Be an Expert Expat

Teacher Experience: Expert Expat

Although the time it takes to adjust to life in a new country varies from person to person, most international school teachers and other expatriates (“expats”) seem to adjust (for the most part) within about six months or so. After you have been in your new environment for several months, ask yourself the questions below. Any negative answers indicate areas that may still need work. Difficulties in just one of these areas can undermine the adjustment process and prevent you from getting the most out of your time teaching overseas.

A Quick Checkup: Have You Adjusted to Life Overseas?

  • Are you continuing to make progress in the local language (if applicable)? Can you communicate with local people in everyday situations?
  • Are you starting to be able to read the cultural signals of the local people that differ from yours and to understand what they mean in context?
  • When you are with local people, are you learning to adapt your behavior to their cultural expectations?
  • Do you have more positive than negative feelings about the local people and culture?
  • Do you get regular exercise, and have you found other ways to reduce the stress of living overseas?
  • Does your home feel like a comfortable oasis amidst the foreign environment?
  • Do you maintain regular contact with people back home—but maintain local social contacts as well?
  • Do you have a network of people you can turn to in an emergency or if you need support in other ways?
  • Have you made friends outside the narrow circle of colleagues and fellow teachers from your home country?
  • Do you regularly get out and do things in your free time rather than isolating yourself at home or school?
  • Do you feel that you know your way around and can find what you need?
  • Do you feel as if you have a reason to get up in the morning? Is your teaching job meaningful and satisfying?
  • Have you found enjoyable things to do in your free time, especially activities that were not possible back home?
  • Do you view your overseas teaching assignment as an opportunity for personal growth?

Don’t be surprised or dismayed if some time after the original adjustment period you find yourself losing ground in some of these areas again. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed! Researchers have found a pattern of two “down” periods (or slumps) among many expats and teachers, with the second one falling somewhere near the middle of the overseas experience.
It may be that the achievements of the original adjustment period were enough to reach a plateau of satisfaction for a year or so, but as the reality of a longer stay abroad sinks in, you may begin to expect more from yourself and your surroundings.

The good news is that once people make it through the second slump, they tend to become more comfortable than ever before. One British expat notes, “If I’d been offered a chance to go home after two months I would have taken it in an instant. One year on, a chance came up to go back to the UK, and for a few minutes it sounded great, but when I thought for a few moments, I felt like the adventure was just beginning and I wasn’t ready to give it up yet!

Consider testing yourself periodically with the questions above. The answers do change. Perhaps friends will have left the country; a teaching project may have become frustrating; you will have ceased to make progress with the language or culture; or maybe you will have just fallen into a routine and stopped looking for opportunities for adventure and personal growth. Periodic checkups can help you identify areas that need work in order to minimize the disruption of the second slump!
The above is excerpted and adapted from the book The Expert Expat. In a new and expanded second edition, The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, a sort of “what to expect when you’re going overseas”, by Melissa Hess and Patricia Linderman, continues to provide helpful advice to expats of all kinds, including U.S. diplomats and international school teachers. “The Expert Expat” will help you get the most out of your international teaching assignment.