ESL Teachers: Signs You’re Doing Better Than You Think

I recently came across an awesome blog post from Thought Catalog by Brianna Wiest called 20 Signs You’re Doing Better Than You Think You Are. In my opinion, this post was about fulfillment as much as it was about reflecting on signs that we’re doing better than we think. I believe it applies to ESL teachers who are doing life away from home because normal challenges in life become amplified without our home base of support to fall back on. Over time the smallest things can get you down and make you question how much longer you can stay on the vagabond path. Even more so, maybe it causes some of us to ask ourselves if the decision was even the right one in the first place.

Teaching ESL abroad is a magical experience though, isn’t it?

I believe that anyone who can uproot their lives and give it a go in a completely foreign environment even for just a short time deserves major kudos. It’s a roller coaster ride of events and emotions. Obviously, in the beginning it’s a ride of exhilaration as everything is new, fun, and exciting. Over time though we become more settled in (or entangled in some cases) with the daily routine of life as the newness wears off.

Anything that was an issue prior to leaving home will still be an issue, and eventually will make its way back into our lives. Amplify that by the fact that friends we make often up and leave like clockwork as their contracts expire and they return home or choose another destination. Over time, living and teaching ESL abroad is an activity where we must remind ourselves of those magical details at times or we run the risk of losing perspective.

I think this article is a great way to remind ourselves of how we are succeeding and living a fulfilled life. The points made in this article apply universally, but for ESL teachers I believe these five are the most pertinent.

You question yourself. As I just mentioned, sometimes things pile up and we find ourselves questioning whether or not teaching abroad is the right thing anymore. I know I’ve had those moments during my stay in Korea. It doesn’t mean we can’t handle it anymore or that we made the wrong choice. It just means, as the article says, that we are still open to growth.

We have the ability to meet the end of the newbie chapter and embrace what is to come. Maybe it does mean to go home, but maybe not. I think asking ourselves if we are doing the right thing is part of the growth process. We see the challenges and come to a place where we decide to either leave or take it to the next level and make it something new again. This doesn’t mean to just put on a happy face, but to identify what the next level is and to get there.

You have time to do something you enjoy. Teaching abroad by itself is an exciting concept. Wherever you are it’s amazing that you’re there. When you’re finished with work, you go home to place that is located in a completely foreign land. I consider myself blessed to have this new life in my life. I love the fact that regardless of what it is that I’m doing, I can add the phrase “in Korea” to it and realize that it’s an awesome thing.

I just went to the gym in Korea. I just bought a light bulb in Korea. I just stepped in dog poo in Korea!

The fact that you are doing even the most commonplace things in your foreign location is evidence of and a reminder that you have time to do something you enjoy. If you’ve lost sight of the enjoyment, it may be time to visit the first point above.

You’re not the same person you were a year ago. I can’t think of another profession that will force change on an individual like teaching ESL in a completely foreign country. For better or worse, when you teach abroad you can be assured that you will change.

You’ve heard of people talking about “reverse culture shock”. This means they’ve changed and adapted to their new environment so well that returning to a place in their past now seems more foreign than the foreign place they’re living in.

Living in a foreign country is going to stretch a person. That’s the best way I can say it. Have you ever started stretching your muscles after not stretching them for a long time? Better yet, have you ever tried to stretch slightly more than what you’re capable of? Feels good, right? Feels GREAT!

You’re a liar! It kills! After many stops and starts and injuries in judo, I can tell you it hurts. The thing about stretching is this; once you’ve regained your previous level or even pushed through a new boundary it’s a great psychological win. You have reached a place you’ve never been before. That’s growth. That’s a victory in my book.

You’re interested in something (else). Life for many people is point A to point B with the same set of chores each day before going to bed to get ready to do it again the following day. There is nothing wrong with this. Some people prefer routine and a balanced world requires these personality types. For others, like foreign ESL teachers, there is something more.

That something more is different for all teachers but we share the trait where we intrinsically believe that there is a different and potentially better path. We are interested in finding that something else. We will break routine to see if our intuition was right or not. My intuition proved to be right.

You’ve been through some crap. We’ve all been through crap in our lives. Every last one of us. No one is exempt from loss and pain. I try to remember that when people seem to be annoying me. You know, show some grace. It’s tough to do sometimes, isn’t it? I mean, wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier in some cases just to push them down a flight of stairs?!

For foreign ESL teachers it can be really tough. For the reasons I stated above, we have an unstable lifestyle with friends leaving periodically and being planted in a life with a whole new set of rules. Just listen to any group of foreigners talk about their issues and you’ll quickly find that they are quite similar to each other. In fact, I’ve learned that issues are the same for foreigners in Korea as they are for foreigners in places like China, SE Asia and Abu Dhabi. It’s challenging to live abroad. At the end of the day though, we do it. We stomach the negatives to keep searching for the new positives. I think this is what sets foreign teachers apart from any other professional I can think of.

We do what we do with no safety blanket. And this, my friends, is why we rock.


  1. Hi Tom. Thanks for sharing this! It really confirms a lot of thoughts I have had during my time here. I have been here in Korea for nearly 7 months and I am finally getting the hang of my life here. At first it was a constant maze of figuring out what I should be doing and then I decided to just relax and be myself and take things as they come. Three cheers for foreign teachers! It’s a rough ride sometimes but well-worth it.

    PS. I watched a few of your youtube videos before coming to Korea. I like how realistic you are! Thanks again for sharing.

    • Hi there. Thank you for being frank and honest. Teaching overseas is rewarding, IMO, because of the challenges. You said it best that just relaxing and being yourself is best. I fall victim to being too tense sometimes.

  2. Hi I’m a freshmen in an american university and I was wondering about working for an international school in the future. In your opinions what do you think would be the best subject to specialize in as a teacher? I’m currently thinking about pursuing EFL (English as a Foreign Language) but I’m seeing that many international schools are taught all in English or only accept English speaking students. What are the job outlooks for that subject area?

    • Hi. For Korea, you need to be a citizen of 1 of the 7 native English speaking countries. If that’s the case, then your major is not important in most situations. As you look for more specialized jobs or at big, reputable schools, you’ll find that a major in English will go a long way. I wouldn’t base you major choice on a desire to teach abroad. Study what you want because when the time comes, you might not even end up teaching overseas.


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