Is teaching English abroad difficult? Well, if you ask different teachers about their experiences you'll get different stories. Or will you? Actually some of them said they same things.
I interviewed around 30 ESL teachers and one hagwon owner in China, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. One of the questions I asked them was, "What's the biggest challenge that you have had teaching English abroad?"
If you are looking for reviews and testimonials about teaching in Asia then here is where you will find them.
Here 30 ESL teachers share their challenges and difficulties while teaching English abroad. Keep in mind some teachers here have as little as a few weeks of experience and others over 12 years. In some places I've added related links to their comments.
30 teachers share their difficulties & problems while teaching English abroad
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I've organized these by country, but the problems mentioned here aren't necessarily related to the country.
Challenges teaching English in Japan
"Not knowing their language. So being completely immersed and having to explain with pictures and hand movements. Gestures."
"Probably the culture with the Japanese. Just cultural differences and communication problems. I guess just language."
"Not hearing an honest opinion from your students. If you are teaching in a school the kids will nod their heads like they understand, but then like 5-10 minutes later the manager would ask them if they understood what the teacher was saying. And they would say that they really didn't understand this part and then we end up getting blamed for that. But all along when you are teaching them they are acting like they know.
For me it's been dealing with the parts of the culture. In Japanese I would use the word Tatami. I don't even know what the English word is... white lies. They'll tell you everything to make you feel like this is the way they feel, but in the back of their mind they do not feel that way. It's rather annoying coming from a place that is extremely straight to the point. It feels like you always have to go around your butt hole to get to your you know...
I'd say the challenge is the manners that we have back home and what they are used to out here and you'll have children who will run up behind you and try to put their hands up your ass. Kids couching and sneezing in your face and not covering their mouths. Trying to explain to them why they need to do this. They are just not used to it. When you sneeze I am used to hearing bless you or god bless you. And here you might get a giggle. It's the little things that can be a little challenging.
You can't explain manners to someone if they weren't raised that way. You can't explain our culture to someone. It's just not who they are. That's the biggest challenge trying to acclimatize to someone who is totally not who you are."
"Well, before when I used to teach in Spain I knew the language of the students. I could explain stuff in Spanish or whatever. But in Japan, like Bryce just said, not knowing the language, not having a clue as to what they are saying is a massive challenge. Having to use gestures to try to get your message through only in the target language is quite a challenge."
Not knowing the language of your host country is a challenge, and learning it is a good idea which will make your life outside of the classroom better. But you don't need to speak that language to teach English. Translation is just one method of language learning, but there are 6 other methods that you can use to teach.
To a new and untrained teacher that may seem impossible, but if you take a good course you will learn how to teach English without translating the host countries language into English.
"The biggest challenge has been getting the children to stay focused and motivated and looking forward to the future and not just in the present."
"Students who don't believe you that you are actually aware of how to use your own language. They like to tell you that you are wrong."
- About teaching English in Japan
- How to get a job teaching in Japan
- How much do English teachers make in Japan?
- What are the requirements to teach English in Japan?
Challenges teaching English in China
"I'd say learning the Chinese language and getting to know the culture. There's cultural differences. Once you get over that it's pretty easy."
"The biggest challenge of course has been missing western food and my native language."
"Learning not to cross cultural boundaries. To not disrespect them unintentionally. Getting away from home has been a big step for me. But once you get over those humps it's not so bad."
"For me definitely the language, the heat and the bugs. It's interesting for me because I taught in a university for two years before coming over... freshman composition. It's a different kind of frustration all together. It's more language than motivation, because they are motivated. But there is a language barrier."
"Teaching here... discrimination I guess. Cause I don't look white enough. The first time that I applied for jobs here I was obviously turned away because they didn't think I could speak English. But this school that I am working with now gave me a demo class. They gave me a chance. I started teaching part time and slowly became a full time teacher. Now I am the head teacher."
"Ughh, I can give you a hallmark reason and a genuine reason. The hallmark reason is that you get attached to a lot of the people that you meet. I guess that's the bane of being a teacher. You always stay and they always go. But not only that, but in the sense of being in a foreign country. A lot of the expats that come tend to move on with their life. I have been here four years. I have seen a lot of guys come and go."
"The language. Definitely. I really hate not being able to talk to people. I feel rude not knowing their language."
- About teaching English in China
- How much do English teachers make in China?
- What are the requirements to teach English in China?
Challenges teaching English in Korea
"Being Korean American. Everybody expects you to speak Korean, but I don't. But at least people in Busan are friendlier than in Seoul."
"I have had some good challenges here in Korea: co-teacher problems, communication problems and stuff like that."
