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Six Essentials for Teaching Abroad and Broadening Your Perspective

Editor's intro: Today, Mary-Jo Rusu, a teacher at Academie Ste. Cecile in Windsor, Canada who taught at international high schools in China on three separate occasions, discusses how to prepare for a year of teaching abroad.

by guest blogger Mary-Jo Rusu

From my three trips teaching in China, I have learned some essentials for teaching internationally that enabled me to connect to my home culture and share insightful inter-cultural learning experiences with my students while meeting the curriculum objectives. 

Here are my six recommendations for fellow teachers planning their first global teaching experience:

1. Follow your curiosity and absorb bits and pieces of the place you are planning to visit long before your feet touch the earth there. Any medium, from food to film, will help. 

One medium that helped me was Wild China, a video series co-produced by BBC and CCTV TV from my couch. In it I saw pandas munching bamboo and watched an elderly woman flying hundreds of feet between mountains in the Yunnan province, zip-lining her way to the market, along with children en route to school and others carrying livestock under their arms.  

About three months before I left for my trip, I came upon a Time-Life hardcover text at a yard sale. It was written in the late '60s and was full of dreary black and white images of worker communes and other images and stories from Mao's reign. This text later served as a reference point when I saw hundreds of his little red books, pins, and vintage posters on sale at antiquities markets in a now vibrantly hued country bustling with commerce. It was only a small glimpse into some of the country's epic history, yet it truly helped me understand some of the scenes my students wrote about later in our drama class. 

2. Make connections before you arrive. 

One of the best things I did was ask the school administrator for the emails of a few foreign teachers who were already at the school or who taught there. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I received answers to questions ranging from what to pack for winter to the atmosphere at the school. The bonus was that, when I arrived, I felt as if I already knew some of my colleagues. Check to see if the school you are traveling to has its own social media pages and don't forget to tell other people where you are ahead of time. Chances are someone you know has a connection in the city you are heading to.

And once you arrive, if you find yourself feeling a bit too alone, it does not hurt to ask your school administrator if there is anyone who could meet up with you on your day off and be a guide to the city. It also creates an excellent opportunity for your students to practice their English. I met an amazing family this way and had many enriching experiences traveling with them. It may seem odd to a professional teacher to befriend students and their families, but it is another way to feel connected to others while abroad, as long as you keep your teaching and grading boundaries intact.

3. Plan lessons and utilize planners.

How will you use your time teaching? Every minute spent planning pays off in dividends of rewarding classroom experience and far less stress. Tackle it without fear.

teaching_abroad.pngFirst, imagine what experiences you hope your students will have based on the curriculum you will cover. Then, narrow your choices. Here is where to consider which skills or content you will learn with your students for each month of teaching. Write all this down. Now, write down each month of the semester or year (minus the holidays) and the one to three things your students will learn how to do or be tested on each month. Then, map out weekly lesson topics and related resources for teaching those topics on a planning template. There are many great planners, from the traditional hard copy teacher lesson and grade book, to apps (like TeacherKit) that allow you to upload the photos of your students and their names so that you can get to know them right away. A combination of the paper copy planner, which I customized, and an app and gradebook software helped me manage the teaching, learning, and assessment process.

One other planning tip that I found to be helpful was to make the first week of your classes a chance for the students to have a tiny sample of the skills and content they will experience over the semester. And pen a short note to your students for the first day of class. Tell them your hopes for the term and share a little about yourself.  Ask your students to write you a letter back about their hopes for the term and their lives, too. 

4. Pack teaching resources that reflect your passions.

Take a good look at the curriculum objectives and outcomes you will be teaching. Ask yourself: Are there any books or videos that would inspire me and my students? How could the materials I bring demonstrate the values of my culture and language? What materials might engage students in sharing information about their own culture? What materials contain references to my culture and the culture I will be teaching in?

I love to create little learning bridges from my student's culture to mine, and vice versa. So I packed a novel set in China (The Chinese Cinderella) with some Chinese Characters and words sprinkled throughout it, tiny waffles, maple syrup, a poem by Margaret Atwood, and a copy of The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier. I am Canadian, after all!

5. Lock onto language lessons and translation technology. 

The time spent learning even a few key phrases from a native speaker of the language of the country you are traveling to is invaluable. In a pinch, priority questions and phrases such as, "Where is the bathroom?"; "Hello/Goodbye"; "Thank you!"; "How much is this?"; "What is this called?"; and how to count money will suffice. There are many great translation apps if you have an Internet connection or new devices that will work even without a connection. Make sure you practice using the apps before you arrive at your destination. I found social media apps, like WeChat and Baidu Translator, to be especially helpful. 

And the people you meet will also help. Surprisingly to me, it was often cab drivers who patiently coached me on pronouncing and practicing these simple words.

6. Be flexible and have an open mind.  

On most days, you will find your expectations of your time abroad quite distant from the realities. There will be delays, miscommunications, and discomforts. That is when you need to take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are also a student, only this time, another country is your classroom. Take the time to learn the cultural etiquette and different ways of seeing the same thing. The man who sat next to me on my first flight to teach abroad schooled me in his culture as we flew above the globe until we arrived in China.

As a result, now that my suitcase is back home, my heart and mind are filled with terrific memories and new ways of seeing our world. Plus, I never tire of reading about all things Chinese. Have a happy teaching adventure. Now, get packing!

Connect with the Center for Global Education on Twitter.


Resources for teaching abroad:

Insider information on teaching abroad: Dave's ESL Cafe

Teaching blogs: Eat.Write.Teach

Image created on Pablo

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