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The Baker’s Dozen: 13 Reasons to go International

Recently, I read an article on LinkedIn by Ryan Sagare, entitled 13 Reasons to NOT go International as a Teacher. I felt that the author had some good points, but also felt that I could refute every point that was made. Below is my attempt to do so. Working internationally has been a fulfilling experience for both myself and my family, and I would not change this for the world. Hopefully you get this sense in reading through this piece.

1. The Business Side of Education Becomes Clear

While it may be true that some schools are out for profit, some simple research will allow you to know what type of school you are walking into. By using services such as International Schools ReviewSearch Associates, or International School Services, you can find out how a school is structured and how they use and distribute money. This information might be available on a school website as well.  Furthermore, if you do attend a job fair, you can ask the individuals who are there representing the school. If working for a not-for-profit school is an important factor for you, this information is readily available.

While there may be situations where a contract is signed and a job is no longer available due to enrollment, this situation can happen anywhere, not just internationally. Having worked in the public system for 10 years prior to going international, there would be instances where you were told you were teaching certain courses or grades, to only find out your role would be different due to enrollment being down. One good question to ask in the interview process is to find out what enrollment has been like in the school over the last 3, 5, or 10 years. Additionally, if you are walking into a specialized position (math coach for example), you could ask how long the position has existed in the school and how long it is predicted to be in place.

2. Finite, Two Year Contracts

I see far more positive in this structure than negative. No school wants massive turnover. The cost to hire new educators is immense for a school. From payment to a candidate database service (e.g., Search Associates), to flights to a job fair, the costs can add up for a school. In addition, there are the hidden costs of turnover: lost productivity in bringing new people up to speed on school initiatives, or loss of productivity while administrators travel for job fairs. This situation puts pressure on the school to provide solid contracts with good benefits to teachers in order to prevent turnover. This, I believe, is a huge benefit to the teachers themselves. Furthermore, when you do sign on for contract extensions beyond the first two years, most schools offer some type of re-signing bonus.

3. Lack of Diversity

While the author is correct, international private schools do have some of the wealthiest clientele attending their schools. So while schools are lacking in diverse socio-economic backgrounds, diversity can come in many forms. International schools attract students from around the world, thus making them culturally diverse. Also, some schools offer academic and athletic scholarships to local students who would otherwise not be able to afford the school’s tuition.

A changing of the guard is upon us as more women and people of color take up leadership positions.
A changing of the guard is upon us as more women and people of color take up leadership positions.

The author is correct regarding leadership positions in international schools; most of the leadership positions are filled by older white men. However, I truly believe a change is upon us. More and more women and people of color are entering leadership roles and/or looking to enter leadership. To determine if a prospective school is part of this change, candidates can simply look at the school’s website and see who is sitting at the leadership table. At my previous school, we had a female as the Head of School, the Elementary Principal, and the Director of Teaching and Learning. Additionally, three people of color sat on the leadership team – the Middle School Associate Principal, the High School Associate Principal, and the Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning. At my current school, there are three women at the leadership table – our ECC Principal, our Elementary Associate Principal, our Director of Finance, and one person of color: The Director of IT and Innovation.  Next year, we will add a female Elementary Principal and a female Curriculum Director.

Furthermore, in my experience in the public school system, there existed systemic racism and sexism. Those that held the most powerful positions; superintendents of school boards, are older white males. This entrenched discrimination will take decades to eradicate in order to see a change in the face of leadership. One of many examples of this occured to me when I obtained my first leadership position for the district, I was working on the Safe and Inclusive Schools Team, whose mandate was to work with schools to promote anti-oppression workshops and support teachers with embedding these themes into their practice. Once a month, all the leaders from the board gathered together for a system wide meeting, this would be all the Principals, Associate Principals, and those working at the district office. In a district like ours, which at the time had 90 schools, you are looking at a lot of leaders in one room. The first time I walked into the meeting I was shocked that I could count the number of leaders of color just by scanning the room. We had many teachers of color in the district, but they were just not getting the “taps on the shoulder” like their white counterparts.

4. Politics and Helicopter Parents

The author makes some good points here. However, these points could be applied not only to international schools, but all schools in general. Public schools, Charter schools, Religious schools, etc., all face politics; politics have always been a part of education.

Take for instance the current landscape in my home province of Ontario. All of the teachers’ unions in the province are currently exercising job action as they have not been able to reach a contractual agreement with the province. This has led to lost teaching hours, a loss of learning, and loss of pay for teachers. Furthermore, while I was teaching in Ontario, I witnessed firsthand the power that school board trustees possess. Trustees in Ontario are voted into their positions by citizens and are not required to have any experience in education. There have been many calls to dissolve the school board trustee system and replace it with something more tangible and equitable.

