Monthly Archives: August 2014

Teaching internationally doesn’t always mean teaching in an international school

I have been teaching abroad for the last six years. During this time, I have worked at four different schools. It seems like a lot, but many teachers get into international teaching because it allows you to move around and try out different places. I am at a point now that I prefer to stay in one place at least two years (I am entering my third year in my current school), but I am happy that I have gotten to experience a variety of places.

When people think of teachers who are teaching abroad, they usually think of ESL teachers or teachers in international schools. International schools are schools that cater to an expat population in a particular country; often the students who attend them are children of diplomats, expats sent abroad by a company, entrepreneurs, or people who have married a local resident and have chosen to make a life with their spouse in that country. These schools tend to be made up of a diverse population of students, in addition to a small percentage of students from the local community who are accepted into the school.

However, there are many schools one can work at in a foreign country that are not “International schools.” Teachers with licenses from their home country, such as American teachers with a state credential or British teachers who have their PGCE can find a variety of teaching opportunities abroad that pay the equivalent of or more than what they would make at home, while allowing them to experience a foreign country.

Before I go on with identifying some of the various options out there, I will say that most licensed teachers who intend to teach internationally for the long-term aim to eventually work at a “top-tier” international school (international teachers tend to refer to the various international schools as “top-tier” and “lower” or “bottom tier” and some even give schools informal rankings such as “first-tier,” “second-tier” and “third-tier.”  However, everyone seems to have a different idea of what these “tier” categories actually mean.) For example, there are some excellent international schools in Asia that pay extremely well (especially when matched with the low cost of living in certain countries), such as Shanghai American School, Singapore American School, Jakarta International School, American School Japan, and International School Bangkok. Many international teachers hope to one day find their way to working at one of these great top-tier international schools.

However, we can’t all start our international-teaching career at a premier international school. For many of us, we must work our way up the ladder that consists of rungs which are private language schools, lower-tier schools and local schools in the local public or private system of a particular country.

Here are some of the options out there to get you started climbing up the ladder towards your dream job in an international teaching career:

English/ESL:

Teach ESL in a private language school – There are thousands of private English language schools in countries all over the world. You could teach the basic communicative skills – speaking, listening, reading, writing – to any age group, from preschool to adults. This type of job does not usually require a teaching license, just the basic TEFL certificate to get you started (in my experience, if you have a teaching license, you do NOT need the TEFL on top of it just to get hired at a private language school). The quality of schools varies, and since these are for-profit institutions, you could find yourself working long hours for little pay. But it is always an easy option to get you abroad if you really want to go. And if you enjoy teaching ESL, you can go for more advanced degrees (Masters in TESOL, CELTA/DELTA certificates) and find the higher paying jobs, such as jobs in universities or jobs teaching specialized English (see next two options).

Teach ESL in a university/college – Some teachers go abroad to teach in universities. The hours can be really great, leaving you with lots of free time. These contracts usually supply you with housing and airfare to the country. ESL teachers with many years of experience or with good qualifications usually get these jobs (but not always – there are places that are desperate for English teachers that may hire people with less experience).

Teach ESL in a private company – With some  teaching experience or with specialized knowledge about a field (such as teachers with experience in the business world or people who have worked in or studied sciences/technology), you can get hired working at a company that needs a teacher to teach business English or specialized English to the staff. These jobs are out there, and they are usually better than the standard private language school job. Here is a link to one example of these types of jobs: IES (Japan).

Teach English in a public school – There are programs run by governments in certain countries that aim to bring in foreigners to teach English in public schools. You do not necessarily have to have a teaching license for this type of job. JET is a rather prestigious program in Japan. Other programs are the NET Scheme (Hong Kong) and EPIK in Korea.

Primary and Secondary Schools (all subjects)

Teach your subject in a “lower-tier” international school – There are many schools out there that are less established than the well-known international schools. Young schools take time to improve their academic quality, to build up their resources, and to hire good staff.  These schools are often eager to hire teachers from abroad to teach at the primary and secondary level. If you are just starting out as a teacher or just starting your international career, these can be excellent stepping stones. In countries with a high demand (such as China), you might not even be required to have a teaching license.

Teach in an international program in a local school – There are so many different types of programs out there where you can teach your subject in local schools abroad. (I am especially thinking of secondary school teachers.) For example, in China, local students are NOT allowed to attend international schools. Only those who have a foreign passport may attend international schools. However, many Chinese students would like to receive an education that prepares them for universities abroad rather than taking the gaokao path (an exam Chinese students take at the end of high school which basically determines which level of Chinese university they can apply to). For this reason, there are lots of new, alternative international programs being offered through public schools where the students take their high school courses in English. There are AP programs to prepare students who want to study in America (I worked in one). I have also heard that some Chinese schools are now offering the international baccalaureate (IB) program. These are great options because you can teach your subject, getting valuable experience yourself, and you also get to be truly connected to the community you are living in. By the way, these programs exist all over the world, not just in China.

Teach in a local private primary or secondary school – In addition to those unique programs that I mentioned in the previous example, there are also private local schools that look to hire teachers from abroad. Sometimes this is because they offer a bilingual program, where the students receive a certain percentage of instruction in the second language (English, in our case). Other times, these private schools bill themselves as “international schools” because they are for-profit schools that want to attract local students who are interested in receiving a more international education. While for-profit local schools often have bad reputations, they can be a great option if you find the right place that allows you the lifestyle you are looking for. They may not offer a rigorous standard of academics, but they often are lower-pressure teaching environments. These are also a great stepping stone option.

