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February 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Lessons Learned Teaching Abroad Part 1

Since Steve Mullen began teaching in the Czech Republic in January 1991, he has had an extensive career in education and training. He has been employed as a teacher in private and public schools, founded two language schools, written numerous training courses in areas connected with hospitality and customer service, developed content for TEFL activity libraries, designed a web-based lesson planner and ecosystem for language teachers and learners, and worked as a freelance language teacher. Email:



This is a series of observations, insights, and suggestions for foreign language teachers, for would-be travellers who are thinking of teaching during a sojourn abroad, for professional teachers at home thinking plying their trade in an exotic new land or online, and for employers of any of these individuals.

My intent is not to preach to the clergy, but to identify issues confronting all stakeholders in the foreign language teaching industry, and also to help laypeople in TEFL, who are thinking of joining the vocation, to prepare for the challenges ahead. Seasoned veterans in teaching foreign languages may find some things I say very obvious. But I suspect that employers who hire teachers from abroad will understand my motives for writing this handbook and I hope that teachers who are new to foreign language teaching can gain insights from the lessons I have learned. My intent is to point out what I see as good practise from my dual perspective as a native-speaking teacher of English as a foreign language and as a former language school owner and employer of travelling teachers.

Perhaps other experienced and competent educators may have different perspectives on excellence in teaching. I make the suggestions that I make in this series of articles because they work for my students and for me and seem reasonable in my opinion. I am quite sure that any travelling teacher who takes these observations to heart will make a very positive impression on students and employers, and enjoy success and the rewards of an exciting career as a foreign language teacher.


Lesson Learned No.1: The bar is always being raised

In the early 90s, when we, long-haired, grubby-jean-wearing, goatee-sporting, teaching travellers used to hang out in Prague coffee shops and jazz bars sipping Turkish coffee regurgitating pseudo-intellectual drivel on Kundera and the socio-economic conditions that led to the fall of communism, most of us had had very little formal pedagogical training. To people like me, the teaching that we were brought there to do was secondary to the adventure of being among the ‘first westerners’ to venture behind what was once the Iron Curtain.

In spite of the fact that I was sorely lacking in professionalism and wallowing in ignorance, I remember feeling a certain celebrity status at the schools I worked at – and even more so at the pubs I frequented. Of course this never bothered me too much since it added to my feelings of self-importance and allowed me to get away with being a hobo as opposed to a real teacher. In those days, native-speakers were anomalies in Central and Eastern Europe and provided schools with little more than babysitting services in English and an element of ‘prestige’. As an exotic novelty, I, for one, was treated very well, although on reflection I know I was not deserving of such respect.

But I was one of the lucky ones – one of those who could get away with being a quasi-reliable and mediocre teacher. There were hundreds like me and I’m sure a lot of them were even worse at doing their jobs than I was. For many students, employers, and ex-flings, teachers like us left a legacy that gave the travelling teachers who followed us a bad name.

We cannot expect the kind of treatment that I use to have in today’s TEFL market. Employers are wise to partiers professing to be teachers, and native-speakers are scrutinised much more
intensely today in places like the Czech Republic than they were when the doors first opened up in 1990. Times have changed and the honeymoon has long been over. No longer are schools or students grateful just to have a native speaker aboard for the prestige factor. Students and corporate clients of language schools have become more and more critical with each new native-speaking teacher they experience, and this makes it ever more difficult to satisfy them.

Even so, when we hear clients complaining, I’m sure that many employers of language teachers secretly think, as I sometimes do, that learners have become spoiled and that their demands are unrealistic. And this may be true, but the bar is continually being raised and, in spite of the pressure this puts on teachers and language schools, this is a natural and healthy process.

Before I go any further, let me say that, although I am writing from personal experience, which happens to be deeply rooted in the Czech TEFL context, I’m quite sure that most observations made here and in the lessons I have learned are universal and applicable to almost any foreign language context and, in many cases, even to teachers working at home or online.

So, going back to speaking about how bars get raised, think of your own experiences as a student; the best teacher you have ever had is probably your benchmark. All others are measured up against this benchmark. Other teachers probably did certain things in special ways, too. This is what causes younger pupils to lament, ‘…but Ms. Jones always used to read us a story after lunch…’ No one likes giving up something special after having got used to having it, and, from the teacher’s perspective, nobody likes being compared to another
teacher unless it’s in a positive light.

But, with every new teacher a student has, the student also experiences new, special ways of doing things and this makes him become even more critical of teachers to follow. We are not only held up to the ‘benchmark teacher’, we may also be desired to mimic specific practices, approaches or methods employed by other teachers, too. Consciously or subconsciously, teachers may be compared to all the teachers that have gone before them. So, happily for the travelling teachers that came to the Czech Republic in the mid and late 90s immediately after we did, they didn’t have to step very high to clear the bar lying on the ground where we had left it.

