Teaching abroad: challenges and advice for teaching at a university in a foreign country

Teaching abroad: challenges and advice for teaching at a university in a foreign country

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Each year, thousands of university teachers leave their native environments to go and teach and/or conduct academic research in a foreign country. Indeed, in this increasingly globalized world populated by a highly networked mobile workforce, there are seemingly unending possibilities, incentives and occasions to teach in a higher education institution in a foreign country. Gaining such experience is encouraged to the point where it is now even expected on your CV. Personally speaking, having taught on 3 continents, I can attest to the value of gaining such international experience. Even as a student in higher education, I fondly recall that my most interesting, passionate and captivating teachers were those who had benefited from a similarly international experience.

The advantages of working abroad include learning new languages, experiencing novel professional environments and broadening your cultural and intellectual perspectives. Adjacent to these clear benefits are of course several challenges and obstacles that must be negotiated if the would be ‘global teacher’ is to appreciate and maximise their teaching experience fully. A quick Google scan reveals that for every positive experience there is seemingly a negative or challenging one. However, in this age of freedom of information in which research is rendered so effortlessly, there is no excuse for not being prepared when it comes to teaching abroad.

There are a plethora of blogs and forums in which to discuss and discover personal testimonies of teachers who have taught abroad. These include details about specific institutions, cities and country profiles. Do not hesitate to contact people who are already there now to know what you are getting yourself into, and avoid being in a position where you find yourself lamenting “I wish someone would have given me some honest feedback about it before going”.

Importantly, the greatest challenges in teaching in a foreign country often include everything that happens outside of the lecture theatre. Each country has its own bureaucratic systems (most of which have a seemingly frustrating character). So whether it is opening a bank account or filling out a medical form, there are many pitfalls that can be avoided by simply doing the research beforehand. Principally among these are work and accommodation contracts. Read carefully any documents you are given to sign as many teachers have been duped by fake organisations and dubious contracts. With some common sense and intelligent research such unfortunate situations can be avoided.

It is also important to bear in mind that even in your native country, each university has its own specific character and teaching philosophy, so make sure that you are aware of these once you start teaching abroad. For instance, whilst in Australia it would have been entirely acceptable for me to give a lecture in front of 500 people whilst wearing flip-flops, that same attire would have been seriously frowned upon in South Africa. So make sure that you are aware of, and are meeting the regulations - both formal and informal - of your new institution. You can check an earlier INOMICS article, which is helpful in this regard, as albeit from a student perspective, it provides some general guidance.

Whatever and wherever you want to teach, you will find a wealth of information online.  Do not be afraid, there is no such thing as “being overly prepared”. Make sure that you are crystal clear where you want to go, how you will get there, what you want to do, and how and who is going to pay you. Teaching remains one of the rare professions where you can work your way around the world whilst developing professionally and personally, all the while living in new and exciting locations.


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