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What I wish I knew before I started teaching abroad

November 10, 2020 2 Comments

Do you ever wish for the opportunity to go back in time? All I want is to have ONE conversation with past Aneesa before I started teaching abroad and then I will travel back through the vortex right back into the present. Sadly it just isn’t possible (YET) so instead I will write this blog post in an attempt to reflect on past experiences. 

Teaching abroad can be a struggle and I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not for everyone. While all professions have their struggles, the main problem with teaching abroad is:

-Its promoted as ‘an easy way to make money while seeing the world’
-Few jobs impact on a person’s future the way teaching does for students

I find myself constantly having to combat these two things through blog posts & discussions especially because these were also 2 things I used to believe! While I would never discourage anyone from pursuing their dreams, I ALWAYS advise being properly qualified & experienced in your home country ( 2 years post qualification experience).

Here are some of the things I would tell my younger, inexperienced self:

Nothing you studied prepared you for this

I don’t know why but I just assumed (like most people) that spending a lot of money on tertiary education and studying hard would mean I was prepared to start my career. But to be frank, NOTHING I learned at university in ANY of my degrees prepared me to stand in front of a classroom full of students who don’t look or sound like me, in a country I had just arrived in. 

While I am grateful for the theoretical knowledge, practical experience and solid foundation that comes with being qualified to do what I do, 90% of situations that arise while teaching abroad are things you could never even predict let alone learn about. So you have to go in with no expectations, be ready to draw on your training but also to learn new things and consistently evolve your methodology. 

Each country & culture means a new slate

I’ve had the privilege of teaching in 5 different countries and nothing has stood out to me more than:


And I don’t just mean different because they’re in different counties, I mean even within a country there are so many factors that can prove challenging- moving between a public & private school, schools in different provinces, schools with different percentages of expats and locals and many other factors. You truly never know what to expect. When people ask if I have ever gambled, the truth is I have gambled with my life so often by changing schools & countries that I never have a desire to go into a casino. 

Instead of saying, “At my previous school we did __________ and it was way more effective”, say, “I am interested to learn how __________ is done here and how can I do it effectively?”.

Shifting your mindset and stopping yourself from making endless comparisons will save you a lot of frustrations in the long run. While that doesn’t mean you should refrain from giving suggestions when asked for it, you should be careful not to impose things you may consider best but may not be the best things for the school. 

I find American teachers to be very guilty of this (in every school & country I have worked in), as they are constantly extolling loudly how things just don’t match up to the AMAZING educational system in the USA. While that may be true (doubtful), you may want to realise that you aren’t in Kansas anymore Toto. So adapt or go back to the place you came from (which can’t have been that fulfilling or you would not have left).

Learn to communicate effectively 

As a young teacher, I feel that I was too headstrong- I wanted to win arguments, to prove to others that I was right and they were wrong. But when teaching internationally, this very rarely leads to a successful working relationship or positive school experience because very few countries respond well to assertive females of colour.

 I would tell my younger self to LISTEN to what others were telling me and learn how to have important, honest conversations; with my mentors, my line manager, parents and students.I also made many mistakes and probably annoyed most of the people I worked with. I would remind myself that it takes courage to own up to a mistake, and nothing defuses tension as saying you’re sorry. When I started arguing less, just accepting things I could not control and genuinely saying sorry for mistakes I have made, things became a whole lot easier for my career!

Stay committed to yourself & your purpose not a country or school

Many people give 110% to their jobs and stretch themselves thin in order to meet the obligations of their job pledging loyalty to their school. Sadly the truth about teaching abroad is jobs for expats are almost never protected and are fleeting. Your position is the one that will be the first to close down in the event of a cash flow problem.

So giving your all to a job that would fire you in a heartbeat is never smart. I have lost jobs for absolutely no reason before without even a hint of a warning. Be aware that residency doesn’t equal citizenship and that your time in a school or country may come to an end at any time. I have a post about what to do when you lose a job while living abroad

Instead, remain to your purpose of providing quality, meaningful education to students regardless of the job, school or country. 

Express gratitude

Living abroad and teaching in different cultures is a privilege not afforded to everyone. The truth is that you do not embark on this journey without help and often you have assistance from mentors, staff, family members & even, strangers who help you to navigate language barriers and find your way when you’re lost. Remember to express your thanks for the people who help you along your way and make things easier for you! I feel like I missed out on doing this in my early years of teaching but nowadays I try to be more intentional about thanking people. Of course this doesn’t mean blowing your budget and providing meals for the entire staff complement at your school but a nice gift voucher to your Head of Department would be appreciated!

Remember to enjoy elements of each experience 

Something I didn’t realise was that I wouldn’t necessarily like every place that I moved to and that it was completely normal to feel that way. The general idea is that whenever you move abroad you will live your absolute best life and love every second of it. Not only is this highly improbable, it gives people the wrong impression of being an expat- it is for most of us- a battle between struggle & reward.

Even though I didn’t have the best year in Kuwait (for reasons I outlined in this post), I enjoyed certain things like the people I met, the class I taught and the travels I was able to have. Embracing those positives helped me to get through the negatives. Similarly, everyone else might like a place or it may be overhyped only for you to find that it just isn’t the utopia it’s made out to be. During my 1.5 years in Dubai, I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated and irritable. It’s ok to move somewhere, spend some time in a place and still not adjust. However, what’s crucial is learning to appreciate the things that each experience affords you- even if it’s just personal growth. 

Don’t allow others to influence you

When I embarked on my journey of teaching abroad I had rigid ideas about what countries I wanted to work in and where I didn’t want to work. But after a while I threw these notions out the window. Don’t rule out  any place or experience, and don’t get stuck on any long-term plan. How many of us said, “I’ll just go for a year and then return!” Haha I hope we are all laughing at each other now! 

Remember that what you see on the media, or other people’s experiences may not be a reality for YOU. Of course every country and place has its advantages and disadvantages, but if you rule out too many options, you may miss an open door. Why not knock on all the doors and see what might be inside? In regard to this philosophy, don’t turn down any interview and take every experience as a learning experience.

I had never targeted Qatar as a place to live, however I am here and am enjoying an accelerated period of professional growth and academic focus.

Teaching is a commitment not a hobby or a money-making scheme. You need to invest your time, emotions and share your knowledge and experiences with students, inspiring and motivating them along the way. It is a powerful profession — you have the ability to influence young minds and prepare them for the future. That’s why it’s worth keeping some of this advice in mind especially if you’re just starting out on your journey or even those more seasoned educators!

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If you’re a teacher, what are some of the things you wish you could tell your younger self? Let me know in the comments below!


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  • aimseducation5 April 3, 2022 at 8:57 am

    AIMS Education, a student consultancy firm in Bangladesh, sends many students to the UK, USA, and Canada every year to study abroad. We feel the experience you share will be very helpful for the students who are aspiring to teach abroad. Hopefully, your experiences will give them an idea of what they should do and shouldn’t.

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