So You Want to Teach Abroad

It’s recruitment season again for international schools. The International Schools Review is getting a lot fresh updates as teachers post usually negative and sometimes positive reviews about their schools and academic directors. It is a very useful site, but one must read between the lines, verify through other sources, and essentially not make a life-changing decision solely on the rants and raves of anonymous posters.

We have overall positive experiences at all the schools we’ve been with in Thailand, Pakistan, and now Nigeria — and they, too have had their share of bad reviews. But the people who wrote these too often focused on the negative. My husband and I have nothing but respect for our superintendents. While negative reviews generally have valid points about bringing the attention of potential recruits to the bumps ahead, referring to administrators as “egotistical bullies” or “morons” turn off people. Why would you want to listen to someone who obviously has an axe to grind? So here’s my own take about teaching in international schools.

First of all, try to get a job with accredited schools with low turnover rate. Next, know the expectations for the position you’re applying for, and what they’re offering you. But be flexible and be aware that sometimes things change between the time you were recruited (usually in February-March) and when you arrive for orientation in August. Maybe your own expectations were different, or there was a miscommunication. Sometimes it is because another teacher broke contract or is unable to fulfill it. Due to lower student population — usually in the middle school and high school — many international schools ask teachers to handle classes outside their regular areas. We’ve had Chemistry, Biology, and Art teachers doing yearbook, for example. Or a Math teacher also teaching Health. As an elective teacher I once taught Yearbook, Business, Accounting, and Computers in one school year. At my current school I was initially asked to co-teach Art, but we were able to split the class to alternate as half-Art and half Digital Art. At one school we were at those who did not have full teaching loads were expected to sub when needed.

I won’t go into detail about how you need to verify and clarify your compensation package, processing of visa and work permits, the working hours, curriculum, teaching resources, etc. because these have been explained in various websites and recruitment fair kits. Make no mistake they are very important. You don’t want to be an “illegal alien” teaching with a tourist visa. This happened to some of my friends who only found out when they arrived at countries where red tape meant it will be months before their work permits got through. Don’t assume anything, ask about medical insurance, tax deductions, or stipends, or travel allowances.

Having said that, once you’ve made your bed the best way of dealing with your new life is to fall in love with your job and/or host country. Don’t let it be “just for the money” or to have a long holiday abroad interrupted by the need to work. Poor job satisfaction is an insidious potion.

The “worse” the place you live in is, the more crucial it becomes to have job satisfaction — after all this is where you spend most of your time. It is fine in places like Thailand, because at the end of the day you can forget about work and go to malls, movies, concerts, restaurants, and clubs … or hop on a bus, train, boat, and plane to other cities and resorts on weekends. Heck, for a song you can fly to Bali, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur during week-long breaks, But in places with tight security like Islamabad or dreadful traffic like Lagos, you’ll find that you’ll be spending more time alone with nowhere to go. Traveling to other countries from Pakistan and Nigeria happen to be expensive. When people feel trapped and deprived of options to get away from the daily grind, they start resenting their job and harp on both small and big annoyances. It only gets worse when there’s pressure to attend so many meetings, please parents, favoritism among faculty members, and when education practices clash with business decisions.

I wouldn’t say hiding in your classroom and “avoiding the politics” like the ostrich hides its head in the sand is the best way to serve the initial two-year contract. Oh my, I only see wasted opportunities. Instead be willing to assume or volunteer for extra-curricular duties such as coaching, chaperoning, or advising a student club and activity. You get to know the students better interacting with them in a non-academic setting, and it strengthens your relationship with them, perhaps even with their parents. Our best memories from our previous and current employment were when I was involved with the Student Council, and my husband coached basketball, gave piano lessons in our home, and handled choir as an after-school activity even when we come home tired after a long day. It is also a great experience to chaperone school trips, for these usually involve international travel.

When you can accept invitations from parents and locals to dinner parties and weekend excursions. My personal favorite was when a co-worker got us in her husband’s Navy boat to experience Thailand’s Songkran festival cruising down Chao Phraya river. Weddings are particularly fun, and traditional ceremonies are even better.

To have a richer social life be a leader or take the initiative in activities that you enjoy. When we lived with other teachers in the same compound far from Bangkok there were teachers that hosted movie nights and music nights weekly. On special occasions we had “apartment-hopping” parties where we start with cocktails in one place, move to another for dinner, and another for dessert. I offered our place for tai chi lessons on weekends in Islamabad. Fellow teachers gave lessons in yoga and pilates, weight training and water polo.  Other colleagues hosted poker nights. Here in Lagos we also rotate the hosting of monthly book club meetings for ladies and poker nights for guys in the compound. Some teachers organize group lessons in water yoga, salsa, and card making.

Living overseas and teaching in international schools also provide opportunities not commonly available to teachers. This includes invitations to diplomatic functions. Membership in expat clubs and communities also allow us to experience local culture in special ways, from bazaars and handicraft fairs to music and dance performances. In Bangkok we never missed the annual international dance and music festivals where we got to see the Vienna Boys Choir, Chinese opera, and Russian ballet, to name a few.

Sometimes we get remarkable deals and VIP treatment for tickets, tours, and special events. In Islamabad the Asian Study Group organized lessons and activities in photography, cooking, gardening, tours to historical sites, and performances by local artists. You can also contribute your time and talents to charity organizations. My friends ran in marathons, helped organize or participated in community outreach programs and relief operations. In Thailand, Pakistan, and Nigeria teachers — sometimes on their own, other times with students — visited hospices and orphanages, donated materials to poor local schools, and taught English in exchange for food and lodging during summer.

If you are able to experience these things those two years will go very quickly. Things rarely go the way we want in most developing countries, from slow or no Internet, inadequate teaching facilities and materials, power interruptions, expensive and/or inferior products and services, poor sanitation, and so on. More stress, right? But one of my colleagues call these “hiccups” because she was busy having a great time.

And don’t forget there are many things you can do alone. Bring your MP3 player, buy a Kindle or any e-book reader, install Skype so you can chat with family and friends back home, and just do whatever relaxes you. I have friends who paint, knit, go for hikes and walks, or take language lessons.  Some bring or acquire pets. One friend even bought a horse. My own hobbies are photography, digital scrapbooking, trying out recipes, and beading.


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