by Eric Haeg
Teaching English in another country isn’t easy. Trying to do so with just a bit of savings and passion for travel is like trying to make spaghetti with nothing but some pasta and ketchup.
Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) for an extended period abroad not only takes basic teaching skills and English language awareness, it requires personality traits and skillsets for life outside the classroom, too.
As far as the teaching skills are concerned, a good TEFL certification course will provide the basic training required to enter the classroom as a teacher for the first time. What it won’t provide is training for everyday life in a foreign culture. With that in mind, let’s look at some skill sets and personality traits TEFL teachers need for a happy life abroad.
Communication skills – This is an obvious issue within the classroom, but communication issues don’t start and stop at the classroom door.
You’ll be living within a population of people who don’t speak your native language well. This requires adapting verbal communication for lower-level speakers. You’ve got to be able to use basic words, keep sentences short and simple, and perhaps soften one’s accent. Outside verbal communication, one needs to utilize non-verbal communication such as facial expressions, gesticulation, and miming. And let’s not forget the most important communication skill: listening. You must be able to interpret one’s poor pronunciation, broken English, and language errors to identify what’s being said.
Ingenuity – The less you have, the more you need to be resourceful abroad.
We usually only realize what we need once we don’t have it. Problem is, hardly any of the places popular for teaching English have a Costco in the neighborhood. You can forget about Amazon’s next-day shipping.
This is where simple re-purposing and some researched life hacks can do wonders. Lost your $200 Bose travel speaker? Cut a slit in a roll of toilet paper and stick your mobile in it. Can’t find a burr grinder for your organic, free-trade coffee beans? Source some local beans and buy a pestle and mortar. Starving for hummus? It doesn’t grow in plastic containers; YouTube is your friend and the recipe is pretty simple. In fact, there are over 300 hours of video being uploaded onto YouTube every hour. You can bet YouTube can probably help with most life hacks, home remedies, and DIY projects.
Independence – Because sometimes the best conversations are the ones you have with yourself.
The vast majority of those who start living abroad start on their own. After a TEFL course, they go off to find jobs on their own. Many end up traveling on local holidays on their own, too. Sure, it’s easy to find and make new friends. However, what if you’re having a bad day, feeling homesick, or actually feeling ill? Sometimes the only person you can rely on for comfort is yourself.
The silver lining here is that the bonds made between friends who are also living abroad can grow quickly and deeply. Sometimes a shoulder is needed for crying on, or you need a hand with something. The friends you make abroad appear quickly and without hesitation.
Tolerance – Having to accept traditions, cultural norms, and everyday customs that are not what you grew up with is a fantastic way of testing just how truly tolerant one can be.
Most people who arrive in a new country often embrace new and different experiences. They laugh off minor inconveniences at first. However, once the honeymoon phase is over, living within another culture starts to get more challenging — even seemingly unacceptable at times. It’s easy to develop a judgmental and negative attitude towards locals and their customs, but that’s not going to help anyone.
The best way to avoid this is to think of it as if you’re a guest in someone’s house. In a way you are, so be polite, try to learn from your hosts’ different approaches, and see things as simply different, rather than applying unhelpful, negative values onto behavior you don’t like.
Curiosity – If necessity is the mother of invention, curiosity is the mother of exploration.
You may think you’re curious, but are you? If you island hopped through Thailand, would you buy a package tour to Phi Phi Island, or would you seek out secluded beaches through independent travel? Perhaps if you taught in Turkey, you’d go into a hammam (a place people go to get washed and massaged by people of the same sex), or maybe you’d knock it before you tried it. If you lived in the Philippines, would you try balut (a partially developed bird embryo) or just stick to a fried egg?
Without a healthy sense of adventure and curiosity that drives it, life abroad can become as mundane as life in one’s hometown. Be curious and try new foods, be curious and open doors to see what’s on the other side, be curious and blaze your own trail. Be curious… and stay curious.
Sense of humor – If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?
Everyone wants to avoid committing a cultural faux pas, but it’s only a matter of time before it happens. If you’re lucky, you’ll just get laughed at when it does happen. You’ll also continually find yourself in situations where you’re unsure of local customs, what to say, or what to do. You will make mistakes; you will most certainly look silly from time to time and being able to laugh at yourself might be the best way to ease the tension.