Teaching Abroad: How to Deal With Culture Shock

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.

“Time ripens all things; no man is born wise.” – Cervantes.

culture shock

The author of Don Quixote was a wise man who said life is all about learning how to deal with new experiences. Some are thrown at you, while others you seek out on your own.

Making the decision to go off and teach in a foreign country definitely falls into the latter category for most; it’s the opportunity to have experiences and learn life lessons that might otherwise never come your way. Because of that, it can seem like a frightening prospect, especially from the outside. But most of us already have the skills we need to thrive in unfamiliar environments; after all, you’ve been doing it all your life!

In case you’re not convinced, here are a few tips to help you prepare for, and recover from culture shock, regardless of wherever you may find yourself heading to next.

Do your research

There’s no way anyone would consider heading off to a country on the spur of the moment without knowing what they were getting into, right? Without knowing a word of the language or whether the water was safe to drink? Without even a particularly strong sense of where that country actually is?

Dear reader, every single one of those sentences applies to my first experience teaching abroad. Freshly minted TESOL certification in hand, I took the first job that was offered to me, and went to a country in Central Europe that I’d barely heard of, just five days after emailing in my initial application.

While I survived the experience, and gained a lot from it, my experience in the country could have been a lot smoother if I’d done more than peruse a few pages of a travel guide on the flight on the way over.

By the end of the year, I was still learning things the hard way that I could have known just by doing some research in advance. For subsequent jobs, I made sure to identify the country I wanted to work in first, and then made a point of learning as much as I could about customs, language and working conditions before even thinking about committing to a contract.

Be open to new ideas

No matter how much research you do on a country, there’s no way that you can get the full picture of what the experience will be like until you get there. Even reputable sources will get things wrong, and things like work culture will inevitably vary from school to school.

So while it’s good to go into a given situation armed with as much information as possible, it’s also critical to keep an open mind and accept that life will not always measure up to the expectations you’ve gleaned from your research. That can be both enlightening (e.g., a stranger going out of their way to help you in a country where people tend to be very insular) or infuriating (e.g., being treated differently because you’re an outsider), but rarely boring.

Stay connected

It’s easy to feel isolated in unfamiliar surroundings, especially when you’ve left everyone you’ve ever known somewhere on the other side of the world. My first night in that Central European job I took on a whim was spent completely alone in an apartment in a Soviet-era housing block, with no phone or Internet access, and the recurring thought that I’d made a huge mistake.

But the next day, once I was able to make a couple of calls home and send a few emails, I didn’t feel quite so alone. And within a few weeks, once I had time to get to know some of my colleagues and students and start building a social life, my need to check in back home gradually diminished.

And, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I never really lost touch with anyone — being able to check in on my favorite people, local sports teams and the like consistently took the sting out of even the worst days.

Learn the language

OK, so there’s no way that you’ll be able to master a complex language like Japanese or Chinese in a few weeks. But even learning a few basic phrases before you go — and continuing to build on them while you’re there — can make all the difference.

If you can, I’d also recommend signing up for classes in the local language once you get to wherever you’re going — not only will it help you get more out of your experience in the country, but it’s a great way to meet new people. And you just might find that putting yourself into the learner’s shoes makes you a better teacher to boot.

Bonus tip: Countries that don’t use the Roman alphabet can be even more alienating; there’s nothing quite as frustrating as finding yourself in an unfamiliar location with no idea of how to get to where you need to be because you can’t read. But that’s part of what you’re signing up for — a life that only presented itself because you opened yourself up to seeing the world from a different perspective.

(Bonus, bonus tip: If you really want to work in Asia, but that last point is terrifying, consider Korea. It has a phonetic alphabet with only 24 letters, which may be easier to learn if you’re on a time crunch. You can literally learn to read it in one day.)

Indulge yourself a little

Everyone has different ideas about what they want out of a foreign experience, and different comfort levels. Throughout my travels, I’ve met the full range of people, from those who refused to hang out with fellow ex-pats at all, to those who subsisted almost entirely on food parcels and chain restaurants they recognized from back home, and made no attempt to learn anything about the culture of the country they were in. Most people, of course, fall somewhere in the middle. The bottom line: there’s no right or wrong to do life in a different country (provided you live by the local laws, that is). While you may arrive with the intention of going native, there’s no shame in needing to seek out the comforts of a Starbucks, McDonald’s, or an approximation of an Irish pub every once in a while, to get even a fleeting reminder of home.

The bottom line: Taking a step into the unknown is always unsettling, no matter what it is you’re going to do next. Making adequate preparations, acknowledging the situation and taking steps to mitigate it will help to get you through.

TESOL phil

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.