The Beginner's Guide to Teaching ESL Abroad

The expected, unexpected, retrospective, and respected perspective of teaching overseas.

By Tom Duda


Girl pointing to a globe

Human nature dictates that one ponder life’s decisions and, being an English instructor in Turkey, I often let my mind deliberate on a second conditional, a possibility that has materialized in the past and has had an effect on the future. In my case, the effect is obvious in my interrupted REM sleep. Every morning at five AM, my wife and I are awakened, not by an alarm clock, but by the piercing sound of the first call for prayer. Arabic words, Allah Akbar echo off the mountains, reminding us of where a possibility and fate’s gift has brought us.

Had we been better prepared before we came, our transition would have been smoother. If we were cognizant of the fact that foreign bureaucracy can differ drastically from that of the US, we would have proceeded in a very different way. Instead, once I arrived in Turkey, I met with the head of the university human resources department, eager to begin my new career. However, it wasn’t long before my mouth went dry and I found myself livid. The university never began the work permit process! After some significant dialogue, the director finally admitted to the fact that he did not know the proper process for obtaining legal work documents for a foreigner. Furthermore, the institution informed us that procuring a work permit was our responsibility, not theirs. Information regarding this fact may have delayed or altered our decision to spend our lives in Turkey. But when the possibility of teaching in Turkey arose, we took the opportunity. Now, as the morning prayers fade, echoing off the landscape, we return to sleep, not necessarily remembering the now-inconsequential obstacles that so greatly affected our future.

Emotional and Physical Repercussions of Living Abroad

When our alarm clock finally rings, conscious thought paves the way toward the modal verb, should. I should have thought of the life that I would miss. I should have thought about that fact that there are no Thanksgiving dinners in Turkey, no apple pies, no hot dogs, and certainly no pork. I should have ascertained that there would be oddities, such as Christmas being considered the same as New Year’s Eve. Or, that being an hour late for an appointment is perfectly acceptable, and the lack of marked prices on supermarket items raises no questions. I should have been cognizant of little facts, like not knowing the basics of language and culture can leave one discouraged and/or ultimately devoid of funds. I should have deliberated over the fact that the living standard may not be commensurate to my American living standard. Fifteen hundred Turkish liras per month can sound like a fair salary, but it is equivalent to only 826 US dollars. Or that Turkey wouldn’t have much in the way of American fast food restaurants. I should have considered the cost of living in a country where gas prices are the highest in the world and trade is dictated by the transportation of goods. When in Turkey, if one wants an exquisite meal like a hamburger, French fries, and a coke, he must be ready to pay a handsome 30TL. I should have thought of these things and more, but instead, each instance individually affected me as I settled into a new country.

Guidance on Selecting an ESL Institute

If one decides to move to another country to teach English, the question word which should be considered. Which institution is the most credible? One can be a skilled instructor, but find that downsizing and financial cutbacks are not only an American reality. A well-qualified instructor is often informed that his services are no longer needed due to registration limitations. Returning home is an option if one’s funds have not yet disappeared into the jaws of a fledgling and hungry economy. The other option is to look for a new position. Looking for work without knowledge of the native language can prove to be a challenge.

I’ve now been in Turkey for five years and have found that there are many quality institutions teaching English. However, as I searched for which institution to join, I found several poorly run schools where a contract meant nothing for a Yabanci aka foreigner. In addition to sketchy contracts, one may also find less-than-ethical schools. For example, an academy, which of course I will not name, boasted a complete staff of native English instructors. I was disconcerted to discover that, although a majority of the teachers were fine grammarians and teachers, they were not native English speakers. They were told to lie about their country of origin; most were instructed to tell students they were from the US or Canada. I befriended several of these excellent teachers, all of whom were coerced by the institution’s fear tactics not to disclose their true country of origin - usually Iran. They were presented with the very real possibility of being removed from their job and deported if they revealed their true origins. Another hazard for the ESL teacher living abroad is that a disingenuous institution may decide not to pay the monthly salary when it is due. All this adds up to the necessity for an expatriate ESL teacher to research carefully which institution to join before heading overseas.

Realistic Reflections on the ESL Classroom

Once the decision is made, the airfare paid, and a school with a strong reputation is found, the ESL teacher will likely find that everybody is friendly. Colleagues and students, in most cases, hold native speakers in high regard. However, one’s ego should not manifest before knowing his personal capabilities. Being a native speaker may not prepare one for all the grammar questions that will arise, even if the class is merely a conversational English class. I made my début in the speaking club where pupils practiced speaking and listening skills. I often found myself flustered when I could not answer the influx of grammatical inquiries:

  • What tense is being used?
  • Why is a word with an –ing suffix not a verb in a given situation?
  • Why do we use a past participle in the present perfect tense?

As the questions arise, you the new teacher, have to decide whether or not you want to embark on an explanation of difficult grammatical technicalities like gerunds. Furthermore, vocabulary questions abound. The teacher must then ask himself whether or not he should spend the class time speaking about homophones and homographs. Additionally, the ESL teacher in another country must develop a strong ear and sharp discernment. An example of this is when one of my pupils asked me what a chicken boy is called. After much deliberation, I realized that she wanted to know how to say rooster! A teacher must also consider phrasal verbs, idioms, metaphors, and similes. He should be prepared to answer questions about all of these topics without hesitation. Faltering will make students lose confidence in the instructor. Preparation is the key to success. Even if one has strong language and grammar skills, he should never come to an ESL class unprepared.

Anticipating a Fascinating Future

I have been in Turkey for five years and worked at five different schools. I finally found one where I am very happy. It took some time, but I can finally say that I am familiar with the idiosyncrasies as well as the benefits of living and teaching in a foreign country. Here, everyday situations can become circumstances that are challenging, sometimes educational, and even sometimes entertaining. With some preparation and a lot of research, teaching abroad can be rewarding experience. Of course, I wrote about Turkey, but similar examples will arise in any foreign culture. What seems perfectly normal in one’s home country can be considered bizarre or even criminal in a foreign land. If you remember to respect the culture and keep an open heart, mind, and ears, you will find teaching English in a foreign country to be a choice that will positively affect your future.

Useful Links for ESL Teachers:

Fundamentals of English Grammar 

Grammar and Vocabulary