What to Pack When You Go

Congratulations! You’ve got a TEFL certificate, a job overseas and a plane ticket. You’re ready to go right?

Sure!  But many of you in this situation are probably scratching your heads and pondering the following questions:

1) What, if anything, should I ask friends and family to keep for me while I’m away?

2) Is it a good idea to post things to my new home abroad?

3) Just how much stuff can I stuff into that suitcase?

First, you should try to limit the things that you do bring abroad to the absolute minimum. You should only take the things that you feel you (literally) can’t live without. And of course, since it seems that whenever I do a big move it is in the middle of a record heatwave, a blizzard or other extreme weather event, I always feel like the less stuff I have to lug around, the better.

Prescriptions and Other Medicines

I’m no spring chicken any more, so one of the things I always take a hard look at before I move to a new country is whether or not I can get the medicines I need in the country I’ll be going to. To get an idea about what will be available, I cruise discussion forums and post my queries there. However, a word of advice, don’t always trust the answers on the forums, especially if the medicine you are asking about is vital to your comfort and/or health.

That said, you’ll find that most meds are inexpensive overseas when compared to your home country, so there’s usually no need to go overboard bulk-buying anything. In my experience, unless the drug or treatment you need is extremely new or rare, you’ll have few problems finding it.

If You Can’t Live Without It, Bring It!

If there is something that is really vital for keeping you healthy, then of course you should pack it and take it along with you.


Most newbie English teachers are surprised (and gratified) to find that they adapt to getting by with much less volume of clothes and accessories than they had back home. Just bring the basics. I do find, though, that it’s nice to have along a few pictures of pals and relatives that make you remember good times and help keep homesickness at bay. The good thing is that photos are light and pack easily.

Teaching Materials

Now, unlike photos and lightweight clothing, books are heavy and take up a lot of space. But…you might want to bring one or two reference type books with you. Depending on where you’re moving, the books you will rely on to start your teaching career may be costly and difficult to find.  Don’t forget to consider scanning or ebook varieties of reference material to help save space and weight.

If you know you’ll be living somewhere with a good connection to the Internet (i.e. most of the world these days) you’ll probably be able to go on-line to get most of the information to help you start out.

OK, What about A Computer?

I’ve seen plenty of teachers preparing to go abroad who look at their plane ticket as permission to buy a brand-new notebook computer or pricey laptop in the spirit of portability. But I feel like a shiny new gadget like that is just one more thing to worry about losing, dropping or getting stolen. In most cases,  teachers can wait until they arrive in their target country to purchase an inexpensive desktop computer. An older (but still new) model may end up costing you half or less of what a laptop would have. You might pose this question to your new employer or other teachers at the school if you are in contact with them.

If you have a lot of digital files that you want to take with you, then an efficient option is to buy an external hard drive. It’s sure to be easier to pack that than a laptop!

Sending Things via the Post Office

I don’t like to recommend that people use the post office to help them move things abroad. While the mail may be regular and reliable in your home country, overseas can be quite a different story. Your items may be misplaced, stolen or damaged in transit. The bottom line is, if you really want to take something, put it in your suitcase. And if it’s really indispensable, then you’d better bring it in carry-on luggage. The safest place for it is with you.

TED’s Tips™ #1: People from Western countries, like you and me, are often surprised to see that most people in other countries live their lives with much fewer belongings than we are used to. In the village I lived in for several years in Thailand, I frequently saw tourists lugging around backpacks containing more things than what filled a local person’s whole house! I have to chuckle when I see the locals staring in awe at all the bags these travelers bring with them.

I recommend bringing enough clothing for one week and a month’s supply (or more) of your important medicines or things you need for health reasons. Thirty days should be long enough for you to find out where to get more.  Of course, with critical medicine, err on the conservative side.

TED’s Tips™ #2: What you’ll really need, honey, is money! Bring cash. Lots of cash (okay, not TOO much!). You’ll need enough to buy the necessities for starting out in your new home. I’ll have another post about this topic soon.  Check with your employer too because if you are sharing accommodation with another teacher, they probably already have everything essential.  If you are taking over a private apartment from another teacher, they often leave their basics there rather than taking them on to their next posting.







I Don’t Know the Local Language – How can I Teach English?

How Can I Teach English to People if I Don’t Speak Their Language?

It’s a question that’s on a lot of new teachers’ minds when they start teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL): What if I can’t speak the local lingo? Will I still find a job teaching?

Rest assured, nervous teachers!

** You don’t need to know your students’ native language in order to teach them English**

Yep, you can relax (about this anyway!). In fact, most EFL teachers won’t understand or speak their student’s mother tongue, especially when they first get to the country. Schools don’t often assign true beginner students to the foreign teachers—usually the foreign staff teach students who have already acquired enough language to be able to follow a class taught completely in the target language.

So, how much English will my students understand?

