Tag Archives: International education

Conversations with the International Educator in Your Life

This is the second in a series of posts for and about international educators. The first one is here.

When I’m back in Canada for long vacations it often happens that people don’t ask me many questions about my life. That’s weird, right? And I know I’m not the only one who has felt that way as I’ve heard this comment from many other international educators. Perhaps part of it is that I keep asking questions about their life/work/family and people don’t necessarily notice that we’re not talking about my life at all. It could also be that people feel awkward asking about something they’re not familiar with… or they don’t want to be “nosy”… or they might feel a bit envious about a life they perceive to be more glamorous than their own.

Whatever the reason, most international teachers would love to engage with people at home in yummier two-way conversations about our lives. As Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

To that end, here are some questions you could ask the international educator in your life:

  1. Do you have some photographs of your school and your apartment and home? I’d love to see them.
  2. What’s a habit or ritual from the country where you live that you think people living in your home country would benefit from?
  3. What has been the biggest challenge of living in this country?
  4. What are you really proud of in your teaching practice?
  5. Tell me about your boss.
  6. Is there a book you recommend I read so that I can better understand the country where you’re living?
  7. How was the process of settling in to your apartment and this job? Did anything surprise you?
  8. What’s your favourite meal right now? Is that something you cook yourself or is that a meal at a restaurant?
  9. Tell me about a student you admire.
  10. When you moved abroad, did you feel ready? Tell me about that.
  11. What are you reading right now?
  12. What can you buy with the equivalent of ten Canadian (fill in your own currency) dollars?
  13. What’s a good metaphor for teaching internationally?
  14. What’s the loveliest thing you’ve ever witnessed on a flight?
  15. What do you now notice or understand about your home country as a result of having been away from it?
  16. How is the school you teach at like the schools we attended as students? In what ways is it different?
  17. What’s a cool lesson you’ve taught recently?
  18. What are some of the less glamorous aspects of living internationally?
  19. How do you get to work? What’s your favourite part of the journey?
  20. How has living abroad affected your fashion sense and the way that you dress?
  21. What’s the view from your home? (If you are talking on Skype, your international educator could just show you!)
  22. What food/meal have you recently encountered that you’d never had before?
  23. How have you changed because you lived and worked outside your country?
  24. If you could give one piece of advice to your twenty-five year old self, what would it be?
  25. How do you define home?

Pro Tip: If you feel tempted to ask the international educator in your life when they are moving home, you could tell them, instead, that you love them.

In the comments below, please add a question that might spark an interesting conversation with an international educator. When writing this list, I let my curiosity and respect for other people and cultures guide me.

What’s an international educator?

{The cherry blossoms in Nakameguro, Tokyo, Japan}

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.

Next week
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.



International Teaching: Should I stay or should I go?

Should I stay or should I go?

It’s early February and conversations in the teachers’ lounge at my international school are punctuated with questions such as, “Did you hear who is leaving?” and “Have you decided to stay?” Often these questions are whispered as it’s difficult to know which teachers have gone public with their plans and who is still mulling things over.

This is true at international schools the world over as Directors and Principals ask staff members to declare their intentions for the following school year… and teachers squirm with discomfort at having to make this decision (yet) again.

Should I stay or should I go?

This is my third international placement over a period of 15 years so I have been down this road before. I have made dates with my international teaching destiny and then cancelled them, shaken by the mythic struggle with my unseen future. I remember only too well the lists of pros and cons I have generated… the lists that never seemed to add up to a satisfying answer.

In the end, regardless of how difficult this decision may prove, one must answer the question. While it’s true that doing nothing is a decision, a kind of crazily passive action, it’s not one I feel very comfortable with. Here are the questions I ask of myself:


  • If you are at the beginning of your career, have you had at least two years of experience in the role that you will be applying for?
  • In your current job, are you learning an enormous amount about teaching in your subject area, classroom management etc.? Are you, in short, becoming a better teacher at this school?
  • Do you have a mentor (Department Head, Team Leader or colleague) who is helping you learn and grow?
  • Would you like to have a year in which you simply live and teach in your current location? (This is impossible if you stay only 2 years because you are either arriving or leaving)
  • Is your administrative team supportive of you professionally and personally?
  • Do you have great opportunities for professional development? (Workshops and conferences, access to a Masters program, and in-house PD)
  • Is the school environment a positive and healthy one where staff members are encouraged to provide constructive criticism about the school?
  • Are other staff members and administration open to change that is good for kids?
  • Are there opportunities for you to take on new roles (such as Team Leader, Department Head, or administration) at this school?
  • Do you feel that you make a difference in the lives of students and staff at your current school?
  • Do people express their appreciation for your work and contribution?
  • Are you in favour of the direction in which your school is headed in terms of curriculum, scheduling, technology integration and professional development?


  • Are you happy with the quality of life in your current city? Quality of life considerations vary considerably from person to person but may include factors such as: climate, pollution, violent crime, economy (including factors such as taxation rate and local currency in relation to your home currency), and political stability
  • Do you have access to the activities that are central to your happiness and well-being (for example, cultural events or outdoor activities)?
  • Do you have a circle of close friends that are the same quality of kindred-spirits you would have chosen if you were still living in your home country?
  • In terms of your financial package, are you able to live well, travel and meet financial obligations?
  • Is your financial package keeping up with local cost of living increases?
  • Is housing included in your package? If not, have rental prices increased?
  • Have you been able to save for goals such as retirement or buying a home?
  • Does the financial crisis make staying a better option for you? (Changing schools can be quite costly.)
  • If you have a partner, is this person fulfilled in his/her work? (Ditto for your children. Is this a good place for them to grow up and study?)
  • How much time do you spend commuting to and from your school? Is this an acceptable amount of time?
  • Are you tired of moving countries? (Packing up apartments, changing health insurance, learning a new language) or does the thought of this continue to excite you?
  • Do you have enough money saved for a move to a new gig?
  • Do you have ageing parents or situations at home that demand your presence in your home country/city?
  • Can you imagine yourself living in this city permanently? Could this be “home”?
  • If you decide to leave the school, what are the things that you would miss most? Make a list.
  • Is it time for a change? Is it time for a new culture/language?
  • Do you miss your home culture enough that it is simply time to move “home” regardless of how good this school/city are?


  • Is it possible to find a new job without attending a recruitment fair?
  • How much would attending a fair cost? Is that an acceptable amount?
  • Have I fulfilled my teaching contract?

International educators, please add your guiding questions in the comments section.

And what did I decide? Stay tuned!

Addition: 29th October 2017
If I wrote this article today I would add a couple of things:

  • One item on your Pro list may be worth 10 on your Con list.
  • Pay attention to how your body feels.
  • Sometimes money is really important and sometimes it’s not.
  • Life has seasons. What season are you in now and what would suit you best?
  • Life is short. If it’s time to move on or move “home” or go to a place where you can meet a romantic partner, get going.

Best wishes with your decision.