Teaching Abroad: Internationalizing the Experience and Preparation of Future Teachers

by Jeremy Gombin-Sperling

In an ever more globalized world, with a desire for individuals to be professionally competitive, a growing number of institutions of higher education are encouraging their students to gain international experience during their undergraduate years – most often by studying abroad.  In the realm of colleges of education, more and more undergraduate teacher candidates are now pursuing international student teaching to give them relevant experience.   For many education majors, however, barriers such as demanding graduation requirements, lack of financial resources, inability to garner familial investment, or – despite the discussed trend – minimal college or university support prevent them from going abroad to study or student teach in another country. With the ascent of English as (one could argue) to the ranks of a global lingua franca, governments and communities worldwide want their next generation to be well-versed in the language.  As a result, another type of program has emerged in recent years: Teaching English abroad programs, commonly referred to as “Teach Abroad.”

Teach abroad programs are – in some ways – similar to study abroad opportunities in that they provide diverse experiences for intercultural learning.  The goal, however, as the name implies is quite different; the primary mission is to assist students of a different language and culture improve their English proficiency by providing a native speaking teacher from abroad.  Like Study Abroad, many of the Teach Abroad opportunities are found through private organizations such as WorldTeach and Council on Intercultural and Educational Exchange (CIEE); however, there are also a number of large-scale initiatives funded and administered by governments, such as the North American Language and Cultural Assistants program in Spain and the Teach and Learn in Korea program (TaLK) in South Korea

Depending on program requirements, a participant may be working alone as a primary educator or in the role of an assistant teacher, working either full- or part-time.  The time commitment varies – teachers are in country anywhere from a month to a year, with most programs requiring that participants be there for the full school year.  Most programs do not require applicants to be certified teachers; the typical core requirement is proof of an undergraduate degree (or that an applicant will graduate prior to going abroad).   Most programs value candidates that demonstrate a sincere interest in teaching and intercultural learning, and a willingness to adapt to new circumstances and environments. 

Why is this relevant for future educators?  Teach Abroad programs provide students who have majored in education (some of whom may not have been able to fit in an international experience or those who want an additional, longer experience) an opportunity to live and work abroad.  Teach abroad experiences can offer newly trained teachers a variety of benefits: international connections with other educators, training in how to work with diverse populations and cultures, and skills that could possibly lead to employment. Most importantly, they are teaching experiences that can enhance an educator’s abilities in the classroom.

Teaching abroad is a commitment, and there is much to consider when contemplating these opportunities.  This article will explore teach abroad as an option for educators, providing considerations for pre-service and current teachers who may wish to pursue these types of experiences.  Interviews with former Teach Abroad participants and professionals that work on Teach Abroad programs combined with responses to an online survey inform this article.  Their recommendations, thoughts, and stories are shared here as a means to help understand the dynamics of teaching abroad, and to think more deeply on what effect such an experience can offer participants. 

Consider Career or Other Goals 

As with any experience, it is important for those interested in Teach Abroad to think through the process of selecting and applying to a program.  Matthew Redman, Director of Teach Abroad programs for the CIEE, asks prospective participants to start with one simple yet defining question: “What are your goals?” Is it to learn another language or to learn more about another culture?  How much responsibility would be challenging but not overwhelming? Full-time teaching or part-time?  As an assistant or lead teacher? Answering these questions can help in syphoning through the many programs available.  Identifying a desire to be a lead teacher, for example, would highlight certain opportunities over others.  If an applicant wished to improve language ability, s/he may opt for a location where the language is one that s/he has already studied.  For educators considering teach abroad opportunities, it is also important for them to consider how the experience it will fit into their career paths and if a teach abroad opportunity will help them reach those goals

Lydia Tukarski taught abroad at a school in Germany through the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) program in the fall following her graduation from college with a degree in Communications and Public Relations. Having spent a semester in Germany as an undergraduate, Tukarski’s goals were set for her experience: “The first [goal] was to gain fluency in German.  The second was to redirect my communications career into marketing and outreach for organizations promoting international education and exchange.”  Tukarski viewed teaching abroad as a medium by which to harness her language abilities and further her professional aspirations.   

For Karisa Austin, teaching abroad was a means by which to strengthen her abilities as an educator, and gain more experience as an English Language teacher.  Earlier in life, Austin had had the privilege of volunteering for two summers at an English camp in Ukraine, an opportunity that has shaped her professional goals: “I loved the experience of seeing breakthroughs with my students when they understood a new word or concept.” Once she graduated from college with her degree in Secondary Education, Austin immediately moved to South Korea to begin her experience as an English teacher abroad.  Now back home in the United States, Austin is looking for further positions in other countries, this time focusing on international schools in South America.  For both Tukarski and Austin, understanding what they hoped to accomplish from the experience of being an educator abroad helped lead them to a matching opportunity. 

Program Cost: Private Versus Government Programs

One’s goals, while an integral element of identifying a program, should be mediated by other factors.  As discussed earlier, certain teach abroad programs are government run, while others are operated through private organizations.  The biggest difference is often the price tag.  Government programs by nature do not have any program fee – which is a cost that covers participation, services offered by the program, and administrative costs – typically charged by independent programs.  It should be noted that the fee often includes services such as training, assistance with finding housing, excursions, and the support of in-country administrators that work for the organization.  In nearly all cases - no matter government or private – participants are given some form of stipend or salary for their work.  This means that an interested participant should balance earnings over program fees to determine program accessibility.  Also, consider – how does your home country’s currency weigh against the currency of where you will be teaching?  Many new teachers have a great deal of student loan debt, do not get paid and cannot expect a salary as high as they would receive in the United States, so weighing the financial costs is especially important for education majors.  One survey respondent, for instance, needed to work while a student and was unable to go abroad as an undergraduate due to financial constraints.  For this participant, finding a program that offered a higher salary was critical, and the respondent was able to find an appropriate program.

