Hundreds of thousands of native English speakers currently teach English overseas with tens of thousands more doing so every year. With so many people living and working abroad, however, how do they all ensure they stay safe while teaching English overseas? Not surprisingly, most find they are just as safe or safer than in their home countries, particularly if they follow a few guidelines and tips.
I’m a former English teacher who has lived in Thailand for more than a decade. During that time, I am happy to say, I have never had any safety issues nor any financial ones as I also follow some basic safety guidelines. Here are the ones I adhere to:
Plan ahead – Before you leave for your new country, spend time researching the city or town you will be living in. Find out which neighborhoods you probably shouldn’t live in, learn from other teachers by visiting online teacher forums in that particular country, and be sure you understand appropriate dress codes so you can take the right clothing with you — particularly if you will be teaching in the Middle East or in a conservative African country.
Take care of your passport – One of the most important things you will have with you is your passport. Iif it’s lost or stolen, you could find yourself without it and without any way to travel out of the country for at least two to three weeks while your embassy issues you a new one. That’s why, when you are out and about, leave your passport at home or in your hotel’s safe, and just take a photocopy with you. Most countries allow you to carry a passport photocopy with the understanding you’ll be able to produce the real one within a few hours should any problems arise.
Don’t carry huge sums of money – One of the most basic things about teaching overseas is to be careful with money, especially as you’re not likely to be making huge amounts of it. Open a bank account as soon as you arrive in country and are legally able to do so, and don’t carry enormous wads of cash with you everywhere you go.
In Thailand, I never carry more than 2,000 baht (approximately $60) with me and only take one debit card at a time (I don’t use credit cards). That way, if I lose my wallet or it is stolen, most of my money is still safely in my bank account and I still have other debit cards to use for emergencies. Also, although this should be obvious, never carry PIN numbers on your person or in your wallet.
Be aware of what’s going on around you – I’m amazed by the number of foreigners I meet in Thailand who seem unaware of what’s going on around them. Be aware when you walk down the street of what’s coming near you either on the road or on the sidewalk. In some cities, grabbing purses from a passing motorbike is something that happens but, if you’re aware that motorbike is coming and you are holding your bag tightly against your body, you have far less chance of being a victim as they drive by.
Be aware of people standing too close to you or doing things that don’t fit into the culture. I was recently at a local Thai market and had a Thai woman suddenly appear at my side and stand too close. Thais tend to adhere to personal space so, when she started pressing into my side, I knew something wasn’t quite right. I instantly pulled back just in time to see the pocket knife she was holding moving towards the side of my purse. If I hadn’t, chances are her hand would have been in my purse and she off with my wallet before I even had time to notice.
Walk with a purpose – One thing I learned when I was only 18 and have never forgotten was you are far less likely to be a victim of have safety issues if you look like you know where you’re going and nobody is going to stop you getting there.
Even if you’re lost, wait until you get into a cafe or a bathroom stall before you whip out the map. Standing on a street corner looking clueless is just about the easiest way to be robbed or taken advantage of – in any country, including your own.
Don’t get drunk – I’ve lost count of the number of western women, some teachers some not, I’ve met both in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia who drink to excess in public and are falling down drunk by the time they leave. You are in a foreign country and around people whose cultural norms are different than yours. Getting drunk and either offending someone’s morals or being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous person are two of the least things that could happen to you. Dead in a ditch is also an alternative.
Sure, we all enjoy a beer or two and particularly when you’re overseas and out for a night out with fellow teachers or friends. Keep your drinking to just one or two drinks, and those should be drunk with food, and you’ll likely never have a problem. Save your serious drinking for when you’re back in your apartment alone or with trusted friends.
Don’t upset the locals – Learn about cultural norms in the country you will be teaching in and don’t do anything that offends them. That includes wearing too-revealing clothing, drinking to excess, picking fights with the locals, criticizing their religion and any other number of other offensive things.
I know I couple of teachers in Thailand who have been beaten up in bars by a group of Thai men (Thais often fight in groups, something every smart westerner learns before picking a fight). When the truth came out, the western teacher was the one who was drunk in both cases and being belligerent to one of the customers. The first punch was swung by the westerner, the fight was finished by the Thais. Don’t upset the locals and, if you end up in a bad situation, walk away.
Don’t avoid the locals – I know people teaching in Thailand who have no Thai friends whatsoever, which seems a little odd to me. While fellow western teachers can be excellent resources when it comes to learning about your new culture and, yes, staying safe in it, the locals can be even more so.
In Thailand, because I have mainly Thai friends, I’ve been warned about a military coup hours before it actually happened (many Thais knew what was coming while most foreigners were clueless and caught unawares), been told to avoid certain stores as they “rip off non-Thais” (in the words of my closest Thai friend), and even been recommended to not book at certain hotels around the country as my friends felt their security may not be as good as other places.
Make friends with the locals as soon as you get there, and not only will you likely stay safe for your entire time in the country (most people love to show off their country and make visitors feel safe and welcome), you will go back home after finishing your teaching stint with some of the most cherished memories.