Why Didn't Someone Tell Me That Before?: Advice From Overseas Teachers

Written by  June 22, 2009

Tips from overseas English teachers to help you avoid those "Why didn't someone tell me this before?" moments.

Everyone's had one of those "why didn't someone tell me that before?" moments—everyone. And it seems like travellers have a special knack for finding them.

Verge asked a panel of overseas teachers who have been there, done that, "what's the one thing you wish someone had told you before you got on that plane?" Here's what they had to say.

Things I wish I'd known:

• Better qualifications get you better positions and mean that you are better prepared to do the job.

• Bigger employers often have more structure, but sometimes they can lead to less interaction with the local people.

• International employers might be willing to pay in a foreign currency, which is easier to take with you when you leave.

• Before making a decision, talk to teachers or ex-teachers (ask the school/company for email addresses), but be aware that they may be biased.

• Don't give your passport to your employer for 'safekeeping'.


Things I wish I'd asked:

• Is accommodation, health insurance, return flight covered? Who pays for teaching supplies (markers, paper, books, etc.)?

• How long is the contract term? What textbooks are used? (Try to buy a copy before you go.)

• Are you paid for preparation time, teachers' meetings, professional development, overtime? (And when does overtime kick in?)

• How often are you going to be paid and in what currency?

• What administrative duties will you be expected to perform?

• How far do you have to travel to get to work?

• How many days per week do you work?

• Are there work commitments outside of school hours (activities, excursions, sports, etc.)?

Things I wish I'd taken with me:

• My music

• Books to read

• Teaching resources (e.g. games, grammar practice activities, video tapes, magazines)

• Teaching methodology books

• Reference books

• Copies of the school's preferred textbooks, if you can find out what they are.

Pearls of wisdom

"Never underestimate the impact of culture on what happens in the classroom," says Dianne Tyres of Advance Consulting for Education. "If you ask a question to a class in Japan, all the students probably know the answer, but they all look down and remain silent. If you ask a question to a class in Turkey, not everyone knows the answer, but everyone will shout SOMETHING out".

Sean Carney started teaching English in Japan in 1998 and continues to work as a recruiter for the same company. "The one thing I wish I had known then is that it's ok to ask questions at work in Japan. Actually, it's expected. They don't want to insult your intelligence by telling you something you already know, so they're waiting for you to ask. Had I known this from the start, it would have saved many frustrating moments of wondering to myself "why doesn't anyone tell me anything?!"

David Hughes and his collegues at LSI say "Don't worry! The unknown is not automatically a threat. They suggest learning a bit of the language before you go, finding out about the town you are going to be living in, and being curious and open to the new culture and people. While you're there, don't get so wrapped up in work that you forget to take the time to explore the country.

Here's another pearl of wisdom from a teacher who's been around the big block: Your students are not just paying to learn English from you. They are also paying to interact with someone from a different culture. Your life is therefore essentially an open book. Your students want to know everything about you. Forget about privacy and just enjoy the exchange. Ask the same questions back!

Be prepared for anything to happen, both in the classroom and outside. Be prepared to have no teaching materials and lots of teaching materials, no teaching colleagues and lots of teaching colleagues, lots of students and few students. On any given day, any of the above could happen. So, just go with the flow and have fun.

The number one rule is don't leave your sense of humour at home. Take it with you everywhere. If you don't have one, get one, FAST. You have to laugh, otherwise you will cry or go crazy.

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Published in Work Abroad
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Jeff Minthorn

Publisher, Editor-in-Chief

A co-founder of Verge Magazine and the Go Global Expo, Jeff is a well-known voice in the area of international working, studying and volunteering and was writing about gap years before the term even appeared the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Having worked, studied and travelled on six continents, Jeff is passionate about the important role international experience plays in developing responsible, caring global citizens. He has spoken to audiences across Canada and the United States on subjects ranging from how to plan an international volunteer experience, to developing effective media skills and literacy.
Jeff holds two degrees from the University of Waterloo. Before co-founding Verge, he spent 10 years in the field of experiential education, including several years training experiential educators. Through Verge and the Go Global Expos, Jeff has been helping to connect international organizations and global citizens for more than a decade.


Verge believes in travel for change. International experience creates global citizens, who can change our planet for the better. This belief is at the core of everything we do.

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