Today, expectations are much higher. When these expectations are not met or exceeded in the language school business, the door is opened to competition and clients are lost. Unless language schools are prepared to undercut the competition by lowering tuition fees and, by extension, paying their teachers less, they must consistently hire teachers who can offer their clients more than the competitor’s teachers can. Any language school can hire a native speaker with a TESOL certificate; there is no shortage of would-be travelling teachers. But, simply having a teacher from abroad on staff no longer yields the automatic ‘prestige points’ it once did, even if we have a “certificate”. Only raising the bar by consistently hiring more motivated, more competent, and more reliable professionals can employers maintain or enhance the school’s image.

As teachers, we have to keep in mind that many of our students have probably experienced lots of teachers before us. Those teachers have set the bar at the level it is at before we enter the classroom. But we mustn’t be intimidated by stories of our predecessors – we should learn
from them and add our own dimensions as we do our best to raise that bar another notch or two for the poor teacher that gets the group next year.


Lesson Learned No.2: Not everyone assesses the teacher using the same criteria

Being a successful travelling teacher entails much more than being a nice person who is fluent in one or more languages – that just means one is well liked and can talk. There is even more to it than having a deep well of knowledge to draw from and a rich past full of life experiences to offer learners. In fact, in some cases, it may not even be enough being a really great teacher. Although one would intuitively think that being a great teacher is as simple as being very good at the job, in reality, various stakeholders in the pedagogical process may assess the success of a teaching engagement quite differently. Aside from the teachers themselves, there are at least three other important stakeholders in the process.

Of course, the first that comes to mind is probably the student. Clearly, the student is a key element in any endeavour connected with teaching and learning.

Although the learner should be central to the learning experience, we must remember that the student may not be participating in the course for his/her own sake. Many don’t register in the course of their own volition or pay their own tuition. In public schools, children answer to parents or guardians. In private language schools, there is often a corporate client that provides full or partial sponsorship of the learner’s tuition fees. In either case, the ‘sponsor’ (a term I will use to refer to parents, guardians and corporate clients) has a vested interest in both the teacher’s and the learner’s performance.

Provided the teacher is not working independently, the other major stakeholder is the teacher’s employer. Employers come in many breeds depending on the type of institution. For example, principals of public schools, or directors or headmasters as they may be called in other countries, may have different assessment standards for the performance of their teachers than owners or managers of private language schools.


The student

Adult learners come to lessons with all the baggage that comes with all their years of schooling, every training course they have attended, and all of their previous attempts to learn the language. Because they have had so many good and bad experiences, they have become more critical and can be very difficult to please, especially those who are at higher level of target language proficiency.

The reason I say students at higher proficiency levels tend to be more critical is that they have usually had more native-speaking language teachers than a beginner. Although almost all adult learners have had a good number of teachers in the past, they haven’t all had native-speaking language teachers. Therefore, the ones who haven’t, who are typically beginners, seem to cut native-speakers a little more slack and go through a ‘honeymoon’ period when they begin.

Perhaps they come to the course expecting a different teaching style since the teacher comes from a different culture. Sometimes, marginal teachers are able to pull the wool over the eyes of inexperienced learners for short periods of time. The learners must come away thinking,
‘Hmm, so that’s how they teach in other countries…interesting…’, when in reality they have just sat through 60 minutes of near chaos.

Or perhaps beginners tend to make allowances for mistakes because they are nice people, feel sorry for us or are just happy to have a teacher. In this case they must be thinking, ‘Wow, that was chaotic, but he’s new at it and he’s come so far from home to teach us…and he’s trying so hard …’

Then again, there could be the more pragmatic way of looking at it, ‘Oh my goodness! That was absolutely pitiful! What was he blathering about? Well, darn, I’ve already paid my money so I guess I’ll just have to keep coming for a while and hope it gets better.’

For students who aren’t so pragmatic, the honeymoon period might last up to a couple of years depending on the intensity of the course and the calibre of the teacher. But eventually the novelty wears off and subsequent teachers bear the brunt of closer scrutiny. This is where the employer may be called upon to take action. Adult learners will complain…unless the next teacher is able to raise the bar another couple of notches.

For students to have a great learning experience they need to be engaged and feel progress. For a teacher to facilitate the meeting of either of these needs, it is not always easy. Engaging a single learner is usually much simpler than engaging all the members of a larger group. We can relatively easily find out what kinds of activities and themes capture the interest of an individual but, when dealing with a group, we have different personalities, interests, backgrounds and learning styles to take into consideration.

