The first year of teaching is never easy. Being a first time expat is also never easy. Put them both together and you have a recipe for panic.
When I look back on my first year, both as a teacher and as an American living in Turkey, I am inclined to both shudder and laugh maniacally at how chaotic it really was. I don’t even have the words to describe it properly. Let’s just say the highs were high and the lows were low.
I know that no two people truly have the same journeys, but in the event that this advice reaches someone in the thick of it, wondering if they’ve just made the worst mistake of their life, it will have been worth the time spent writing it if it helps.
Expect to feel lost and overwhelmed
Sometimes just hearing someone else say they were lost and overwhelmed in the beginning is enough to make you feel better because you realize that you are not crazy and that you are not alone. Everything will seem a little batshit in the beginning because it’s all new. Often, schools abroad are less structured than what you might be used to in the U.S. or similar countries. You may have no curriculum. Things might change every ten seconds and then change again. Rules and policies may not seem logical to you. Accept that this is normal and that you are going to have to learn to deal with it. Some of the changes will forever drive you nuts and some you may come to embrace. That’s part of the frustration and beauty of choosing to step out of the comfortable bubble of your own culture.
Let go of the non-essential
The first year is always a trial by fire. Give up anything that feels like too much or adds nothing to your life, even if it’s only temporary. I remember feeling a tremendous amount of pressure because I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t planning fast enough, or grading fast enough, or reading enough, or keeping in touch with people back home enough, or learning Turkish fast enough…so many things were piling up. Just stop. If it’s stressing you out, it’s not worth wasting the energy on…at least not at that moment. Let some things go and take things one day at a time until you get used to all of the changes.
Take care of yourself
On the other hand, don’t just let yourself go. The first few months, I made the mistake of spending all my time working because I wanted everything to be perfect. In doing so, I completely neglected myself. I stopped cooking, I stopped exercising, I stopped pursuing hobbies…all in the name of work that never ended. While it’s a good thing to be a dedicated teacher and to take the time to improve wherever you can, that is not the only thing that you are and it’s a good way to burn yourself out very fast. Don’t forget that the work will never be over. There will always be something else you could have done better. Let it go. You need and deserve to spend some time just being yourself.
Find a support system
I can’t emphasize this one enough. If not for the friends that started the same year I did, I probably wouldn’t have survived last year. The best case scenario is working for a school that has some kind of mentor system, or at least having a few experienced teachers at your disposal. Unfortunately, our situation didn’t quite work out like that, but our fellow newbies ended up being our second family, and together, we made it through. Ask for help, exchange ideas, and have fun doing it. It makes such a difference having friends and/or colleagues who can understand what you’re dealing with and can make the bad times seem not so bad.
Go out and explore
What’s the point of moving across the world if you’re not going to enjoy it? Have adventures and live it up. If you’re going to work hard, you might as well play hard too.
Get to know the culture
And this goes for both the school and the country it’s in. Learning all of the nuances and “unspoken rules” of a new place can be tricky, but it’s essential. Figure out what’s really expected of you. Study the language. Understand what is and isn’t offensive. Make friends. Try new things. Engage with locals. You’ll never feel at home if you don’t.
Remember why you’re doing it
At the end of the day, it’s really about the students because they are the reason that teachers stay teachers. I truly love my students and I love teaching and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Keep that love going, even when you are ready to pull out all of your hair and throw in the towel. Too often the little bureaucratic details of a school can stand in the way of the stuff that really matters.
Sometimes it’s not about the place; it’s just about the day
This is some of the best advice I’ve ever received on being an expat, so I’m passing it on. If it’s a bad day, just let it be what it is. If you need to lay on the floor for a couple days crying and eating ice cream straight from the carton, so be it. There will be bad days, but there will be good days also. Remember that we all have bad days, regardless of where we live or what we do for a living. Get yourself through the bad days however you must and rejoice in the good ones.
Know that it gets better
With time and experience, most things work themselves out eventually. I can’t say when exactly, but after a little while, you will experience a moment that feels like breathing for the first time after an extended period of being underwater. All of the sudden, things that used to get under your skin will go by unnoticed. Things that were once so foreign will seem familiar. You will feel more and more like yourself. It takes time, but it does happen. Just be patient.