What’s It Like to Be an International Teacher?
By Elisa Waingort
Imagine yourself on a plane. You are about to start a new chapter of your life; you are going to teach at an international school in another country.
You may be alone. Or, you may be making this journey with a partner who may or may not be a teacher, like you. Or, maybe you are traveling to this new life with your children. You may be a relatively new teacher who is enticed by the prospect of exploring different places around the world. Or, you may be a seasoned teacher who has been curious about the international circuit for many years and has decided the expat life might be right for you.
If you are considering teaching internationally, you may be lured by the promise of having more freedom to teach than you’ve had thus far. You may be fed up with accountability measures and high stakes testing in your own district or jurisdiction in the U.S. or Canada.
So let’s assume you’ve made the leap. You have decided to cross the ocean(s) in search of adventure or to experience more autonomy from mandates and misguided or harmful educational policies.
After several hours in the air, your plane lands. Administrators or teachers (designated buddies) from your new school greet you as you exit the baggage claim area. The first weeks are a whirlwind as you get settled into your apartment, set up basic services, are instructed into life in your new host country, and finally have time to wrap your head around a new curriculum and the ins and outs of your new school.
Fast forward two or three years. Your contract is over, and you may decide to return to the U.S. or Canada. More likely, you decide to renew it. You may have even met your soul mate and plan to stay indefinitely.
And then there’s another possibility. The world is an open book and you have caught the expat fever, so you decide to go to another international school somewhere else in the world!
Be prepared for vigorous teaching
So far, so good, right? But there’s more you need to know.
First of all, I don’t want you to think that international teaching is all about travel. Although that is a notable aspect of living in a foreign country, teaching internationally is also about vigorous teaching.
International schools are often accredited by the ministries of education in their host countries and by well-known North American accrediting agencies. This means that these schools are accountable to an external evaluator compelling them to adhere to high educational standards.
Many international schools follow the International Baccalaureate Program at the elementary level (Primary Years Program), the middle school level (Middle Years Program) and/or the high school level (the International Baccalaureate Diploma).
Some international schools also offer Advanced Placement courses in high school. Furthermore, many international schools have developed their own standards or have adopted AERO, a system that mirrors the Common Core.
Foreign hire vs. local hire
International schools have foreign hire and local hire teacher labels. Usually these designations translate into different compensation packages, which sometimes include separate salary scales. The rule of thumb is that if you are hired outside of the host country, then you are given a foreign hire designation. If you are hired inside the host country, whether or not you are from that country, then you are given a local contract.
Foreign hire contracts are not forever. They usually last for a pre-determined number of years (seven at my school), and then teachers are placed on a local hire contract or they choose to go somewhere else. Currently, because of my long stay, I am an international teacher who happens to have a local hire contract.
Landing in wide ranging cultures
I am grateful every day for the opportunity to live and teach in the beautiful country of Ecuador. I love waking up to a string of tall, majestic mountains right outside my window, not to mention the imposing volcanoes that grace this country on South America’s west case.
In my case, I also love being able to speak my native Spanish as I learn to live as the locals do for as long as I happen to be here. I also love that as a teacher I do have more freedom to do what’s right for kids. I am able to exercise my professional experience and knowledge in creative and innovative ways.
International teaching can challenge your sensitivity to other cultures, languages and teaching approaches. In my 5th grade class this year, I had children from the U.S., Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, China, Canada, and Bolivia.
Some of my students have never lived in their parents’ country of origin and may only travel there to visit family and friends. As a tribute to our international, multicultural classroom, we always sang happy birthday in English, Spanish, French (one of my students was studying French outside of school), Portuguese, and Chinese!
I started the year with 20 students, which admittedly is a bit high for international schools. However, we’re working to remedy that. After a couple of weeks, one student had withdrawn. Unexpected and unusual, but it can happen. Before the school year was over, three other students had left due to parents changing jobs or being transferred. And, on the last day of school, I knew that at least two others would not be returning for their sixth grade year.