Some learners might not even want to be engaged. They may be unappreciative prisoners who have been sent to the course by their sponsors, or they may be accustomed to a more passive form of learning, e.g. they are simply used to sitting and listening as the teacher imparts his/her words of wisdom to them. But, whether they seem to want it or not, I would argue that they still need to be engaged if they are to have a meaningful learning experience in a communicative classroom. This is not to say that the teacher should force adult group members to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing or that they should single out individuals to force them to speak – an extra effort needs to be made to lower barriers and gain trust so that learners will want to contribute in their own way and in their own time.
Engaging learners is also a way of helping them feel that they are making progress. When we speak of language learning, it is particularly important to lower barriers to the point where everyone is relatively comfortable contributing. One of the biggest obstacles many language learners must overcome is the fear of speaking, especially in public or in front of native speakers of the language – this is the ‘freeze factor’. Therefore, one of the most important aspects of a language teacher’s job is to facilitate affective learning – or, in other words, to help learners gain a comfort level and the confidence they need to use the knowledge and skills they have learned.

Affective learning comes as learners experiment with the language in the safe environment that the teacher creates with the cooperation of the rest of the group. It is very important to begin consciously trying to establish a friendly and loose, yet respectful atmosphere right from the very first meeting and then to nurture it and maintain it as the course progresses.
If successful, learners will contribute. The more they contribute, the more their fear of speaking will subside, and the more they will contribute again. When learners realise that they have learned to feel more confident and that they are, therefore, able to communicate their ideas even to a native speaker, they will know that they have made progress.
If the teacher is successful in engaging the students and in maintaining a communicative atmosphere throughout the course, the learners will have had a great learning experience, and will probably speak fondly of it and the teacher for years to come.


The sponsor

Even though learners may claim that they have had a worthwhile learning experience and speak fondly of the teacher, to a sponsor, these are not tangible results and may not be considered valid measures of the effectiveness of a ‘training investment’. The sponsor may never have even met the teacher in person and, therefore, has not succumbed to the teacher’s personal charms in the way the student has. So, sponsors tend not to put so much stock in affective learning and may not fully appreciate what it means to a learner’s self esteem and his/her ability to take risks in using the target language.

However, sponsors, like students, also need to feel that the student is making progress. The difference is that their assessment of the progress tends to be more empirical and, therefore, typically lacks the affective dimension – it’s hard to measure comfort and feelings. What’s more, sponsors are very concerned about bureaucracy and business “mumbo-jumbo” such as attendance records, test results, progress reports, the time employees spend away from work, and the general professional demeanour of the teacher.

But this is all very logical. Sponsors, in the case of private school tuition, are footing the bill and need to know if their money is being spent wisely. To heighten this desire to keep control over the investment, and especially in relatively new markets, there is the aforementioned legacy of the infamous long-haired, grubby-jean-wearing, goatee-sporting, teaching travellers from the past. And this may still cause sponsors to be a little wary of native-speaking teachers.
So, for sponsors to judge a learning experience favourably, they need to know that the learners are attending lessons regularly (taking ownership in the learning that the sponsor is paying for), that the learners are making progress (as evidenced by the results of periodic progress tests and assignments), that the learners are not losing too much time away from work to attend lessons, and that the teacher is a qualified professional...and good record keeping and paperwork are part of professionalism to a corporate sponsor.


The employer

At first glance, one would suspect that, if the student has had a great learning experience, the employer will be happy…and this is true…but only to a point…

The thing that travelling teachers should keep in mind with respect to employers is that they have more on their minds than providing great learning experiences. Yes, it is a very, very important motivating factor for any dedicated school owner or director, but there is another very important factor that teachers all too often tend not to see – that is the business side.

Whereas teachers need to be professional educators who keep up with their lesson planning and paperwork, employers need to be professional educators who make sure teachers keep up with their paperwork, and also be good business people. At the risk of making employers sound like a bunch of money-grubbing, penny-pinchers, most employers are driven by the bottom line in the same way as any other businessperson (e.g. corporate sponsors). If they can’t cover the costs they incur today, they need to be sure that they will recoup them in the future, preferably with a little extra on top.

Anyone can see the importance of the teacher-student relationship. What’s harder to see and appreciate is who brought the two together in the first place and the kind of hard work, stress, risk, sacrifice, and expense it has taken to accomplish this. In order to continue to compete and bring in new students, and thus be able to hire teachers and pay their salaries, employers must pay very close attention to the budget, marketing, HR policy, quality control, strategic planning, and the demands of their clients, not to mention their own teaching schedules in many cases.

