How To Teach In Foreign Countries

I taught English in Vietnam. You can too.


Kick your windowless cubicle to the curb, pack a bag, and travel the world while teaching. This seems to be a modern way to check items off your bucket list and make a living abroad. It worked for me for a year as an English teacher in a foreign country, and I returned home with an adventurous spirit, a clear mind, and countless stories. 


Studies talked about by Business Insider showed that office jobs can be detrimental to your health. Sedentary desk jobs create health-related issues due to long office hours, daily slouching, staring at screens, time-consuming commutes, need I say more? With only one life to live, it’s no wonder more and more people are trading fluorescent lights for trans-Atlantic flights. 


You can do it!  Getting started as an English teacher is less daunting than you’d think. It starts with a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification, typically achieved online, through companies like The TEFL Academy, Oxford TEFL, and Premier TEFL. Courses range upwards of 30 hours to be done on your own time. As with any career industry, you start at the bottom and work your way up. TEFL education is segmented into many levels, and you could eventually specialize in different teaching fields for young learners, higher education preparatory courses, or Business English. 


I ended up backpacking to Vietnam through an Australian-based TEFL agency called English Language Center (ELC), which I found by a Google search. They were offering the Vietnam program at a discounted rate at the time. Needless to say, I got it on sale! So off I went on a 19-hour flight to the country’s capital, Hanoi. Once in Hanoi I was greeted by agency staff, attended a week-long orientation, and bussed to my school that was two hours West along the Gulf of Tonkin. 


I lived in Haiphong city and worked in public schools and a private language center. The schools looked different than what I was familiar with as a child. To enter public school grounds I had to walk through barred entrance gates into a large, brick courtyard. The building, which housed classrooms and offices, wrapped around the central courtyard, standing 3 stories tall with yellow exterior and banners of important historical figures. Since the Vietnam climate is hot and humid during the summer months, the structure had many door frames and glassless windows open to outdoor elements. The tile floor, dirt walkways, and wooden tables and chairs also helped keep everything cool. In some schools, the only air conditioned room was the staff room. The local Vietnamese teachers, who are primarily women, would bring fruit and candy to share while cooling down during breaks. Since I was new and unable to talk to them, I was relieved when they expressed kindness by smiling and offering the treats. At school I was an English teacher to primary aged kids, but by the weekend I was an explorer of cuisine, culture, history, and the outdoors. 


The most interesting food I sampled was cow’s blood tofu. It looked like a small slab of gray concrete but jiggled as a cube of Jell-O. The texture was a fine line between melt-in-your-mouth and pudding that I discovered after the first bite disintegrated in my mouth. I didn’t eat much after that. 


Perhaps the most memorable foods consumed were starfruit buffalo saute, barbecue pork, and pho with chili-garlic sauce. These dishes were often accompanied by a side of white rice or rice noodles and bia hoi, homebrewed beer that cost 5 American cents. Meals were prepared in the street outside someone’s home. The family would set up a portable stove with a giant wok to cook the food, and then served me while I sat on a tiny plastic stool. Meals prepared this way was some of the best home cooking I’ve ever tried. 


Eating by myself used to be a lonely experience since I did not speak Vietnamese well. Even though street food was eaten congregate-style, I would only be able to exchange smiles, basic greetings, and intermittent eye contact with other diners who came and went. Once I started making friends with other English-speaking teachers I was finally able to have more conversations.   


Teachers from all around the world seemed to flock to Vietnam. I worked with people from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Meeting other fluent English speakers helped boost confidence and social opportunities. With our new sense of confidence, we were also able to befriend community members and local teachers, and bridge the language barrier that was a previous struggle.


Vietnam is a popular tourist destination for outdoor adventurers, so when the weekend came the teachers would split into traveling groups. Traveling is easier in smaller numbers when booking excursions and accommodation. With my friends Clare, Farah, Branwen, and Lisa we cruised around the floating villages of Ha Long Bay on kayaks. The famous limestone monoliths that rose from the sea helped keep the bay waters calm. This made it easier to explore the villages. We spent two nights on the bay by renting rooms in a 30-person cruise ship, which allowed us to sit on the top deck and admire the serene, salty blue water.


Life is very different in the floating houses. Wooden homes with 1 or 2 rooms floated on raft-like platforms supported by buoys underneath. The main economy is fishing, so the people who lived on the water had fish farms set up right outside their front doors. Giant nets plunged deep in the bay to keep grouper, shellfish, snappers, and many other types of aquatic life. Of course, the main transportation was by boat, but people and house pets were also seen swimming and hopping between neighboring houses. What an interesting sight! 


Biking through limestone monoliths in rural Ninh Binh, rowing in and out of dark caves along the Sao Khe River, and walking among rice patties in Vin Bao were more reasons I looked forward to the weekend. I enjoyed watching country people work in the patties wearing their traditional leaf hats for shade. They would also wear tall, rubber boots since rice patties are a couple feet deep with muck. When I waved to the workers, they always waved back! 


