10 things nobody tells you about becoming a foreign teacher

  1. You will call all of your students your “kids”

Most of my students are 19, meaning I’m only a few years older than them. But despite their adult status and our narrow age gap, when talking about my students I always refer to them as my “kids.”

Because they’re your kids, you’ll feel every triumph and failure with them. You’ll be ecstatic when one student passes their driving test or gets accepted into a study abroad program or even when the two kids who’ve been flirting shyly all year finally get together. And then you’ll be crushed when a good student fails a test or doesn’t make the basketball team.

  1. You have mannerisms and bizarre little ticks that you exhibit frequently, but had no idea about.

Before I started teaching, I knew I talked with my hands. The number of cups I’ve accidentally knocked out of other people’s grasps thanks to sweeping hand gestures was pretty damning evidence. Though I didn’t know how… twitchy… the movements were until a couple girls in the front row of my afternoon class started mimicking them this semester. I apparently look like a recording of an orchestra conductor being paused and unpaused at irregular intervals.

Those same girls informed me that when I’m trying to think of a synonym for a word they don’t know I’ll snap my left hand, then my right, then both at the same time.

Though it was my tutoring students who brought the first quirk to light. Those two charming (cough super naughty cough) second graders started mimicking the weird transitional noises I make during lessons. Apparently, while I shuffle papers around or set up another activity, I’ll utter nonsense phrases like “do pa do” and “herp a derp” without even realizing it. They won’t remember the actual vocab words next week, but they’ll remember the random crap I mumble.

I also learned that I bounce on the balls of my feet; start almost every class by saying “oooooookay” with the “O’ sound stretched out like taffy; ruffle my bangs several times a class; point in the direction of the classroom the class is held in when I reference another class; and usually use my right foot to absentmindedly scratch my left ankle when I’m standing.

Who knew students could find so many idiosyncrasies when they only see you 80 minutes a week?

  1. You’ll spend just as much (if not more) time thinking about school as you spend at school.

I’ve never had a job where it’s so hard to separate my thoughts and feelings from the workday. For every hour I spend writing lesson plans, I spend one worrying about if it’ll get through to my students.

There are days when teaching is the most rewarding thing ever. Those are the days that go well. But the days where the lessons don’t go well? They’ll wreck you, emotionally and mentally.

  1. Preparation is key, but flexibility will save you

There’s nothing panic inducing than standing in front of a class of 35 students with 40 minutes left of class and nothing else do to.

Sometimes the lesson you think will take 80 minutes will take the class 20 minutes (and then it might take the next class 2 hours). Other times the computer or the projector won’t start because it’s too hot or too cold or Mercury is in retrograde or because Chinese medicine doesn’t work on machines. No matter how fabulous or fool-proof you think your lesson plan is, you should always have a contingency plan.

Word of advice: don’t let your backup plan be allowing your students to ask you any questions they want. You will regret it.

  1. Heels and fitted button downs look professional, but flats and cardigans are worth their weight in gold.

When you have to stand and be animated for eight hours a day in a room with no fans the last thing you want to be wearing is anything constricting or potentially painful.

Also: layers. All of the layer.

And, speaking of clothes, know that chalk will become part of the fabrics DNA. Even on days I don’t teach I’ll find chalk residue smeared across by bum. How? HOW?!

6. Your miming, drawing and “translating” skills will be on point.

Sometimes coming up with synonyms for words just doesn’t cut it for foreign language learners. Sometimes you just need to act it out or draw it.

Some surprisingly hard charades/Pictionary words: cranky, astronaut, snuggle, porcupine, squirrel. (Though squirrel might only be hard in southern China, where there are none).

Similarly, you’ll know your “translating” skills have reached fluency when your student says “pitch” and you know they mean “peach.”

  1. There’s a good chance anything goofy you do will end up on social media.

It almost shames me to say that even though I’m a twenty-something who graduated from a university that emphasized understanding of social media and technology, my students are infinitely savvier to all things digital or electronic than I could ever hope to be.

Though what do they use their knowledge for? To post embarrassing or weird things I’ve done in class to social media. To students who don’t have me, I’m known as the teacher who hula-hooped in class, the teacher who grievously screwed-up a relatively simple math problem, the teacher who wore jingle bell earrings at Christmas time, and the teacher who (again) has the quirkiest habits.

  1. There is a fine line between being just hydrated enough and being over hydrated.

And it will find you 5 minutes into an 80-minute class. You either need to have strong kidneys or be perma-dehydrated.

  1. The internet is your best friend

Particularly if you’re in a program that didn’t provide much training. There are a myriad of resources – from games to activities to projects to whole lesson plans – that can aid in developing your curriculum.

  1. The hardest thing you’ll do during your teaching experience may not be what you thought it would be

There were days where teaching was absolutely infuriating, days where I went home and cried because it wasn’t working like I thought it would, days where I wondered what I was doing here. Though despite those days, disobedient or lazy students, cultural misunderstandings and mounds of incomprehensible essays, you’ll appreciate it and everything you were able to accomplish during your time there.

When you eventually have to say goodbye to your students – students you got to know, invested time in and championed for – that will be the hardest.


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