Your lowest level students will usually have about the basic language skills of a native speaker toddler. They’ll know some simple commands and classroom words—perhaps you’ll even be surprised at how much they know!  But, very often, they will feel insecure about these newly acquired skills and will need you to help them build up their confidence.

Your intuition is why they’ve hired you

Native speakers find jobs abroad because students (and therefore employers) are looking for teachers who have native accents and can help train pronunciation and who “have an ear for” what grammar is correct or incorrect, and who intuitively know how the language is used.

Of course, after experience in front of a class (augmented by a good TEFL certification course) you’ll be able to simply explain why something is right or something is wrong.  But, in the beginning of your teaching career, you’ll find that even if you can’t explain just quite why something is correct or incorrect, you’ll still be able to intuit the right answers.

But, once I learn, I should use the learners’ native language in my classes to help them understand, right?


You have this great job as an EFL teacher because you are a native English speaker and the expectation is that your classes will be solely conducted in English. There are plenty of local teachers—often paid much less than you are paid—who will use the local language to explain concepts and drill translations. You are expected, because you are foreign, to challenge the students with an immersion experience for the duration of your class. That is what makes you valuable as a teacher.

I like to compare learning another language to learning to ride a bike.  Students must do it to learn it. If you only talk about riding a bicycle (i.e. use the native language to explain it) you’ll never be able to do more than just wobble your way around. Many students, before they come to your class, will have “talked about it” for a long time—and still only learned basic skills. This is precisely why they need a native English speaker like YOU.

How will I attend to my daily needs without speaking the area language?

Your school will most likely be sensitive to the fact that you’ll need some help settling in at first. Usually, the foreign staff will have a local assistant (possibly one of your colleagues) assigned to them to show them around and help navigate the things they need to do. Your school should be helpful in finding the things you are looking for, from Western food and bedsheets to cyber cafes, cinemas, pharmacies and city bus passes.  You won’t be their first foreigner.  They know how this works.

Later in your career, after you’ve got experience living and working abroad, you’ll realize that you’ve become adept at getting by using basic language or even body language.

TED’s Tips™ #1:  Just because you shouldn’t use the local language when you’re teaching doesn’t mean it’s not useful for you to pick up some phrases to use out of the classroom. I like to learn the basics before I go to any country, even on vacation. Remember what your mother told you were “magic words?” They still are: Please, thank you, excuse me, I’m sorry, (and a smile!) can often be the difference between getting the help you need and finding everything is lost in translation.

TED’s Tips™ #2:  Numbers are the second useful piece of language that you should acquire to help you live in a foreign land. Learning to say “how much” and understand the answer will free you up from hand signals and finger counting—and will cut down on miscommunication when you’re shopping or eating out.





It Takes All Kinds to Teach English

Just who will my colleagues abroad be?

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is a career embraced by a diverse group of people.  Don’t be shocked when you learn the backgrounds of your new coworkers!

Like, Who?

Most EFL teachers are just like you and me.  They’re interested (and interesting!), adventurous people who saw a great chance and jumped at a life abroad.

For example, not too long ago I had dinner with a Chicago attorney who had just attained his TEFL certification.

Besides lawyers, I’ve come across hotel managers, sports coaches, manual laborers, former soldiers, social workers, businesspeople, a factory manager, a ship’s pilot, reporters, therapists, salespeople, public school teachers, a petroleum engineer, and…well, those are only the ones I’ve asked! While it’s always interesting to find out what someone did before they chose to go into teaching abroad, I’ve ceased being surprised. There is just so much diversity of background among English teachers.

So, why are they teaching abroad?

There are thousands of reasons a person may switch careers and start teaching overseas, but the best one may be, simply, “why not?”

I occasionally overhear someone say that so-and-so has “run away” from their home country or “escaped [insert country’s name here].” I don’t like to think of it in those terms—in my experience it’s more likely that ESL teachers are running TO a new, interesting, exciting and fulfilling lifestyle. They are grabbing their dream of seeing the world and making the most out of life. The reasons they first come abroad are as diverse as the teachers themselves.

OK, but why do they stay abroad?

There are many reasons why someone would go abroad and why they would stay abroad. I think most people who live abroad long-term do it because they love it.  They’ve fulfilled their personal and monetary goals and don’t feel pressured to “go home.” For myself, I recently retired abroad—not my plan originally, of course—and I love it!

I may be an exception, however, as most EFL teachers will find themselves pulled “home” eventually. But I’ve decided “home” is now a wonderful, tropical island which I may never move away from!

TED’s Tips™ #1:  Take a few moments of self-reflection and explore what YOUR reasons are for wanting to teach English overseas. When you do this, though, don’t pressure yourself to come up with some cast-iron “heavy” reasons. Maybe you’ve just got good old-fashioned curiosity!

TED’s Tips™ #2:  The next time you browse a forum where expats discuss life and work abroad, pose the question of what people did for a living before they transitioned to a new country. The answers and the diversity of people and careers may well surprise you!