Teaching abroad is probably one of the most intense things you’ll ever do. It involves moving countries, moving houses, and starting a new job, any of which is already stressful but now, you’re doing it all at once. And all while having to communicate in a foreign language you might not speak a word of.
There will be moments when you feel like you’re living out your dream, and your Instagram feed may look better than ever! But other times, especially in the beginning, you could feel lost, lonely, and stressed out. It happens to everyone. And without your normal support network around you, dealing with the bad days can be tough.
The outcome of these challenges isn’t always negative––many people feel a huge sense of achievement and pride in themselves after teaching abroad. But it’s still worth being aware of what lies ahead and having some coping strategies up your sleeve.
Here are some stressors you may experience while teaching abroad and methods of coping with them.
Manage your finances
Few things are more stressful than dipping into your bank account and coming up empty. Anyone who is moving to teach abroad is advised to have some reserve cash on hand, even if their school is going to cover accommodations and other expenses.
You never know when you might need to use your savings and moving is always more expensive than you can predict, and so are the potential costs in another country. It’s also hard to judge how far your teaching salary will stretch before you’re there in person and, at very least, it’s reassuring to have enough in your savings to buy a flight home if you need to.
If you don’t end up using your savings too much for daily expenses, you can spend them on cool experiences in your new home instead! Take a weekend trip to a new city or check out the local museums and eateries.
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It can take time to get to know a new place; particularly the space and people around you. While you’re still finding your feet, you’re more vulnerable than you would normally be and (without being too dramatic!) you could put your personal safety at risk if you don’t take some precautions.
When you first arrive to your teach abroad destination, research the area you live and work in to find out how to be safe there. Maybe there are some streets you’d be best to avoid, or maybe you have to be especially careful when using pedestrian crosswalks. A great place to find this information is by researching online, asking any locals you work with, and visiting your nearest tourist center for advice.
On a practical level, when you go to any new area, make sure your phone is fully charged, you have your identification with you, and you have a plan for how to get home. See how the people around you act and follow their lead. You may attract some attention if you don’t look quite like the rest of the country’s population and that’s normal, but there’s no reason to bring any extra attention to yourself by acting up. Basically, be smart and observant and avoid putting yourself in unsafe situations.
As you settle into your life abroad, make sure you work some self-care into your new routine. You might feel like you should be spending every minute out having exciting experiences, but the best thing about living abroad is you have time. You don’t have to take a vacation; you’re living in one! So, get some sleep. Eat some vegetables. Spend an evening watching trashy reality TV or whatever else you do to switch your brain off and relax. The same cultural experiences will still be there tomorrow. And don’t be surprised if you need more downtime than usual. You’re processing a lot of new information and that can take a lot out of a person.
One thing that can be hard when you have a big lifestyle change is finding a new exercise routine. If there’s a type of exercise that’s popular in the place you’ve moved to, this could be a great opportunity to try something new. Or you’re really stumped, just go for a walk; it’s free, easy, and a great way to explore your new home.
Get your classroom under control
On top of everything we’ve just discussed, don’t forget that your new job is going to throw you for a loop too!
Teaching can be pretty stressful, and even more so if you’re still a new teacher and not used to being in a classroom every day. In fact, even when you are an experienced pro, it’s not always easy.
Here are two ways to get your classrooms into shape ASAP:
- Be organized. Plan your lessons, get your photocopying done, and turn up on time. You will look and feel more confident. Your students and colleagues will see you are taking your job seriously. Win-win.
- Ask other teachers for advice and be specific about what you’re struggling with. They are sure to have all kinds of tried and tested tricks to make their classes run smoothly. You could even ask to observe another teacher’s class to see how they handle situations you find difficult.
Bonus tip: Look into doing a TEFL certificate before you get in the classroom as it is designed to prepare you to teach English abroad.
Find a community
One of the scariest and most stressful parts of moving abroad for many people is going it alone. Meeting like-minded people and making true friends can be difficult, even for the most social of us, and starting from zero is an intimidating prospect.
Luckily there are plenty of ways to go about meeting people abroad. Making friends at work is a given for many expat teachers, but to extend your circle further consider looking into meetup groups, language exchanges, volunteering, and attending local events. These are all great ways to get together with people with similar interests. If you’re living somewhere with an expat community you will likely find plenty of others in the same situation as you so don’t hesitate to reach out.
Of course, not everyone you meet will become one of your best buds, but be patient and keep putting yourself out there. Your life abroad will get a whole lot less stressful if you have friends to share it with.
Build a support system
Your support system are people who look out for your welfare or, in other words, the people you call when you need help. This might overlap with your community in many ways but can also include: health professionals, your landlord (or whoever looks after your accommodation), your workplace’s HR department, your neighbors, and many more.
Again, arriving in a new place means you’ll have to build this all up from zero, but doing this is as important as making new friends. Knowing who to call when you need help is a kind of a mental safety net that’s all too easy to take for granted––until you don’t have it!
The great thing is, finding these contacts is much less intense than finding friends. Say hi to your neighbors when you see them, be friendly to the HR team at your workplace, ask around to find English speaking doctors, dentists, and hairdressers. Some countries even have English-language emergency services for expats. And, if you can, try to do this research in advance so that when you do need help it’s only a phone call away.
Keep a diary
There are so many benefits to keeping a diary while you’re teaching abroad. It can combat loneliness. It can give you a place to vent. It can be a way to track your mental health. It can show you how much you’ve achieved. It can help you keep track of all the new things you’re experiencing. It can be something you look back on when you’re old and want to remember that time you went to live in that amazing place for a year.
You can get creative and use it as a way to de-stress by turning it into a drawing, photography, or video diary. Or you can use it as a way to keep in touch with your loved ones at home by sending email updates about your life abroad. However you do it and whoever it’s for, keeping a diary can be a great way to process what you’re experiencing in the moment and a keepsake of your time teaching abroad.
Give yourself a break (and a pat on the back!)
Adapting to life in a new country isn’t easy. Every day you’ll face new challenges, big and small, from culture shocks that challenge your whole worldview to being stuck on a niggling admin task because you don’t have the language skills to get it done quickly.
There might be some things you love about your new home straight away, and others you’ll never adapt to. You might be fluent in a new language in a year or it might take you a decade. You might find you’re a natural in the classroom, or that the classroom takes more of a toll on you than your students. Everyone’s experience of teaching abroad will be a bit different.
So for everything you achieve, no matter how small, give yourself a pat on the back. And for everything you haven’t got on top of yet, give yourself a break.
Teaching abroad is intense. And difficult. And you should be proud of yourself for giving it a go.