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Teaching House Nomads Blog | July 20, 2019

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How to Manage Teaching English and Expat Life Abroad

How to Manage Teaching English and Expat Life Abroad
Barry O'Leary

When you start off teaching English as a foreign language, you might not expect to turn into an expat. I certainly didn’t. I just wanted to travel the world and teach English. Settling down in one place was the last thing on my mind, so the finer points of how to manage teaching English and expat life escape me.

Over time I became this foreigner trying to adapt to a different culture. I found myself drawn to Spain, and a particular Spanish lady, and realised I’d developed into an expat.

I was trying to turn into a genius ESL teacher (which possibly never happened) and also make the most of my time living abroad. Juggling both aspects was a nightmare at times, and I learnt the hard way. Hopefully these tips can help if you’re considering staying in a country long term.

Get organised

In your first couple of years the learning curve is enormous. Not only are you discovering how to teach, understanding the grammar rules and concepts of English, and probably learning the language of your new country, but you’re also trying to make friends, get your bearings in a new place, and actually enjoy your time living abroad.

Time is precious. In my first couple of years in Spain, I spent ages planning classes. Demanding students meant that I had to be fully prepared for questions about everything. To be fair, I was probably a bit of a disaster. I’d fit planning in between classes and would use up my weekends working too, which meant I wasn’t getting that hard earned break.

After 13 years of teaching, planning becomes easier. I have previous years’ lesson plans but also I’m more organised now. I spend a couple of mornings planning for the whole week. I also actually plan a week in advance too, which means I never have to work on Saturday or Sunday. Weekends are a treasure when you’re starting in a new country, especially if you want to travel and make friends.

Don’t go it alone

Put effort into finding your community!

Living abroad can be a lonely experience if you don’t meet the right people, especially as you’ll be away from your close friends and family. By researching your new destination before you leave, you can find out which places have the most vibrant expat communities. If other people have been able to manage teaching English and living abroad, then why not follow in their footsteps?

Let’s take Spain for example. There are massive expat communities of teachers living abroad in the main cities, and that must be for a reason. Over the years, more and more teachers are settling in Seville, for example.

When I lived in Bangkok, there were tons of expats. Every time I went out at the weekend I would meet new people. However, while I was in Bahia, Brazil, it was a lot more difficult to find other teachers or to integrate in society thanks to strict visa restrictions, which was why I left in the end.

You don’t have to go it alone. When choosing where you want to live, use the Internet to find a place with plenty of language academies, decent flight connections, and an active expat community. There is so much information online these days: forums, advice pages, and blogs. It’s quite easy to get in touch with other expats before you head out too.

Integrate with society

For me this is vital if you want to make it as an expat abroad and continue your ESL career. If you’re not happy outside the classroom, then it will be difficult to maintain motivation at work.

This means mastering the language of your chosen country, getting involved with the culture, grasping the customs, participating in festivals, and also bonding with the local community.

In my first years, I was constantly on the lookout for other cities to teach in, and it wasn’t until I felt more integrated in Seville that I became more focused on my career. That was when I decided to do the Delta.

Granted, I got married to a Spanish lady and also have two Spanish kids, so I sort of have to make the effort, but I find the teachers who leave are those who don’t really click with the society.

If you can make a few local friends, or even find a partner, then you’ll have a better chance of surviving as an expat and being able to juggle your life with your ESL career. Failing that, buying a dog in your new country will help you integrate (he says, as his dog pops her head round the door).

Accept that you may have to be frugal at times

You might have to make the hard decisions about spending money enjoying your day-to-day life or saving up for a really spectacular trip!

Most ESL teachers don’t get into this career for the money. You can live well as an ESL teacher, but you may find yourself scrimping and saving. I’ve definitely noticed that the more of an expat I become, the more costs rise (house, children, dog food). I end up doing extra classes to pay the bills though, so it’s fine.

It obviously depends on the country though. In the Middle East and certain countries in Asia such as South Korea and Japan, you can live well and even save a decent amount of money. I earnt a healthy wage in Thailand and was able to live it up, but if I’d wanted to stay long term and maybe buy property, that would have been difficult.

Across Europe wages are quite standard, and salaries don’t tend to increase too much, even if you stay a long time. This is one of the drawbacks to the ESL industry. There are opportunities to earn more money though.

If you can be careful with your finances and plan ahead, then you’ll be more likely to enjoy your time abroad.

All work and no play

You have to find the balance that’s right for you.

One reason to go abroad is to work, but it’s not the be all and end all. Balancing your time between work and your new life is important too.

In some countries, employers may drive you to the bone. I know a few teachers who got burnt out in South Korea after a couple years. They were teaching fifty hours (contact) a week. A lot of my colleagues in Thailand were teaching in classes with over fifty students, which was extremely demanding and draining.

I worked a lot in Thailand, from about 7.30 until 5pm, which was a long day, but the pay was decent and I still had free evenings and weekends to play.

At the end of the day, try to find what’s best for you. If you’re up for doing extra hours so you can have more free cash to travel at the weekends, then go for it. If you want to lead a simpler life and teach less and have more free time for living, then that’s an option too. That’s the beauty of ESL.

To sum up

Becoming an expat can be hard work. You’ll miss your own country, and will often wonder where your home is. I’m settled here in Seville and feel part Spanish. I learnt the lingo and became Catholic to understand the culture more. Friends of mine are even more integrated with huge groups of Spanish friends.

You may not want to go the whole hog, but still, expat life abroad is certainly an eye opener. If you can manage your time and finances effectively, open your mind to the culture, and take everything in your stride, then you can get the best of both worlds.

Think you have what it takes to be an expat? Get started on your English teaching adventure by checking out the CELTA course and how it can help you start a life abroad!

Photo credits (CC BY 2.0): SineadFrielreloeh, Tax Credits, Evan-Lovely

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