Teaching abroad. It’s been a journey.
I left home with a vague expectation for this experience, but I’ve come away with so much more. I’ve met lifelong friends, experienced living in a different culture, learned histories unknown to me, and communicated successfully with people whom I don’t share a language with. I feel confident to go into just about any setting after this semester. These lessons, while not always sunny skies and rainbows, have been the biggest blessing.
The Trials and Triumphs of Teaching Abroad
Like most people, I like to get the bad news out of the way first. While teaching abroad seems exciting and adventurous, it can be far from glamorous. Don’t get me wrong; some days it will have you beaming from ear to ear. But other days… you’ll be wanting to rip your hair out. It’s not perfect, but that’s reality.
English and Thai couldn’t be more different. In English, I can say a word 700 different ways, but it will always have the same meaning. In Thai, if I pronounce one syllable of a word with even a slightly different tone, it means something completely different all together. Complicated.
A few of my classes have a decent grasp on English. I speak in broken sentences the majority of the time, but we manage to work it out. However, many of my classes understand maybe 5% of what comes out of my mouth. And 4% of that is Justin Bieber song lyrics. So you can see how my nid noi (little) knowledge of the Thai language could be a major difficulty.
On the bright side, I’ve become really good at charades.
Teaching ESL calls for a serious amount of repetition. Lesson plans usually involve struggling through the attendance chart and getting everyone settled for 10 minutes, repeating 12 or so new vocab words for about 20 minutes, explaining the game for 5, and actually playing the game for 10, before giving homework or settling kids down for the last 5. The first week of school I found myself really loving teaching, but as the semester progressed, I found that shouting the same word 100 times, wasn’t that exciting.
I still think I could love teaching if it was a subject I was excited about. But believe me, explaining the difference between the sound “v” makes compared to “w,” isn’t the most exhilarating thing in the entire world. Although I will say that trying to explain a blizzard to kids who have 90 degree winters was pretty comical.
Lack of routine.
Seems impossible that these two opposites would be in the same section, right? Thailand is an indescribable place in so many ways–timing and schedule being one of them. The best way I’ve learned to explain it? You’ll never truly know what’s happening until it’s happening, and even then you should mentally prepare for the exact opposite thing to happen.
My parents always ask if I have class this week, and truthfully, I never know until I get to school that day or even until I’ve been sitting in an empty classroom for 30 minutes.
The perfect story to explain this: It’s my last week of teaching. I go to my classroom, only to find it locked. I sit and wait until 30 of the 50 minutes have gone by–not a student or a Thai teacher in sight. So, naturally, I assume that class is cancelled. I begin my trek down the four story building. Just as I reach the last landing, my students begin climbing up the stairs saying, “Teacher, Teacher! Time for class.”
My FitBit loved it. My dislike of disorganization did not. But that’s just Thailand, baby! You roll with it.
As in any school or teaching environment, some kids seriously test your patience. While XploreAsia (the company that helped me through my TESOL certification) did an amazing job preparing me for my time in the classroom, nothing can really prepare you for a group of 45 fifteen year olds who speak zero of the same language as you, and who have no interest in learning it. I’ve definitely gotten a few grey hairs from some of my classes.
We had a session on classroom management during my training. During this class, our teacher told us to act (what I thought was) ridiculously while our peers attempted to teach and control us. I can say that every single one of those “ridiculous” behaviors actually happened in one of my classes–and then some. What had me laughing my first month in this country had me wanting to scream a month later.
As they say, “Patience is a virtue.”
I’ve never been a teacher before. I’ve never had to stand in front of a class for the majority of the day, project my voice, try to keep 45 kids in order, and attempt to teach something at the same time. At my last job, I sat at a desk and worked at a computer. The computer doesn’t care if you’re not feeling the best; it is completely unaffected. Your day goes on.
Teaching is a little different. Standing in front of a class means that your game face better be on. If you don’t feel 100%, you pretend you do. You summon energy you didn’t know you had and you crank through the lesson anyway. It’s exhausting.
Add the 90 degree heat and no air-conditioning on top of that and you’ve got a recipe for a very early bedtime (and bags under your eyes forever.)
I realize I didn’t paint the most beautiful picture, but we’re only half way there.
Teaching abroad, while it’s had its downs, has had many more ups. There have been days that have left me smiling ear to ear. Weeks that have made me consider a career path in education. And students and fellow teachers who have left a mark on my heart forever.
