An Introvert’s Guide to Teaching Abroad

It doesn’t make much sense. I love quiet, but I spend my weekdays surrounded by 20 or more kids. I’m encouraging them to be louder and to make more noise. I prefer to be alone, but I keep moving to bigger and more densely populated cities. My hobbies are generally solo affairs, but people keep coming into my life to share in these new pursuits. What’s going on here?

For those of us who focus inward, there are real benefits to living and working abroad. Three years ago, I took a teaching position in a public elementary school in Incheon, South Korea and propelled myself into a life I couldn’t have imagined. I’ve been letting go of old hang-ups and moving forward now for so long that it’s become a thing I do without thinking too hard about it. Here are my top tips for staying healthy as an introvert teaching overseas.

  1. You’re going to miss things

I miss my dog, Huxley. I choked back tears when I said goodbye to him for the third time in three years last August. I put my bags in the car and told him to be good and gave him a long hug before I set off for the airport. Leaving gets harder every time. This last time was certainly the worst. I miss my car and I miss the agency of driving. Not just driving, but the open road and the possibilities that lay ahead. There’s something very American about the road trip, and living on an island like I am now really exacerbates that.

Sure, you’ll miss your family and friends, but they’re always a Skype video call or a Facebook chat away. The things you’ll miss are more likely to carry some emotional connection – a special place, music, a pet, a habit you can no longer indulge. You can bring some of these things with you, but some things, you’re plain going to miss. And that doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. You’ll forge new connections and find new places and make new habits that will fill some of the voids. Your new life abroad won’t be a replacement for the one you’re leaving behind, but an expansion of your larger story.

  1. Learn the language

I’ll admit, in Taiwan, I’m failing at this one horribly. It’s almost too easy to get around Taipei without using any Chinese at all. A year-and-a-half in, and my Mandarin skills are still nearly non-existent. In Korea, learning a bit of Korean always proved incredibly useful and bordered on absolute necessity so I took full advantage of any learning opportunities that came up. I kept a small notebook with me in my bag to take down new vocabulary or made notes in my phone to review later. Even if it’s only the basics – size, colors, directions, the ability to read common characters, foods, numbers – you’ll be much more comfortable venturing out on your own once you’ve adopted some of your new home’s native language.

  1. Find a routine…

Your first few months will be challenging for all sorts of reasons. You’ll be adjusting not only to a new job, but an entirely new way of life. Eventually, you’ll find yourself settling into a comfortable routine. It might consist of going to work and staying home to read or watch TV on weekdays. It might mean getting your dinner from the noodle shop downstairs four days a week because they already know what you want and it’s the easy thing to do. A routine makes us feel relaxed and restored through structure and by limiting potential instances of anxiety and stress. Find a comfortable routine that meets your needs and embrace it.

  1. …then make a habit of ditching it.

But just for a little while. Your new routine is your fall-back position – for those times when you’re feeling drained and need to recharge. Don’t let it be your default. There’s too much to do and see and being stuck in that same routine has a strong potential to keep you away from those things. So get on out there!

  1. Pick up new hobbies

If this is your first go at teaching, you’ll probably start to feel like you’re doing a good job at around six months. If you’re a more seasoned teacher, three is more likely. Your initially lengthy prep times will reduce significantly and you’ll have much more time for yourself and your interests. Now is a great time to start something new. Sadly, my new hobby in Korea ended up being alcoholism. In Taipei, I’ve decided to be much more active. Now in my third year of teaching, I have a fully planned curriculum to lean on and a whole host of games and activities to fall back on for any unplanned or extra time. In the last year, I’ve joined a gym, hiked regularly, started rock climbing, bought a DSLR to explore photography, and launched a website.

Picking active hobbies has the added benefit of putting you around new faces with similar interests. You don’t have to make friends with all of them, or even like some of them, but it can be difficult meeting new people in unfamiliar places and GOING somewhere to DO something puts you in a good spot to make new acquaintances.

  1. Embrace your introversion

Introverts may have a leg-up in teaching internationally, particularly in the East where introversion is a much more prized trait. Your co-workers might be put off by the perceived “wildness” of the stereotypical western extrovert, but admire your quiet ability to work hard, complain minimally, and improve constantly. Your lessons are detailed and the concepts you deliver for your students are fully realized. Introverts make excellent teachers.

In your personal life, you will find yourself going through ups-and-downs frequently. Some days are harder than others, social and professional calendars wax and wane, and introverts are well equipped to weather these stormy seas. Introverts have a better grasp of their internal “world” and a stronger understanding of their own emotional needs and problems. Spend time listening to yourself and you’ll be healthier for it. In no time at all, you’ll be signing that next year-long contract or moving on to your next adventure!

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