The Perks and Pitfalls of Teaching Abroad

By Elizabeth Covington

Craving a portable, fulfilling career while a trailing spouse? Teaching in international schools might be just the job for you—but don’t expect it to be a cakewalk.

Liv Covington

Liv Covington

First, allow me to describe the various types of “international schools.” I have never taught for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), which runs overseas schools with an American curriculum for the children of U.S. government employees. Neither have I been hired by an international school run by a large corporation, such as an oil company, for the children of expatriate workers. For one year I worked at a school with a U.S. curriculum, but with a student body composed almost entirely of host country nationals.

All the aforementioned schools may be fine places to work, but my experience has primarily been teaching in International Baccalaureate (IB) schools attended by students from all over the globe. For example, my previous school in Mongolia enrolled students from more than three dozen countries, with no one nationality allowed to exceed 40% of the student body. Earlier, I taught at a school in China with over 630 students representing around 50 different nationalities. The teaching staff at both schools was similarly diverse.

One of the biggest bonuses to working outside the mission has been that I spend the day with very different colleagues from my partner, which gives us both a wonderful chance to diversify our friendships. Besides the folks we get to know from the various agencies at post, we also spend time with teachers from Australia, the U.K., the Netherlands, Canada, Mongolia, China, India, and New Zealand. This prevents cocktail parties from devolving into government acronyms and visa interview anecdotes–though if your spouse’s embassy colleagues have children at your school, you may need to worm out of impromptu parent-teacher conferences.

Becoming an international educator provides fantastic professional development opportunities. Accredited schools are required to give in-service training, which means that teachers attend top-quality workshops and conferences, often in exotic locations. (Note to folks at hardship posts: this may be a way to squeeze in an extra escape without using a precious R&R plane ticket!)

Another benefit of working at a school is an enhanced experience of the host country. Sure, you might sign up for a Community Liaison Office (CLO) trip every now and then, but you’ll get into your posting on a deeper level by going on field trips with your students, participating in weekend getaways or happy hours with colleagues, and getting to know local support staff. Like Foreign Service Nationals at an embassy, your teaching assistants will be your lifeline to getting things done, explaining local culture and customs and translating when necessary.

Convinced yet? You can do it. My path to becoming an international educator began when I applied to George Mason University’s FAST TRAIN graduate program in the spring of 2002. Established in 1990 as a partnership between the Virginia Department of Education, George Mason University and the U.S. Department of State, FAST TRAIN was originally an acronym for Foreign Affairs Spouses Teacher Training Program. The program is now open to everyone, though it still maintains a formal relationship with the State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools. With the program’s combination of full-time online learning (perfect if you’re already posted abroad, as we were) and intensive, condensed summer school sessions on campus, I obtained a Master’s in Multicultural Education plus a provisional Virginia license to teach PreK-12 ESOL in just 13 months.

So far, so good; but how do you make the leap from being a newly minted professional to landing a job? Here’s where it gets tricky. The International Educator (www.tieonline.com), a nonprofit organization dedicated to international teaching, publishes a newspaper with job postings, but you need a paid subscription to post your resumé. Many agencies, such as International School Services (www.iss.edu), Search Associates (www.search-associates.com), and The University of Northern Iowa’s Overseas Placement Services for Educators (www.uni.edu/placement/overseas), host huge job fairs in January with expensive registration fees.

Unfortunately, prospective teachers have to be willing to work in at least two major regions of the world, but your FSO partner should theoretically have his or her assignment finalized at least a year in advance. With persistence you may be able to negotiate with an agency. I convinced a Search Associates agent to take my application with caveats, and was allowed to attend a job fair as an outsider just to get some face time with schools. As a cheaper and more efficient alternative, a growing number of schools are conducting interviews via Skype (especially to pursue experienced educators). I’ve even had a phone interview across the Pacific with dubious cell reception.

But none of these methods has yet to actually get me a job. The key to getting my foot in the door was to find a brand-new school that couldn’t be so picky about its hires. I started my introductory year of teaching in Mexico at a school still under construction when its doors opened for the first day of class. Lacking the credentials of the established competition across town, this school was happy to offer me a job on the strength of my pre-service license, a Master’s degree (albeit with the ink still wet), and—don’t underestimate this one—my status as a native English speaker. In fact, I was the only homeroom teacher in the school that was actually from the United States.

After two years in Mexico, we returned to Arlington for a year of Mandarin language training. Though I did not work that year because I wanted to take Chinese at the Foreign Service Institute with my husband, I tried to get a jump on a teaching position in Beijing before arrival at post. Nothing panned out. Asia was an unexplored continent for us and we had no connections. Once we arrived in Beijing in June, 2005, I began networking in earnest. It was difficult at first, because without a bilateral work agreement between the United States and China, EFMs can’t work officially outside the mission. Yet spouses have a way of getting information to each other through unofficial channels, and by July I had my “in.” It was another international school still under construction; the principal realized enrollment for the upcoming year was much higher than anticipated and thus needed to open an additional homeroom. When asked what I knew about the IB during my informal interview, I cheerfully replied that I had no working knowledge of it but was eager to learn!

I did learn a lot and had a great time teaching in Beijing for two years, though the job was not trouble-free. Working unofficially caused my school great difficulty; during my last semester, host country officials made clear that the school was not allowed to hire anyone who refused to give up their diplomatic status. In tears, my principal told me she would not be able to rehire me for the following year. The State Department has engaged China over the years on the benefits of a bilateral work agreement, and I hope that one day they succeed in establishing one.

When my husband was assigned to Mongolia, just next door to China, I had a much easier time finding a teaching position. The principal of the Beijing school knew the head of the main international school in Ulaanbaatar, so when the Ulaanbaatar principal came to Beijing for a conference I had no trouble securing an informal interview. Hovering by her side at a reception, swirling my drink while she worked the room, I barely had to prove myself—she admired my current employer, so a glowing recommendation plus three years of experience was enough to get me on the short list.
Schools in hardship posts have to work to lure professionals, so having a teacher already planning to move to their city makes their recruitment job easier. Plus, Foreign Service spouses are a bargain as local hires, since we don’t need paid housing or airfare as part of our employment package. Even as a local hire, you may still get health insurance and a tax-free salary. Explore this and any other fringe benefits that are included—or excluded—from any draft contract before you sign.

If you are seriously considering becoming an overseas educator, I hope the tale of my journey will inspire you to try this highly satisfying, portable vocation. I am happy to discuss my experiences—just ask AAFSW to put you in touch with me (office@aafsw.org). Getting an international teaching position may not be a piece of cake, but it sure is sweet!

Liz Covington was born and raised in California. After completing a Liberal Studies degree from Sonoma State University, she moved to Washington, D.C. Thirteen years and three countries later, she is back in the States with her husband for their first domestic tour. Liz is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Arlington Public Schools.

This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2013 issue of Global Link.

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