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Six Keys to Self-Care for English Teachers Abroad

ITA alumna, Judi Mae, discusses the fundamentals of self-care while teaching English abroad in terms of psychological, emotional, spiritual, personal, professional, and physical areas of life.

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My New Year’s resolutions for 2018 were to quit my job in New York City, complete ITA’s online TEFL certification course, and move to Japan. By January 2019, I had realized this dream and was based in the town of Fukuoka, in Southern Japan.

Many of you may be on this very boat. Living abroad as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher can be very rewarding, I did it for three years and even spent my last year in Tokyo. While I didn’t have the opportunity to travel in Asia as much as I’d wanted (due to COVID), I definitely experienced a lot of Japan.

ITA helped me to ace the interview and review my first contract, which is something I recommend for every teacher starting out. My other advice to fellow educators is this: Treat yo’self. By that I mean be aware and make consistent efforts with your self-care.

Is teaching English abroad stressful?

Teaching English abroad is probably one of the most life-changing experiences you will undertake. It can be scary at times because it involves moving to a foreign country, starting a new job, making new friends or learning a foreign language. Prioritize self-care to help you navigate these challenges.

In the past, self-care has often been associated with spa visits, or perhaps a steak dinner. But a person’s wellness is an ongoing process, not something you do on your birthday or with a monthly paycheck.

One way to look at your overall wellbeing is the Self-care Wheel. As work got busier during my last year of teaching, I found that framework helpful in navigating work-life balance. Aspects of the wheel include psychological, emotional, spiritual, personal, professional, and physical areas. Though you may also want to consider other components of your life, such as financial wellbeing or satisfaction with dating/relationships. The key here is to recognize that your wellbeing is multi-faceted, and you can invest in the areas that matter most to you.

Here are six areas of self-care, illustrated with real-life examples, from my three-year journey teaching English in Japan. I use wellness and wellbeing interchangeably and cover personal wellbeing last.

Psychological Wellness

Keep a journal. I kept several in Japan. I even had dedicated journals, some that I drew sketches or wrote poetry in. Others where I simply talked about my day or my plans. Culture shock is common for people just moving abroad, so writing down your thoughts and observations is a productive way to respond to your new environment.

Do something creative. Drawing has been my hobby since I was very young. I would either bring a sketchbook or iPad to work every day so that I could sketch on my lunch break. Sometimes I only had five minutes to do a quick doodle, but this daily art practice kept me happy and helped me hold on to a sense of identity.

You can also incorporate creativity into your job. Once I started teaching children, handcrafts became a routine part of my work. Holidays and festivals are a great time to try crafting in your classroom, and there’s a lot that can be made cheaply using paper and crayons or colored pencils. In a Christmas lesson with preschoolers, we made Santa hats.

Emotional Wellness

“Read less news and listen to more love songs,” this was exactly the advice given to me by one of my mentors within my first few months in Japan. Too much media could put me in a state of worry, and adjusting to my new lifestyle was stressful enough as it was. Once I scaled back on my news consumption I noticed a significant improvement in my mood. Listening to music has similar positive effects, and love songs (assuming you’re not recovering from a recent breakup) can be powerfully soothing.

Remember to laugh. This can be as simple as seeing something funny on the train and laughing to yourself. Though pre-COVID, I also tried improv comedy, and I occasionally watched funny movies (English or Japanese) on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Get a pet. I was able to keep a pet goldfish, and I met other teachers who had hamsters or rabbits. A dog or cat is more difficult to keep in a Japanese apartment, and bringing your pet with you is especially difficult in the COVID era.

In any case, these are several ideas to help regulate your emotional dial and help put it in a positive setting.

Spiritual Wellness

Hike often. Now, getting to a hiking trail in Japan was tricky, as it required multiple transfers on public transportation. But with a little research, advanced planning, and assistance from Google Maps, it could be done. Better to make friends with a few locals, however, since some trails are better reached by car. Below is a photo from a very chilly hike in Gunma Prefecture, accessible by bullet train from Tokyo.

Self care while teaching English abroad in Japan

Practice yoga. A yoga mat from the dollar store, combined with your favorite instructor on YouTube, is a convenient way to practice yoga from the comfort of your own home. When I was able to practice with people, I did drop-in yoga lessons, which I found through Meetup. I could find lessons in either English or Japanese, for those more serious about their foreign language study.

Professional Wellbeing

Join a professional society. Though perhaps under-utilized because of schedule conflicts, I am a member of the TESOL International Association, formerly Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, and was an online participant of Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT). TESOL has an online community platform where you can pose questions to other teachers around the world, and they offer periodic webinars. You can claim membership dues as a business expense on your income taxes, so that’s something to keep in mind. JALT had various events throughout Japan, and they were held almost weekly. I was only able to attend one online event, due to my evening schedule at a private language school. Public schools have daytime hours, so that’s another thing to keep in mind regarding employment options.

Work hard, play hard. The ability to take time off from work is critical for employee productivity. Weekends or days off to sleep in, recharge, explore the local area or travel as your time and your allows, are fundamental to long-term job satisfaction. My favorite thing to do in my free time was going to the beach or visiting a museum. Luckily, Japan has plenty of both.

Physical Wellness

See the doctor (and the dentist!). Coming from America, I was floored at the cost of medical care. There were times I paid less than $10 for medicine or a doctor’s visit. English-speaking providers can be found, with a little bit of Googling or asking around. Make your physical health a priority and get your medical and dental check-ups at least once per year.

By now everyone knows the benefits of routine exercise. For me, this was built into my commute-time, since I lived one kilometer from my station when I lived in Tokyo. This is not typical, but I wanted a quiet neighborhood where the rent was cheaper, and I actually enjoyed the long walks to and from my station. I lived in the middle of farmland and I always found those daily walks to be calming and relaxing. I also had a bus I could take, in case of rain, but for the most part, I chose to walk to catch the train.

One of the best decisions I made was to join a SUP club (standup paddleboarding). It was the first time I was forced to learn and use the Japanese language. My conversational Japanese improved greatly. More importantly, it challenged me physically and mentally since I was able to compete in my first race, which was two kilometers at the novice level. Here I am with members of my SUP club, doing a Halloween picnic and paddle.

Teach English in Japan Mental Health
Credit: Taiyo Asobi Switch

Personal Wellbeing

Staying connected with friends and family back home certainly combats the loneliness and isolation you can experience. Yet being open to and fostering new friendships was unquestionably the best part of my experience living abroad.

I regularly dragged coworkers to go out drinking and successfully corralled housemates to make dinners together. These were things that are actually harder than they seem. I had to be persistent and constantly be the one to ask people to do things. Many times, though not the majority of the time, people were busy with other plans or commitments. Yet I treasure the friendships I built, and some of them I hope will last a lifetime.

I forget the origin, but there is a saying I once heard that if you want to find God, you should go to the desert. If you want to find yourself, you should go as far away from home as possible. I did this in Japan.

My proudest personal achievement while living abroad was teaching something other than English! As I alluded to earlier, art and creativity have long been a passion. I was able to host several weekly drawing sessions at MiKa/Studios in Fukuoka. Here is a photo from our figure drawing class, though we also did still lifes and some urban sketching.

Mental Health While Teaching English Abroad
Credit: Rachel Sharpton

I’m grateful for this opportunity, which may not have been possible without ITA’s support in the initial stages. I wish the best for you - may you find work that is fulfilling abroad, and may you create wellness and find happiness in your expat life.


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