What it is really like to teach English as a foreign language


Putting your life on hold to move abroad and teach English is a massive commitment and it is natural to feel hesitant over whether the opportunity is right for you. This blog has been written to help those who find themselves in this position gain better insight into what life entails teaching English as a foreign language.   

English teachers are in extremely high demand in Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. Positions in the Middle East offer the highest paying salaries; however, contracts usually last for 2 years and require multiple years teaching experience, meaning new teachers fail to meet the prerequisites. Whilst there are plenty of opportunities to teach English in Latin America, compared to Asia the pay is relatively low, which therefore offers the most promise for aspiring teachers. This blog has been written by Teach Globally, who offer English teaching roles across China. To find out more about what we do click here.

1. Patience is key

Uprooting yourself and jumping into a vastly different culture requires a transition period in which you acclimatize to your new way of life. This process takes time and people can get frustrated when the transition doesn’t come more naturally. Often the reach of culture is underestimated, and people fail to realise its impact trickles into all areas of life. For example, the influence of culture on communication is frequently overlooked, yet it is one of the areas that people struggle with the most on first arrival. As different countries tend to be more or less direct in communication style depending on the prevailing culture.  

Furthermore, people often fail to consider how the wider cultural environment will extend into the workspace. You may find that the way a school is run and your assigned responsibilities, to not always make sense from your perspective. Keep in mind, every country has its own quirks, for instance, Chinese schools are notorious for last minute timetable changes; this is often a difficult transition coming from a British working environment, where tasks are a lot more structured. When dealing with confusing administrative policies, don’t try to fight the system, learn to relinquish control and go with the flow, eventually you’ll get used to the system.  

What’s more the profession of teaching is one that requires ample patience. Think back to a time where you had to learn something completely new, now imagine how difficult it must be for a child to pick up a new language with very little similarity to their mother tongue. Thus, if you want to be a teacher get ready to constantly repeat the same point.

To add to this point, children can be unpredictable, one lesson all your students may be extremely attentive with everyone putting in maximum effort, the next they can all be rowdy and disinterested. Remember that your students will also have other classes and workloads that will impact their performance in your class. Make sure you maintain your enthusiasm even when your students don’t, as this is infectious and will increase the class productivity.

2. Improvise, adapt and overcome

When you first start teaching you may find yourself a little lost and unsure of how to best teach your students. This is completely natural, much of teaching is trial and error; you will experiment with a variety of strategies until you find one that starts to show success. Once a promising strategy is found, it is not a matter of blindly applying it to all students, you must adapt it, using it instead as a foundation that you build on to meet the needs of individual students. Furthermore, over the course of a lesson situations arise that you must adapt too, quickly you will realise that lesson plans are simply guidelines and not step by step instructions. Don’t worry if you haven’t got much practice with this, you will surprise yourself on how well you react to unforeseen circumstances and over the course of employment you will no doubt improve your ability to think on your feet. 

3. You must be comfortable presenting to large groups

This may seem obvious, but it needs to be specified, on average you will be teaching to groups of around 30 children. If you are not comfortable communicating in front of this many people, maybe teaching is not for you. This does not mean you can’t feel nervous before starting the job but refers to your capability to articulate lesson material in a clear and enthusiastic fashion. If you would like more practice doing this before taking up a teaching position, there plenty of high-quality resources online, which are free. You can also enrol on a TEFL programme, which help get you prepared for teaching English as a foreign language, however these require payment. If you are considering joining Teach Globally’s programme, this comes with an inclusive teacher training course which is free of charge. 

4. Students must come first

Think back to your school years, which teachers made the biggest impact; those who did the bare minimum or those that were passionate about their job and went the extra mile to help their students? In the same way you must be passionate and enthusiastic once you are in the classroom. There is nothing wrong with using this opportunity to explore new countries and travel, but that cannot be your sole reason for taking up the position. Remember you are responsible for the education of children and adolescences and you have more of an impact than you initially realise. Give the job your maximum effort and in return you will receive an unparalleled feeling of warmth as your students’ progress along their English journey.

With teaching the more you put in the more you get out; meaning the greater effort you put in, the better teacher you will become, not only this but the passion you project in your work will be mirrored back by your students. Thus, if you are committed you will derive tangible joy, your students will be implicitly grateful and the whole experience will be more enjoyable.

5. Students learns at their own pace

There is no one size fits all strategy when it comes to teaching, you must realise each student is an individual and treat them as such. When teaching you must adjust your methods to cater for audiences of different ages, aptitudes and culture. Lessons must be designed to keep students engaged; if they are too easy, students will lose interest, too difficult and students will be overly confused. 

