I sat down and thought of things I wish I would’ve known before becoming a teacher abroad. Here’s the first five, there will be more because, you know, hindsight is 20-20.
1) It goes really fast
I’m not sure why this is. I think it’s a combo of moving to a new place and the school calendar. School feels so fast (faster than when I was a student). The day is so compartmentalized by block-by-block schedules that it doesn’t drag on and on like a desk job does. You go and do class, break, class, break, class, break then you go home. Repeat 5 times. Weekend. Repeat 5 times. Weekend.
It is also compartmentalized by unit/chapter so that compartmentalizes the months in a weird way. You also start to think in breaks – oh, 3 more weeks until Easter then we have that three day weekend in May. Next thing you know it’s the end of the year.
Meanwhile you just moved to a new country and everyday is crazy: get a bank account, get a phone, get internet, go shopping, go on your first vacation, make your first friend, get a bus pass, etc.
Like baby’s first words you have these first-XYZ moments over and over that feel fast. You walk into the phone store, nervous to speak in Spanish and seconds later you’ve signed the document and are walking out with a phone. Things just feel faster when you have to do everything in such a different way.
Later, after you get a routine, things start moving slower (I know things should work in reverse but it doesn’t – at least initially).
Solution: Keep a journal, diary, or blog and take lots of pictures. Seriously, take a video of your school and apartment because in a few years it will feel worlds away.
2) The 7 month mark is the moment (at least for me)
I’ve lived (for longer than 1 year) abroad in three different countries and all three times the 7-month mark was when I finally got it. I could understand everything around me, I knew where all the best restaurants and shops were, I knew how to replace something (anything!) when it was broken, and I knew people (or recognized a lot of people). For me, around 7 months I finally felt like a local or at least like someone who belonged.
7 months is the culmination of your having built up a mental dictionary and map of your whole new world. You could drop me in any neighborhood and I could get home without a map or phone. Anything in my house could break and it wouldn’t be a life altering experience (where you don’t know where to get a new part or who to talk to to get it fixed). After 7 months you know exactly what to do (because you’ve learned from the other experiences that got you to the 7 month mark).
More extroverted people or people who speak more of the language upon arrival might find they reach this comfortable feeling at 5 months or 2 months. For me, it’s 7 months. And it helps me with the culture shock – to know that this will eventually/soon feel so normal.
Solution: On hard days remember this will all feel normal soon. After the 7 month mark (or whenever you feel comfortable) challenge yourself to not fall into a boring routine. Try restaurants you never thought you would or shop in the next city over to keep things fresh.
3) You teach how you learn so you have to be careful
Fresh out of university, my first lesson was waaaaaaayyy too hard. I was challenging my 13 year old students to critical thinking, reading assignments and learning 20 new vocabulary words in a week. This is because I had just come from a Level 495 German Language class in university where I had had intense reading assignments and 40-50 new vocabulary words a week. When it came time to teach I thought about how I had most recently been taught. Sure, I “dumbed it down” but not enough.
It’s not just teaching the way you were taught, you will also teach the way you would want to be taught. This is not good because you may ignore some things or glaze over important things.
I know I have to be careful because I will accidentally
- focus too much on art/hands on activities
- expect too much creativity
- assign too much reading
- never touch math
You’re an English language teacher, what are you talking about, math?! Yes, math. We’re doing numbers, time and money math. Students have to learn how to say large numbers and money denominations in English (“The soup costs four euros and fifty seven cents!”). I’m extremely reluctant to give them money math problems to do (to make them say the answer in English at the end) because I hate math and wouldn’t ever want to learn another language through math. But some kids eat that stuff up and it is not fair to deny them that learning opportunity.
Some kids hate hands-on stuff so I have to be careful not to make big artsy fartsy lessons every week.
Solution: Be honest with yourself when you make lessons (are you doing this for you, for them, or for just 5% of them?) and watch your students’ reactions to your assignments/projects/games.
4) Your private life will blend into your school life. It has to.
With most of the teaching abroad programs you’ll be assigned a “handler” who is in charge of your schedule, apartment, and more. She might know your bank account number, your health insurance policy and how much money you pay in taxes per month. She or he might be the one who drives you to the hospital when you’re too sick to walk. And then translate embarrassing medical questions. When your toilet breaks she’ll be the one who has to call the plumber (because the school might own your apartment). Forget about leaving your private life at home, it will come with you to work as your co-teachers are your best or sometimes only resource to getting anything done.
You may not like it or want it to blend. You may do everything you can to stop it from blending but there will always be one person who will still call your school about you/looking for you because your paperwork is attached to the school.
Solution: Accept it. Even if you are fluent in the language and own your own apartment (the school doesn’t rent it) you can never truly divorce your home/private life. Just try not to be a burden and ask for something all the damn time. On the flip side do ask for help if you need it.
5) Your school has no idea what’s going on -but really, no schools do
There will be days when someone says “every Thursday from now until the end of the year is cancelled” and you just saw that class for the very last time without knowing it. You’ll walk into a classroom and no one is there – they’re all on a field trip. You’ll walk to school and no one is there – the whole school is on a break and no one told you.
You will say “gosh my schools growing up weren’t this disorganized.” Yes, they were but you were on the student side of things. You didn’t see your teacher crying in the bathroom or running to the library to get a last minute activity. You didn’t see the chaos of the printer failing -because teachers are miracle workers and they will figure out a whole new activity on their 2 minute walk back from the copying machine. You can’t just not have a lesson. They’ll figure something out. You will, too.
Schools are messy, crazy places. Coordinating that many tiny people and their families with so many activities, holidays, state standards, tests, national holidays, volunteer work, final exams, transfer students, and field trips is insane.
This week is pushed back or extended to make room for that week which has these holidays and these tests and boy oh boy you better cover chapter 5 in a whole afternoon, ready? Go! Class started 6 minutes ago, we’re having an assembly later so classes started 10 minutes early!!! Run!
If you think it’s a language barrier “oh my Spanish co-teacher just forgot to tell me” you’re only half correct. Chances are she didn’t even know, either. Schools are as well organized as they can be but that means almost nothing on the grand scheme of things.