Finding the Right Fit

Finding a program that fits with one’s goals while also being financially accessible prompts a very important piece of advice: Do your research!  Craig Kissock, Director of EducatorsAbroad – an organization that offers both teaching abroad and overseas student teaching opportunities – encourages prospective participants to be “careful consumers.” He notes that in a growing field, there are constantly more programs popping up across the nation with the banner of “Teach Abroad.”  It is, therefore, imperative that applicants take the time to ensure that their desired program is legitimate.  To do so, start by extensively reviewing the program’s website.  Make sure that there are staff people listed to contact with questions or concerns, and carefully review the history or overview of the program.  University students and alumni can go to their international program or study abroad office(s) to share goals and seek recommendations for teach abroad opportunities.  Most importantly, contact the staff at the program(s) of interest and ask for alumni contacts as former participants are an excellent resource.

The Challenges of Teach Abroad Programs

As with any new experience, teaching abroad has its challenges, and it is important to consider the time it takes to not only adjust to a new classroom, but also to a new community.  The language, the cultural norms, the physical environment, and the education system in which participants will operate may diverge greatly from what they are used to as teacher candidate or current educator in the United States.  Cara Abel of the organization WorldTeach notes that for many participants, these differences culminate in one particular challenge – classroom management.  Across the many programs managed by WorldTeach, she notes that this is a typical trial that many work hard to overcome.  The classroom is in many ways where issues of language, communication, cultural norms, and student dynamics all come together, presenting an international teacher with a great deal to manage. 

How does one make the adjustment?  Annelise Hammond-Mulack, who has taught abroad in Namibia and South Korea says that it comes from being open-minded and also making a concerted effort to get to know the culture of and the people in the host community by asking questions.  Make an effort to learn the language of the area if it is not your own. Speak with teachers about their experiences; ask them about the community; find places to go outside of school to meet new people.  Katie Wrobel, who first taught abroad in Spain, but is now a math teacher at an international school in Paraguay, encourages everyone to listen to those around them – no matter the age, position, or background of that person.  She (along with several other survey respondents) expressed that this helps demonstrate respect, illustrates that a teacher is committed to living with – not separately – from the community, and helps teachers, students, and others open up to a new teacher from abraod. 

Another aspect to remember is that cultural adjustment is not a simple positive correlation (for instance – the more time you spend abroad the more well-adjusted you become), but rather a dynamic process by which each day, each week, and each month brings new encounters and.  Abel labels this “the ebbs and flows” of cultural adjustment.  Within one day a teacher could have a personal triumph within the classroom and an experience outside of school that could be very new and at first uncomfortable.  Remembering this and being patient with the process can help those teaching abroad continue to grow and learn throughout the experience.

The Benefits of Teaching Abroad:  Professional and Personal Growth

Despite the challenges that come in the process of identifying and being part of a program, there is much to be gained from the experience.  As Kissock notes, on a purely professional and resume-building level, teaching abroad helps both those pursuing a career as educators and those outside the field to distinguish themselves from others.  The experience can also help participants determine their own professional goals and or consider a future in teaching.  Monica Shroyer first taught abroad in France, and did not have her future plans completely mapped out at the time.  After her experience, Shroyer proceeded to teach in Spain for a year, followed by teaching abroad in Shanghai, then spent time in America to earn her Master’s in Education, and now teaches at an American school in China.  Shroyer is not alone – several of the survey respondents and interviewees noted that teaching abroad experiences have had a direct impact on current professional endeavors, whether it is continuing to teach abroad, teaching ESL courses, or pursuing work in international education and programming. 

On a personal level, teaching abroad can teach participants the skills to operate cross-culturally, allowing them to find new ways to interact and communicate with people from all over the world.  For example, Hammond-Mulack noted, “I learned how to communicate in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural work setting. I constantly use the skills I learned while teaching abroad to work with students, co-workers, and supervisors to explain information or to ask questions. In my time abroad I was constantly collaborating with my local counterparts. I learned so much more about local culture in addition to becoming a better teacher.”

Matthew Redman of CIEE highlights another important benefit of teaching abroad – the knowledge and learning that the teachers and students of the hosting community gain from an international teacher.  As much as teach abroad participants potentially gain from investing in their interactions abroad and dedicating themselves to being effective teachers, their students, colleagues, and community members are most likely also gaining from the experience.  By teaching abroad, educators have the opportunity to create learning opportunities and help others advance in their language abilities and their understanding of their own culture and background.  The intercultural exchange that teaching abroad facilitates creates new moments for mutual understanding and appreciation that other international experiences may not necessarily provide.  One survey respondent who taught in Korea agrees noting, “Learning about the new culture and accepting the differences is very important. Not only will it enhance [participants’] experience, it will also enhance the experience of the people they meet in the new country.”

None of this is to say that the experience of teaching abroad will be life-changing for everyone.   As the world becomes more interconnected, however, it is vital to find new ways to create more meaningful and effective opportunities for intercultural interaction and global experiences.  Those considering teaching abroad should be prepared to accept the challenges it may bring, but also recognize the effect they can have as teachers in another country.  Those already dedicated to becoming teachers or who are currently are K-12 educators are asked to think about what they feel is the power and role of education.  Though teach abroad is only one of many global opportunities an educator can pursue, it can prove to be a dynamic international experience that – through dedication – can only further an educator’s abilities, allowing participants to create strong connections with new students, staff, and fellow teachers in a global context. 

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