3 Embarrassing Moments You’ll Have While Teaching English Abroad

There are a lot of glamorous and exciting aspects to life teaching English abroad. Earning money teaching (many times without paying rent), means more nights out, paying down student loans, and exploring more of the world all while engaging with and experiencing a new culture. But in the classroom things are slightly less glamorous. Kids are kids, and English is funny, so here are three embarrassing moments you’ll have while teaching English abroad in the privacy of your own classroom:

1) Making syllable sounds

embarrassing moments teaching english abroad
While teaching English in Thailand students get goofy

“Ooo ooo ooo,” I say, trying to get the kids to understand. “Buh ooo tuh.” Boot. One

kid, a notorious troublemaker says, “Is it ‘butt’ teacher?”. I don’t know if I should take him seriously, but then the other kids start saying it. I squint my eyes at the student, wondering if this is a real confusion (which is plausible), or if he already knows the language so well that he can manipulate it into immature humor. I decide I can’t risk them going home to their parents saying they need new butts, so I clarify: “This is your butt,” I say as I point to my backside. Giggles erupt but I persevere. “A boot is on your foot. A butt is here. A boot goes here.”

The distinct sounds of the English language and all its silly vowels become all too apparent once in the classroom. All the ways similar words can be manipulated by sneaky ten year olds is even worse. A dam carries other meanings. A shirt without an pronounced “r” becomes something else entirely. Over-emphasizing sounds is just the beginning of things, however.

2) Acting Out

embarrassing moments teaching english abroadChinese students on Halloween while Teach English: ESL Founder teaches English in China 

Children, in general, are busy humans. Between school, homework, a musical instrument lesson, extra math classes and more, they can be utterly exhausted by the time you get them in your classroom. And so, entertainment is necessary. At the beginning of class you open your book to the day’s lesson and it’s called something adventurous like “Going to the Zoo”.

Moments later you have the class acting out monkey sounds, a lion’s roar, or a horse’s gallop. It’s madness, but through the sounds you can hear excited children yelling out in perfect English, “I’m a tiger, I will eat you!” and another responding, “No! I am in a tree! You can’t climb here!” By the end of the class, you’re trying your best to be a lion so you can win the game, get all the “eaten” children to be quiet, and assign homework.

3) Being Stumped

embarrassing moments teaching english abroad (1)
The author’s Korean students while she was teaching English in South Korea.

“Teacher?” asks a well-meaning student in the front row, “If we have to say ‘I’ve driven before’, do we also say ‘I’ve broughten’?” I patiently and nicely tell her no, you would say ‘I’ve brought’.

“Why?”

Here is the final and most embarrassing thing to happen to a teacher in the classroom. English does not follow hard and set rules. Interactions with other languages over many years, speakers of English traveling all over the world and establishing new nations, and the language’s general tendency to improvise has led to a vocabulary and grammar that can be as fluid as it is chaotic. ‘Red’, and ‘read’ sound the same but mean different things. ‘Read’ in the present tense is spelt the same but sounds different. The present progressive exists, as well as the past-present progressive. As a teacher, you are supposed to know the rules. Why does ‘the red little house’ sound wrong?

With an open mind, hard work and preparation, and the ability to admit you don’t know something, these can all be short-lived embarrassments. And any thing a teacher does—cool or not—to help a student is worth the effort. So become a lion tamer. No one else needs to know.


Words by Brianna Stimpson.