What makes teaching English in a foreign country so difficult?

in #teaching3 months ago

The ads presented by the various agencies that are filling these positions with global candidates present a picture of wonderful classroom environments of respectful and interested students all behaving themselves as they hang on every word of the teacher from a foreign land. The packages offered suggest that this job is going to be a very rewarding career path filled with adventure, satisfaction of being an educator, and respect from the community for being a valuable part of children's lives around the globe. Yet the reality is a very different situation entirely and very few people actually experience any sort of job satisfaction in this field. In just over 3 years I have nailed down a few of what I consider to be very big problems with this job in a general sense and would like to point out some warnings to those who might be considering doing this as a job and why you might want to think twice about getting involved in it.


Language barriers

Remember that time when you had a teacher in your classroom where the person didn't speak the same language as you and any confusion that you experienced couldn't be resolved because you couldn't actually communicate with them? Yeah, me neither because it didn't happen.

In Thailand and other countries nearby that I have met people who have taught there, this is exactly the situation that everyone finds themselves in. I do not speak Thai on a meaningful enough level to ever be able to explain anything to a student in their native tongue and the students do not speak English on a level well-enough to have an in-depth conversation with me. This is true with a vast majority of the Thai staff that are employed here as well.

Therefore, when there is an issue with getting a point across you have to resort to pantomime or dumb down the subject matter in question. Basically you end up teaching grade 3 things to people in grade 6 out of necessity. You also face the very real possibility that the students will all just agree with you to keep things moving even though almost none of them have any idea what you are talking about. I don't feel as though this is beneficial to either the teacher nor the students.

Chaos ensues!


Despite the image that the agencies attempt to present and the global assumption that Asian children are subservient and well-behaved, that is not the case at all. The primary objective of a majority of children around the globe is go ape-crazy as often as possible and I include myself as a child in this mix as well.

When this happens, and it will; you have very few tools at your disposal to get them to behave. There is one class that I had to teach a couple of times a week where I had to bring a whistle to class with me as if I was teaching a gym class. The students knew after a while that every time I had to blow the whistle that this meant that I was going to force them to do busywork like writing lines over and over again. In every 50 minutes class I would imagine that 30 of those minutes were spent on discipline rather than education. They were simply wild and and were regarded by the school as being a very unruly class and everyone dreaded going to that room.

The administration was very aware of this yet did nothing to help any of us with it. In that situation the few well-behaved kids in the class were missing out on any sort of tutelage because of the actions of the masses and they, despite not being guilty, were forced to do busywork just like the rest of the group. This situation could have been changed by having a Thai "handler" in the room to keep them in line but the school refused to do this for us. We even offered to pay for this person's salary out of our own pockets but they still denied the request. The end result was that this class was chaos on a daily basis and I don't think anyone ever ended up learning anything in there.

Overcrowded classrooms

This is something that the agencies will never point out to you when you are applying and with good reason. If they were to show 50 kids in a room with old, worn out desks and almost no space for anything, no one would apply for the jobs. Unfortunately, outside of very expensive private schools that almost no one qualifies to work at, this is more often the case than not. I have been in classrooms with so many people in them that in the west it would be considered a fire hazard yet this is not only not illegal, it is the norm.

I don't fault the country for this: Thailand is a relatively poor country and the fact that they have public education at all is kind of a miracle. However, this is not an environment that it is possible to educate people in. I don't believe there is a single person out there, especially when you are speaking a different language than the students, that can possibly maintain control and personalize the education needs for this many people at once, especially when the kids have a tendency to go wild as often as possible.

In one of my classes there was so many students that even after a full year of teaching them, there were so many kids in the one room that I didn't even remember all of their names.

Very poor salary

This is a touchy subject that you can't really bring up with your Thai counterparts in the school system here because of the fact that you are likely making more than the Thai teachers that have dedicated their lives to being educators. I learned very early on to NEVER bring up your salary with a Thai teacher after I was discussing it one day with the Thai woman who I shared a homeroom with because after 25 years of being a teacher, she was only making about $100 a month more than I was. It was my very first year as a teacher.

That being said, the amount of money that you can expect to make as a teacher in most countries is going to cover your living expenses and if you are very careful, you might have enough left over to take a vacation once a year. Other than that you are almost certainly not going to be able to build up any sort of meaningful savings. I've been doing this just over 3 years and the only reason why I have any savings at all is because I took it upon myself to do extra online classes in my spare time.

Teaching babies who don't understand anything


While I would say that I prefer this level of teaching over older kids simply because they are a lot sweeter than near teenagers, sometimes foreign teachers get put in charge of a classroom of students who don't understand their own language fully and now expect them to understand one they have never spoken before. This is a really silly situation to put these kids in and they would be much better off learning from someone that speaks their language even if that teacher ends up getting some of the information wrong.

When in these classes, these kids are not even familiar with the English alphabet yet we are meant to teach them to talk in English? This simply isn't possible and what ends up happening is that you become a professional clown for a living - doing silly songs and dances while the kids MAYBE learn a letter or two in the process. While little kids can be really sweet and are certainly better behaved than their older counterparts, it all starts to get really frustrating when you realize that you have been thrust into a situation that you cannot possibly complete.

This job shouldn't exist or if it does, it should be for an hour or two a week where you come in and refine their speech patterns rather than be the original source of the information. It simply doesn't work the way that it is now and this is evidenced by the fact that after 6 years of English education most of these kids still can't hold down a simple conversation in English.


Perhaps I sound a bit jaded and I will admit that a lot of what I am saying comes from precisely that. That being the case though, I feel as though the ESL system is deeply flawed and a number of foreign teachers are hired simply because the school wants to put you on advertisements to convince parents that this school is somehow achieving a higher level of international standard by having a few white faces on their advertisements and posters outside of the school.

You never really feel as though you are making any difference in the kids' lives and it all gets really frustrating to the point of feeling futile after a while. At the end of all of that when you do finally give up and stop doing the job, you have the added bonus of not even having any money saved up to do anything and perhaps have a feeling as though you have basically wasted the last however-many-years of your life.

ESL teaching in most countries should be considered a means to an end to have an extended vacation and not much else. It isn't a career and almost everyone gives up after a few years. Perhaps the system is designed this way.

The point I am trying to make here is that the agencies that fill these positions do NOT give an accurate representation of what teaching as a foreigner is really like and for most people, this will not be a good job to take on. I wouldn't say that I totally regret doing it, but it is an extremely difficult job with not much in the way of reward and therefore I do not recommend that almost anyone attempt it.


Learning English is so hard for me.

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