I had always assumed I’d eventually make my way into working in education, ideally in Philadelphia. Both of my parents had been Philadelphia public school teachers and teaching was a career that allowed me to draw on my array of talents and put down deeper roots in my hometown. I fell into teaching internationally completely on accident. A year after wrapping up my time at Hamilton, I enrolled in a one-year Masters program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Then, just a few short months before my fellow cohort members and I earned our degrees and fulfilled the requirements for our teaching certifications, I received some really bad news: due to financial problems, Philly schools would be unable to hire new teachers for the following school year. During an emergency meeting on a Tuesday evening in February 2011, the director of my program pushed my classmates and I to “forget plans A and B, go directly to D, E, and F.”
“Oh, and there are some visitors from Kazakhstan who are interested in meeting teachers, if anyone is willing to stick around,” he added, though it wasn’t clear if anyone was in the right mindset to listen after the bad news. I was a bit numb, to be frank, but when a group of people in outrageous fur coats entered the room, I snapped out of it. About ten of us stayed to meet with the group, mostly out of curiosity, having never met anyone from Kazakhstan before. For the next hour, they described the country-wide reform project they were working on, and mentioned they were looking for people who could help them out. Five of us arranged to meet with the group one more time before they left town a few days later, and by the end of the week we had all agreed to move to the country’s capital city, Astana, to help implement the project. In hindsight, sticking around for that meeting was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
My classmates and I spent two years in Kazakhstan, working both in the capital as well as a much smaller town near the southeastern border with Kyrgyzstan and China. Those two years were difficult; work was challenging, I was far away from family and friends, and Central Asian winters are long, dark, and brutally cold. Even so, when my two years were finished, I didn’t really want to move back home, even though Philadelphia was able to hire teachers once again. Instead, I jumped at an opportunity to work in Shanghai, China helping to set up a private international school. I was back in the U.S. for about a month—about enough time to make the necessary arrangements to move to China—and then it was off to the races once again.
I stayed in Shanghai for five years, and about a month ago I crossed the strait over to Taiwan, where I’m now working at a newly accredited International Baccalaureate school, implementing the IB Diploma Program for the first time. I still miss my family and friends, but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything in the world.
While a number of Hamilton students have found their way into the classroom just like I have, I’m continually surprised there aren’t more people teaching in an international setting. For anyone who is interested, here’s a few tips for getting your foot in the door.
The most common requirement is a teaching certification. This can either be a requirement the school has for hiring you, but sometimes it’s required by the host country in order to get a work visa. Luckily, there are multiple paths towards certification. Hamilton’s Education Studies minor is one path. Many Hamilton students who go on to become Teach for America corps members often end up with a certification, as well. For most Hamilton grads looking to teach overseas, getting a teaching certificate will require some graduate school work. You can also look into alternate paths to certification, though those will vary on a state-by-state basis.
The second most common requirement is, like so many other jobs, experience, though I’ve found many schools to be rather flexible in this regard. When I went to Kazakhstan, my classmates and I were at least ten years younger than the other international staff—the organization had been recruiting older, experienced teachers, but were impressed with our passion and energy when we met with them in Philadelphia. During my time in China, we hired a number of young teachers who had little in the way of experience, but ended up being some of the best teachers we had. On paper, they may not have matched what my school administration was looking for, but after an interview it was clear they’d be excellent hires. Don’t be dissuaded by advertisements that ask for applicants to have several years of experience. A killer cover letter or a polished LinkedIn page can still help you get an administrator’s attention.
How to find jobs
You’re not likely to find international school jobs advertised alongside teaching positions in American schools, though with an agency like Carney Sandoe & Associates (who mainly do independent school positions in the U.S.) you may see a few.
The largest, most established international schools are likely to work with one of two organizations to help fill their openings each year: International Schools Services or Search Associates. Each organization costs you money to join, but there are perks. For starters, you get access to the organizations’ job boards but the real perks with these two organizations are the job fairs they hold around the world. They’re invitation only, so you can’t just show up, and they’re where schools aim to do most of their hiring. Obviously, getting to one of these fairs can be costly, depending on where they are and when they occur. A separate fair at the University of Northern Iowa each winter has a good reputation among younger teachers trying to break into international education, and it’s one of the easiest and cheapest fairs for recent grads to attend.
I’ve never attended a fair, and none of the schools I’ve worked in go to the fairs either. For my most recent job search, I subscribed to one of the job boards and spent a few weeks writing emails and doing Skype interviews. All in all, less costly and stressful than the rat race of a giant job fair.
Why do it?
Different strokes for different folks.
I know several families around the world who work at large international schools. The parents are teachers, and their kids attend the schools, tuition-free. They have a great life and their kids are getting a world-class education AND becoming fluent in a second or third language by living overseas.
Other people I know are travel bugs and living abroad gives them a number of opportunities for trips around the world.
Plenty of people are in it for the money. Compared to teaching in the U.S., international teachers are likely to make more and save more, even with travel. Transportation to and from the host country is typically paid for by the school at the beginning and end of your contract, and housing is usually mostly covered by an allowance or even outright provided by the school.
I really like living overseas and immersing myself in another way of living. I really liked doing my grocery shopping at a bazaar in Kazakhstan or a wet market in Shanghai, rather than one of the fancy, expensive hypermarkets. There’s something special about haggling with a babushka over the price of apples or having horse meat placed in your shopping bag by a butcher who tells you to “just try it!” Those are experiences I couldn’t have at home.
All in all, after eight years of doing this—and despite the occasional frustrations that come with living and working in a foreign country—I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. For anyone thinking about getting into teaching, it’s worth considering, at the very least. If any Hamilton students are thinking about breaking into international schools, feel free to shoot me an email or find me on LinkedIn.