3 Sep 2013

Teaching Abroad: 4 things that can go wrong and what you can do - by William Lake

Things are crazy busy here in eslenglish.ca world (launching a new magazine - heremagazine.ca - in November!). We are pleased as punch to have fellow ESL teacher and blogger, William Lake, do a little moonlighting here at Fiona's ESL Blog to tell us all about the challenges and the wonders of teaching English in Cambodia and elsewhere. If you're thinking about teaching abroad or just want a glimpse of what it might be like far away from home, then read on...(oh, and send William some PG Tips and HP if you're so inclined!)

Teaching English in a foreign country can be a rewarding and great experience. Some people choose to do it for a few years to fund their travels, whilst others make a career out of it by working in exotic locations. But it isn't always that easy, sometimes things go wrong and when you’re living and working in a foreign country, you might not know how to fix these problems. Here, I outline 4 things that might go wrong with English teachers working in a foreign country and what you can do about it. 

1. Culture Shock 
Culture shock can happen to even the most accustomed of travellers and it can happen to anyone at any time. Basically, culture shock is a feeling of disorientation that comes with visiting, living or working in a new culture. You will probably encounter unfamiliar food, language, weather, and customs, etc. and it can leave you feeling depressed, scared and in some cases it can affect your health. To try and help, I would suggest easing yourself in gently. Try to familiarise with your new culture step by step. If you’re unsure about the food, eat food that you are familiar with. Try to meet other expats and make some new friends and ask them for advice (most countries have forums dedicated to expats). Just try to do it step by step. If you really don’t like the culture or country then leave for somewhere new (this should be your last resort!). I’ve personally never suffered from culture shock. I visited my first foreign country (Tunisia) at 5 years old and have pretty much been to a new country every year from then on and I’m 32 years old now! Hopefully, I won’t ever get it. I have seen other people with culture shock and it really doesn’t look like a pleasant experience. 

2. Missing Home 
Feeling homesick is another common problem for people teaching abroad. Often we’re 1000s of miles away from our friends and families and it can leave some people feeling vulnerable and lonely. Nowadays, however, this doesn’t need to be such a problem. With modern air travel, you’re never really more than 24 hours away from home and if you want to visit, it’s relatively easy to do so (providing you have the money!). Another thing that I do is to try to contact my family and friends as regularly as possible and in the modern world with SMS, smart phones, Skype, and other things; this is easier, quicker and cheaper than ever before! You might even be missing some of the home comforts, but I’ve found that you can buy a lot of the products that you know from home in most countries around the world. So stay in regular contact with people you love and buy the small things that you want, you’ll soon find that this feeling goes away and you’ll be enjoying your new life in no time at all. For some people, however, this feeling persists and gets steadily worse and you might need to acknowledge that living abroad might not be for you. I don’t really miss too much from home. Other than missing my friends and family, I’ve grown accustomed to living abroad. There isn’t really anything that I can’t live without, but a friend came to visit me recently in Cambodia and asked what I would like from home. I jumped at the opportunity to get a few things that I haven’t found here in Cambodia. They brought me some PG Tips tea, a potato masher and some HP sauce. Although I can do without these things, they did make me feel a little closer to home! 

"This is a picture of Kep, Cambodia. Kep is one of my favourite places in Cambodia. It’s a very small and sleepy seaside town with very little to do other than eat great food and lounge around doing nothing. Both of which are 2 of my favourite things to do!"

3. Employer Problems 
If you have a problem with your employer in your own country, you are usually either well versed on the law and what you can do or you know where to find appropriate advice about how to handle the situation. Unfortunately, in a foreign country we don’t have this same luxury. If you experience problems with your employer and you think it is unfair, there might not be a lot you can do about it. I’ve always gone down the route of trying to avoid these types of issues from the beginning and only generally work in schools where I’ve found good reviews online by other teachers or spoken to other expat teachers living in the country and asked for their opinions and experiences. Sometimes, however, you might have issues and don’t really know what to do about them. Your rights as a foreigner will differ in each country, so it’s difficult to give specific advice, but here is some general advice. Most countries have employment laws, so read up on them. You might find that you have no rights; therefore, I would cut my losses and find a new employer. Finally, ask the locals for advice, they should know what to do and be able to give you appropriate advice. Personally, I’ve been lucky with schools that I’ve worked in and never really had any serious problems. There’s been a few niggling problems like getting paid a few days late, having no books or repeatedly given the wrong books, but nothing big. 

"This the view from Phnom Srei (Girl Mountain) in Kampong Cham, Cambodia. There are 2 mountains side by side, the other being Phnom Bro (Boy Mountain). The story is that there was a competition between the men and women in the village who could build the highest mountain before the sun came up. The women knew that they had no chance of beating the men so instead they built a big light that looked like the sun and the men stopped working. They women then continued to build the mountain and built a taller mountain than the men. The locals say it shows that women are more intelligent than the men!"

4. Student Problems 
Finally, you might encounter problems with your students. They might be unruly, difficult to control or even rude to you. I haven’t often encountered these problems with students, but when I have, I first seek the advice of my colleagues, especially the native teachers. If this doesn't work, I then seek the advice of the principal or school director and explain my problems. I once had a situation where nothing worked, the students didn't want to learn and they didn't want to be there. I tried all sorts of things to help! I tried making the lessons more interactive, splitting the students into smaller groups, keeping them busy with different activities and everything else I could thing of. Finally I tried playing the disciplinarian (this is always my last resort). After none of these worked, I asked for a different class and explained why I didn’t want to teach them. The director was unsurprised and said that every teacher has this problem with that particular class and that’s why the class was given to the new teacher because nobody wanted to teach them! He said to stick it out for a few more weeks and consequently found me a new class. 

William Lake is an ESL Teacher, TEFL Lecturer and Cultural Studies Lecturer at Build Bright University in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He publishes ESL information for both teachers and students on his blog and can be found online on: 
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