Don’t Make These 7 Mistakes Teaching English Abroad

Teaching English abroad is a terrific way to experience a foreign culture while also saving money for future travel.

I taught English for two years in Japan after graduating from college, saved over $40,000, and really enjoyed myself.

There is tremendous demand for native English speakers to teach ESL classes in public schools, private language learning academies, and universities.

However, although it can be easy to find any old job teaching English overseas, it’s not always easy to find a good job, or to do the job well.

Here are some common mistakes I’ve seen English teachers make, in and outside the classroom. I’ve even made a few of these mistakes myself!

1) Acting like you’re on vacation

Sometimes English teachers treat their job as nothing more than a paid vacation, and demonstrate a lack of respect for their students, colleagues, and host country.

When I taught English in Japan, this subset of disrespectful teachers was sometimes referred to as “the punks on a lark”.

Although you can get away with a lot of poor behavior while teaching English abroad, there’s no excuse for a lack of professionalism.

2) Overdoing the grammar

Unless you’re teaching advanced classes, there’s really no need to hammer your students over the head with the difference between a comma and a semi-colon.

Mapping out subclauses and particles on the chalkboard will make your students think English class is boring.

It’s much better to focus on communication, using games, stories, and other active teaching techniques to engage your students.

3) Partying too hard

There is no worse feeling in the world than standing in front of 35 neatly uniformed seventh graders, talking about verbs, and trying not to vomit.

Drinking alcohol is an easy way to deal with the frustrations of culture shock and the isolation of living abroad, but try not to overdo the drinking. Teaching is hard enough sober!

4) Skimping on research

There are lots of excellent English schools and programs that pay a good salary, don’t overwork their teachers, and help teachers navigate the challenges of life overseas.

But then there are the scam schools – shady outfits that make their teachers miserable, and, in extreme cases, fail to pay the wages they owe.

A little bit of due diligence and advance research can help you identify and avoid the scam schools.

Don’t let your eagerness to land a job push you into signing a contract before making sure the school is a legitimate organization.

5) Stressing over pronunciation

Don’t get me wrong – pronunciation matters – but as long as your students can communicate, don’t worry too much about whether they mix up their “Rs” and their “Ls”.

Even native English speakers don’t pronounce words the same way.

Listen to a New Yorker speak with an Australian, or a Turks Islander talk to a Scot, and you’ll hear the tremendous diversity in pronunciation.

Again, the important thing to focus on is simple communication.

6) Missing home instead of living the moment

For those readers aching to travel overseas, it can be hard to imagine that the seemingly lucky people teaching English abroad might be aching to come home.

Let’s face it – living abroad is tough at times, and everyone will get homesick at least once in a while.

The important thing for teachers to remember is that homesickness will pass.

Instead of wallowing in homesickness, go out and climb a mountain, visit a friend, write a letter, or explore a new neighborhood. Life goes on!

7) Over-spending

The money in your pocket may be red, blue, shiny or fluorescent, but it’s still worth saving!

Many English teachers earn a good salary and have few expenses. With careful budgeting and a little bit of healthy restraint, you can save a lot of money to fund your future travels.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy life abroad without spending a ton of money. Often, engaging with local people is cheaper than the expat scene.

Limiting nightlife is also a good way to save, as going out to bars and clubs is often the most expensive part of an English teacher’s lifestyle.

Have you taught English overseas? What advice would you pass on to someone looking into teaching English abroad? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

If you liked this, you might also like: 10 Best Places to Teach English Abroad.

Main image: Steph and Adam

24 thoughts on “Don’t Make These 7 Mistakes Teaching English Abroad”

  1. Just read your “don’t make these 7 mistakes teaching english abroad” and gotta say, I agree 100%

    My fellow foreign teachers could benefit from reading this I think.

  2. I would say don’t forget why you went abroad in the first place – if it was to experience a different culture and learn a new language then don’t spend all your time hanging out with other TEFL teachers – try and get to know the locals and you’ll get more out of the experience

  3. Five years in China, five in Thailand, almost one in Vietnam and still here. I have to make an effort to remember what it’s like being new here, but if I do, then yep, excellent advice, all of it. I’ve written a few hundred thousand words on my experiences, but if I had to distill them down to a blog post, it’d look a lot like this.