"Patience. Patience for the kids. Patience for the culture. Patience for the people. It's a lot to deal with sometimes and my patience coming over here was quite thin, so it's grown a lot since I have been here."
"When I first got here it was definitely the language and adjusting. But, ahh maybe my school they have kind of been a little shady. But I love it, it's fun.
Shady how? They loaded us up with extra work and took away some of our vacation days which wasn't in the contract. They made me move apartments. They gave me five days notice and made us move apartments. They took a bonus away from us and gave it to the Korean teachers. Just stuff like that. They don't really care about us at all."
"The food. I don't like the food at all. So it gets kinda expensive cause I buy American food."
"Just working with kids. They are the same anywhere. They have a lot of energy and you have to control them. The language barrier would be the most difficult aspect of trying to maintain order in a classroom. I teach in a hagwon though, so my materials are not enough to fulfill a whole class. I often do struggle coming up with creative things and keeping the class learning and entertained."
Teaching kids is difficult because they are high energy, they have a short attention span and they are not tame. That combination can make teaching them quite challenging. The truth is that if you don't know what you are doing you are likely to have a lot of classroom problems. My first year+ was pretty difficult.
If I was to do it again I would have invested early on in more training and I would have taken a course focused more on teaching kids and if it existed a course on teaching kids in Asia.
"Adjusting to the culture I guess."
"Um, to be honest with you living abroad is not difficult. Just keep an open mind. I think if you have a somewhat liberal sentiment towards people of different cultures and backgrounds then it's not a problem. And if you are not so open minded then yeah it can be very difficult for people. But for me it came to me quite naturally. I love it here. I have no complaints whatsoever. Except there is no Mexican food. That kinda sucks coming from Southern California. But other than that I have no complaints (laughing)."
"I think just being away from home and family and getting to know people here. I am the only teacher where I work, so it's quite hard to meet people when you are working from afternoon and sometimes I get home at 10 o'clock. That's the biggest challenge for me."
"Learning to get around initially was difficult. Most Koreans I knew did not take public transit. So I had to figure that one out on my own and learn Korean in order to do it. It's a lot easier than it sounds I guess. It was the hardest challenge at first. For me I don't like spicy food very much. Finding good comfort foods and learning how to make what I like to eat or just learning how to find foods that I think are delicious and not difficult to eat."
"You know really it's not that challenging. Just getting off the plane. Getting the gumption to leave your country and comforts. Also dealing with hagwons and that uncertainty."
"Ahhh, I don't know if I have had that much of a challenge the most is when you're trying to get the kids to quiet down. Cause I work in a public school here and there are 40 kids sometimes. And it's sometimes hard to get them to quiet down. They're usually very attentive especially since I work in a public school and their grades counting and their behavior is a lot better."
"The biggest challenge with my job has been that they are very Christian and I am not that Christian. They have there different ways of doing things: discipline and teaching styles, so that's probably been the biggest challenge since I am at a Christian school and not at a public school like everyone else."
"For the first little while they continued to load the work on us, but it really improved over the last couple months. It was a newer school and they started to realize what we wanted and we started to realize what they expected from us. I think you have to meet each others expectations."
"I guess having higher expectations of it being a super developed country. It's kind of in between development stages."
- About teaching English in Korea
- How to get a job teaching in Korea
- How much do English teachers make in Korea?
- What are the requirements to teach English in Korea?
Challenges teaching English in Taiwan
I interviewed an old friend from Taiwan in Taichung.
"I would say that the biggest difficulty is communication. I would say that as soon as you arrive to take up the language. I would commit to at least a year and at least an hour a day or 3 hours a week or 2 hours every afternoon. Commit to one year and then after one year, if you don't like it give it up. But by then you would have at least sussed out the grammar and you'll know most of the vocab. If you want a relationship then you are o.k. If you get lost, or get in a hospital you'll be o.k.
A year of intense study is worth more than being here for 7 years and just trying to pick up a few words every day. The pain is shorter and you'll probably enjoy it too.
The roads are pretty bad here. It's not like Taipei where they have rules and you have to stop at a red light. Here a red light means you can stop if you want to stop (laughing), but it's up to you."
- About teaching English in Taiwan
- How to get a job teaching in Taiwan
- How much do English teachers make in Taiwan?
- What are the requirements to teach English in Taiwan?
It can get worse too
Those are some of the problems teachers face, but it can get worse. Learn more about horror stories.
Enough with the problems... how about some advice?
I hope you learned something above about what's it like to teach abroad. Another question I asked these same teachers was if they had any advice or tips.