Teaching Abroad: Your Travel Checklist–What Should You Take With You?
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.
So you’ve decided to take the plunge. You’ve gained your certification, researched the country of your choice, found a school, sorted out your visa and are all set to take your first teaching job overseas. All you need to do now is pack.
No matter how long your contract is, there’s no way you’ll be able to pack up everything you’ll need and bring it with you — unless you’re looking to start your exciting new career with a shock at the airport when they ask for several hundred dollars for excess baggage fees. So here are a few recommendations to help you sort the must-haves from the wastes of space, money and precious, precious weight.
A laptop or tablet
You didn’t need me to tell you this one, right? Well here it is, just in case: your communications hub, entertainment center and research/productivity tool all in one convenient package. Bring it. Just make sure to get an appropriate adapter before you leave your home country, so you can keep that electronic lifeline charged. Keep in mind different parts of the world have different voltage levels, so a converter or surge protector may also be necessary. It’s next to impossible to find a US-Europe converter in Europe, for example, for the simple reason that no one there needs them. Except you.
An open mind
You’re about to head off to a country where the customs, cultures and values may be radically different from what you’re used to. Your workplace will be unlike anywhere you’ve ever worked before, and attempting to hold onto your preconceived notions of what life should be like is only going to hold you back from fully immersing yourself in your new surroundings.
It might seem obvious, but you wouldn’t be the first teacher to show up in a foreign country in khakis and a polo shirt only to find out that the expected uniform involves something a little more formal.
Looking at a gig in Japan? Chances are that you’ll be expected to wear a suit and (for men) a tie. Every day.
Heading for Thailand? You might be able to get away with something more casual.
The golden rule: Check before you go and pay attention to shoe etiquette. The extra expense aside, it can be tough to find larger shoe sizes overseas, and especially in parts of Asia.
A serious grammar guide
When traveling abroad, no one expects you to be bilingual or trilingual, but it’s important to know key phrases and questions in a country’s primary language. You’ll gain a lot of trust and respect if you can say “I’ll find out,” and then pull out your copy of Swan and actually do so. This is one area of knowledge where Google hasn’t (yet) managed to best a printed book for ease of use.
Know what you can never find in the teacher’s lounge in a foreign country? English language magazines, newspapers, food wrappers, menus and instruction sheets. Sure, you can get some of that stuff online, or find pictures of it, but the tactile experience that a student gets checking out nutrition information on an actual candy wrapper, or leafing through an old Us Weekly can make them forget that they’re in a lesson, and help them engage more fully in the language — which is the whole point of what you’re trying to achieve.
Bonus tip: If you bring a few non-perishable food items to share with your students, it can be a great icebreaker in an early lesson, and provide you with a resource for future lessons if you keep the containers/wrappers.
Before I left for my first teaching trip abroad, I had a brief panic attack about how I’d manage to survive in a country where I didn’t know the language. Then I got there, and realized that most of my needs could be met quite comfortably without knowing a single word. After all, everyone needs food, clothing, toilet paper and the like, so most places you go will have something that you can use to get by. Here are some additional items that you might want to consider bringing:
If there’s a prescription item that you can’t get by without, make sure to get enough to cover the period of your stay--it can be tough to find doctors in some locations, and there’s no guarantee that the medication you need is available everywhere. But for simple remedies and pain relief, most countries will have things that work just as well as the ones you’re used to--any decent travel guide should steer you in the right direction.
Bonus tip: Make sure you’re allowed to bring specific medications into the country with you, and in the quantities you will require. Failure to do so can result in some severe consequences, depending on the country and the drug in question.
If you have allergies or specific dietary requirements, it might be worth bringing a couple of days worth of calories to tide you over until you get the lay of the land.
Speaking as someone who can’t find the bedroom doorway without some thick lenses on my face, I can’t imagine trying to replace a pair of glasses or even getting my eyes tested in a country where I can’t communicate verbally. If you can’t bring a spare pair, at least get a copy of your prescription and save it somewhere in case of emergency so you can get some made.
Last but not least, if your job comes with accommodations , check in advance what is provided for you. If bedding isn’t included, an old set of sheets that you can leave behind won’t bulk up your luggage too much, and can save you a miserable first night and a few bucks when you get there.
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 Vault.com, 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.