Recently, I wrote an article about why making the move to live and teach overseas was the best career decision I ever made. The ability to experience and meet new people in different countries was the adventure of a lifetime and added to my worldview and understanding of diversity. However, despite the romanticism and numerous benefits that teaching internationally provides, it is certainly not without its pitfalls. So, just as you’ve read my 13 Reasons Why Every Teacher Should Go International, here are my 13 reasons on the flip side of the coin.
1. The Business Side of Education Becomes Clear
Some international schools are clearly for-profit organizations, while others claim non-profit status. However, in either case, nearly all international schools are private organizations, meaning that their continued operation is a function of student enrollment. This means that schools will sometimes accept a student despite inadequate space or lack of support for students with low English skills or learning disabilities. Why? Schools will accept these students because they equal more revenue.
On the flip side, fluctuations in enrollment, particularly in small schools, might result in cutbacks in staffing at schools. Imagine having relocated to a new country and school a year ago and finally getting situated, only to hear from your school director that due to lower-than-projected enrollment you might not have a position next year. These kinds of conversations in smaller international schools are much more common than many people think.
2. Finite, Two-Year Contracts
The industry standard in international teaching is for schools to offer an initial two year contract. While this arrangement may seem rather harmless at the surface, I suspect that this “forced decision” for schools to renew and teachers to stay is one of the reasons that international teacher turnover is so high.
Despite all of the warning signs pointing to fallacies in this contractual model, international schools continue with this norm and teachers are expected to stay the full two years, regardless of how you feel or how bad the reality of your new school or country is. Teachers that leave early during these two years often find it hard to find another international teaching gig, even if they may have valid reasons for leaving their position early.
It is very important to do your due diligence before signing a contract to make sure that the school and country is the right fit for you. And remember, if the school or country isn’t the right fit, you need to stick it out to ensure that you can land another international teaching gig. Fair or not, a one-and-done international teaching assignment on your resume is a big red flag for schools when they are hiring.
3. Lack of Diversity
Wait, what? Despite the fact that international schools purport an appreciation of diversity and multiculturalism, the fact of the matter is that nearly all student families come from high socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, the international educator sector is largely dominated by older, white men – particularly in positions of leadership. While the lack of diversity in leadership positions is also prevalent in other job sectors, at least these are explicit efforts and initiatives to bring more women and individuals of color into leadership positions – I have yet to hear about any such initiatives in international schools at a system level.
When I went to my first international teaching fair, I was shocked by the lack of ethnicities that attended. While working in Colombia, Brazil, and Portugal, I can count on one hand how many minority employees there were. It’s ironic that schools and curriculums embrace diversity, but do not reflect it on their staff and hiring practices.
4. Politics and Helicopter Parents
What’s the second worst thing after a disinterested parent? A helicopter parent. While I always appreciate support and involvement from parents, international school parents can sometimes take this to the extreme. Families at international schools always seem to find ways to compare the status of their jobs within the community, the cars they drive, and how their children are doing in school. This excessive and competitive atmosphere can sometimes be quite painful as a teacher as it puts you in the middle of a needless and unproductive competition.
Compounding this problem is that many international schools are governed by school boards comprised of elected parents at the school. In the best schools, the school board and leadership team work hand-in-hand with clear definitions in roles and a unified vision. However, in many schools, there are blurred lines in roles, petty bickering, and hidden agendas at play, which only create a stressful and problematic working environment. Is the parent that is complaining about another kid in the class doing so as a concerned parent or as a board member?
5. Exchange Rates and Local Currency Fluctuation
Exchange rates can change rapidly and transferring money can be expensive. When I signed my contract and moved to Brazil, the exchange rate was 1.8 reals to 1 dollar. During my last year working and living in Brazil, the Real fell to 4 reals to the dollar. I went from transferring 1,800 Reals a month to transferring 4,000 Reals a month for student loans back home. Yikes.
Of course, while a change in exchange rates can play in your favor, generally speaking emerging countries’ currencies have lost long-term value against the dollar. And, with more international schools welcoming host country families, it’s increasingly likely that international teachers will be paid at least some amount of their salary in local currency. After all, the school itself also has to protect against currency risk – but sometimes, the expatriate teacher becomes the victim.
6. More Classes to Prepare for than Agreed Upon
Often times international teachers are asked to fill in the gaps within the education schedule. In every international school where I taught, I was asked to teach a class or classes that I had never taught before and that were not part of my initial agreement with the school.
