A Passport to Innovation: Teaching Abroad


According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, study abroad is a high-impact practice that can be “life-changing.” Teaching abroad can also be life-changing. As a faculty member, leading a study abroad class almost always requires shifting your pedagogical style to fit on-site resources, but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience in professional development.

As with any new course prep, planning is vital. This list aims to help you in the adjustment process.

  • Location, Location, Location. Because you’ll need to design class materials and assignments based on the area, do some research about the city and its relevant sites for your class. The syllabus shouldn’t look like it could be taught on your home campus.

    Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy
    My class met all over Florence, including in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza Signoria, where we discussed our class topics in relation to the statues in the loggia.
  • Happy Campers. Be prepared to serve in your usual identity as faculty member but also in a Student Life role. This adjustment includes being there for the students in ways you might not have performed before:
    • Giving directions in a place you’re learning along with them;
    • Serving as a late-night sounding board about roommate problems;
    • Soothing and distracting the students from homesickness;
    • Reminding them that while other countries may have lower drinking ages, locals do not view drunkenness favorably;
    • Perhaps most importantly, accompanying students on the site school’s cultural and extracurricular activities.

You don’t need to spend 24/7 with them, but your students should know you are there for them, which definitely means arriving in the country earlier and leaving later than the students.

  • Your Host with the Most…Information. Get to know your host school’s faculty and staff. Regularly stop in at the main office of the school/department to say “Good morning” to the staff in their language, send your syllabus to the academic leader(s), hang out in the faculty lounge, and invite faculty peers out for coffee. In a short time, you’ll develop friendships with folks around the world, and you will be more likely to receive an invitation to return.

    Antonio Vanni from the Accademia Europea di Firenze
    Antonio Vanni, the Academic Director at the Accademia Europea di Firenze, was always willing to answer my many questions and to visit my class. His class tours of the city and museums were priceless. To Antonio’s right is Tyler Brooks, the student intern at the AEF, who was always available to the students.
  • Creature Comforts. Adjust your expectations of American air conditioning, transportation, fast internet, convenient laundry facilities, and other daily luxuries. When the professor complains about the loss of daily American privileges such as the amount of walking or the lack of clothes dryers, it gives the students license to do the same and to pay more attention to problems than to the overall positive experience.
  • Stay Calm and Teach. Teaching Abroad is not a vacation. It’s work. Bringing family members along can be fun, but be sure to let them know that you are teaching what is probably a new prep in a highly concentrated term and may not be able to accompany them on sight-seeing adventures. Alternatively, you could add a week before or after the class term for a family vacation, but don’t expect your university to foot the bill.
  • I am Medusa
    Showing my enthusiasm during our month in Florence was never an issue for me, even when this live statue was simulating my decapitation, a la Cellini.

    Don’t Curb Your Enthusiasm. Chances are that you are excited to teach abroad and in the location of your choice, far away from your campus community. If you’re happy about being across the world with a group of students who probably haven’t been there before, show it! Your enthusiasm is contagious, wherever you are.

Florence 2016 David
My class met in the Galleria Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. The real thing is beyond superior to any imitations, and the detail is impossible to convey in a textbook or slide show.

Teaching Abroad can be one of the most fulfilling experiences of your teaching career, and you’ll surely be more innovative in your teaching style as you adapt to the resources available to you at the site. Plus, you can be certain that you will lead your students toward a life-changing experience.

Day, Lisa, and Jennifer White. “A Passport to Innovation: Teaching Abroad.” It Works for Me with High-Impact Practices, edited by Charlie Sweet, Hal Blythe, and Russell Carpenter, New Forums Press, 2018, pp. 93-95. https://newforums.com/our-titles/better-teaching-learning/classroom-techniques/it-works-for-me-with-high-impact-practices/


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