While I’ve never questioned that I live a very blessed life, going on this adventure only affirmed that fact more fully. I can hardly begin to compare my high school to the high school that I teach in here. The rooms here are bare, very few have computers, and there are only a hand full of air-conditioned rooms. The cafeteria is a more of a pavilion than an actual building. The bathrooms, aside from 3 stalls, are all squatty potties. If I want water, I have to walk to one of the six water stations spread across the campus and hope that it isn’t empty… You get the picture.
The students all wear uniforms–even in the public school. For the most part, these uniforms are in pretty good shape, however, I’ve seen many students with socks that can hardly be considered socks and shirt holes that are patched with bandaids.
Thailand is extremely different from the United States. While in some ways I find it to be more progressive than the States, in most ways it’s not quite there. This journey has allowed me to be grateful for the little things that I never would have considered “lucky” at home. Stepping out of your box definitely allows you to appreciate what’s inside of it that much more.
If living in a different part of the world doesn’t really get you thinking, I don’t know what will. Every day here, I participate in a life that is extremely different than my own. It allows me to reflect on my personal beliefs and ideas of right and wrong.
I hear a different side of history and I’m shown the whole story instead of half a picture. Learning about different cultures allows you to truly value the things you love about home and confirms feelings against the things that you don’t. It makes you stop and ask “why,” instead of simply accepting that that’s the way things are.
Teaching abroad will keep your brain on the run.
Funny how this can be classified as both a trial and a triumph.
Before I came to teach abroad, I was in a rut. My life was comfortable, but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. My job wasn’t stimulating. I wasn’t pushing myself. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference.
Fast forward to now:
I’m constantly challenging myself in every way possible here. The challenges can be simple; It be making friends with someone I might not at home, trying new food, or attempting to pay for something in a new language. Or the challenge can be a little deeper. As I said above, experiencing a new culture allows you to reflect on your own. It causes you to question why things are the way they are. It stops your brain from accepting things just because and causes you to truly think about whether or not something matches your personal beliefs.
Teaching abroad challenged me career-wise. Before I was sitting at a desk, staring at a computer, responding to emails. While I had nothing serious to complain about before, I can now say that that is not my end goal. I’ve seen and felt what it can be like to have an impact, and I won’t settle for another job that gives me less than that feeling now.
I’ve realized the importance of challenging myself again, and it feels really good.
For those who love to travel, teaching abroad is great way to do that while still providing for yourself. It’s exciting to immerse yourself in the unknown, to participate in different holidays, and see new parts of the world out of your backdoor.
I now have friends, inside jokes, and memories that I’ll never forget on the other side of the world. I’ve had countless laughs and adventures, and while there have been bad days, those will never come to mind first as I reflect on my time here.
I’ve explored the places I see on Pinterest and can fully appreciate computer screen savers after experiencing them in real life.
Teaching abroad, though challenging, has been extremely rewarding.
One day a student came into the teachers’ lounge during my off period. She explained that she had an English interview for university and asked if I would practice with her. She was so nervous to attempt English with me that she even brought a friend with for moral support. We wrote down and talked through a list of questions and practiced pronunciation and then she was off. The next week she found me at lunch, beaming from ear to ear, thanking me for helping her with her interview and sharing that it went well. Sitting with her took 30 minutes out of my day, but meant the world to her.
On the last day of school, a student stopped me just as I was about to dismiss the class. He stood in front of his peers and explained that he wanted to give a speech. He continued to tell me how much the group enjoyed my class and how he now has the confidence to practice his English. He wants to go into a career that requires English speakers, and now he’s ready to tackle that.
I can honestly tell you that I did nothing special. There were days that I didn’t necessarily want to go to school (hello, Mondays) but I was there. And to them that meant something. How simple.
To hear those words of gratitude was an amazing feeling. Certainly one that I’ll never forget for years to come.
Just do it.
Before I began this journey, a friend who also taught abroad gave me words of encouragement. She told me that in the end, even the bad days aren’t so bad. And it’s so true. While there were days that I couldn’t wait to get back to my air-conditioned apartment away from the chaos and days that I really missed being home, the memories and lessons I’ve taken away from this experience will forever overshadow those moments.
I’ll never forget the hugs from students on our last day together. The co-teachers who helped me translate and control the kiddos. The smiles, hellos, and awkward laughs when asking students questions outside of the classroom. Or the kind words heard from teachers and students about my time here.
If you’re considering teaching abroad. Make the jump and do it. It might not be perfect, but I promise you won’t regret it.