Five Things to Consider Before Teaching Abroad

Teaching abroad can be an exciting way to take your skills as an instructor outside the classroom and out on the road. But with great adventure comes a lot of uncertainty--what to pack? Where to work for? How to have a safe and happy experience? We asked ESL/TESOL teacher and world traveler Phil Stott to share the kind of wisdom on these issues that can only come from experience. Here's what he had to say.

The lure of life as an English language teacher for ESL students is easy to understand: the ability to travel the world and experience a new culture and language while, in some cases, making enough money to fund further adventures or even student loan payments. What’s not to like? shutterstock_244295908

Like any profession, however, ESL teaching isn’t for everyone. No matter where in the world you end up, you’ll hear stories about everything from teachers who couldn’t cut it to schools that failed to deliver the conditions or salary they promised — all while you’re dealing with the suddenly very real facts of being a long way from home in a country where you might not even be able read the street signs, let alone speak the language.

The majority of people who do set off on an international adventure go on to have a great, often life-changing experience. However, here are a few things to consider before taking the plunge to ensure that you join the ranks who come home with rave reviews, rather than rueful tales to share.


While there are exceptions to every rule, most ESL teaching positions will be in countries that have different cultural norms than the ones you are familiar with. While that sounds great in theory — it’s what many of us are signing up for, after all — in practice, differing cultural conditions can be one of the biggest barriers to whether you make it or not in your new (albeit temporary) home.

The key here is to be receptive to doing things in a different way, and to learn to leave your own preconceptions at the door. Depending on the country you’re going to, you may find cultural restrictions on everything from the role that women are permitted to play in public, to people taking a dim view of behaviors that would be considered perfectly normal where you come from.

If you’re not sure about aspects of life, don’t be afraid to ask. In fact, cultural differences can make a great topic for a lesson--especially if you’re looking to give students an opportunity to practice language related to comparisons or permission. (“In the United States, people can do x, but in this country it isn’t allowed”).

Working conditions

Of course, conditions in the workplace are one of the major areas affected by differences in culture. Given that you’ll be spending a large amount of your time at work, this is an area that you should try to find out as much as possible about before you go.

For example, in some countries, you will be expected to show a great deal of deference toward older employees, no matter what they do. In other places, you will be expected to show up to events that may seem voluntary — such as school field trips or after-work functions. In both cases, failure to comply with the local cultural norms could lead to problems within the workplace — even if you were unaware of the protocols.


One fact that many people are not aware of: in some countries, contracts are treated as general agreements rather than a binding legal commitment. As such, even when you’ve signed a contract agreeing a set level of remuneration for a specific amount of work, you may still find yourself fielding requests — or expectations — to go above and beyond the terms agreed to, often for no extra pay. As noted above, some of this will simply be due to cultural expectations, but there is also the possibility that you may simply be getting taken advantage of. A good rule of thumb: if native-born teachers and/or veterans at the school are expected to do the same things, it’s likely not something that’s worth pushing back on.

Visa restrictions

You probably already know that most countries require some form of visa if you want to go there and work, and that getting a visa often requires a good deal of waiting time.

But here’s a less well-known fact: In many places, those visas are tied to a specific employer; meaning that once you get to the country, you can’t just leave your job and find a better-paying opportunity with a school on the other side of town. In addition, many visas, especially in parts of Asia, come with restrictions on how often you can leave the country during your stay, or require you to apply for special permission to exit the country before the end date of the visa. This system emerged partly to protect schools from the risks involved in paying for flights for teachers, but it can also cramp the globe-trotting lifestyle you envisioned.


The intention of this article isn’t to frighten you away from a year or a career teaching abroad, but simply to highlight some of the issues that you’ll want to consider. Fortunately, most of the issues can be mitigated with some in-depth research.

Don’t think you can handle living in a country where women aren’t allowed to drive, or you’re expected to work 70 hours a week? Read as much as you can about the places you’re interested in going, to get a feel for them before you even apply. Better yet, try to make contact with people who are already there, or who have been there before, to get a sense of what you’re likely to encounter.

Most importantly, don’t forget that “different” doesn’t necessarily equate to “worse.” After all, the opportunity to learn about the world and gain new experiences means getting comfortable with the concept of going outside your comfort zone.

TESOL phil

Originally from Scotland, Phil Stott is a writer, editor and CELTA-certified ESL teacher with several years of experience teaching in Europe and Asia. Currently residing in Long Island, he has written for numerous publications and blogs regularly for, where he is the consulting industry editor.

Thinking of packing your bags and taking your teaching career on the road? Learn more about TESOL/ESL specializations for your MAT here.