It was 2008, and I was halfway through my second year as a public school teacher in Chicago, Illinois. While I had decided to move to Chicago primarily for personal reasons (read: ex-girlfriend), there was a part of me that truly wanted to experience working with children from an urban and challenged background. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts in the classroom and genuine connections I developed with my colleagues and students, I started to quickly feel the burnout working in the public school system. Increasing classroom sizes, lack of parental support, scare resources, and bureaucratic processes all took their toll on me, and despite my former administrator’s support and encouragement, I found myself second-guessing my decision to relocate to Chicago.
After one particularly difficult day in the classroom, I started searching for opportunities and stumbled upon the website of an international recruitment fair for teachers: the UNI (University of Northern Iowa) Overseas Placement Service for Educators. The recruitment fair was scheduled in a week’s time and was only a few hours’ drive from Chicago, so on a whim I signed up and showed up, not really knowing what to expect.
The job fair is like one big speed dating exercise, and schools are quick to offer contracts to teachers if they feel the fit is right. After a few interviews, I was offered a job teaching Middle School English at Colegio Jorge Washington in Cartagena, Colombia, and after hastily calling my family and Googling as much as I could about Colombia, I decided to take the plunge – and 10 years later, after stops in Colombia, Brazil, and Portugal, I can honestly say that the decision to go international was the best decision I have made in my teaching career. Why? Here are my 13 reasons:
1. Quality of Life
Generally speaking, teachers working abroad earn more money than back at home, both in terms of base pay as well as the additional add-ons such as airfare and housing allowances. Additionally, living internationally usually means a lower cost of living versus back home, although there are some exceptions. But if you can get into a situation where you’re earning more than you would back home and living in a place where your costs are lower, your quality of life is sure to improve. I always found myself able to live in generally affluent sectors of international cities, with money left over for entertainment, travel, and perhaps most importantly, saving.
2. More Vacation Time
International schools generally have greater vacation periods and holidays. Because these schools are comprised of an international population, they like to give ample vacation periods for Summer and Winter breaks so that their staff and students can spend the holidays with their families in their home countries. Additionally, international schools often celebrate both local and American holidays. For example, when I taught at the American School of Rio de Janeiro, we would have vacation for American Thanksgiving and for Brazil’s Carnival celebration. We enjoyed a long vacation from December to February for the Brazilian summer and another long break from June to July for the American summer.
3. More Planning Time
International schools facilitate more time for lesson plans, collaboration, and grading. It was not unusual for me to have over an hour each day without students when teaching internationally, which really gave me the time I needed to plan engaging lessons, review student work, and prepare my classroom for the week ahead. Unlike my experience in Chicago, my planning periods were sacred and valued and I was seldom asked to cover other classes, attend meetings, or handle administrative tasks. There always seemed to be an understanding in the international schools that I worked that administrators respected the time and professionalism of their teachers.
4. The Best Way to Learn Another Language
How many of us have taken a Middle or High School Spanish course as students, only to never use it and ultimately forget what we learned when we arrive to adulthood? Living in another country is a perfect opportunity to acquire a new language, as you can easily find opportunities to practice and immerse yourself with locals. With a little effort and lots of practice you will be in a position to learn another language. Learning a language is like having professional development every day, and you’ll have plenty of local friends and colleagues who will be more than eager to help you practice and develop your new skills.
Learning a new language is a highly marketable skill that will help you be more marketable as a teacher, administrator or in some other field. While teaching in Colombia, Brazil and Portugal I became fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. My language fluency is what helped me obtain my current job here at the University of Texas.
5. Smaller Class Sizes
When I taught overseas, my normal class sizes ranged anywhere from 12-18 students. This was an incredibly manageable number as it allowed me to really develop deep and authentic relationships with my students and provide a great deal of individualized attention and feedback. Yet, the class sizes were always big enough so that I could plan and design a number of collaborative activities and lead class discussions.
When I taught in Chicago, I regularly had classes of 30 students. Larger class sizes are more difficult to manage, particularly when the group of students is very diverse in terms of academic knowledge and skill. I regularly found myself struggling with classroom management and always felt that I was letting students down by not giving them enough attention.
