Life gets busy, especially if you’re international teaching volunteer. Admittedly, I’ve not taught any classroom before, so the prep work involved came out of the blue. Add the “living and working abroad” aspect into the mix, and you’re in for an all-encompassing experience.
Try as you may to mentally prepare for teaching abroad, there will inevitably be many obstacles you weren’t planning to encounter. Or you were planning for challenges, but to the degree you’ll actually have. It’s a lot of going with the flow. Taking things as they come.
If you have, currently are, or are considering teaching abroad, I want to share the several “reality checks” I’ve come across in my first weeks of class. I’m teaching abroad in American Samoa through the WorldTeach program, and I have a self-contained fifth-grade class of about twenty students.
Keep in mind that everything is subjective: the age of your students, their backgrounds, your school…the differing factors are pretty endless. Take my words as “what could be’s,” just in case you end up feeling my struggle. The challenges teaching abroad will happen in some capacity to everyone, but you can overcome them. Through persistence and determination, it is possible.
1. English writing and speaking skills will vary greatly.
In American Samoa, you have two languages: English and Samoan. Most adults will understand and can speak basic English at a minimum, so no worries there. The question is whether, when teaching abroad, your class will have any English skills.
In my case, the younger the students are, the less English they know. Virtually all American Samoan families speak Samoan at home and amongst one another. The population is mono-cultural. Most people living here will never leave. That means the language and communities established are pretty set in stone.
My first few days in class, I couldn’t understand why over half my class wouldn’t answer questions or participate in anything. Turns out, the majority of my class needs my instructions translated into Samoan to fully understand. Luckily, a couple of my students are very willing to help.
I love everything English-related. I love reading and writing, and I love to share that with others. Teaching abroad complicates how I approach virtually every lesson I teach. It means I must slow myself down, be aware of every word I use, and be willing to answer many questions about what’s going on. You’ll get used to it, and it’s just another struggle to continue working on. If the students see your effort to understand them, they’ll put in effort, too.
2. faculty support might not happen.
My kids, my class? I can handle that. Even on bad behavior days, when we have to take several minutes to simply sit in silence, that doesn’t leave me frustrated beyond that moment. Kids are at the peak age of growing and expanding their minds, and in my room, I can have control over that.
Adults, on the other hand? That’s another story. They tend to be set in their ways, as is the case for me. In all honesty, virtually all my stress, frustration, and anxiety has boiled down to my administration and fellow faculty. I could digress into long stories of nonexistent communication, random expectations thrown out of thin air, and so much more. I’ll spare you the details.
At my elementary school, the staff repeatedly mentions how they’re one big happy family, always supporting one another. However, that sentiment doesn’t apply to the WorldTeach volunteers. In several occasions, administration or a fellow teacher will give me a snide look and say, “You don’t have any professional teaching experience, do you?”
Well, no, I don’t. But I’ve been in a classroom my entire life. My family has wide-ranging background in education. I’m spending countless hours preparing, learning, and working on giving my students the best school year possible. They don’t see that. Half the time, they don’t remember what grade I’m even teaching.
For me, it’s more or less choosing my battles. I expect people to talk about me behind my back. I expect to constantly justify the reasoning behind every decision I make for my class. Universally in education, the work you put as yet to receive the adequate recognition and justice it deserves.
While fellow educators should know that and treat each other accordingly, they won’t. Just keep moving forward. Occasionally give them a small gift, put on a smile, and treat them as you deserve to be treated. Even when they don’t reciprocate, you know you’re doing all you can.
3. you’re still a foreigner.
This point corresponds well with the last one. Teaching abroad, regardless of where you come from, you’re still an outsider. While you’ll encounter many people who are beyond thankful and joyous over your presence and work here, you’ll have the same number shrug you off. Judge you by a single glance at your clothes and skin color and language. Sound familiar?
