Teaching English Abroad is Hard... And That's OK

Teaching English Abroad is Hard… And That’s OK

When it comes to embarking on a career teaching English abroad, there are certainly lots of positives. However, it’s a big decision to make, and the job isn’t for everyone. While you may like the sound of adventure, a stable job, and travel opportunities, there are lots of factors to consider before you take the leap. Read through our top points to think about when deciding whether or not to teach English abroad.

The Distance

While there may be opportunities to teach English closer to home, many first-time TEFL teachers end up heading to some far-flung place like Thailand or China. There are several reasons for this, the big ones being: it’s easier to get a job in these places, and they seem far more exotic if you’re a keen traveller. But the downside of living somewhere far from home is that, once you’re there, you’re pretty much stuck. You can’t pop home for the weekend, and even going home for a longer visit can be an arduous and expensive business. Many teachers who undertake a year-long contract abroad don’t visit home for the entirety of their stay. If you’ve never been far away from family and friends before, this is one of the hardest factors to consider. Also, bear in mind that there might be a major time difference between you and your loved ones, so Skyping home can be pretty difficult too.

The Culture

One of the greatest things about teaching abroad in a place really different from home is that you get to experience a new culture. However, this can have its downsides too. There are local customs that you’ll have to get used to, especially if you don’t want to offend people. You might have to dress in a certain way, behave differently to how you would at home, and look at things in a new light. Getting used to a new culture is a learning curve that most travellers can handle, but some cultures will grate against you more than others. While this isn’t necessarily a reason not to go, it’s certainly something that might make your time abroad more difficult.

The Language

You’ve gone abroad to teach English, so it’s fair to assume that the locals probably won’t speak your language. While many TEFL teachers have a stab at learning the local language, it certainly isn’t an easy thing to arrive in a new country without knowing a word of the language. Going shopping, making friends, visiting the doctor – all of these things become roughly a million times more difficult if you can’t understand people. If you think you’re the kind of person who ‘isn’t good at languages’, don’t let this put you off – failing GCSE French is a whole different kettle of fish against being immersed in a language and having the chance to practice it every day.

Bad Things are Worse

Getting ill is bad enough, but when you’re out in a country where you don’t speak the language, where different medicines are on offer, where doctors act differently to how they do at home – it’s a nightmare. And because you’re in a new place with a new cuisine and climate, the chances of getting ill are fairly high. If you can get through an illness while living abroad, you can get through anything. Also, other negative life experiences are so much more difficult when you’re far from home. If you break-up with your partner, you’ll be far away from the comfort of your best friends. If a loved one dies, you’ll have a very long, expensive journey if you choose to go home for a funeral. Life will happen wherever you are, but in choosing to move abroad for your TEFL career means that you need to accept the possibility that these things will happen at the worst possible time.

The Students

Remember that every teaching experience is different – on arriving at your new TEFL job, this realisation might hit you like a slap in the face! Perhaps you’ve done a bit of voluntary work with children in the UK or worked on a summer school program with European teenagers. Starting a teaching career with a class full of raucous Mexican teens or a room full of silent Japanese businessmen will be completely different. Nothing you’ve learnt on any TEFL course can really prepare you for your first full-time TEFL job. It will be tough, and if you go to a school that isn’t well-organised, you may have a ‘baptism by fire’ type of experience. But it’s the same for everyone – no teacher churned out perfect lessons from day one. Hard experiences teach us important lessons, so there is always a silver lining.

The Reputation

It often seems like the job ‘TEFL teacher’ is synonymous with ‘gap year’. If, like a select number of TEFL teachers, you’re not just having a one-off year abroad but choose to turn teaching into a full-time career, be prepared for the haters. Well-meaning loved ones often come out with phrases like ‘when are you going to come home and get a real job?‘ While the gap year experience is certainly one approach to TEFL teaching, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing beyond it. Many teachers go on to see promotions to Senior Teacher, Head of Department, or Director of Studies. Some teachers take their experiences home to become mainstream teachers in their own country or found their own English schools. Some teachers set up Skype teaching companies where they can work full-time from wherever they call home. Don’t be put off by people who make negative comments – unless they’ve been a TEFL teacher themselves, they have no idea what they’re talking about.


There are pros and cons to every job, and teaching English abroad is no exception. There are lots of factors to consider when you weigh up whether you think this is the job for you. Honestly, it’s quite hard to tell until you’re actually there, in the thick of it, dealing with this whole new world. Those who don’t take to it will either quit or just finish their contract before heading home. But if the pros outweigh the cons for you, teaching English abroad can be a fun, rewarding career with many opportunities for further development.

About the Author

Celia Jenkins is a freelance writer and TEFL-trained English teacher who spent five years teaching in Asia. She specializes in travel writing and writing for children, and has a penchant for knitting. Celia is the author of Knitted Sushi (easy knitting patterns for beginners) and Ben and Maki – Let’s be Friends (an English/Japanese bilingual picture book). To contact Celia about freelancing work, check out her Upwork profile or contact Celia through her website.