When it’s done right – and often even when it’s done wrong – teaching abroad has the potential to be a transcendental experience.

Here, we’ll get into the unexpected experiences and benefits of teaching abroad.

Unexpected Experience While Teaching Abroad #1: Cultural Relativism

People have the natural tendency to assume that their own native culture is “normal” – life is meant to be lived the way one is conditioned to believe it should be lived.

Cultural relativism has a way of shattering our pre-conceived notions of what is “normal,” as explained via Carnegie Council:

“Cultural relativists uphold that cultures differ fundamentally from one another, and so do the moral frameworks that structure relations within different societies. In international relations, cultural relativists determine whether an action is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ by evaluating it according to the ethical standards of the society within which the action occurs.”

As you venture abroad, you will inevitably encounter less extreme but equally novel cultural norms that will expand your worldview and open up new ways of thinking about daily activities you previously took for granted.

Everyone might not agree on whether cultural relativism is a moral right or wrong, but traveling abroad confers a cultural relativism borne out of necessity. As a practical matter, one is forced to adapt to the local customs and mores in order to survive and thrive.

Unexpected Experience While Teaching #2: You Might Meet Your Lifetime Partner

The expat is a unique breed, psychologically speaking. You are bound to meet kindred spirits stricken with wanderlust on the global ESL teaching circuit – whether platonic or romantic.

I met my wife, who is Ukrainian, in Vietnam. We were both teaching at a private language school in Lao Cai, Vietnam right along the border with China, and our relationship was enriched as a result of our shared experiences as expats.

Aside from my wife, I maintain friendships with numerous coworkers I met in various countries throughout the years. The bonds we share through our shared experience of teaching English in a foreign country inform and strengthen our relationships.

Unexpected Experience While Teaching #3: The Small Things You Once Took For Granted You No Longer Do

This one dovetails with the cultural relativism explained in a previous section.

As the American pop-punk band Blink-182 wrote in its chart-topping song back in the day, it’s “all the small things.”

Whether it’s the local style of toilet or the traffic customs or the social importance (or lack thereof) attached to timeliness, things you once took for granted back home you no longer do.

Unexpected Experience While Teaching #4: Limited Teaching Resources

This one isn’t so much of a factor in Spain – the locale in which we place teachers – or other First World destinations in Western Europe, but it is a big one if you’re going to be teaching in the developing world.

The resources available are often outdated and, in some cases, what we might consider archaic.

I wrote a whole thing a few years back about my personal trial by fire, dropped as an ESL rookie into the “field,” so to speak, sweating profusely on the fourth floor of an air-conditioner-free Thai school in a remote farming village while struggling to make the best of the limited teaching materials at my disposal.

It was certainly an eye-opener in terms of the material comforts that most of us in the West are accustomed to. No amount of TEFL training can truly prepare you to thrive in such circumstances. Only personal experience can do that.

Unexpected Experience While Teaching #5: Realigned Priorities

Because, as we’ve discussed, teaching abroad exposes you to new ideas and new ways of living, the experience has a way of transforming what you think is truly important in life.

It’s easy, back home – a common problem you can probably relate to – to get stuck in the malaise of routine. There might be nothing in your comfortable environment that stimulates any kind of personal development.

Getting out of that routine however you can – which, for many, means going abroad – confers a newfound perspective on what really matters and what you really want out of life.

Unexpected Experience While Teaching #6: Assuming the Role of the Observer

In many ways, life abroad as an expat is akin to the experience of the fly on the wall: you are somehow immutably separate from the society you are temporarily a part of.

The sociocultural bridge that separates foreigner from native can never be fully crossed. No matter how much time you spend in your host country, you will likely never think of yourself as fully “native” and the natives likewise will never consider you one of them – although that doesn’t mean they won’t be kind and hospitable. In fact, they often go out of their way to play the role of gracious host.

Although at times the expat lifestyle can be lonely – especially if you don’t have the benefit of a strong support structure like the one offered by RVF International – being a foreigner can also be richly rewarding.

As a stranger in a new land, you are free in a way that a local can never be; there is no expectation that you conform to all of the social roles prescribed to a native. Any social faux pas that you might make – and you will make them — are readily forgiven, provided that you show a willingness to learn the local ways. You enjoy a leniency and liberty that is exhilarating.

Unexpected Experience While Teaching #7: Newfound Strength and Confidence

One inevitable outcome of living abroad is that you will strengthen as an individual as a result of your journey.

Living abroad is not without serious challenges. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being fully honest. Times can get hard, but when you face those challenges head on and overcome them, you’ll learn to trust in yourself. 

It’s a cliché, for sure, but on the other side of struggle comes lasting personal growth.

Contact RVF International to Learn More About the Benefits of Teaching English Abroad

If you’re keen to learn more about the many personal and career benefits of teaching abroad, we are always free to share our passion with newcomers to the English as a second language industry.

Don’t be a stranger — contact us.

Drop us a line about your ambitions and interests and we’ll discuss the work we do to place teachers in rewarding ESL positions in Spain.

Ben Bartee is a Bangkok-based American journalist, grant writer, political essayist, researcher, travel blogger, and amateur philosopher. Contact him on Linkedin and check out his portfolio.