These are all types of schools I have encountered in my experience teaching abroad. Many of them are even examples of schools I have worked at. If you would like more specific information, such as names of specific schools within these categories, I am happy to share what information I have.

I know my recommendations are very Asia-focused. The fact is that most of my experience has been in Asia (although I did work at a private university in Mexico). If anyone can share other international teaching options found in other areas of the world, that would be very appreciated!

How important is it to like your coworkers?

So much of a teacher’s job is done independently from other people. We are responsible for our own classroom, the designing of our own lessons, and planning our own curricula (based on a set of standards of course). This is something I enjoy about teaching – I am responsible for coming up with a plan to get my students to achieve the learning objectives. Language arts, in particular, allows for a lot of creativity and flexibility in how I facilitate my students’ acquisition of skills and knowledge.

Having so much control over the job I do on a daily basis is a significant positive of the job. I teach in an international baccalaureate program, so I follow the specific guidelines of that program when I design my curricula, and there are a lot of specific guidelines! But in the end, I am the person who figures out what my students will be doing on a day-to-day basis. I love having that freedom to be creative and come up with interesting and thought-provoking units of study.

I work in a relatively small program of about 15-20 teachers within a larger Japanese secondary school. As I already stated, it is an IB program, also known to the students and teachers as the “bilingual program” because the language of instruction for most of the classes is in English. In our school there are several other “streams,” including a regular Japanese secondary school program. The international teachers in the IB program all sit in an office together; because it is a Japanese school, we do not have our own classrooms to work out of. (In Japanese schools, the students stay in one classroom for most of the day, and the teachers travel around to them to teach their subjects.)

This means I do spend a lot of time around my colleagues, since we all have our desks in a room together. This is both good and bad.

The positive of sitting in the same room to do our prep work is that we are able to communicate really easily about day-to-day things and about the students. In fact, we tend not to use email as much to communicate about most things. It means we get a more immediate response if we need to ask someone a question, and we are able to be more clear about what we mean. This helps to avoid communication problems. I think we are also very much in touch with each other about our students. If one teacher notices that a student is having issues, he/she might mention it in the staff office and then we are all more aware of what’s going on with our students in their other classes.

The negative of sitting in the same room with my coworkers is that I feel like I can never escape them. I don’t have any personal space where I can go to and work on my own, in peace and quiet. When I am in a bad mood and I don’t feel like talking to people, I can’t really get away and I just have to deal with them. Of course, this is the situation for many people who work in corporate settings, but I do find it really frustrating sometimes. Also, if people are chatting in the office, it can be difficult to concentrate on my own work. But headphones and a subscription to Google Play music has solved that problem for me, for the most part.

But now to the main question. How important is it to like your coworkers? This experience of working in an environment where I am always in such proximity to my coworkers has made me think about this a lot more than I might if I had my own classroom to escape to.

I realize that your colleagues can really make your experience so much more fulfilling. Having people around you who are excited about teaching, who seek to try new things as a teacher and to share their ideas could be such a motivating aspect of the job. Unfortunately, most of the people I work with are extremely independent and do not seem to want to collaborate very much. One reason for this might be because we work in a Japanese school where the workload is extremely intense. We have very heavy workloads and also the nature of working in an IB program means we have so much to think about and so much paperwork to keep up with. I definitely think that contributes to the lack of collaboration going on where I work. But personality also has something to do with it. Many people I work with are very focused on work being work only – they show up at 8AM, work hard until the end of the day (usually around 6 in our school – we work long hours for teachers!), and then go home. They don’t make an effort to connect with the people around them.

I am sad about this aspect of my work environment. I love my job and my students, but I don’t feel satisfied by the work relationships I have. Also, living abroad can be lonely. It is hard to make friends where I live because it is a very Japanese suburban community. It would be nice if my colleagues were more interested in socializing. I know people like to have their space and to keep work and freetime separate. I totally understand that. But in the past, when I worked at schools where the teachers enjoyed socializing from time to time, getting together for a Friday happy hour now and again, I felt a lot happier.

The fact is, if we are working as islands, doing everything in our own little bubble, we miss out on so much opportunity to grow as teachers. Collaboration is really key to improving your own skills. When I was doing my teacher-training before I got my credential, I was required to log a certain amount of teacher observation hours. And every time I observed a new teacher, I came out of it with a new idea and new inspiration. Peer observation is a useful exercise, in my opinion. But even more useful is just developing a supportive working environment where people value the idea of professional learning communities and are eager to learn from each other and share with each other.

I think that the environment of the school and the style of the managers and administration can play a big part in developing this type of collaborative environment. In Japanese schools, traditionally, students work very independently to achieve academic success. In the IB program, collaboration is encouraged. And as teachers, in my school, we do what we are required to do by the IB in regards to collaboration. But it isn’t the natural environment; it feels forced, actually, since many of the teachers seem to not be happy about having to do the types of collaboration activities we do once or twice a term when time permits.

To conclude, I love teaching but at the moment I don’t love my coworkers. They are lovely people and when we do collaborate, I always enjoy it. But I am hoping that eventually when I move on, I get to experience the opportunity of working in a group of people that is more engaged with their colleagues, more excited by the prospect of learning from each other, and when it comes down to it, more friendly, gosh-darn-it!