To add to this point, not all your students will care about learning English and there is no reason to get worked up over this; as you can’t force a person to learn. The key is to make the lessons as engaging as possible to maximise the number of students who actively participate. This may also sway disinterested students to start paying attention, however, even if this is not the case, it will prevent them from becoming a distraction to the rest of the class.

Whilst culture does have an impact on how students are accustomed to learning, children are children no matter what country you are in. Thus, some general methods can be used as a foundation upon which you can build your lesson plans. 

Younger children enjoy learning through interactive games, silly jokes, and physical movement. You want them to spend as much time as possible speaking in English and not their native tongue. Also, it is remarkable, how much more engaged children will become once you introduce some sort of competition; carrying gold stars can make your job much easier.

Older students are far more engaged when you connect with them on a human level and it is not a formal teacher student relation. Engage in conversations they find interesting and humorous about sports, music, or other relatable topics, and they will be far more receptive towards you. You may have to make the games more challenging but older students love competition and playing games just as much as their younger counterparts.     

6. You will experience a Cultural shift

No matter where you decide to move to teach English, life will be drastically different from what you are accustomed to. In the excitement of looking forward to the upcoming adventure, it is easy to forget that you will be giving up many of the home comforts that you heavily rely on. Thus, once you make the move you may find yourself at points feeling homesick. If this happens, it is important that you have a support network to fall back on. Often people don’t want to burden those back home or tell them things aren’t going as perfectly as they envisioned, remember, this is a big transition, and it is completely normal for you to feel this way at some point. Homesickness is usually short lived, and it is just a matter of pushing through; make sure not to isolate yourself and keep engaging with the community and you will learn to embrace the differences and discover a sub-culture that replaces what you gave up back home. However, if things get to point where you cannot see yourself continuing, remember no one is forcing you to stay, and you can always return home early.

Cultural adjustments will also extend to the classroom, as systems that are standard in a UK classroom may not translate over to a non-UK classroom. For example, in some Asian classroom’s students are not accustomed to being singled out to answer a question, as they don’t want to seem of higher or lower intelligence than their peers. One way of getting around this is by accentuating pair work, where the students are far more comfortable and more likely to share answers with the rest of the class. 

7. It may be useful to keep a journal

 This is where at the end of each day, you write down what went well and what could have gone better. This is beneficial on many dimensions, firstly you know where a particular class struggled, giving you a clear indication of material that needs to be addressed in the subsequent lessons. Also, earlier we stated that teaching involved a lot of trial and error, well if you don’t clearly document your errors you are likely to repeat them, but by having a journal you will have an organised log of what works and what needs improvement. You will also start to see patterns of what works best for different student groups, thus improving your teaching ability.  

Common misconceptions

8. Lesson plans

Many people who have little or no teaching experience put great pressure on themselves with regard to creating lesson plans. Whilst you may feel a little lost to begin with, you must realise no one gets it perfect from the outset. However, once you get into the groove of things planning lessons becomes much easier. If you want to be a little more prepared before your first day on the job, there are plenty of resources online that will help you get started. 

A few helpful tips:

Visual aids can be a great addition, pointing at an apple and saying ‘apple’ gets the point across very effectively and doesn’t require any knowledge of the student’s language, in this way PowerPoint can be used effectively to illustrate your point.

9. Grammar

A lot of people feel they are terrible at grammar and that this will hinder their capabilities of teaching English. The thing to remember is, you speak the language every day and inherently you do have a very good grasp of English grammar. You may need to brush up on some nomenclature, but this is a quick fix, just read through a book on English grammar and you’ll feel much more comfortable. Also, it is important to note much of what you will be teaching will be conversationally focused and grammar plays far less of a role than you may initially anticipate. 

10. Bilingualism

Speaking the host country’s language is not a requirement for English as a second language teachers, and in many establishments you are paired with a teaching assistant who will help translate into the local language. However, knowing the local language does make day to day life much easier; whether it be to make conversation with neighbours, order food or any other task that requires communicating with non-English speakers. Whist you can suffice on English, it is a fantastic opportunity to pick up a new language. At Teach Globally we offer free mandarin lessons to any applicant that decides take up one of our teaching positions.

Knowing the local language will also improve your teaching ability and let you more easily connect with your students. Whilst at the same time giving you a better understanding of the culture, enhancing your overall experience. Our advice is to embrace every opportunity you have to practice the host language and don’t be afraid to sound silly. People may laugh at your accent but it’s in good nature and they will appreciate the effort you are putting in. It will also give you better insight into what it takes to learn a new language, which you can then apply to your teaching.  


Team T.G.