There are thousands of international educators working around the world right now but many people in North America, including lots of teachers, don’t understand what that means. This post is meant to serve as a quick explanation of this particular way of life.
For the last 20 years, I’ve worked and played and taken Instagrams and paid my bills by working at high schools outside of Canada. I’ve made my way in, and through, the world as an international educator.
How it begins
Looking back, I see that I was very lucky. Because I did my teaching degree at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario, and because Queen’s Faculty of Education hosts an overseas teaching fair each year, I learned about international teaching while I was still a student. When I was in Teacher’s College, the job prospects in my home province of Ontario were not good and rather than moving to a remote community in the far north of Ontario, I thought I’d try teaching in another country. Even though I didn’t attend the actual job fair, the Placement Officers kindly put me in touch with a school in Colombia that was looking for two English teachers. The Head of School traveled to Kingston to interview candidates and I was fortunate enough to be hired along with a woman I knew well from my Bachelor of Education program. We asked to be flatmates. Two months later I was living in a city called Cali in Colombia, South America. I was living in a city that, up until eight weeks earlier, I had never even heard of. Although I was at the school for just a year, during which there were some bumpy days, I can honestly say that the decision to “try” teaching outside Canada altered my life path. My year in Colombia marked the beginning of a truly interesting life and career.
After completing my Masters of Education back at Queen’s I returned to international teaching. Originally certified as an English and Social Studies teacher, I earned my qualification as a School Counselor and worked for the next 18 years at four different international schools located in Monterrey Mexico, Barcelona Spain, Bangkok Thailand, and Yokohama Japan.
Do I have to be an English teacher?
People often assume that all international teachers are teaching English (as a foreign language) but that’s not the case. International schools serve some combination of local and international students which means that teachers hired to work internationally teach all the subjects students study: Math, Science, Humanities, English Literature, Languages and many arts and elective courses. Although we teach in English, most of us are not English teachers. Those of us who are, teach literature in the same way we would teach English at home.
When people hear the list of countries I’ve worked in, they often assume that I’m a very adventurous person but that’s not exactly accurate. I do love to travel, and I feel so fortunate to have lived internationally but I am a person with a VERY healthy need for structure, predictability and a big old safety net. I am living proof that it’s possible to teach internationally and still have a life that is safe and secure. A life that might even look a little bit boring on a day-to-day basis.
A (school) day in the life
At the school where I worked until June 2017, there are 650 students from approximately 50 countries. The teachers are from between 15 and 20 different countries. Most students travel to school on foot, or by train from Yokohama or Tokyo; in fact students as young as seven take the train on their own. (It IS that safe!) Other students are dropped off at school by their parents. Students at international schools come from many different educational backgrounds. There are students that have attended that school since they were in nursery school, students who’ve also attended local public schools and studied in Japanese, and Japanese students who have studied at international schools in Japan and/or other countries. There are also many students from other countries, each one with a different educational background which is shaped by the kind of work their parents do and the companies they work for. For high school students, the day begins at 9 o’clock in the morning and is finished at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Teachers arrive at 8:30 a.m. and finish their work day at 4:30 p.m. or later. Students have a 50 minute lunch hour and a break in the morning like North American schools. Before school, at lunch and after school, students participate in clubs, associations and sports. Students compete in activities like Model United Nations and Brain Bowl. University representatives visit the school. The places we teach are much more similar to North American schools than they are different.
Making a living
Some international schools are run as businesses while others are nonprofit schools. There are good and great schools in both categories. Although I’ve never worked at a for-profit school, that could change in the future. At some schools, teachers make just enough money to live comfortably and do some traveling while, at other schools, teachers are able to save a large percentage of their salary each year. Most of us started our international teaching careers at less well-known schools where the pay was not as good but there are certainly exceptions to that trend. International teachers are also responsible for planning for their own retirement as we won’t have a pension from a school board in our home country. Some teachers work internationally for just one posting and then return home while other educators spend their entire teaching career overseas. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, just the way that best suits the teacher or teaching couple. Many international schools provide free tuition to up to two dependents which means that the children of international educators receive an amazing private school education.
Why it’s worth it
The gorgeous thing about working internationally is that outside of our regular jobs, during the evenings, weekends and school holidays, we have access to amazing opportunities to experience, and learn more about, the cultures in which we live. For almost two decades, I’ve been immersed in cultures in a profound way. In my first international teaching gig in Colombia, I sometimes felt frustrated when Colombians didn’t behave like Canadians… didn’t line up like Canadians, didn’t show up on time like Canadians. This seems hilarious to me now now but it takes both time and effort to comprehend and appreciate how people’s deeply held beliefs and values shape the way they live their lives.
Living outside of Canada has helped me grow. I’m more empathetic, respectful and compassionate as a result of being a witness to so many other cultures and ways of being a person in the world.
Finally, as a person who lives outside my home country, I‘ve developed a better understanding of what it means to be Canadian and this, I believe, has made me a better citizen of the world.
In next week’s post, I’ll provide a series of questions that will help you engage the international educators in your life in the conversation they’ve been hoping to have since they first went overseas.