What advice would you give to someone teaching abroad for the first time? Put it another way: what would you have liked to have known yourself as you travelled to a foreign land for the first time to teach English?
I thought about this question after reading about the inquest of a young British girl, Francesca Dingley, in Chengdu, China who did a week’s TEFL training and then started teaching English. The school she worked for supplied her accommodation, and she tragically died because of a faulty heater and the subsequent carbon monoxide poisoning.
Now, this obviously is an exceptional case and could have happened to millions of tourists. It should not scare people off the fantastic opportunities that a TEFL life can bring. There are thousands of EFL teachers living abroad without such problems. But this is probably an opportune moment for the more experienced teachers to give “newbies” any valuable advice that may help them in the beginning of their TEFL career abroad.
If we take the case above as a starting point, then the first bit of ‘looking after your own safety’ advice, would be to…
1. BUY A CARBON MONOXIDE ALARM
This is what Francesca Dingley’s father said: A simple carbon monoxide detector, costing less than £10, could have prevented this. As parents, we urge you to insist that your child does not travel abroad without one of these detectors.
2. MAKE COPIES OF OFFICIAL PAPERWORK
Make a few copies of the photo page of your passport, your driving licence etc
Have some passport photos done before you leave the UK – you will probably need both the documents and the photos for lots of bureaucratic matters when living abroad. It’s much easier to find and deal with a copy shop and photo place in your native language back home, than it is finding these places in a foreign city where you don’t even know where to go to get some bread and milk.
3. MAKE FRIENDS QUICKLY WITH A NATIVE
I have lived and taught in several different countries, but by far the most successful was when I was in Spain and had a Spanish flat mate. The benefits are enormous. You learn the language and customs more quickly. You find out where things are and how to do things (like registering with the town hall/police etc). You meet other people quickly.
I’m not saying you have to live with someone, but you can meet your students outside of work to become friends… the native speaker can practise their English with you in exchange for local information. Trust me, you will have TONS of questions to ask about your new home!
4. TRY NOT TO ARRANGE LONG TERM ACCOMMODATION AT FIRST
Yes, arrange somewhere to stay before you arrive, so that you are not sleeping on the streets for your first night, but don’t get fixed into a 1-year accommodation contract to start with.
When you get to know your way around your new city after a while, you will probably find an area/district where you would prefer to live, rather than your first choice which was based on not having been to the city.
If possible, sort out some 1, 2 or 3-month accommodation, and then move to your more desired area after that time.
5. WALK AROUND
Visit your new home by getting lost in the streets. Obviously, take personal safety precautions (don’t walk down a dark narrow alleyway at midnight), but get out and explore as much as possible. You will find an unexpected cool cafe, excellent vegetable shop, a printers!!!, a swimming pool, whatever!
The city will open up to you far more enticingly if you walk around, rather than looking at google maps on your laptop whilst sitting on your bed.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE STARTING OUT ON A TEFL CAREER ABROAD?
Please help out by commenting below. Thank you.