A-Z of international teaching: Animals, food and visas

A hilarious rundown of the realities of international teaching - from terrifying insects to social faux pas

Jennie Devine

International school teaching: an A-Z guide

Moving to teach abroad is always a learning experience. Here is a handy A-Z guide to some key vocabulary:

A – Animals

From monkeys disrupting lessons by running along the classroom roof to seeing giraffes on your way home, exotic animals are a hallmark of international teaching. 

Sometimes the animal encounters can be a little too up-close – brush up on your iguana-wrangling skills before you set out. (See also insects).

B – Being the foreigner

You will occasionally do something that essentially signals to everyone that you aren’t "from round these parts". This can be misunderstanding a custom, inadvertently breaking a law, or, in Italy, something truly grave like ordering a cappuccino after 11am.

C – Currency

It will take you a while to work out whether 10,000 is too much for a meal – in Colombian pesos, no; in dollars, yes.

D – Driving

Whether it is driving on the other side of the road, driving on the other side of the car or both, this presents a real challenge to those brave enough to try it, especially in some countries where driving is not the execution of proscribed rules, but rather a creative art.

E – Electronics

You will need to buy a lot of adapters and will probably end up stacking them on to every plug like a cartoon sandwich. The first two weeks of moving to a new place is spent largely just purchasing adapters.

F – Food

Moving to a new place always brings memorable food experiences. "Memorable" isn’t always a positive word.

G – Gestures

Be very careful. You are just a friendly wave, a thumb’s up or an OK sign away from starting an international incident.

H – History

It is fascinating to learn the history of different countries that you move to and understand the connection to your own. Spoiler: The UK doesn’t always come out as the hero of these stories.

I – Insects

You will encounter types of insects you’ve never seen before. These insects are always bigger, hairier, more venomous and faster than the ones you are used to, and resemble prototypes for the creature in Alien.

J – Jokes

For the first little while, you will not understand any of the references, puns or plays on cultural norms that go into local humour. Practise your fake laugh now, or be prepared to listen to several hundred conversations that start with, “It’s funny, because…”

K – Kids

One of the greatest things about teaching abroad is, of course, the children. They are just as delightful, funny and charming the whole world around.

L – Language

You will make embarrassing errors in your new language but just go with it and learn to accept the laughter that you will encounter. Oh, and probably best to learn all those rude slang words first, just to be safe.

M – Music

You are going to hear a lot of local language pop songs. And yes, you know the lyrics probably aren’t about a goat who denounces a papaya, but that’s what you hear and you are sticking to it.

N – Network

One of the best things about international teaching is that it is a very small world and so you build a wide network quickly. One of the worst things about international teaching is that it is a very small world and the embarrassing story about you falling into the pool will follow you around for years.

O – Other teachers

International teachers are a wonderful bunch of open-minded, flexible and adventurous professionals. You will meet some of your best friends for life.

P – Parents

As with the children, parents are more or less the same the world over. Unlike the children, this is more of a mixed bag situation.

Q – Quarantine

If you have pets and you are travelling between countries, quarantine is a reality (for the pets). Of course, at present, many teachers also face quarantine in hotels or apartments before they start a new role.

R – Romance

If you thought dating was tricky in your own country, adding in a new language, culture, foods and norms takes finding romance to a whole new level.

S – Sports and games

You will get to know new games and sports at playtimes, from Colombian sapo to Indian kabbadi. Also, of course, there are the old standards – cricket, rugby and football. (See: history)

T – Transportation

Buses, trains, metro, tram, bike, scooters, rickshaws, water taxis, pedicab, horse-drawn carriage, ferry… there are so many different ways to travel and get lost.

U – Understanding signs

Is that sign a suggestion, warning or a command? Why are there so many figures on that street sign and what is that animal they are fleeing?

V – Visas

These will take more documentation than you ever thought possible. Just hand over the papers and don’t ask why the consulate asked for apostilled versions of all your report cards going back to Year 4 and official translated versions of your swimming certificates.

W – Weather

It can be disconcerting moving to countries with better weather than Britain – what can you say to people to make small talk? Don’t worry, though, soon it will be too hot/cold/dry/rainy/humid and you’ll be back on familiar ground.

X – eXploration

International teachers have a chance to really experience a country from the inside out. You will celebrate holidays like the locals, and also find little-known locales to visit. You will come across quirky celebrations or festivals that are not found in guidebooks – a tulip festival here, a piglet racing event there. 

Y – Your new local

The cafe staff have made your coffee just the way you like it, the baker has saved the special biscuit you like or the ramen shop has your bowl ready as you walk through the door. Everything feels like home.

Z – Zzzzzzs, or lack thereof on international flights

You can’t sleep as you are awkwardly origami-ed into your seat… but how else will you get to your next post?

Jennie Devine has worked in international teaching for 18 years, most recently as a principal at a school in Italy

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