What is it really like teaching abroad?


Part ONE

Being centre stage

What is it really like teaching abroad?

It’s fun. It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s frightening. It’s frustrating. It’s challenging. It’s nerve wracking. It’s eye opening. The list can go on.

You experience so many emotions and experiences all at once or over a short period of time that you sometimes feel like your emotions are colliding into one.  That my friend is also called culture shock but that’s another post. That is pretty much how I felt when I went to teach in China for the first time. I had previous experience teaching and assisting in London, got my CELTA certificate and then jumped on a plane towards the Far East. I had done some research on what to expect as a first time teacher abroad but actually seeing and dealing with those experiences was completely different.

In this post, I will give you an insight into what I had experienced during my eighteen months in China. Though I’m now in Korea I haven’t taught yet so I can’t mention what I don’t know. (But stay posted for that one.)

I’m going to skip over the culture shock part as that’s something else entirely. So, let’s go.

Potentially, you’ll be given no teaching assistant in class and you’ll have to deal with the language barrier alone

Teacher suffering from acute stress resting her head on her arms at her desk in front of the blackboard as she seeks to gather herself together

Huh? Let me explain. In most British schools, there will be a second “help.” This is the person who will deal with a certain bunch of students because of their behaviour or they need more help than the others so there isn’t a huge gap in abilities in the classroom for example. This is what you can get in some private language schools in China and sometimes in public schools in Korea. When I was in China, these teaching assistants were for the youngest group of learners the school catered to. Other than that – I was on my own.


  1. Plan your lessons so they are easy to read! This saves fumbling around.
  2. Be able to explain or show your points c l e a r y & simply!
  3. Grade your language – only use words students will know.
  4. Get strong students to demonstrate activities with you or with each other. Sometimes, I use the weakest student because if I know they get it, the rest of the class will have picked up on what is expected of them.
  5. Use PowerPoint Presentations and flashcards. Visuals will be your friend.
  6. Don’t panic. Use each lesson as a way to learn more about your class and trigger words your students comprehend.

What happened to me: When I planned classes, I didn’t plan with the class in mind forgetting their level and their favoured activities. I didn’t plan the classes clear enough either. Too much writing to sift through when teaching clouded my mind so when I came to perform the lesson, I spoke too fast and expected them to just understand. Plus, I used to speak way too much and I remember plainly one student just said ‘blah blah blah book’ using the syllables of what I’d just spoken. It clicked! Students in these settings can only comprehend key words. So keep it simple and make sure they get the point of your lesson before exiting the class.

Lesson planning



Always fun. That seemed to be filled with sarcasm.  Haha! It was. Lesson planning is both tedious and rewarding. You just have to pick a side. I’m that awkward one and I sit right in the middle simply because I had to write a plan for every class I taught. It did give me good practise when it came to structuring my classes but at the same time, it was time consuming and boring for me to do.
On the plus side, every one of my students knew my routine: we review homework, review the key points from the previous class, begin the new content, practise, produce something related to the target language, quick final review, set homework, say farewell. That all came from lesson planning. I suppose the repetitive nature of writing lessons printed in my mind how to plan a class and follow it even if I wasn’t referring to it after every activity.

I had two hour classes with my 7-13 year olds which covered a lot of ground. Sometimes I asked myself ‘how do I keep them “entertained?” How do I make sureI cover everything within the designated time slot? I worked with what flowed best and cut out the crap.


  1. If you’re in a school that uses textbooks, work out the target language that the students need to know and add or subtract things that are boring or pointless (because some of them will have added flaf that really doesn’t mean anything to the student’s understanding of English. It may not be appropriate to teach at their level. There are lots of factors. Use the textbook as guidance.)
  2. Seen something on a teaching resource website that will work in class? An activity, useful way to explain something? Throw it into your lesson plan so you can use it. Your lesson plan is your script for the performance.
  3. Make sure it is c l e a r – crystal clear. Imagine some other teacher whose never been in your class being able to pick up that lesson plan and follow that exact lesson plan.
  4. Have an objective! Don’t even begin to write plan the content without actually knowing what the student will know by the end of it.
  5. Students don’t understand while you’re teaching? Stop the lesson and freelance. One time, my students found ordinal numbers hard, so I stopped the lesson, quickly drew  house or supermarket and then wrote familiar shops they knew and practised that specific language with them until I could see the ‘oh I get it now’ light bulb turn on.
  6. If you don’t get through everything, no sweat. It’s best for students to take away a chunk of information and know it well even if it took the whole lesson to get, than to cram in everything and students understood nothing of what they learnt.

What happened to me: They’ve been multiple times when I’ve planned a lesson or followed the lesson given by the school’s requests and I’ve never felt so lost. Sometimes, I over plan (which has been helpful as I carried things into the next class) but sometimes, I didn’t plan my explanations clear enough. Though I wouldn’t call my training in China a ‘proper’ training session since I spent most of my time observing others and I was always scolded for my “poor” lessons, I learnt to teach through trials and errors.

This post is to help reduce others from going through belittling and hurtful experiences I went through. If anything, I’d like for new teachers reading this post to not feel as if you are a “bad” teacher because you don’t match up to what your manager said you should teach. You have your own style of teaching you just have to find it!


There’s a lot going on in this post. So, I’m going to leave it here for now.

But stay tuned for First Time Teaching Part Two where I look at how to deal with ‘open door’ classes where parents watch your class, Parent Teacher Meetings and the differences in education cultures.

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