Saying good-bye makes teaching internationally hard for teachers and students alike. It never gets easier to say so long to new friends after being together, in some cases, for as little as a year. In fact, I just wrote a blog post about this for the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday challenge.
My son, a rising 6th grader, is reeling from all the goodbyes he has had to do this year – more than any other. Most of his good friends have left or are leaving, soon. It takes all of my courage to talk him through this difficult time and to help him see that one of the advantages to being in an international school is that you are always making new friends.
And, when old friends move on, you will have a new place somewhere in the world where you can visit them, even if it’s a virtual visit. Yet, it’s hard. I know his pain. Although it’s the downside to teaching internationally, it is not enough of a reason not to consider taking the plunge.
Seeking professional development
International schools afford teachers many professional learning opportunities, though the expense of international travel can sometimes be a hindrance. I have been reading many blog posts this summer from my PLN about their experiences at conferences like ISTE, nerdycamp, and others. Access to these professional learning experiences is definitely limited when you live and teach overseas.
However, many international schools, mine included, have multiple onsite professional learning events and provide funding for teachers to attend conferences elsewhere. In the fall, we will be hosting two literacy consultants and one math consultant, several times during the year. I am especially excited to welcome Kathy Collins to our school in the fall.
On a personal note, in November I will be going to the NCTE conference in Atlanta. Since my trip is not fully funded, I’ve had to come up with some creative ways to extend that funding. It is doable, and in fact, more teachers in the U.S. and Canada are finding themselves having to dig deep into their pockets to be able to fund a professional learning event because a lot of PD money has dried up in many districts and jurisdictions.
I am grateful for the opportunity to attend #NCTE16. International teachers also take advantage of online workshops and request funding for these when there is a cost. For example, this year, I have done two online workshops through Heinemann Publishers (writing) and Stanford University (math).
Pros and cons of fewer students
Another perk of teaching internationally is the lowered class size. Although this past year I started out with 20 students, highly unusual for international schools, next school year I will have approximately 16 students in my class. This is an acceptable class size. Of course, I have taught classes of 12 and 13 students in the past.
To teachers who have experienced upwards of 30 students in their classes in the U.S. and Canada, 12 or 13 students may sound like paradise. However, small classes turn out to be limiting in many ways. For example, creating a strong classroom community, engaging in conversation, or forming groups can be compromised if you have fewer than 15 students in your class.
Getting access to quality books in English when you teach overseas also can be a challenge. As an avid reader, I am appreciative of all that is now possible online; many of the roadblocks that I faced when I first started teaching abroad, almost 20 years ago, have been eliminated. eBooks, opportunities for free or affordable online PD, taking advantage of visitors from North America, and a great kids’ bookstore have all but made these obstacles disappear.
So, what are you waiting for?
Take the plunge. Consider teaching internationally. International schools are always looking for good teachers who are collaborators and innovators and have at least three years of experience in the classroom. Even though living and teaching overseas is not the same as living and teaching in the familiar territory of your current home in the U.S. or Canada, it will afford you a global perspective and empathy that is much needed nowadays.
Living outside of your comfort zone will help you advocate for more peaceful ways to deal with the world’s problems at home, and it will give you an edge as a professional if you return to teach at a school in North America.
Furthermore, being in unfamiliar waters will afford you the empathy, awareness and commitment to transfer this valuable learning to your personal relationships, as well. No one teaches internationally and returns home unchanged. It’s just not possible.
So, again, what are you waiting for? If you have questions, please ask them in the comments!
Here are some sites you can explore to get you started on your international teaching journey:
International Schools Services
Council of International Schools
Council of British International Schools
Association of International Schools in South America
Academia Cotopaxi (this is where I am currently teaching)
Elisa Waingort has been teaching in bilingual settings for more than 30 years in public and international schools in North and South America and has long been active in leadership roles in the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). She is currently teaching grade 5 at Academia Cotopaxi, an American International School in Quito, Ecuador. Elisa blogs at A Teacher’s Ruminations. Her professional and classroom Twitter handles are @elisaw5 and @mselisacoto, respectively.