Moving Abroad to Teach

In this blog, we hear from Max Thomson, a Cardiffian teaching English in Asia who will be leading our team on our new Year in Thailand programme. Starting at a kid’s school in Beijing in 2015, he has since worked on projects across China and is now waiting out the pandemic teaching adults from his apartment in Tokyo.

The Chicken or the Egg?

I get asked quite often whether I moved abroad to be a teacher or if I became a teacher to move abroad. For me, the answer to this ‘chicken or the egg’ question is quite simple. I took a teaching job and did an online TEFL course for the sole purpose of getting out of the UK while getting paid for it. Luckily for me, I fell in love with the teaching side of things just as much as living abroad. I’ve met hundreds of people on my travels who used teaching as a route out of their home countries, many of whom are still living abroad and in many cases still teaching.

Overcoming Initial Challenges

The initial challenges when moving abroad seemed, unsurprisingly, bureaucratic. In retrospect, however, the stress caused by bureaucracy was actually a nice distraction from the fear of actually moving across the world to a country where I had no family, friends or language. The company I moved to China with had a great recruitment team and support network in-country so these fears quickly evaporated. You soon realise that expats look out for each other for the most part and teachers tend to do the same. Moving abroad for the first time gave me an enormous confidence boost. Once you’ve moved abroad, you find that other challenges in life become much less daunting.

Honeymoon, Frustration, Adjustment and Acceptance

A lot of expats would tell me about the different phases of living abroad for the first time: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. The end of the honeymoon into the frustration phase was probably the most difficult. The holiday feeling has worn off and you’re suddenly confronted with the fact that your return flight is in 12 months, not 12 days. What I found useful was to keep things exciting and try not to lose that initial spirit of adventure. Explore new neighbourhoods, dive headfirst into developing your teaching skills or plan a trip for that upcoming national holiday. Even though these phases are a bit of a cliché in expat circles, knowing I wasn’t alone definitely helped me overcome the more difficult stages.

Balancing Travel with Work

The beauty of living abroad is that your work/life balance doesn’t have to be as black and white as it might be at home. In the first few months of work in a new country, I find that getting to know the local work and education culture firsthand can be just as interesting as a day trip to a holy mountain. When you live in a city like Beijing, Tokyo or Bangkok it’s easy to find an adventure on your weekends or even weekday evenings. You’ll be amazed at the things you can discover with a few hours and a tenner.

As far as longer trips go, I tend to have a few plans in mind at any one time. An overnight camp for the weekend and something longer for the school holidays, for example. Options can be limited due to the pandemic these days but the beauty of living abroad is that what may be a 15-hour flight from Cardiff is now only a 40-minute bullet train away.

From Student to Teacher

When I look back on it, I think I was more nervous about my first class than I was about living abroad. The biggest piece of advice I’d give to any new teacher is that the greatest resource on earth is an experienced colleague. Approach those first few weeks and months in the classroom as an extended training period and take notes of what worked for you and your students and what didn’t. If you get stuck with a difficult topic or difficult student, ask another teacher. Soon enough you’ll be the one giving out advice to fresh-faced new arrivals and realise how much you’ve learnt.

About Max:

Max is your archetypal travelling teacher who has ticked off almost as many trips in Asia as report cards. Soon after graduating from a Global Politics degree at the University of Brighton, he packed his bags for Beijing where he found himself teaching kids for 4 years. During this time, he could be found on Vietnamese night trains, squatting in Malaysian food halls and traipsing through hiking trails while growing his career between trips. Narrowly escaping the brunt of Covid’s first wave by declining an offer to run a school in Wuhan, Max moved to Japan where he’s been teaching from the safety of Tokyo’s myriad international schools and English training centres.

With experience helping develop new teachers and mentoring them through the initial stages of life abroad, Max will be ‘Our man in Thailand’ offering support for Gotoco participants throughout the year.