6. Greater Flexibility With the Curriculum
In the world of public education, which unfortunately has become all too politicized, administrators are given marching orders from legislators, school board members, and other politicians on how to run their schools, with strict instructions on high-stakes testing, curriculum, and textbooks.
International schools, however, don’t tend to be bound by the same rules and regulations as schools in the United States, so administrators, and ultimately teachers, have more free reign to deviate from an established curriculum when there are appropriate opportunities for extension and depth. This freedom afforded allows teachers to feel more comfortable, adapt to the needs of their students, and personalize their learning experiences more.
7. Motivated Learners
International school students tend to be more motivated learners. In my first overseas teaching assignment, I was shocked to see the students prepared and eager to learn immediately from the first day, whereas in Chicago I typically needed to spend the first several months setting expectations and getting students into a good class work routine. Part of the reason international students may seem more motivated could be in part due to the selective screening process that many schools employ or the fact that parents pay a substantial amount to enroll their children; whatever the case, more motivated students means that teachers can focus on deepening their teaching and learning.
8. Less Focus on Standardized Tests
In the United States, it seems that schools are focusing more on tightening standards and administering standardized exams to kids to no end. In international schools, we also had standardized tests, but these tests always felt like a smaller yet important part of a bigger jigsaw puzzle to help teachers do their jobs better.
Instead of realizing school report cards or tying bonuses to standardized test scores, in international schools we really took the time to analyze the data and discuss the results collaboratively. We were even encouraged to bring in other pieces of evidence into our discussions, such as own locally developed assessments and our observations of students to help paint a clear picture of student learning and ultimately develop a plan to improve instruction. The things we learned from all of these tests were helpful to administrators and teachers, but they were not stressful events for students and teachers. The data we received from these tests helped guide our instruction and communicate with parents.
9. The Extras
All of the places that I have lived overseas have had such a low cost of living that I was able to afford domestic help. When you have someone who regularly stop by and clean and cook for you after a long day of work, it really enhances your quality of life and allows you to focus on yourself. In addition to having domestic help, I was able to take private language and dance lessons, have masseuses come to my house, and even have messengers run errands. There is no way that I would have been able to afford these extras on a teaching salary in the US.
10. More Classroom Resources
As a public school teacher, I have very vivid memories of purchasing my own classroom supplies for both myself and my students given the lack of resources at my school in Chicago. Although I always tried to be creative and resourceful, there were simply times that even basic materials weren’t available that I needed.
At international schools, the only items I ever had to buy from my own pocket were the specialized grading pens that I couldn’t find abroad. Overall, I found that if I needed something for my classroom, I got it. Sometimes the wait was a little long because it needed to be imported from overseas, but international school administrators didn’t seem to hesitate to supply teachers with an adequate set a supplies for their classrooms.
11. Expand Your Worldview
Moving abroad gives you a new perspective and appreciation for both your own and others’ culture. It forces us to challenge our beliefs and values, and to seek to understand those of others. It gives us the opportunity to look at our own culture through the eyes of others. Through this dialogue and interaction comes understanding and acceptance, and I think that is a small step in helping to be part of a more peaceful and understanding world. In addition to meeting tons of local friends, I met many international families and colleagues who had either recently made the move overseas or relocated from another country. This helped me create a truly worldwide network of friends and more importantly, to understand the world and people more.
12. Lasting Friendships and Relationships
The friendships and relationships you make while living abroad last a lifetime. The challenges that come with living abroad help create lasting bonds, and I still keep in regular contact with many of my former colleagues and students. In the absence of having my actual family overseas with me, each school community became my adopted family where I turned to for support and advice. There are a lot of difficulties and challenges that come with moving abroad, and these experiences foster lasting bonds that last a lifetime. You will make friends from different backgrounds and cultures and in they end they will feel like family.
13. An Expanding Market
The international school sector is rapidly expanding and new schools are opening every day. This means that there are more teaching opportunities abroad and a need for qualified, native-English speaking certified teachers. As more international school students aspire to study in the top universities in North American and Europe, the more teachers will be sought after and better compensated for their services.
Living overseas is one of the best professional decisions that I ever made. It expanded my worldview, allowed me to improve my professional practice, and even led me to meet my current wife. Although I have since relocated to the United States (my next article will be about the pitfalls and negatives of living and working overseas), I am forever grateful for the experience.