When one starts to consider the available options open to them for traveling to other countries, sometimes going through a program will be at the top of their lists. There are many jobs one can do while abroad that allows them to travel for longer periods of time and to get more involved in a respective country. So far, I have traveled and lived abroad in Thailand teaching English for roughly six months through two programs called API and OEG earlier this year. I am currently living in Japan teaching English going through a program called JET to which my contract is for a full year but I have the option to stay for up to five years total. Many people have questions about traveling through programs like these as they are not for everyone and so I wanted to take some time to condense some information to consider highlighting what I took away from my experiences of them so far.
If you could take away one thing from the educational systems of foreign countries aside from the United States of America, what would it be?
Education, speaking in a general sense, is universal. However, everyone has their own way of doing things and overall views on what is important. That being said, I have learned that there are no right or wrong ways of doing things in terms of a particular education system but rather pros and cons instead.
Why do you think it is important to be exposed to other Education systems?
I think it is important to be exposed to them because you learn about external things connected to education. For example, one has the opportunity to learn about the functionality of a respective government since they work closely with schools, you can learn about what a country really values because they prioritize those things in their curriculum and disciplining of the students, and you get an up close experience of different ways to do the same thing like teaching and learning in this context.
In what ways can you benefit from teaching in a foreign country? What are some of the difficulties you experienced from teaching in another country?
I became more open minded and adaptable from these experiences. I had an opportunity to experience culture in a different way. I learned very useful cultural things (ex. mannerisms (the wai in Thailand or bowing in Japan), history, politics, values, opinions on topics relevant in that country, how to open a bank account (you sign with a stamp or inkan as opposed to signing with a signature in Japan), pay bills (you can pay most anything at 711s in both places), take care of different styles of housing like tatami mats and futons in Japan or why you cannot drink from the tap in Thailand and that having lizards in your house is something that is not uncommon. You have the pleasure of seeing the family dynamic up close. You learn kids are basically the same in every country… crazy little humans! They all feel, laugh, do not enjoy studying or doing homework, love to play. You see things that maybe you would like to improve or change but that is accompanied by learning how to feel your own opinions while respecting another culture. You might even find things you like better. You care about finding solutions to problems outside of your home country because by being exposed to another part of the world you feel more inclined to think in a holistic manner. Other people’s problems become more relevant and real to you. You learn how to redefine success to fit the circumstances you find yourself in. -It really can be found in many different forms too.
You can be exposed to things you fundamentally disagree with but cannot change. You might experience wonderful kids but find that they are not getting the attention or help they need because of cultural differences. I experienced this some with Thai classrooms that had varying levels of students and the students that knew the most material or understood a concept better would act out because they were not being challenged and so were likewise seen as ‘bad’ kids. You may feel isolated because even though you have shared experiences with other teachers, you will always be different. Language barriers make it hard to teach in the way you might want to. This also could keep you from being able to properly identify when a child is being bullied or help you to maintain good work relations with your coworkers.
What is your advice to someone looking to join a teaching program abroad who wants to radically change education systems in another country?
In my opinion, I actually think very little could or rather should be necessarily radically changed. You do not really have much control over things aside from your own opinion of the circumstances. Many of the things you would want to improve you lack the power to and one has to recognize that you are the foreigner in a different country. It is not always your place to change everything. I would advise one to take more of an objective approach in experiencing different ways of doing things and instead view them as an opportunity to learn, understand, and ultimately be culturally sensitive.
Pros and Cons of going through a program?
The JET program actually paid for my flight to Japan which took of a huge amount of original traveling expenses. They will also pay for my flight back home upon completion of this program. When you are working and traveling abroad, it allows you to have more disposable income for traveling within a country. You have more time to go further, budget your money and time wisely so you can see more things and really get to experience all seasons of a country. You have more time to get to know the culture properly and learn about it. Getting paid for an actual job allows you to take care of other responsibilities. For example it is not uncommon for JETs to pay off their student debt or save up enough money to help with large payments like a house in the future. You gain practical experience of the world around you as well as what it is like to work for a common goal alongside others through teaching and making lesson plans. You get to be a part of the lives of those whom are natives to a country and maybe even inspire them to travel to your home country one day. Programs like JET have good training beforehand on cultural things to be aware of. Maybe a word that you know in Japanese is not always appropriate to use in every setting. They offer general support to help with your overall well being like counseling services and advice on what to do if you find yourself needing to visit a hospital. I have found it is easier to contract with schools abroad although, it still is usually possible to contract with a school abroad without going through a program. Going through a program is a good way to get exposed to those who are going through the same experience as you at the same time. It does help to have support from other English speakers within a country where English is not the first language. They are good ways to network not only with current participants but past ones as well and this is a good way to minimize culture shock after you get back home because you have a community of people who shared in your experience ready to support you. Programs are also nice for helping to make sure all of the predeparture logistics are taken care of like passports, work visas, and other paperwork. Going through a prestigious program with a strong presence like JET which has been active for nearly thirty years also might help one to find another job upon completion of the program.
In relation to OEG I experienced a program not offering the support they originally said they did. You might experience some programs charging you ridiculous fees and taking unnecessarily large amounts of money from you which is why it is wise to do your research first. It may be that some programs turn out not to care as much about the students as you do. Some can really take advantage of your lack of knowledge about a place or the procedures of being able to work abroad.
In the end, I highly recommend people take advantage of participating in programs teaching abroad. I have grown tremendously as a person from being exposed to difficult and wonderful experiences while teaching. I definitely appreciate the length of time they allow me to stay in foreign countries as well as the things they allow me to learn about another place, people, and more importantly, myself. Please let me know if you have any other questions about programs or my own experiences with them.