Teaching abroad: Is it really what you think it is?
Whenever I tell people that I teach abroad, they look at me like I’ve struck gold. And in some ways I have. Teaching abroad can offer a wonderful package for teachers enabling them to pay off debt in their home countries, live comfortably in their current countries and it provides opportunities for new travel destinations. BUT teaching abroad isn’t as glamorous as it seems. This is my second stint of teaching abroad and my sixth year of teaching. If you’re thinking of becoming an international teacher purely for holidays and money, you need to consider a few things. Let me explain why the following comments irritate teachers:
“You get to finish so early! It’s like half a day of work!”
I’m at work by 06:45. Yes you read that right. School begins at 07:30 in the Gulf and I need to be there before the kids arrive. You can’t imagine what time I am waking up.
My KG kids leave at 13:00. Between 1 and 2 I usually have a department meeting where we get together and discuss the curriculum/activities for the kids/order school supplies etc. It’s incredibly draining. Personally, I would rather be teaching.
I leave school at 15:00. Between 2 and 3 I am catching up on paperwork; prepping lessons for the next day, filling in report cards and doing other tedious tasks. Again, I would rather be teaching than doing mundane form filling. Yes I finish earlier than you but- I also start much earlier than you. You probably still think I’m only doing half the work you are which brings me to my next point:
“But it’s fun right? Not actual work? Plus you get those long vacations!”
When you teach young children, you are with them 24/7. When their parents come to drop them off and pick them up (when technically you aren’t on “duty “) and they want to talk about their child’s progress, you need to be alert and alive. When the kids are eating, you need to make sure that everyone has food and is eating. When they’re on the playground, they need supervision in case they get hurt (it happens all the time). Some days they touch you and climb on you. They cry and need hugs. Even when you’re having an off day, you have to be on. When you want to talk to someone, you cant just wheel over to your colleague and discuss your date last night. Your conversations are slow, simplistic and to the point for your kids. Adult conversation is archived.
Oh you think it’s easier when you teach older kids? Well, older kids love to critique and scrutinize you. From your hair to your nail polish, they notice everything and if they don’t like you, your job becomes one long battle. There are days when you can’t smile because you need to be firm. There are times when fights break out and you have to intervene. Sometimes fights break out and you hide under your table to avoid flying chairs. Older kids means bigger problems. Confused about their sexuality, hormones raging, adrenaline pumping and anger at the world is part of the job. In the Middle East some of them won’t want to learn. It’s your job to drag the horse to the water and make it drink. You think that’s easy? You think you could do it all day? Ah now you’re seeing why we leave work at three and why we need that long vacation.
“But you don’t have deadlines! There’s no pressure in your job!”
Who lied to you? No really, tell me so I can punch them for their blatant lack of knowledge.
Everyday teachers are under pressure to finish the allotted lessons for the day; to make sure our kids meet if not all then at least some of the objectives or outcomes of our lessons. The struggle is real when it’s end of term and you’ve spent too many weeks teaching them poetry and didn’t have enough time finish the literature text so you’re desperately trying to borrow time from other teachers or prepare work they can do independently. We aren’t disorganised buffoons who can’t manage our classroom time effectively. Rather, we want our students to not just understand but also engage with and make meaning of the subject material. Sometimes that means forgoing a planned lesson to reteach a concept. Sometimes it’s means having a class discussion instead of writing a quiz. We take our lead from the students but sometimes time just isn’t on our side.
Still talking about deadlines, we are always under pressure. Pressure to finish assessments; to fill in report cards and of course to grade work. In South Africa I taught a full load of high school English (home language and first additional language). For English exams the students wrote THREE papers each. Paper one is language and comprehension. Paper two is literature and poetry. Paper three is essays and shorter writing pieces. This is a requirement by the South African department of education not something I’m making up. I had around 40 learners in 5 different classes with 3 exam papers each. You do the math.
While teaching kindergarten in Kuwait, each child is tested orally and individually. Each oral test is around 20-30 minutes depending on the students ability. We don’t receive a special testing or exam period; that means in addition to testing, I need to have work for the other kids to do and I need to keep them under control while administering a test. Thank goodness for my TA otherwise I don’t know how I would manage. We only get a week to finish all of the tests for the kids in our classes. Sometimes there truly aren’t enough hours in a day.
Still think we don’t have to deal with deadlines and pressure?
“You must be so busy, partying having new experiences and meeting new people overseas!”
Yes I have met a lot of people while teaching abroad. From the kids I teach to their parents to my colleagues to people I meet at socials. But more importantly, teaching is a full time job that doesn’t stop when you leave school. Sometimes you’re printing worksheets at 23:00, sometimes you’re drafting lesson plans on a Sunday morning, sometimes you’re grading papers in bed while your friends are at a barbecue, sometimes you’re reading essays on a plane while you desperately try to complete assessing before you start your honeymoon. Yes we are busy and yes we party hard. But we work hard too.
Teaching abroad is not always full of meeting new people though; when I was in South Korea, I was the only native English teacher at my entire school. There were only a handful of teachers that spoke English and even fewer that were not scared to speak to me. Due to the 8 hour time difference, mid week Skype sessions with family or friends were impossible and sometimes days would pass where I wouldn’t speak to another English speaker. When I finally did, I’d be speaking super slowly, using absolutely basic vocabulary making me sound like I was still in the classroom because that’s what I was used to! Alternatively I would vomit out big words and long sentences just for pure relief of finally speaking to someone who could understand me in my most relaxed state.
Sometimes teaching abroad can be incredibly lonely and isolating. You have to be prepared for spending long periods of time enjoying your own company and finding ways to keep yourself occupied without going crazy.
Don’t get me wrong…
I LOVE teaching. If I had to choose between a job where I could go to the bathroom whenever I wanted, drink warm beverages whenever I wanted to, leave for an hour or two without having to set work to be done in my absence, not deal with crabby kids and pushy parents and sit in front a computer all day, I would still choose being on my feet for 5-6 hours in the classroom.
I don’t think I could derive the same pleasure that I do from teaching a child read as opposed to doing something less difficult. I’m not saying you don’t work hard or that your job isn’t as important. I’m saying that we all work hard even though we may do different things. When you make remarks about a teacher not “doing real work” or “babysitting adolescents”, you’re not just insulting a persons livelihood, you’re demeaning the very same education that put you in the position you are in today. Let’s all learn to accept the things we don’t understand even if we don’t agree with them!
If you want to read more about my experiences teaching in an underprivileged school in South Africa, click here.
If you want to know my main differences between teaching kindergarten and teaching high school kids click here.