My travels capitalized on engulfing the natural beauty of northern Vietnam while sipping sweet cups of coffee and eating all the fresh fruit in sight. After the gray blood tofu incident, I took advantage of all the juicy, tropical sweetness in my path. Sometimes I wondered how different life would be if I were born in this culture: where social norms didn’t involve 40-hour workweeks or on-the-go attitudes. Instead, the Vietnamese people I met were peaceful and undisturbed by schedules or deadlines. Help was easy to find, trading goods sustained small neighborhoods, and giving and accepting gifts was common courtesy. 


One of the best experiences was relating to the Vietnamese people. People watching was my favorite pastime, when I could gain insight into cultural differences. I once ended up pumicing my feet with a middle aged woman along the river in central Ninh Binh. I was sitting on the river bank watching the sunset with another friend, Lauren. The water was met by stone steps, where we sat. Four Vietnamese women stepped down into the river to wash their clothes. They wore the popular, traditional leaf hats and laughed together as they washed. I cringed to think they were laughing at me- an out-of-place-looking American,- but it didn’t matter anyway because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Then, one woman began to rub her feet on the stone to smooth her skin. We made eye contact and she grinned, so I serendipitously joined her to pumice my feet too. As silly as this encounter was, I can’t help but keep it as one of my top memories from the trip. It was a moment when our physical differences didn’t matter, and instead we relished in the feelings of joy and humility.


Once Monday rolled around it was back to work. A weekly teaching schedule involved between 4-10 hours of classes each day. Vietnamese public schools are open early in the morning, closed midday for lunch with families, and return for afternoon classes. Students involved in extracurricular lessons would typically be in school until 9 p.m. I quickly learned a popular extracurricular was studying English, which is a reason why TEFL is so prominent.


It is also possible to travel and earn money as an independent teacher. With the proper credentials, you could find employment at a variety of places: public schools, private language centers, businesses offering language classes, or tutoring gigs. This is a bit more challenging, especially if you are seeking to be hired without fluently knowing the local language. 


At this point, I believe it’s noteworthy to mention the importance of adaptability. When teaching abroad you are not just teaching and then heading home to prop your feet up while watching Netflix. You are living and learning in a new culture. Fully immersed. Some online TEFL blogs will state it is not necessary to know the local language while teaching in certain places. However, I recommend picking up the dialect as a way to better communicate in stressful travel situations, build rapport with the locals, and demonstrate respect for a culture. Vietnamese has proven a more difficult language to learn for speakers of a Latin based alphabet, such as English. This is due to intonations and fluctuations in word pitch.


My students were quite impressed when I showed interest in learning from them, too. The first class I ever taught applauded when I semi-successfully counted to 10 in Vietnamese. I bonded with students by learning about their favorite sports- mainly soccer (football),- playing word games, and singing nursery rhymes. As the semester progressed my relationships with the students strengthened. They grew comfortable with me as their teacher and I began to adjust my lessons to better fit specific learning styles. On my last day, I left the classes with parting gifts of hand-drawn pictures, pencils, erasers, small toys, or other items from the kids’ desks. My hope was to make a lasting impact on the students as they did for me.


There are also some downsides to teaching and traveling. Since some Vietnamese schools operate 6 days a week I was contracted to work occasional Saturdays without overtime pay, a custom familiar to Americans. As previously mentioned, my work hours varied. Some days I would teach 4-morning classes, have a 3-hour lunch break, teach 3-afternoon classes, and end the day by leading more private lessons. Other days I would have free time until the private lessons started at 5 p.m. Teaching is also an energetic profession. I was trying to keep up with primary aged kids in class sizes of 40 or more students, and standing in front of an average of 7 different classes per day. Each day brought new energy, new teaching performances, and new challenges to conquer. It seemed the young students’ attention span varied on the day. Sometimes they were interested and engrossed in the chalkboard. Other days it was like they’d eaten buckets of Halloween candy, and it took all my effort to grab their attention. Once I even danced like a bear to get all their confused eyes focused on me. I didn’t care how weird I must have looked because it worked.


For education enthusiasts, TEFL is a positive way to step out of your comfort zone. There’s opportunities for personal and professional growth, and to advocate for accessible education around the world. The negatives include educational system disorganization, culture shock, and erratic scheduling. Differences is education structures can be frustrating to navigate. For example, in Vietnam the beat of a drum indicates the start of recess time. I learned this the hard way after my whole class got up, cheered, and ran out the door in the middle of my lesson. Thank goodness they left for recess instead of boredom. As I carried on, I built trust with the local teachers despite the language barrier. They learned to remember who I was, help me with directions when I got lost on school grounds, and even shared their snacks and tea between classes.


During that year in Southeast Asia my travel-bug, bravery in trying new foods, and knowledge as a teacher increased. I enjoyed immersing in the Vietnamese culture for first-hand learning experiences. That year spent in Vietnam made me a better person as I learned to accept customs different than my own and gained a wider perspective of lifestyles across the world. 


If I can adapt as a TEFL teacher abroad, then you can too. Next time you think it’s time for a new job, perhaps life in Vietnam is calling you?