5. Exchange Rates and Local Currency Fluctuation

While the author makes a good point about Brazil (I am currently living there right now), there are far more instances of the exchange rate working in the favor of international teachers. For instance, at my last school, 75% of our pay was in US dollars, so local fluctuations were null and void. Additionally, some contracts have clauses written in them to protect against this fluctuation, whereby, should the local currency fall, adjustments are made to guarantee a base level of salary.

Being paid in US dollars whilst living in developing or third world countries allows foreign educators to potentially save a great deal of money. Being smart with your money and setting up a savings and investment plan can allow for a stable financial future.  Additionally, one of the reasons many international schools structure payments to be partially in US dollars and part in local currency is so that you save your dollar salary and expend your local salary in the host country.

Payment in US Dollars means the potential for huge savings.
Payment in US Dollars means the potential for huge savings.

6. More Classes to Prepare Than Agreed Upon

In my international experience this has never happened without consultation with the teacher first. If it is agreed upon, there has been an increase in salary for the teacher upon taking on new classes.  In my experience and that of many of my colleagues, there is ample time during the day to prepare for classes. This extra preparation time is because students attend not only homeroom, but also a larger range of specialist classes than they would in public schools. For instance, most international schools have specialist teachers for physical education, music, visual arts, world languages, host country language and culture classes, and often science and technology classes. When students attend these classes, classroom teachers have ample time to meet with colleagues, engage in professional development, and both prepare for future lessons and assess student work. I will add the caveat that my experience has been in larger more reputable international schools, and that this may not be the case with smaller start ups.

7. Missing Out at Home

While it is true that you miss out on certain events and family milestones, such as the birth of a child, visits do tend to make up for lost time. Let me share a very personal example. When my family and I were living back home in Ontario, our best friends lived about a ten minute drive away. I admit, we took this situation for granted and maybe saw them a handful of times a year. Now that we are international, when we return home for the summer, we end up seeing them three to four times a week over a one month period with many more visits than we experienced when we lived “at home”.  Oftentimes birthdays and other significant events are ‘re-celebrated’ during our visits home. If you have children, it is not hard to convince them to celebrate a birthday for a second time!

I also find that living abroad serves as an opportunity for friends and family to come visit. For many of them the places where we live and work may not have been on their travel radar, but it provides them a new place to seek adventure, or to stop in on their way somewhere else.

Both schools I have worked at have been supportive when a family emergency took place. While it is definitely harder to get “back home,” I have found schools to be supportive in this regard.

8. Lack of Infrastructure

From my experience, international schools are perpetually working to improve their infrastructure.  This is partially to be competitive in the international school arena. For profit schools usually improve buildings, classrooms, and resources on a yearly basis. Not for profit schools fundraise and solicit donations from alumni, corporations, and parents. Although infrastructure upgrades at not for profit schools may not happen yearly, they are often a purposeful part of the school’s long term development plans. As mentioned above, questions about infrastructure and improvement plans can be asked about during an interview.

In my four years in South Korea, the campus saw upgrades to the elementary, middle, and high school buildings, the center for teaching and learning, the edtech workroom, main athletic field, weight room, and a variety of other spaces. In my time in Brazil, we have seen upgrades to middle and high school buildings, early children’s center, a new design and innovation lab/science lab, and plans for a new elementary building, and current fundraising efforts for a new theater. Classroom furniture is regularly replaced when it is no longer functional.

A constant focus on infrastructure improvement equates to new, innovative learning spaces.
A constant focus on infrastructure improvement equates to new, innovative learning spaces.

It is probably unfair to make a comparison, but my experience abroad has been a stark change to the reality of the public system back home. While there were new schools being built due to our district being one of the fastest growing in the country, there were also schools who had not seen any types of upgrades in years. The public schools I worked for had older equipment and furniture, and there were even schools struggling with asbestos issues and union lawsuits.

9. Inconsistent Leadership

The trend that I see in international schools is that leaders are being asked to sign three year contracts, as opposed to two year contracts like teachers. This is a major step in improving the consistency in leadership. Most intelligent, forward thinking, strong leaders, understand that three years is not long enough to accomplish their job and so tend to stay at least four to five years. In my experiences leaders at the schools I have worked at have stayed at least three years, which is what they signed on for. In many instances at these schools, leaders have stayed on longer.

The schools that I have worked in have aimed to avoid the notion of “suitcase curriculum.”  Most schools follow American, British or international curriculums and are regularly involved in reviews of what is worth learning within these curricula. Schools most commonly use Atlas Rubicon and/or Google to document and store curriculum that will live beyond the current teaching and leadership teams. Knowing that international teachers can be transitory, most quality international schools have systems and plans in place to ensure program and curriculum sustainability.

Leaders who are passionate about the work understand the commitment involved with moving a school forward.
Leaders who are passionate about the work understand the commitment involved with moving a school forward.

