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5 Most Challenging Problems I Faced Teaching English

By Basha - Posted on 04 August 2011

Teaching English overseas is an incredible and rewarding experience, an experience that also comes with challenges along with the rewards.

Photo of English Students in Seoul, South Korea
Photo of English Students, Seoul South Korea © knittymarie

With the challenges foreigners may face when teaching English in a foreign country, the most important thing to remember is that you are not in your home country and things will work and run differently. Being able to roll with how things are done in your host country will make your working life a lot smoother, easier and allow you to enjoy the many rewards it brings. Remember - you are a guest in your host country and must learn to work with their system on running things, not the other way around.

Over the course of seven months, I taught at two English camps in Korea. Here are the 5 most challenging problems I faced teaching English abroad.

1. Discipline

Every culture has a different standard of discipline and consequences for bad behavior. One of the challenges I faced teaching at English camps in Korea was how light the consequences of bad behavior was and how little follow through with the consequences there was. I found that though I could not control what disciplinary actions were or were not taken outside my classroom, in my classroom I could. Making it clear to my students right from the start what the rules of the classroom were and what the consequences for bad behavior were AND consistently following through with punishment as well as rewards, made the students' behavior in my classroom much better than it was outside of it.

2. Communication

The way that Koreans communicate and the way that Americans communicate is very different. As an American, it was very frustrating to be the last to know about something - change in schedule, course work, class time. I learned quickly that the best way to deal with the communication challenge was to accept it. I was not going to change the culture and so just rolling with the last minute changes, the confusion, made my teaching life much easier and allowed me to focus on my students and the rewarding feelings I had from teaching and spending time with them. It's not the end of the world to have to rearrange your class planning or find out two minutes before that there has been a change in plans. Just accept that this is the way things work here and go on with your day.

3. Language

The students were not supposed to speak Korean in English class and there was supposed to be a Korean teacher in the classroom to help with any needed translations and with the kids. This was not the way it worked out in one of the camps I taught at. The Korean teachers were often called out of class for meetings with the director and meetings with each other. This led my students to speak a lot of Korean in class which meant I didn't know what they were talking about, which meant it was, at times, difficult to keep the students in line that needed close watching.

It was challenging with 14 students in my class to teach, keep them engaged and to stay on top of those students who liked to speak Korean to each other during class. I found the best way to cut down on this was to be very clear, right from the start, that any student caught speaking Korean to another student would be moved to the other side of the classroom. If any student didn't understand what I was teaching and needed someone to clarify in Korean, they were to let me know and I would ask a student I trusted and knew to understand to explain it.

4. Teaching Styles

Teaching children of another culture created some challenges for me. As much research as I did beforehand on the way Korean students are taught and the psyche of Korean students, being in front of a class and being mindful of what they are used to was difficult. For example, students in Korea are taught to be very good memorizers. They pick up vocabulary very quickly in classroom games, activities and practice. But when it comes to truly knowing and holding on to what they've memorized, it's a different story. They ended up testing poorly on what they seemed to know so well in class. I learned it was important to create several kinds of classroom activities for the same vocabulary to ensure that the new words were really sinking in. Like most kids, Korean students love playing classroom games and finding fun and practical application games for vocabulary, grammar and verb tenses really made a difference in their retention.

5. Teaching Tools

In my situation teaching at the English camps, besides the textbook, teaching tools were not readily available. This made it challenging to make learning fun for the kids. I had to become very creative in making up games, teaching aids and classroom activities. I found a lot of resources from this site's database of English Games and also had the kids help create and make games like crosswords, memory and word searches.

Community support is a great way to face challenges while teaching English overseas! We would love to hear any about challenges you've faced teaching English in another country. How did you face these challenges and how did you respond to them?

Anonymous's picture

Great article :) I never tire of hearing stories from my TEFL friends, and I never stop thanking God I can stay tucked up in bed while they deal with the endless challenges of teaching :P

aurora travel's picture

I like your said "you are not in your home country and things will work and run differently". It's true. we can't thinking everything as the same as home because we're staying in other country wher we understand a little about them, cultures and other things.

Basha's picture

Thank you! It can be very challenging but the rewards are always greater :)

Basha's picture

Thank you for your comment. Being respectful of the way things run in a host country is one of the most important things to remember when traveling, isn't it? Only when we do this can we fully appreciate the cultural riches a host country has to offer.

Charles Jannuzi's picture

One possibility, though, is people not really acting the same for either their individual norm or cultural norm once they are in a cross-cultural setting and a foreign language is being studied. This makes cross-cultural issues and our interpretation of them all the more problematic.

melwin's picture

The above article gives a brief description about the teaching problem faced while teaching english.This article is indeed quite informative.I personally liked this post as I am too a teacher.

Anonymous's picture

I have to constantly maintain awareness that I am not in the USA while teaching in Egypt. The culture is vastly different and I sometimes tend to judge according to my value system. I have also discovered that rolling with the punches is a basic way of reducing stress levels however sometimes certain cultural practices are in severe conflict with my personal values. I do not always promote the idea of when in Rome do as the Romans do. For instance, many students and professors here in Egypt, tend to participate in plagiarism without any moral awareness of the act. It is not a big deal for a student or professor to include works of others as their own. There are a lot of "cutting and pasting" of other people's work without any feeling of remorse. One student presented me with a poem that he claimed he wrote "for me". I inadvertently googled the first line of the poem and discovered the full version written by someone else. I was painfully distraught. I had no choice but to bring it to his attention and gave him written evidence of the consequences of plagiarism. He was not shaken but somewhat ashamed that he had to be scolded for something he regarded as minor. This sickens me because he is asking me to mentor him for a possible shot at Harvard University. I sent him the weblink to Harvard's policy on plagiarism. Cultural customs are the biggest trump to what could be a potentially memorable experience while teaching abroad. I believe there are universal rules that should be respected regardless from what culture one originates. Stealing other people's work and ideas is a crime that overrides all cultural barriers. Showing basic courtesy to others is a universal act regardless of culture. Respecting the culture of others when it involves their time should be a universal practice no doubt.