Living and Teaching Internationally: Teachers Talk about Personal Experiences, Benefits, and Challenges

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Original Article Authors: Nelly Sierra Ospina, Sergio Lopera Medina
Article summary:
Dr Stephen Whitehead

One of the themes which is starting to emerge in EDDi is the future of globalisation.

It’s popping up with increasingly frequency.

We wish it were different. We at EDDi are great fans of globalisation. Which given we are international educationalists you’d expect us to be.

Amidst the unremitting gloom of Covid-19 it is worth reminding ourselves as to the benefits of ‘living and teaching internationally’ and this article does precisely that.

Published in 2020 and based on research done pre-covid, the study reports on the experiences of 22 teachers from Argentina, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Romania, Australia, and Jamaica, all of whom were part of a teacher exchange programme in the U.S.A.

‘The study was designed to investigate the personal experiences of a group of visiting faculty teaching in public schools in the United States, the benefits that stemmed from their intercultural experiences, and the challenges they faced in the transition from their own cultures to the new setting.’ (p. 2)

The key research questions were:

1. What are the personal experiences faced by a group of visiting faculty while living and teaching in the United States?

2. What are the benefits and challenges that stem from intercultural experiences in the United States?

Intercultural Communicative Competence

In this edition of EDDi we focus heavily on the concept of ‘global citizenship’ and this article by Sierra and Lopera provides us with a very clear insight into the key competence behind this easily misunderstood term.

‘Intercultural competence is a very important skill in our contemporary world. Byram (1997) pointed out that a person needs to develop certain attitudes, knowledge, and skills to be interculturally competent. Interculturally competent professionals are curious about the produces and practices of relevant social groups. They refrain from being judgemental and avoid interpreting and relating issues from the target language to their own. As a result, they are able to raise their own cultural awareness.’ (p. 3)

For me this raises an important question, especially relevant in the midst of a pandemic:

Can individuals become interculturally competent by staying at home?

I suspect not.

I recall a friend of mine who left Taiwan at the age of 25 to do an MA in the USA. It was her first trip beyond the isle of Taiwan. What did she know of the USA? Only what she’d picked up from watching TV — mostly Hollywood films and US television series. Not surprisingly, the American reality came as something of a shock to her. Though she did overcome it and stayed for decade. As you’d expect, the experience changed her.

Again, this merely stresses one of the great values of globalisation — the opportunity to discover not just more about others, but in the process more about our selves.

‘…intercultural experiences deepen teachers’ understanding fo the meaning of culturally sensitive pedagogy as well as increasing awareness of their own identities. Gu (2005) also notes that teacher’s identities are shaped by the varied practices and sociocultural values and principles of the foreign settings where they live and work. The growth that comes from living and teaching abroad is holistic as cognitive, personal, social and cultural domains are involved.’ (p. 2).

On a more practical (educational) note, research by De Villar and Jiang (2012) listed the advantages for teachers when they obtain international experience:

  • They learn how to teach independently and develop their own styles.
  • They develop a practical sense of creativity and appreciation for instructional material.
  • They are aware of cultural differences and willing to try new ways of teaching in their contexts.
  • They have classroom management challenges in their own settings.

Given that teachers are now increasingly expected to be interculturally competent, and there are significant advantages in getting international teaching experience, achieving such is going to be something of a challenge if most of the world is in and out of lockdown.

The Methodology

The research operated as a case study informed by a mix of qualitative methods: questionnaire, a written narrative, and a semi-structure interview of each participant.

The Findings

The findings were categorised as follows:

1. Intercultural Matters

Benefits: Greater cross-cultural awareness; developing respect for diverse cultures; ability to understand other peoples and their cultures; learning tolerance and cultural sensitivity; enhanced respect for difference; broadening one’s mental and cultural horizons.

Challenges: Adjusting to different social norms; problems interacting with those with very different views and values; accepting different social rules and priorities; language barriers; getting lost in translation; recognising non-verbal language cues; English language accent differences (e.g. between Australians and Americans);

2. Professional Matters

Benefits: Professional development opportunities; greater experience and knowledge of alternative ways of teaching; improved teaching techniques; reflective teaching; confidence building; self-learning as a professional.

Challenges: Different styles of classroom management; problems addressing some students behaviour in classes; parent-staff communication; lack of support from school administrators; ineffective mentoring; unrealised expectations of school systems.

3. Personal Matters

Benefits: Development of English language proficiency; better communication skills; independence; broadening one’s outlook and mind; learning to be self-sufficient; becoming a stronger person in character.

Challenges: Being away from family; missing friends; loosening of family ties; settling down in new country; coping with different living conditions; managing local systems especially banking, housing; complications of having to find suitable accommodation; not knowing anyone in a new city.


No big surprises in these findings.

Indeed, Denry Machin and myself cover them all in our book ‘International Schooling: The Teacher’s Guide’.

The one aspect the study doesn’t refer to and which Denry and I discuss at length in our book is culture shock (and reverse culture shock). All of these challenges combine to create for many novice expats a veritable tsunami of emotional and practical problems and dilemmas, all of which have to be met in a strange country and with minimum local support.

It will be a challenge for the most resilient teacher.

And maybe that is the key quality which any teacher looking to work abroad requires: resilience.

Because nothing can prepare you for what lies ahead once you step off that plane, go through customs, and head towards your accommodation in a new, unfamiliar city and culture. It is an adventure and if you don’t treat it as such then it will more likely turn into a disaster. Everyone hits culture shock but not everyone overcomes it and emerges out the other side stronger, more confident, and more independent.

Plus a little wiser.

This is why we regret the curbing of the globalisation wave — the lost opportunities.

Hopefully we’ll get back on track very soon and, as before, we’ll have teachers working around the world and embracing all the rich diversity and opportunities which living and teaching internationally can offer.

Article summary by Dr Stephen Whitehead


Ospina NS, Medina SL. Living and Teaching Internationally: Teachers Talk about Personal Experiences, Benefits, and Challenges. Journal of Research in International Education. 2020;19(1):38–53.



International Schooling: The Teacher’s Guide is currently only £6.79 in ebook form on Amazon. We don’t know why, or for how long, so grab your copy while it’s going cheap!



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