This means that, while great teachers may be great at teaching, they are only great in the eyes of an employer if they create enough new business to justify the cost of having them. When I speak of the cost of having them, I am referring to more than their salaries. There can be relocation costs; expenses connected with securing work permits; costs to find, furnish, retain, and maintain accommodations; health insurance and social insurance contributions; and travel allowances to name a few. If the teacher doesn’t fit in or work out, there could be costs connected with lost goodwill and the dissatisfaction of other staff members.

Goodwill is an abstract, but very real, asset in business jargon. It is essentially the value of the school’s reputation in the community it serves. When goodwill is lost, business is lost and the school is at a competitive disadvantage. Conversely, when the school is seen in a positive light and develops a prestigious reputation, demand is created and the school can grow…or raise tuition fees…and this is what employers like to see.

In addition, there may be ‘handholding’ costs. Teachers coming to a foreign country from abroad typically need much more personal attention than their local colleagues do. Typically, employers have to help them secure work permits and visas, assist in dealings with immigration officials, show them around, help them become socialized, accompany them to doctor or dentist appointments, check train schedules for them, or sort out any number of other issues. Of course, this is not the teacher’s fault – it is just part of living in a foreign country, especially one in which there is a language barrier.

Since native-speaking teachers have typically been recruited from abroad, sometimes we feel that we are entitled in some way to special treatment and allowances that local teachers are not. And, it is very true that a fish out of water has security issues that a fish in its pond does not have, but employers cannot be expected to play favourites. However, the fish in the pond should also understand that the fish out of water needs a little special assistance initially as it is carefully eased into its new surroundings so that it stands the best possible chance of adapting and surviving.

Now we can see that travelling teachers can be costly, although the costs may not be through any fault of our own, but do we cost more than we are worth? Well, no, of course we don’t – not if the decision to hire us is a rational one. However, as in every situation in which we
invest cash or effort in anticipation of a return, there are many factors that can come into play to make the investment go sour.

When students finish a course and are so pleased with the quality of the teacher that they immediately sign up for another course next year, tell all their friends, and convince their employers to arrange courses for their colleagues at work, the school manager will consider the travelling teacher to be time and money very well spent. But when a learner finishes a course and decides to try a course with a competitor next year, the implication is that the new teacher wasn’t able to clear the bar and so the employer may second-guess the decision – or, at least try to determine why the investment hasn’t yielded a return.

All of this means that, from a bottom-line business perspective, a rational employer, who holds a travelling teacher’s success to the same yardstick with which they measure the value of a local teacher, might conclude that hiring local teachers is the more attractive option, unless, of course, the native-speaking teacher brings a prestige factor that increases the school’s goodwill in the community.

To illustrate, I have concocted a formula an employer could use in assessing the value of the teacher to the school. I haven’t included all the fixed and administrative costs such as rent, utilities, administrative salaries and benefits, advertising, maintenance, supplies, telephone and Internet, insurance, equipment purchases and depreciation, interest, etc… But, this formula will illustrate the relative value of teachers in terms of variable costs.
Value of a teacher to the school = (tuition fees paid for courses + value of goodwill gained) – (Wages paid to the teacher + cost of benefits + employer’s income tax, health insurance and social insurance contributions + value of lost goodwill + corporate income taxes + VAT(sales tax) remittances + bureaucratic and labour costs to get the teacher there + cost of time spent handholding)

So we see that, given two equally talented teachers, where one is a travelling teacher and the other is a local teacher, the local teacher will be of greater value to the school providing clients do not see ‘native speech’ as a prestige factor in itself, which would create goodwill. The local teacher is employed with less labour and bureaucracy and requires less handholding. They are less likely to leave in the middle of a course and this reduces the risk of losing goodwill. As an added bonus, they tend to be qualified pedagogues, and that creates goodwill.

This would be the rational approach. But fortunately for would-be travelling teachers, the market is not always rational and, depending on the country and region, there may not be enough good, qualified local teachers to meet the demand for language courses.
The only reason I point this out is that, in my own experience, many native-speaking language teachers do not give much thought to the employer’s position or to how their wages are determined. Most employers realize that travelling half way around the world to take a job for relatively little money is a big step for a teacher to make but, from a business point of view, and in fairness to loyal and equally talented local teachers, that doesn’t necessarily justify paying more for a teacher from outside.

From an employer’s perspective, the value of a travelling teacher’s work may not be assessed in the same way that other stakeholders would assess it. So, as travelling teachers, we need to
take care not to get too big for our britches, and be as sensitive as we can to the needs, pressures, and constraints confronting all of those who have a vested interest in our success.


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