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Working Overseas: Myths and Realities

This article appeared in similar form in the TESOL EFL-Interest Newsletter, volume 14, number 2, pp. 9, 12. Spring 1994. Copyright @ Randall S. Davis.


While more and more individuals are considering positions abroad, these teachers and administrators should be forewarned of the realities that lie in wait once they set foot on foreign soil. Too often, teachers who go to another country soon return home disenchanted because things did not turn out the way they expected. While the employer bears some of the responsibility in preparing the new recruit, this does not exempt the employee from gathering as much information as possible about the host country and the school. Thus, everyone should ask probing questions before launching a career overseas. The following tips should put some of the job-searching process into prospective.

1. Anyone can teach English Abroad: Up until the not-so-distance-past, this expression bore some truth to it. For instance, many foreign schools and companies seeking to take advantage of the boom in students interested in learning English tended to hire anyone who could speak English or had any post-secondary education. However, since our profession has come of its own, the notion that finding a good job is a sure thing is no longer true. In fact, many people with a masters degree remain unemployed because of a glut in qualified people, and this trend is likely to continue.

Coupled with this idea of unlimited jobs is the fallacy that many lucrative deals teaching abroad are common place rather than the exception. An illustration will suffice. "I met a guy who is teaching in the Middle East somewhere, and he makes $200,000 a year. In fact, the company bought him a house." Such promises of fortune and streets of gold often lose their luster once you check into them more carefully.

2. Go with a Purpose in Mind: Sometimes, teachers who are searching for a purpose to their teaching often do not fair well in a foreign culture. Because this kind of teacher expects the organization to provide all of stimulation and opportunities for growth, he or she may burn out quickly or blame the foreign culture for his or her misfortunes. On the other hand, teachers who have their own personal agenda and can sustain themselves by nurturing their professionalism through outside activities (e.g., presenting at educational conferences, observing fellow colleagues in the classroom, etc.) have the best chance of having a successful teaching experience.

3. Flexibility: Learning to Expect the Unexpected: In my experience teaching overseas, I have found that no matter how well I planned things out, there were always a few surprises at the end of the rainbow. I found I was always being ask to give special presentations or teach childrens' classes I felt I was not obliged to do. However, under most situations, teachers who are willing to contribute beyond these contractual boundaries will be well received by the company they are working for.

Speaking of flexibility, once teachers arrive in the foreign country, they are perplexed because their first attempts to initiate positive change are sometimes misinterpreted or shunned. Our initial assumptions of why new ideas are rejected often color our experience from then on. However, resistance to change is often not grounded in the fact that our ideas lack clarity, but that there are other underlying cultural factors at work that we are not aware of. Also, because some foreign companies are not expecting the native English teacher to master the language of the country, teachers are sometimes find themselves on the peripheral edge of any decision making during their entire stay. Therefore, teachers should approach a new teaching situation with their eyes and ears open, and be patient for their ideas to take root.

4. Study the Language and Culture of Host Country: Teachers should also make an earnest attempt to learn something about the culture where they are planning to work. Obviously, our efforts will focus on the work at hand, but if we try to forge a bond with the people by taking an interest in the language, arts, or sports, these small efforts will reflect positively on us as individuals. Furthermore, tapping into what is "hot" and "what's not" with our students shows them we are not too removed from what appeals them.

5. Understanding the Contract: Be sure to ask specific questions regarding every aspect of your contract. The age old adage of getting things in writing to resolve any future disputes may or may not come to your rescue when dealing with administrators at your job. It pays to take such precautions and understand your legal rights.

Remember that what may be a lucrative amount in terms of your own currency may not turn out to be so attractive after all. Other considerations should include insurance, transportation of personal possessions, transportation from your country to the host country, housing, sick leave, health insurance, vacation and personal leave days, and outside work.

6. Diversity of Institutions: Teachers should look into the educational goals of both private and public institutions they are considering applying for. While many public schools are funded by the government to a certain degree, private or commercial schools are dependent upon student fees for their survival. As a result, some commercial schools are operated more like a business, and financial concerns often take precedent over any educational agenda. In other words, educational policies including the purchase of books, equipment and funding for teachers to attend professional conferences will be affected by the economic climate of the time.


Without a doubt, there are abundant rewards that come about as a result of working overseas. Most important, such an experience helps foster a heightened sensitivity to other cultures and will bring about a greater appreciation of one's own culture as well. Before you jump at the chance to work overseas, ask yourself whether you are up for the task.

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