If you’re a privileged white person like me, you’ve never experienced this before. What a wakeup call, and for that, every single person on this planet needs to step into the shoes of a foreigner, an alien. It’s humbling and quite frustrating.
WorldTeach has had volunteers in American Samoa for ten years, so they frankly tell you that you’ll inevitably be treated differently than your Samoan coworkers. Boy, is that true! Upon walking into your classroom, seeing you’re a pulagi (Samoan for “white person”), they’ll very obviously treat you differently. When a Samoan teacher walks by or enters the room, they get quiet pretty quickly.
Me? I’m working every single day to garner respect. They see the WorldTeachers as “nice,” but they’ll think they can slack and goof off, throw Samoan words and insults at you without repercussions, and push every button possible. You’re not seen as an authority figure. You’re different.
The staff are similar in their response. As mentioned, they question your abilities as a teacher. They clump you together with past WorldTeachers you’ll never meet in your life as if you have some ESP connection. What they expect from you versus other staff members is obviously stricter and more strenuous. Several days I’ve come home to Skype my family, randomly bursting into tears realizing how belittled I feel.
I cannot speak for the adults, but for the kids, be patient. Keep working and emphasizing respect. Build relationships with them and be firm in your expectations, and they will meet them.
4. seriously. go with the flow.
On the first day of school, they changed the entire bell schedule. I wasn’t notified of this change until halfway through that morning. This kind of miscommunication and misunderstanding happens again and again.
Teaching abroad, you can have every lesson planned out perfectly, have a neat and orderly classroom routine, and have a vision in your mind of what the day will be. But just wait for that to dissipate by noon. Let it roll off your back, and don’t take changes and mistakes personally. Admit when you might need to switch things up and be prepared to not be prepared.
While my school requires biweekly lesson plans (again, another expectation thrown on me at random or found only through side conversation), rarely do I find I follow anything exactly as it’s laid out. I improvise on the spot. I take shorter and longer times than I allot for certain subjects. We can only do so much when teaching abroad and teaching in general.
Along with improvising, you must plan for limited resources. I don’t have wifi or a projector in my classroom, and as of right now, I don’t even have reliable access to a printer and copier. Planning engaging lessons without these Western luxuries is not an easy feat. Work with what you have. Try some activities and know many might not bode well. Each day is a new opportunity for learning and growth. Despite teaching abroad, you too are a lifelong student.
final thoughts: teaching abroad matters.
With all the unexpected curveballs you face teaching abroad, we all need that reminder and reassurance that yes, you’re making a difference. You’ll come home after a long day, completely exhausted and frustrated, and wonder, “Why am I doing this? If I can’t get anything done or receive basic respect, then why?”
In American Samoa, there’s a drastic shortage of teachers, let alone qualified teachers. The entire system is very discombobulated, hence why WorldTeach is here at all. The island’s mentality surrounding education isn’t too great either. Upon graduating high school, most American Samoans will either stay on the island, go right into the military, or try to get an athletic scholarship.
So, the fact I’m here at all, putting in all the work I am, ensuring my students learn something every day, is already better than they would’ve likely had without me or at least someone teaching abroad. If you feel unproductive certain days, just remember that: this is already much better than what these kids could have.
Maybe the entire year will be pocked with struggles with administration and feeling deduced to a clueless white college girl. However, at the end of the day, my sole focus is on my class. If your heart and soul is in the kids, that’s all that matters. You didn’t fly thousands of miles away to meet unrealistic expectations; you’re here to impact a group of students beyond blessed to have you.
Find that something good in every day. Find the good in every person and child you come across because it’s always present. Don’t let your own expectations or standards hinder your ability to adapt, laugh some things off, and let it all be.
You are beyond capable, strong, and resilient for teaching abroad and all the challenges it brings. You matter. Your work will humble you, inspire you, mold you into a more mindful and worldly version of yourself. Lean on any support you have. Take care of yourself: mind, body, and soul. Give yourself grace. You’ve got this.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie