How and Why I Got Into International Teaching

Two weeks ago, my wife and I accepted jobs at Korea International School through a search associates job fair. We are so excited at the prospect of our new adventure but saddened to think of leaving the wonderful people that we've met working at Saigon South International School for the last 9 years. 13 in Southeast Asia. At the fair, there was an unusually high number of US based teachers, who appear to be leaving the US in exodus.

Image courtesy of CC
I typically write about new advances in educational technology, but for today, I thought I'd share some of our successes in the international school job search and also our reasons for teaching and living abroad. When we visit friends and family stateside, we inevitably meet people that look at us with a touch of skepticism and pity; for why would anyone leave the warm comfort of the United States? They assume we're English teachers and disaffected "expatriates" (a term I've never cottoned to) and must be unhappy with the American way of life. Separatists. Treasonous.

"Our daughter is getting her 529 funded and we'll have enough money to retire in our 50's."

The reality couldn't be farther than the truth. Nearly all the teachers I work with go home often and have lengthly quality time with family when they do. We file for US taxes so in some ways we're still living in "two" countries. You learn when you live in another country that some places do this better or that better, so here are some of our reasons for teaching and living internationally:

Cost of Living. The cost of living is low, especially in Asia. Europe is a coveted destination but I wouldn't recommend teaching there unless you're either very young or very old-taxes eat up your earnings. (We learned as high as 46%) Asia is showing explosive growth and if you live modestly, you can save and live well. We eat dinner out 4 nights a week, and still manage to sock away $40,000 in savings between my wife and myself which we put into our retirement accounts and a general savings fund. Our daughter is getting her 529 funded and if we keep pace, we'll have enough money to retire in our 50's. The middle east has schools where you don't lose money to income taxes, so your saving is stretched there. Finding a good country in which to live there can be a challenge.

Travel Opportunities. We typically visit 2-3 new countries per year and take advantage of 14 weeks of holiday that teachers normally get. Within a 4 hour flight radius, you can be in an entirely different ecosystem. We enjoy scuba diving and are having trips this spring to Hungary, Austria, Philippines and a summer in Spain and Portugal.

Emphasis on Professional Development. Someone once said that teaching is a profession that "cannibalizes it's young" meaning that new teachers minus experience are often told that they're ineffective and leave the profession within 5 years. I agree that schools need to hold teachers accountable for delivering the curriculum with effective instruction, but in the battlegrounds that many schools in the US find themselves in, the onus seem to be if you can't put up quickly, you're out-little training, few second chances. All the administrators I've had the pleasure of working with overseas have given me great feedback and have helped shape me into the educator that I am today.

Adventure of Living Abroad. Every day is an adventure. You learn new languages and know that truly understanding a culture takes endless interactions. In a very real sense, your life becomes a peculiar and unordinary story. You doing this here, you going out to that there. Soon you're writing friends about your commonplace activities and eventually you realize you're not in Kansas anymore.

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I realize that the above may sound glamourous, and even a little bit conceited. However, teaching abroad is not without it's hangups and is certainly not for everyone. There's a number of variables that have affected peoples experiences and sent them scurrying home. They are:

Homesickness. Believe it or not, many adults get homesick after experiencing the above, and yearn for their departure. If there are certain things that you need to do to be happy, ask yourself, will you be happy in this new location? How important is it that you go fishing or hunting on the weekend? Camping? Such things are uncommon and novelties in developing countries. If you have a sick parent that requires your care, being on the opposite side of the world is the worst thing.

Poverty. The third world is not for some people and in many parts of the world it is the norm. A few years ago, we travelled to India after having visited some pretty poor countries, but the poverty in India was crushing, even from a tourist's point of view. We had seen mothers that had hacked limbs off their children to gain sympathy and more handouts, and we had routinely seen the same children with deformaties "passed around" between different people to help elicit handouts.

Companionship. The community within the international school is usually pretty tight and is it's own best support network. Because of this, sometimes its hard to meet anyone outside of school so you end up being married to your co-workers. Single teachers can find it a little hard too but we've known many single men and women who have married staff members and locals alike.

"How important is it that you go fishing or hunting on the weekend? Camping? Such things are uncommon and novelties in developing countries."

Creature Comforts. Having "lost in translation" moments, which do happen often, will have you asking "What am I doing here?" You'll find that it's harder to know where to buy things when you first settle into a new country and you realize how good you had it back home. For example, we struggled with finding a place to sell us ice in huge quantities before a party and had to call a staff member to order it for us, which usually resulted in late delivery. Eventually, we found a store in our neighborhood that delivered it for us, but it took years to find. We have a saying "TIV" which is "This is Vietnam" which is an all around punchline to many of our plights.

How We Got Hired
I wish I could say that there is a magic formula for getting your foot in the door for the International teaching scene, but there is not. There are some things that you can do to make your presence more "known" but there are exceptions to everything I'm about to say below and we met some candidates who didn't have some of the following but still got hired. Here they are:

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A Great CV. Here is an older version of my CV and my recruiters at KIS told me that it really stood out from the crowd. I've seen some CVs that look a bit over-colored and too fanciful. Remember-A CV should be scannable yet still make you stand out. Highlight workshops that you've attended on upcoming trends (I did on a MOOC on NGSS) and this was one of the first talking points from my recruiters as they are moving into using NGSS standards in their middle school for science, so I seemed like a nice "fit".

Build an Online Presence. I have a pretty heavy online presence if you Google "Gary Johnston Saigon South Teacher" made from my blog, youtube channel, forums, journals and other social media. This is a powerful way to connect with other teachers, share what you've learned and start a following. Evolve from a lurker to a contributor.

"These skills will make you desirable as you will be seen as innovative and anything but static."

Build a Portfolio. Similarly related to the first, a portfolio of your teaching and student learning makes the things you do with students tangible and visible. Portfolios used to be physical, but digital portfolios are becoming more and more common. A blog (like this) is good, but if you don't want to build a professional one, one of your classroom happenings is a good alternative. One of my co-workers used "Blendspace" to amalgamate some snippets of student work that she put together just for the hiring season.

Continue with Professional Development. If you have a professional development fund, use it to it's fullest. Ask yourself: "Where do I want to be in 2, 5 and 10 years?" Follow through with implementation learned at workshops into your school. Be a leader. Volunteer to lead workshops. These skills will make you desirable as you will be seen as innovative and anything but static.

Prepare a Elevator Pitch. If you go to a job fair, you may be meeting recruiters on the fly or signing up for interviews when you have a stack of people behind you. Prepare a 1-2 minute "Elevator Pitch" that is succinct, highlights expertise and shows off your good side. You're trying to score an interview.

Be Down to Earth. We interviewed with a number of recruiters and something I learned in retrospect was that although interviewing is a balance of professionalism, skills and personality, it's important to be down to earth. Recruiters want to know if you're not only someone who can get things done, but that you're pleasant to work with and like working with others. Talk about how you have resolved conflicts, acted professionally in the face of a challenging situation and are an all around likeable person. I talked about University of Oregon Football with my recruiter for 10 minutes before we started talking shop. Show your personal side. Show your sense of humor.


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