When I signed up for this gig, I was mostly looking to improve my Spanish and see the world. While both of those have been true, I have gained so much more both in and out of the classroom through my time overseas. Here are just ten of the many things I have learned and grown in this year:
1. Cultural sensitivity.
Who knew that “stupid” is a really offensive word in Spanish but it’s really common to call your wife a “little fatty”? The way I talk about people and events and the language I use to talk about them is something I have always taken for granted, and spending a year in another culture has shown me that I need to be careful and quick to apologize both in and out of the classroom.
2. Explaining myself slowly and well.
I taught ESL in the United States as well, but I have learned this year just how many complicated words and phrases I use, even when speaking with language learners. Probably 25 times a day a child raises their hand and either says they don’t understand, that I’m going too fast, or asks what a word means. I have learned how to communicate comprehensibly in English even with people with low levels of English. This is useful for clear communication both with language learners and native speakers!
3. Creative use of resources.
My space is a little limited this year and while I have pretty much whatever I need related to classroom materials, there are often no books to be found in English on a topic I’m interested in exploring with my class or the internet is so slow we can’t watch the movie/Powerpoint/whatever I had planned for class today. So we get outside in sunny Mexico and learn from the world around us and do as many hands on activities out on the patio as we can.
4. Exposure to different ways of doing things.
They put their dish soap in a little cup here mixed with water because it makes it WAY more sudsy. They wear shoes all the time (ALWAYS) because of the threat of scorpions. And at school too, the Mexican teachers have different types of assessments and instructional styles than I do, and I have enjoyed learning from them, especially some of their cooperative learning projects. America’s way isn’t always the best way, ya’ll.
5. Coworker Relationships.
In the US, my coworkers and I were work friends: I truly enjoyed their company and even knew about their lives and families outside of work, but other than the occasional lunch after school, our relationship ended when the buses left at the end of the day. This year, my coworkers are my community here and my closest friends, both because they are Americans and because they are fun and smart and sweet. We vacation together, eat together, hang out together, live together. While there’s something to be said for having a little space, there’s also something to be said for getting to know other people who are interested in the same things you are, and I have learned so much from these excellent teachers (both in and out of the classroom).
Closely related to #3, flexibility comes into play in any country whose infrascructure might not quite be the same as the US’s, like the day we had no electricity at school or the periodic plumbing/internet problems that can be frustrating when you, for example, have to teach an hour long computer class and there is no internet. You might think you’re flexible now, but I promise that everyone’s flexibility muscles are stretched in another country (especially one where the definition of “right now” is not the same as yours).
7. Learning to be a learner again.
The best teachers are teachers who remember how hard it is to learn something new, and teach like the understand that. The opportunity to learn your way around a new city with a new culture in a new language will provide LOTS of learning experiences and remind you just why it is so difficult for your students to remember that “presentate” is not a word.
This follows from learning to be a learner again and cultural sensitivity: teaching abroad, or even just living abroad, you’re going to make mistakes sometimes. There are words you will say incorrectly and cultural situations you will butcher and part of the experience is learning to say “I’m sorry” well. Learning to apologize to my students, their parents, and my coworkers, has been a hard but valuable experience this year.
But after all of that humiliation, you’ll realize that if you can flub through a parent-teacher conference in Spanish, you can do anything! Some of the challenges of teaching abroad are what most prepares you to move forward confidently in the future because of all you worked through during your time overseas.
Nobody does fun and party like a Mexican (hello bounce houses!) and teaching abroad has been one of the most fun and rewarding experiences I could have imagined. It has also been hard and exhausting and stressful, but looking back on the past year, I can confidently say that I would not trade this experience for anything.
So if you’re considering going overseas for a teaching position, I would so encourage you to go for it. You’ll expand your horizons and your vocabulary and I truly believe you’ll come back a better teacher (and person). If you have been teaching abroad, what am I missing from this list? What are other benefits of time spent overseas?
I’m linking up with Velvet Ashes and their top 10 lists today.