but could not stand for themselves at that point of time, I felt I took a right decision. It eased my life for the next two years which helped me focus at my work and enjoy it.
The grass in this case is not always greener on the other side. Every country has its own set of local customs, culture, government laws and regulations that won’t necessarily be the same as your home country.
Islamic countries following a monarchy system of governance are very culturally sensitive to western lifestyle, though in Dubai I felt laws were not so rigid as compared to other Gulf countries.
One is expected to respect prayer time, other local customs and laws to prevent any legal ramification. Do meditate a lot before taking this step. Question yourself whether you are flexible and adaptable enough to be able to relocate your life, your belongings, be separated from your family and friends all whilst starting a new job in an alien culture.
Teaching abroad is not everyone’s forte as it demands an enormous amount of adaptability, acceptance, preparation, optimism and above all, resiliency. I have seen colleagues who returned back to India within one week of their arrival due to homesickness.
Most international school clearly mentions 2 years commitment in their contract letters. Hence mental simulation and questioning can prevent post arrival hassles and jitters.
Competitive work environment
Do expect to work beyond your boundaries and comfort zone. Your effort, diligence and time will be expected. Such work environment requires survival of the fittest and the best or else a teacher should be prepared that his or her job can be terminated or become part of frustrating school politics.
The employers will definitely expect their return of investment from you as they feel you are well paid for your services. Do not expect a very balanced personal life for teachers especially who teach core subjects like English, Maths & Science.
In U.A.E, Arabic and Islamic studies also come under core subjects. Be prepared to slog for long working hours especially during Ministry of Education inspection. By training your mind that you will work hard upon your arrival will help you in the long run. Most importantly take it as an opportunity to learn and diversify your skills.
Most international schools host students from different nationalities. Hence there can be students hailing from countries where English is not the native language but their second language.
Schools do have provisions to conduct ESL classes for them but it requires a lot of patience to deal with such students. This is where your optimism and people managing skills would be tested. A genuine concern and friendly nature can not only ease of these barriers but also work wonders.
In my case my previous school had students from 49 nationalities right from Portuguese to Thai and Indonesian students. It gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn some Portuguese which also happens to be a romance language like French, but also I was lucky to try my hands at origami as taught by my Thai and Indonesian students.
Once you learn to sing their songs by showing interest in them, you will be surprised how these students would strive to surpass your expectations. Inadvertently your team leadership skills will be honed something which all companies thrive upon nowadays.
Helicopter and defensive parents
Apart from your employers, your clients will also expect a value for their money. They not only expect professionalism but also results as there are some parents who are extremely competitive and ambitious.
Hence if you have a student who is not a performer but has an overambitious and defensive parent who feels it is only the teacher’s responsibility to raise performance then in that case you need to deal such parents with extreme caution.
On the other end of the spectrum there are parents who feel that they have enough money to fund their future seven generations and education seems just a certificate for them. Do remember that you cannot change everything.
You cannot motivate a person who always pretends to sleep no matter what you want to do for them. It is time that you learn to accept inadequacies and draw lines if neither the parent nor student shows any effort at all rather than taking everything personally to your heart.
Type of students
A new school just like other schools will have business targets to achieve as most schools are for profit private schools. Hence don’t expect school administration to be selective about the kind of students they admit. They are more than willing to admit students who are dropouts and have not been accepted by other schools.
If required they won’t mind admitting special education kids with severe learning disabilities even if there is no provision to support them. Naturally this will percolate down to teachers as they are considered responsible to churn out the best from them.
In Uncle Sam’s country (U.S.A.) students’ general lack of respect and their lukewarm attitude to education and their future, is often a sobering reality for teachers coming from India, where it’s the USP to be academically gifted.
Chronic indiscipline, racial abuse, sexism and aggressive behaviour which is rampant in inner-city (affluent suburban) schools in the US and UK and most western countries can pose serious operational problems for teachers from the subcontinent where veneration for teachers is a deep-rooted cultural tradition.
Each country has its own visa rules and regulations for dependents and pets. In Gulf you cannot sponsor your unmarried partner as live-in relationship is illegal. Similarly pets are another issue and some countries require pet visas.
Not only this, unmarried Asian teachers may be asked to share accommodation with another colleague. This depends on the school policy. Hence if you are married, you need to clearly indicate during the interview process that you would be requiring family accommodation.
This is one of the reasons why schools prefer teaching couples as compared to teachers whose partner is not a teacher and are generally skeptical to accept if you say that ‘your partner will find work once we get there’.
Of course, this does not apply for Europeans and Americans as their salary and perks are way better than Asian candidates.
Cost of living
Though one can save well by exerting financial prudence, but the remuneration won’t guarantee a luxurious lifestyle for Asian teachers. The saving grace is food which is relatively cheap but other basic necessities like medical facilities, internet, and transportation can burn a hole in the pocket.
Also tax-free salaries are only tax-free in the country where you work. Depending on your country of origin, tax rules may vary and you might have to pay taxes on foreign-earned income back home.
Countries like U.S and U.K consider their citizen’s salary to be non taxable if he/she is out of the country for more than 183 days. Other countries have different rules. Hence it would be prudent to know the rules to prevent unpleasant surprises once you return to your home country.
As an expat teacher there will be a lot of areas that you will be challenged. Treading unfamiliar territories will put your life and interpersonal skills at test and will challenge you both professionally and personally.
Take this opportunity to shed your inhibitions and think out of the box. Your attitude will determine your experience. Either you can choose the path of complacency to be a follower or take other’s opinion with a grain of salt to steer negativity and influence others to stay motivated.
It is difficult but definitely not impossible. This experience would be once in a life time opportunity to rejuvenate oneself and to become a better and more matured person.
After all, to quote J.R.R. Tolkien:
‘Not all those who wander are lost’.