4 Employer Differences to Expect When Teaching English Abroad

The dream is there, and the intention is real—you want to teach English abroad. As you sit in your old familiar bedroom, this sounds like a perfect plan. Anywhere in the world would be amazing. But even if you have a certain country in mind, chances are you are picturing a work environment similar to one you’ve worked in from the past, with kids the way you know them to act, and a boss that holds the same values you do. But it turns out, there are strange curveballs that emanate from every country depending on the culture, region, and/or religion. And it could make or break your experience if you don’t plan ahead. Here are four employer differences to expect when teaching English abroad.

1. Holidays and Sick Days

differences to expect when teaching english abroad

As an English teacher, you’ll get a certain amount of set days off dependent on a school schedule. Is teaching year round? Are hours during the day? Each country might have a different amount of national holidays, school hours, or set vacation days that they are expecting you to work. In many Asian countries, you are expected to show up even on your sick days, where in many European countries that is generally frowned upon (if it’s dangerous to the children you’ll be interacting with). I personally was shocked to find that holidays in South Korea weren’t automatically relegated to Mondays or Fridays in order to make a three day weekend–they followed the phases of the moon, so there were random Tuesdays or Thursdays off.

Knowing these details before you go in will allow you to be your most professional, with a good idea of what’s ahead. It may sound unimportant before you go, but after you’ve landed, unpacked, and adjusted to everyday life it’s important not to feel trapped by a schedule that your employer just assumed you’d agreed to because it’s apart of his or her culture.

Pro Tip: Research the country’s national public holidays before you go so you’ll have a good idea of the days off you can likely expect.

You might also like our post, “10 Questions to Ask Your School Before Accepting a Position Teaching ESL” here.

2. Dress

differences to expect when teaching english abroad
Teachers in our Prague TEFL Course.

Just because a place is hot, doesn’t mean you can wear an outfit to go with it. Egypt, Dubai, Thailand, and many more places will offer a stricter dress code for men and women. While some may be obvious (especially for women), others might not say outright what is appropriate, and you’ll have to judge by reactions of your peers. This might be unpleasant for some, and things like transportation and classroom amenities (air-conditioning, potable water) might become a lot more important a lot more quickly. Don’t ignore the problem—you’re not going to change the world. It’s more important you respect cultures when you are simply a visitor.

Pro Tip: Plan and pack for a business casual work place, and if you find out later your work place is more casual than business, it’s easy to adjust.

3. The Interview

differences to expect when teaching english abroad

Most employers are very aware that their ideal candidate is from a different country than the so they won’t expect you to be a master of their country’s manners, but the interview process might vary a bit depending on where you go. China and Japan know that they are located far from many English speakers, and use technology to vet out, interview, and hire their teachers. Places in Central America, on the other hand, prefer to meet face to face and it may take a flight (or an onsite TEFL course like ours in Costa Rica and Nicaragua with job assistance) before a accepting a job offer.

Then there’s the cultural differences. In Australia, it’s not necessarily derogatory to call a woman “sweetheart” or “darling”. In Russia, it is not common for first time greetings to start with smiles and a relaxed vibe. Most Russians are firm, serious, and formal at first. In Thailand, you’ll greet elders with a wai, a formal greeting that differs greatly from the American handshake. What’s important is that you take the time to not only research what to expect, but to make sure it’s something you’re comfortable adapting to in the name of new experiences.

Pro Tip: Research the traditional greeting and how to say hello before your interview, and you’ll instantly wow your employer!

4. Support/Administration

differences to expect when teaching english abroad

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to push for what you and your employer agreed upon. But, that’s not possible for things like method of payment, provided housing, unpaid work (like lesson preparation), and more if you’ve never actually discussed it. Small issues that seem so distant from your living room back home can escalate quickly when in a new country, starting a new job, with new coworkers and possibly a new language. When I landed in South Korea, I was put in traditional housing (older, heated floors, no air-conditioning system) while all my coworkers were put in a brand new high-rise. I loved my traditional housing, but it was a surprise that others could have dealt with better if they had asked beforehand.

Pro tip: Once there’s a problem, it’s difficult to go above your manager, so get as much information as you can ahead of time.

Cultures around the world vary, for a myriad of reasons. Getting a job is always about the details. If you are getting a new job in a new culture, you will benefit from the time you take doing research. In the end, if you know what to expect, your experience will be a great one for both you, the employee, and your employer.


Words by Brianna Stimpson. Images from Pixabay.

2 thoughts on “4 Employer Differences to Expect When Teaching English Abroad

  1. Very informative. I did notice some very distinct differences between working in Canada and in China. For sick days we had to come into work, and then go to the hospital with one of our colleagues! It always seemed like a lot of work to do, and did not seem like a good way of containing the illness, plus it meant that the school was out two employees for a period of time. It is interesting to see the way different cultures work.

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