  4. It is so easy to fall into a pattern and become lazy while teaching English abroad. While you might get by for a while this attitude will catch up with you in the end. When I taught English I was always enthusiastic and brought fresh and relevant material to class. When I had to fill in for and absent teacher I would always get requests to replace those teachers. Keep it fresh, keep it interesting!

  5. I’m into year ten of teaching in Asia. You’ve given some good solid tips.
    One thing I would mention, do your research before you leave and check out the jobs you are offered. If someone has something negative to say about an employer, move long. I am always amazed by people who take jobs where the employer has a bad reputation (and they know it, but ignored the warnings.) There are many, many good teaching jobs available.

  6. I went to the best highschool in Turkey. All of my teachers were native English speakers. However, this one young teacher came from America for 3 years. She treated us like she is doing us a favor, or she was on a mission doing charity work. She treated us like we were 3rd world people; not in an arrogant/rude but sort of demeaning way. Please do not make a big deal of what you are doing. Students you are teaching might not be as needy as you think. Do not belittle or feel sorry for people just because they live in a developing country. I was studying in an American private school which was beyond her dreams. Also, she had that alienating attitude and she always hinted that she was American and we were Turkish. When I came to America for college, and met the young idealists whose dream is to go to ‘poor’ countries and sparkle some light over the non-English speakers’ live; I totally understood where she is coming from.

    Please do not have a saint-wanna-be attitude and try to understand that you are not that different from the locals no matter how different the culture is. Do not treat people differently than you would in America.

  7. Hello, I am Emma Jones and I have been working as an ESL Instructor in Hong Kong for past 2 years. I would like to state that all the above tips are just simply great and are very helpful to any ESL instructor who is teaching abroad.
    And if there’s any ESL instructor who is willing to follow these points then for him/her a great opportunity waiting at the Sunshine House Int’l Pre-School (Redhill) Ltd in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong .
    Best wishes, Emma Jones.
    Just check out the link below for any further details:

  8. I see 3, 4, and 6 way too often. Teachers come thinking that they can go out drinking and not prep for class. Then they also do very little research and have no idea what they’re getting into.

    As for 6, hit the local bar and you’ll find NETs complaining about life in X country. Sure, no place is perfect, but there must be something they like about living abroad.

  9. I can definitely agree with the pronunciation part. I also taught in Japan and tended to emphasize pronunciation a lot in my lessons mostly because it was the area I was most comfortable and confident with. When you’re a new teacher and have no idea what you’re doing, pronunciation is an easy thing to fall back on.

    But now that I’ve been teaching for a few years, I’ve realized that that was the last thing I should have done! I don’t think pronunciation should be taught at all (especially with Japanese students) until they’ve already mastered all the basics. Otherwise, it just makes them even shyer, more paranoid and afraid to speak.

  10. Thank you for starting with professionalism! I’ve been teaching overseas since the 90s, and my biggest pet peeve is teachers who dress like they are on their way to a car wash when they are actually on their way to class. Working overseas is still working!

    I hate to see job ads that feed into that mentality by only emphasizing how much money you can save “to travel”, while forgetting to mention they’ll only give you ten days off a year. I imagine they wonder why they get “teachers” who only work during class hours and call in sick every Monday.

  11. 4 years in Korea and the stories I could tell – agreed on all the points, but there’s far more to consider. Sure, your day job is teaching, but there’s another 6-8 hours in your day to think about. I made it a point to travel somewhere new every weekend – be it a place, an event, a festival, whatever – and there’s plenty of life to be had. In most countries, there’s a decent enough expat population, along with millions of locals – get out there and make something of yourself! Whatever your interests are, there’s an opportunity to find them, express them, and quite possibly make some additional money off of them =)

  12. Everyone makes mistakes and things you learn when teaching abroad. Loved my experience of 6 years teaching in JAPAN!!! SUGOI!!

    Quick question, that pic. What school was that because my lord above, those kids look oh so familiar.

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