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Classroom practice - Pack your bags for a fresh perspective

Teaching abroad can be challenging and costly, but you'll return richer in experience and more creative in your thinking

Teaching abroad can be challenging and costly, but you'll return richer in experience and more creative in your thinking

To become a better teacher, it is generally accepted that you have to test yourself regularly in new and different classroom environments.

For the most part, this is assumed to mean working in schools with different intakes, different levels of attainment and different methodologies and principles. What is often overlooked is that it could mean working in different countries - or, more specifically, taking up one of the many options to teach in poorer countries that desperately need highly qualified teachers.

The benefits of working in places such as Kenya, Peru or Vietnam can be countless, as long as the teacher is open-minded enough to grab the opportunities.

Going abroad, even for a short time, can be intimidating. Yet the skills required for teaching are so diverse that, once learned, they can be applied almost anywhere. A class in Nairobi basically demands the same pedagogical skills from you as a village school in rural England or city school in New York. So there is nothing to fear.

Admittedly, when you arrive and perhaps do not share a common language with the children, it can be difficult to adjust and settle. However, these initial problems can quickly be turned into opportunities and you can then take this learning back to your teaching career at home.

By using "non-verbal" teaching aids such as gestures, music, dance and drawing, as well as other visual and physical cues, you can overcome language barriers and natural and cultural shyness, getting through to your students in different and more creative ways.

Teachers who go abroad also find that they quickly adapt to different situations. You begin to expect the unexpected. Your innate ability to solve problems creatively grows. Most children in the developing world are extremely good at rote copying but not necessarily at thinking for themselves. As the teacher, with a brief to promote analytical and creative thought, you must be flexible and adapt your lessons to their knowledge and outlook. This naturally increases your own confidence and understanding of your subject.

There is a more general benefit to teaching abroad. In tandem with fine- tuning and learning new skills, you are also building your awareness of other cultures. The more situations and topics you experience, the more interesting and knowledgeable a person you will become. This all feeds into your teaching and helps to create points of engagement with children wherever you find yourself.

Wanting to go abroad and getting there are, clearly, not the same thing. At a time when jobs can be in short supply, it is understandable that teachers may be reluctant to take a career break. However, many have successfully negotiated time off to pursue teaching abroad because of the benefits to their home school, which gains not just a better teacher but also links with another school in another country.

It is, however, a misconception to assume that the only option is a career break. In the UK, at least, the long summer vacation means that extended periods abroad are possible; in some cases, just a couple of weeks can be arranged in a foreign school, should teachers wish for a shorter taste of life in another country.

However, student happiness must be paramount for a programme to be worthwhile. Changing teachers too frequently can confuse children and may not give enough time for a teacher to settle. Six weeks is the optimum time for a shorter teaching experience abroad.

Cost-benefit analysis

You also have to be aware that all this costs money. Going with smaller charitable organisations can help but you will still need to raise some cash for the trip. One way of offsetting the cost is to collect sponsorship from colleagues, family and friends.

Those who have taken time to teach abroad have found the cost to be well worth it. Hazel Shaw works at Lochardil Primary School in Inverness, Scotland, but spent four weeks of her summer holidays in Kenya teaching primary-age children.

"I think it's good to take teachers out of their comfort zone; in turn, they will develop new skills they never thought were necessary for teaching," she says.

"In Kenya, they have absolutely nothing. Every day, I had to think about how I could make the lesson experiential by using local materials. I used old soda bottle tops as maths counters and small bits of a straw to form letters. The kids loved these lessons. I hope to take home these ideas and much more."

Wherever in the world you go, you will have similar experiences that will improve your teaching at both a practical and an experiential level. Education is all about learning something new and teachers can often forget that this should apply to them, too. Going abroad can be a fantastic way to achieve that.

Jeremy Brown is co-founder of Chalkboard Kenya. For more information, see

In short

  • Teaching abroad as a career break or in the school holidays is an ideal opportunity for teachers to fine-tune existing skills and learn new ones.
  • It also broadens the experience of the teacher, giving them a valuable world view to pass on to students.
  • Taking time out to teach abroad can be difficult: some schools may not be willing to give teachers a term off, and even if you organise your trip via a charitable organisation, you will need to raise some cash to make it happen.
  • However, these problems are surmountable and the benefits make the effort more than worthwhile.

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