In Lisbon, Portugal, for example, I accepted the teaching position with the understanding that I would be teaching two International Baccalaureate English Diploma Programme (DP) classes. When I arrived at the school, I was asked to teach an 8th Grade Middle Years Programme (MYP) Spanish Course because I spoke Spanish. Soon after, I found out that I would also be picking up two International Baccalaureate English MYP classes (8th and 9th Grade).
While many school districts in the United States have clear policies and regulations regarding additional preps and possible compensation, international schools that find themselves in these situations are not subject to these same conditions that were negotiated between teacher unions and school districts in the States. As a result, poorly run schools or a last-minute teacher resignation might mean that you are faced with some additional classes you weren’t prepared to teach.
7. Missing Out at Home
While you’re overseas on your new adventure, life goes on without you back home. Family events, birthday parties, and get-togethers with lifelong friends become increasingly scarce as you spend more time overseas and drift apart.
The only two real extended periods of time that you’re able to make it home on a regular basis are usually during Summer and Winter vacations. These vacations are usually jam packed with only time to see the closest family and friends. And while it’s always nice to catch up with friends and family during the holidays, this also means that you’re missing out on important life events with loved ones during the course of the normal school year. And if something should potentially happen to a loved one while overseas, you’ll be on the other side of the world with very little that you can do about it.
8. Lack of Infrastructure
Some schools simply do not have enough room and space to keep up with student growth. Most international schools are for profit and therefore do not want to say no to incoming students, regardless of if they have the space available for the students or not. What this means for teachers is that they are asked to share classrooms or move from classroom to classroom.
At one international school I where I taught, I had to teach a class in the school library with three other classes going on at the same time. I even taught a class at the “Snack Shack” (school store). At this school it was very rare for me to have a planning period in a classroom alone.
9. Inconsistent Leadership
The average tenure of international school directors is less than three years. This alarming statistic means that by the time you leave the school, the director then will probably not be the same person that hired you in the first place. This was the case In two of the three international schools I worked in, and the the number of principals I worked with are too many to count.
New directors typically brought their “suitcase” programs they wanted to implement and made sweeping changes to policies and operations. While a fair amount of turnover and fresh blood can bring new ideas and excitement, frequent turnover can disrupt a school culture and create confusion with both families and faculty. A director or principal that you felt enormous confidence and trust with can suddenly leave, creating a feeling of insecurity and nervousness with a new administrator.
10. Lack of English Support
In schools where English is the common language and the language of instruction, it is important to make sure that support is given to students that don’t have adequate English fluency. Many international schools do not have sufficient ESL (English as a Second Language) programs to support these kids. Teachers are told to modify or differentiate their lessons to accommodate these students without the support structure and resources to best serve these students.
The development cycle of a student learning English as a young child is very different than a native English speaker who enters Kindergarten having spoken English from birth in their home. In all the international schools where I taught, I had students that lacked basic literacy in English and that were receiving no additional support because there was no support to give.
11. Lack of Support for Kids with Learning and Physical Disabilities
Accommodating learning disabilities and physical disabilities were not a priority at the international school I worked in. The families of students that needed help physically often had to pay for support themselves. The facilities also often lacked adequate handicapped accommodations for these students.
In regards to learning disabilities, international schools often do not have a designated space for these students or adequate staffing to provide these services. It should also be noted that the local culture and parents were often resistant to these types of services to their children. I had many parents in Colombia and Brazil that did not even want their kids to be tested for learning disabilities. They viewed these labels very negatively.
12. Language Barriers
It is challenging to live in a country where the language is different than your own. Managing banks, housing, bills and hospitals can be very challenging. I found that many schools offered support during orientation but less as my tenure grew.
Without the language and support of the human resource department, it can be a very difficult and frustrating process to manage even the most simple aspects of your life. While it’s always great to have the assistance of a kind local you’ll undoubtedly meet at your school, it is nevertheless somewhat debilitating to not be able to access basic functions that you would otherwise be able to do unassisted in your home country.
13. Never Planting Roots
Moving to and experiencing new cultures and places is a very exciting aspect of international teaching, but it can be very tiring. During my experience of international teaching, I moved to four different countries. In those countries, I lived in 10 different apartments and taught over 20 different subjects. It was difficult to establish any real roots in any of the countries that I lived in, partly due to the fear that I knew that my continued employment meant getting in the good graces of a new director or principal that would be sure to arrive imminently. This type of instability led to burnout and my eventual move back to the United States.
Making the move overseas to teach is something that I still believe that everyone should try at least once in their life, and there are many advantages and benefits to making the move abroad. However, there are many disadvantages and drawbacks to international schools that everyone should take into consideration before applying to jobs overseas. While I will always look back on my international career with great fondness and appreciation, after a decade overseas I am happy to be back in the United States closer to family and friends.