10. Lack of English Support

It is true, and something exciting about international schools, is that there are often a large number of students and parents who speak English as an additional language (EAL). Of course more support for these students and parents is always welcome. However, in comparison to the support available in public schools, there is adequate support for EAL students in most international schools. Speaking personally, my wife was an EAL teacher in a public school in Ontario. She had over 85 students on her portfolio from grades 4 to 8. At our current school, an international school in Brazil, there is an EAL teacher for grades 2 and 3 and another EAL teacher for grades 4 and 5, as well as an EAL class for students who arrive at our school and need to first develop social and survival English. There are also free English language classes for parents after school. While their children are in after school activities, parents can attend English classes if they so choose.

Additionally, living in a country where your first language is not spoken can be an incredible growth experience. All you need is an open mind. While living in Korea, my family and I learned survival Korean and were, for the most part, independent in our lives outside of school. At our current school in Brazil, our daughters have become fluent Portuguese speakers in just over a year. The opportunity to learn a new language is a definite bonus of living abroad.  See #12 below for more on this!

11. Lack of Support for Kids with Learning and Physical Disabilities

When I taught back in Ontario, I always taught classes that were popular with students. I was known as a “firm but fair” teacher, who cared for kids, and thus my reputation caused students to want to be in my classes. Class sizes for me of 30-32 students were not uncommon. Supporting students with learning and physical disabilities was challenging due to the sheer number of children in a room. Like many other public school teachers, I had some support from a Special Education Resource Teacher (SERT), but once in the classroom I was solely responsible for differentiating instruction and supporting students with any special learning needs.

International schools typically have much smaller class sizes and this can make it more manageable for a teacher to differentiate instruction and assessment. In the schools I have worked in, the classes in elementary have ranged from 15-20 students and have a learning assistant in the room to support teachers and students. Class sizes in middle school and high school can be even smaller. Once I taught a middle school class that started at 8 students, and moved up to 12 students by the end of the year. Individualizing instruction and giving support was much easier, compared to the classes of 30+ back home in the public system.

12. Language Barriers

This is part of why one would choose to go international. The appeal of learning a new language and immersing yourself in a new culture are part of the experience. Every school that I know has a foreign staff support department. As the author states, this support may diminish as your tenure at a school grows. However, this is natural, as new teachers come in, it is up to you, a more experienced teacher, to learn how to navigate your new home.

By my fourth year in South Korea, we barely interacted with the foreign support department, as our knowledge of the language and culture had grown significantly. We felt confident dealing with a majority of issues ourselves. As we enter year two in Brazil, I find the same thing happening; as we learn the language and culture, we become less reliant on our foreign support department for help.

Additionally, in most schools, the foreign teachers create a strong community characterized by various support mechanisms. In South Korea, we were all members of a closed Facebook group which was used to ask questions about doctors, purchasing cars, paying parking fines, planning social events etc. In Brazil, it’s a WhatsApp group that is used to support each other.

Including local teaching staff in your social circle can also help with language and cultural barriers.  Often, local staff are more than happy to correct your cultural blunders and share a good laugh with you. Overall, your mindset is what makes the difference.

13. Never Planting Roots

I believe roots can be planted wherever you choose to make a home. It is definitely unfortunate that the author had to move so many times, but in my 3 international posts, I have had 3 places to live. One piece of advice I would give to those moving internationally, is to make your house or apartment feel like a home as soon as possible. Put up decorations, hang paintings, bring your children’s stuffed animals, etc. This will make your space feel like a home and make you feel like you have roots.

This may sound cliche, but home is where the heart is. You make a home where you settle, and planting roots for a long period of time is overrated for some. Some people enjoy moving around on a regular basis. Furthermore, instead of planting roots, those who want to embrace adventure and personal growth through travel will thrive in an international setting. This is part of the attraction in becoming an international teacher, to have a sense of adventure and be able to adapt and grow from new situations.

In Closing

When I started writing this article, Coronavirus had not hit our continent, nor country yet. As I write this conclusion things have drastically changed. Coronavirus is here in South America, and in Brazil. We are currently in week two of our Virtual Learning Program, and I am happy to be where we are in Curitiba, Brazil. We have kept most of our routine and have the resources we need to live happily. We were given the option to return home to work, but our family felt that this was our home, and this was the best decision for us. I still strongly believe in teaching and living abroad, with all its ups and downs, I feel that the positives of personal and professional growth, far outweigh the negatives. I look forward to keeping this discussion going through social media.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Ryan Persaud
Ryan hails from Toronto, Canada, and is currently working at the International School of Curitiba as the Director of IT (information technology) and Innovation. This is his 8th year of international teaching, and he also taught for 10 years in the public system in Ontario.

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